The first eighteen verses of John’s gospel has described Jesus as the eternal Word. The eternal Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we have seen his glory. And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The author will now move forward in the story and tell us about John. We noticed in verses 6-8 of chapter 1 that John is the witness who has come to testify to the light that came into the world. In our study in this lesson we will notice two sections: John’s testimony of himself (1:19-28) and John’s testimony of Jesus (1:29-34).
John’s Testimony of Himself (1:19-28)
Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to John the Witness to ask who he is. Verse 24 tells us exactly who among the Jews sent these priests and Levites to find out about John. The Pharisees are the ones who want to know who John is. They are not asking who John is as a person. They are not asking for personal information about where is from or who his parents are. They are asking who John is the context of the arrival of the Messianic age. They want to know if John is the Messiah. Are you the Christ that we have been looking for who will usher in the glorious kingdom age? John’s answer to this question was very clear, “I am not the Christ.” This was the repeated confession of John the Witness, “I am not the Christ.” So they pressed John, wanting to know who he is. Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet? John responds “no” to all these questions. We learn from the Jewish writings that the Jewish people had an expectation of multiple Messiahs to fulfill the various prophecies about what the Messiah would do. The Qumran community were looking forward to the coming of the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel (1QS 9:11). We do not know if these Jews are reflecting that Qumran view. Whether they are or not helps us understand why John rejects the notion that he is Elijah. Jesus declares that John is the Elijah that Malachi prophesied would come (Matthew 17:12-13). It seems that the Jews from Jerusalem are speaking about some Messianic understanding of Elijah, which John is quick to reject. John is the Witness, not the Messiah. Therefore they want some sort of answer from John to take back to the Pharisees about who he is. John gives his answer in verse 23.
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23 ESV)
John the Witness reaches to the prophecy of Isaiah as the explanation of who he is. The Isaiah prophecy is an excellent summary of the work of John. The message of Isaiah is a challenge to the nation, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Prepare your hearts for the coming of the Messiah. Remove the obstacles and barriers in preparation for the coming king. This is the message of John: you need to get your hearts ready because the Lord is coming. John pictures himself as merely a laborer preparing the road in advance of the arrival of the King. Look carefully at the prophecy of Isaiah.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3–5 ESV)
Verse 5 is what I want you to focus on. When the road is prepared and the highway is made straight, what will happen? “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Go back to John 1:14.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV) The glory of the Lord would be revealed and everyone would see it. When Jesus came, everyone saw the glory of the Lord. No one has ever seen God, but in Jesus you have seen the fullness of God.
Rather than hearing John’s call for the nation to cleanse their hearts and repent, this delegation wants to know why John is baptizing if he is not the Messiah. It seems that they expected the Messiah to bring the act of baptism with him. Baptism and the Messiah does not appear to be a foreign concept. To the contrary, they are asking John since he is not the Messiah, why is he baptizing. John once again dismisses himself as nothing. John is baptizing with water, but the one coming after him is far greater. This is the third time we have seen John speak of his own smallness and the greatness of Jesus. In the first eighteen verses we see John is the Witness about the Light, but is not the Light. Jesus is the Light. We see John saying he is the voice, but Jesus is the Christ. Now John says that he is baptizing with water, but one greater will come baptizing after him.
John’s Testimony Of Jesus (1:29-34)
The next day comes and John continues his work as a witness. John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. What a declaration by John! Jesus is rarely referred to as a lamb in the New Testament. The apostle John is the primary author who describes Jesus as a lamb, particularly in Revelation. Calling Jesus the lamb can only have one point. Consider that there is nothing ferocious about a lamb. There is nothing about a lamb that is a picture of strength or leadership. No one uses a lamb as a symbol of power. Lambs are meant to be slaughtered (Isaiah 53:7). This is particularly true in the Old Testament. Lambs, goats, and bulls were the primary animals used in sacrifices to God. The lamb has its strongest meaning to the Passover. A lamb without blemish was offered (Exodus 12:3-11). The apostle John takes the imagery of the Passover lamb (a picture of God’s deliverance) and combines it with the picture of the sin sacrifice (taking away the sins of the world).
The witness of John is staggering. By calling Jesus the lamb John is declaring his sacrificial death. This is the primary image of the lamb. Lambs are slaughter. But his death would be with purpose. He is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Notice that this lamb is not sin-substituting, but sin removing. Notice the other key message of John’s testimony. Jesus is the lamb that not only has come to remove the sins of Israel by his sacrificial death, but the sins of the whole world. Everyone can access this sacrifice for sins when the Lamb of God is slain. Jesus is the world’s Messiah, not just Israel’s Messiah.
John continues his testimony by declaring that he came baptizing with water to reveal the Lamb of God to Israel (1:31). John explains what he means by this in verse 32. He saw the Spirit of God descend from heaven like a dove and remain on him. This event was the proof that Jesus is the Son of God (1:34). I mentioned this in our study of 1 John 5:6-8 as the meaning of Jesus coming by the water. Both John the Witness and the apostle John see the baptism as the key event proving Jesus is the Son of God. Further, John the Witness declared that this is how would know Jesus is the Lamb of God.
This statement becomes a problem for a number of reasons. First, we know that John and Jesus are cousins. There is no doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have taught John that Jesus is the miraculous baby born to Mary who would save the world. Second, we know that John knows this because when Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John initially refuses because he knows that Jesus is greater than him and he ought to be baptized by Jesus. So how can John say that he did not know him? I believe what John is saying is that he was not one of Jesus’ disciples or part of his company. He did not know Jesus by some sort of special revelation or insight from God. The way John was convinced Jesus was the Son of God is the way everyone should be convinced: because the Spirit descended and remained on him at the baptism. God told John that this was the sign he should look for and would be the sign to the world declaring who Jesus is.
The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
Finally, we need to consider what it means that Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Verse 33 sets up a contrast. John was sent by God to baptize with water. But the one on whom the Spirit descends will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? We must go back to the Old Testament and look at what the prophets were declaring would occur concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As you study the Old Testament prophets you will notice that the pouring out of the Spirit referred to the restoration of God’s blessings and God’s covenant to the people (cf. Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Zechariah 12:10; Ezekiel 36:25-27; 39:29). This is the distinguishing marker between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism. John’s baptism was described as for the purpose of repentance and for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ baptism is greater because not only was it for the forgiveness of sins, but was the symbol of entrance into the kingdom of God. When Jesus came and people were submitting to him, they were experiencing the restoration of God’s covenant, restoration of God’s blessings, and restoration of God’s kingdom toward the people. This is the great message that Peter and the apostles are preaching in Acts 2.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:38–41 ESV)
The baptism of the Holy Spirit is new covenant baptism under Christ. When we come to Christ and submit to the baptism he brought, we are forgiven of our sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that had been promised by the prophets to everyone the Lord will call. John is declaring the lesser nature of his baptism in contrast to the baptism Jesus would bring. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Those who come to him will receive entrance into the kingdom of God, be joined into a covenant relationship with God, and receive the blessings that come from God the Father.