Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This passage is the testimony of John the Baptizer concerning the person of Jesus. John the disciple is recording for us the first public announcement of the presence of God’s Messiah.
John 1:19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
This is John’s “testimony.” This is legal language. John is telling us what he’s seen and knows to be true. He’s so to speak “under oath and on the witness stand” here. In fact, he’s being interrogated by “the Jews.” This phrase “the Jews,” is John’s way of referring to the Jewish religious and civil authorities. In the general sense of the word, everybody here is a Jew. But John means something much more specific.
These were sent to ask him who he was. This was a time when the expectation of God’s intervention ran high. The people were looking expecting the end times. They were looking for political relief from the Romans. This guy was drawing big crowds. It is natural that they would want to know who he is.
There were a variety of Jewish beliefs/expectations for the end times. John begins to deny that he is the fulfillment of any of them.
20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
He “confessed.” Again there is the sense here that John the Baptist is giving evidence, that this is information that can be relied upon as certified and carefully given.
John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the Messiah.
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” Why might the interrogators think it plausible that John was Elijah?
II Kings 2:11 records Elijah being taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot, without seeing death. Further, Malachi prophesies the return of Elijah before the coming of Messiah.
Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.
People were expecting the literal return of Elijah, and John the Baptist looked the part and sounded the part.
2Kings 1:8 They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
Mark 1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
Elijah told the civil authorities of his day that they were short of God’s requirements for them. John did the same.
John says “I am not.” Jesus said that in fact he did fill the role of Elijah. Either John the Baptist didn’t understand the whole thing completely, or he was simply denying being the literal Elijah. He may be saying, “You are wrongly expecting the literal Elijah. I am not the literal Elijah.” He was, however, figuratively Elijah.
“Are you the Prophet?” “No.” As the questioning goes on, John’s answers get progressively more curt. To understand what they are asking, we need to look at Deuteronomy 18.
Deuteronomy 18:15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—
16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’
17 And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken.
18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.
John rightly understands that the reference here is again to Messiah. He’s already denied being the Messiah! John was there to testify to Jesus, but the officials keep asking him about himself. His answers keep getting more and more terse. Finally the officials give up guessing and just ask who he is.
John 1:22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
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 quotes from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 40:3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
The picture here is one of repaving the road for a visiting dignitary, fixing things up for a royal procession or parade. And/or it is of a herald clearing the way for a visiting potentate.
Now the officials begin a second set of questions, concerned not with who John is, but rather with what he’s doing.
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)
25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
This is a fairly natural inquiry. The question is “Look, if you’re not any of these guys, why are you acting like it? The baptizing is a sign of authority, a sign of washing from sin. If you’re none of these people, why are you using it?” John’s answer points not to himself, but to the one he’s announcing.
26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know,
27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
The contrast here, as John the disciple reports it, is a contrast between the positions of Jesus and John. It is not a contrast between baptisms. The other Gospels have wording that could let attention shift to baptisms. Here, John’s report focuses on the persons involved. The words of John the Baptist direct the conversation from what he’s doing to the person of Jesus.
John says “One you do not know.” This phrase need not be read as a condemnation of the officials. If God didn’t show us Jesus, we wouldn’t know Him either. Look at John’s own testimony on the matter!
“The strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” In a comparison with Jesus, John rightly recognizes himself to not even rate as high as a household servant.
28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
This was not the Bethany near Jerusalem where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. It was much further north, out in the country.
The next day, the man who has had little to say about himself now volunteers what he knows about Jesus.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
“Look guys, there He goes! He’s the Lamb of God.” He’s “of” God in the sense of “supplied by.” He’s God’s Lamb.
This figure of a lamb is particularly appropriate coming from John the Baptist given what he said the day before about Jesus. Jesus fills the role of the Passover Lamb described in Exodus 29:38-46. In Isaiah 53:4-12, particularly verse 7, the Messiah, the Suffering Servant is compared to a lamb.
Isaiah 53:4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Jeremiah, speaking prophetically, refers to a lamb led to slaughter.
Jeremiah 11:19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”
In the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham confidently declared that God, Himself, would supply the necessary sacrifice.
Genesis 22:8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
Here, John is identifying the One he had spoken of the day before, the Messiah. This is the sacrificial Lamb provided by God, the One who takes away the sin of the world.
“sin” here refers to our condition, not acts. Paul would say “nature.” Jesus deals with our sinful nature.
30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’
This is a brilliant flash of grace/revelation to John the Baptist. He doesn’t always see Jesus so clearly. E.g., he later sends representatives from prison to ask Jesus whether or not He’s the Messiah. But at least temporarily he sees clearly.
He “was” before me. This “was” is a “was” like the one in verse 1 of John’s the prologue. It is one of “being” not “becoming.” This is a direct claim for the eternal preexistence of Jesus. By human standards, John was 6 months older than Jesus, and he knew it! But here he’s saying that Jesus has been around eternally.
31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
John didn’t know that his cousin was the Messiah until God revealed it to Him. None of us sees Jesus for who He is until God reveals it to us!
Note that the details of Jesus’s baptism are largely missing from John’s gospel, EXCEPT what is important to show Jesus as the Messiah. John the Baptist emphasizes not the repentance aspect of his ministry, but the preparation/revelation aspect. By the way, the word “revelation” is important in John’s Gospel. It is used in John 9 times. In contrast, it is used only once in the other Gospels. John the disciple is emphasizing the revealing of Jesus, in harmony with his purpose statement in John 20:31.
John 20:31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
“I saw the spirit.” The Greek tense used here is one that indicates that the action is still having its effect. The Spirit is still with Jesus. Isaiah 11:2 promised that God would put His Spirit on the Branch, the Davidic king, the Messiah.
John says that he saw a physical dove.
He baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Only now do we see the completion of the contrast with John’s baptism begun the day before.
34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
“I have seen.” John the Baptist is emphasizing his role as an eyewitness. The tenses used in the Greek are such that the seeing and bearing witness means something like “I have seen (and continue to see) and have testified (and continue to testify).”
The phrase “that this (Jesus) is the Son of God” connects Jesus to the prologue and tells us who the rest of the book is going to be about.