Yesterday, John was asked by some of the Jerusalem hierarchy who he was. He emphatically told them that he wasn’t the Messiah. Nor was he Elijah (an expected forerunner of the kingdom) or the prophet like Moses (from Deut 18:18). So if he wasn’t one of those figures, what right did he have to go around baptising?
John hinted at the answer, by talking about one who was coming after him – someone who was greater than him. But that’s where he left it. We pick up the story the next day.
John 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
What does John mean by the “Lamb of God”? John the Baptist may well have had the lamb of Isaiah 53 in mind:
Isaiah 53:5,7 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed… he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
But in the mind of the writer of John’s Gospel, it’s most probably a reference to Jesus as the Passover lamb – especially since this Gospel alone draws attention to the fact that Jesus’ death occurs on the day of preparation for the Passover, when the lambs were sacrificed:
John 19:30-31 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.
(Just to complicate matters further, many of John the Baptist’s hearers may have had the lamb in mind from a writing called 1 Enoch – a warrior lamb who kicks butt,* rescuing his people from foreign oppressors. We see this image turn up in Revelation 5. The writer of John’s Gospel may be playing on all of this background.)
At any rate, Jesus is identified here in John 1 as the lamb of God who will deal with Israel’s sin problem. He’s the one he was speaking about yesterday.
John 1:30 “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”
The NIV conveys the sense of it, but not the clever use of words. More literally it’s “After me comes a man who before me [i.e. before me in importance] has become because before me [i.e. before me in time] he was.”
Even John didn’t spot him at first, but the whole reason John is baptising (finally, he answers the question from yesterday) is to point him out:
John 1:31 “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
So how did John work out who Jesus was?
John 1:32-34 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
The fact that the Spirit remains on Jesus may be intended as a contrast with how the Spirit in the Old Testament would come upon someone in order to complete a task; here, the Spirit stays with Jesus. Or, it could just be a way of saying that the Spirit/dove “settled” or “rested” on him.
The point is firstly that the Holy Spirit has testified about Jesus’ identity as the chosen one – remember, a big theme in John’s Gospel is confirmation of witness/testimony. And the Spirit (and baptism) is closely connected with the coming kingdom of God and restoration of Israel; for example:
Ezekiel 36:25-28 “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Joel 2:28-29 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
Jesus, then, is the one people should be taking notice of. Jesus is the one John is pointing to. Jesus is the one John’s preparing the people to meet – calling them to repentance and baptising them in readiness. Jesus is the Messiah who will bring forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit.
Jesus is the central character, not John.
Although that might not be a major issue for us, it appears to have been a problem back then. John had quite a big following, and the temptation would have been for people to keep following John, even though John was just the support act. In fact, there’s evidence that some sects continued to follow him (such as the Mandaeans). Some scholars have suggested that John’s Gospel was written – at least in part – as an argument against those who continued to follow John, even after his beheading. That’s why we get the strong denials (1:20), the reference to his not being the light in the Prologue (1:8), the unworthiness of John to untie Jesus’ sandals (1:27), the stories of John’s disciples leaving him to follow Jesus (1:35-51, which we’ll look at next week), and John’s famous statement in John chapter 3:
John 3:30 “He must become greater; I must become less.”
To think about
You’re probably not tempted to follow John the Baptist today. After all, with hindsight, we know that he’s the support – the crowd-warmer – not the headline act.
But how often are we subtly tempted to start following someone whose role it is (or whose role it should be) to point us to Jesus? Whether it’s our favourite Bible teacher, our pastor, or one of the great Bible scholars of history (Calvinists and Wesleyans, I’m looking at you) – we end up following their ideas sometimes at the expense of God’s. Or their interpretation of Scripture, rather than Scripture itself. Or their way of expressing God’s truths rather than the Bible’s own way of expressing them (take note, Piper fans, among others). That’s not to say that these other figures can’t be immensely helpful in pointing us to Jesus. After all, Jesus gives John the Baptist a pretty good wrap in Matt 11:11. But they should never take the place of Jesus himself.
* Watch out for Lambo: First Blood, coming soon.