John 1:19-34

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And this is the testimony of John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 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?” 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.”

(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him,“Then why are you baptizing if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose, I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose, I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

Understanding And Applying the Text

There were a lot of Messianic expectations throughout Israel in the first century. Israel had seen many false Messiahs. Those who came to question John were right to do so. It was their duty. It had been a long time since they had a Prophet. John busts on the scene and is not what they expected.

Had they not questioned John, they would have been derelict in their duties. So, the priests and Levites questioned John to find out who he was. They may have been acting on a desire for redemption. They may have also been interested in maintaining their own positions of authority. Nonetheless, their actions were prudent. It was incumbent on them to ask if John was the Christ. John had begun to change things. He was baptizing Israel. Only God has the authority of change normal church order.

We have forgotten this duty to protect against false teachers. The byword today is tolerance. We allow all manner to false teaching in the name of tolerance. The core of this is the assumption no one can know the truth with certainty. That is not what scripture teaches. (John 10:38, Ephesians 1:18, 1 John 5:13, Exodus 8:10, 22; 9:14,29; 10:2, Deuteronomy 29:6, Isaiah 43:210; 45:3,Jeremiah 44:29, Ezekiel 20:20, Micah 6:5) We may know with certainty. And we are to guard and protect against false teaching. That is contrary to contemporary thought.

John the Baptist stated without any ambiguity he was not the Christ. They asked if he was Elijah and John says, “No.” This is a little problematic because later Jesus says John was Elijah. What gives?

They thought the same Elijah, who lived in the time of King Ahab would reappear. (1 Kings 17:1) So, John did not miss-state or mislead when he said he was not Elijah. He was addressing the question they asked and their expectations. To answer in the affirmative would have misled them. When Jesus said John was Elijah He gave a true interpretation of Malachi. (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:13.)

When they ask him if he is the prophet, again John says no. John had no new message for God. This is what prophets did. They brought a message from God.

But Jesus says John is a prophet, in fact, he is more than a prophet. How do we reconcile this? John’s answering no was not a lie or for the sake of modesty. Jesus says he was more than a prophet because John’s purpose was to be Christ’s herald. God had given John the mission to prepare the Jews to listen to Christ and become His disciples.

John says he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Here he is quoting from Isaiah 40. Isaiah was speaking figuratively when he said a voice will cry in the wilderness. He was referring to the hopeless state of Israel. God will find a road where there is no road. John uses a visible wilderness as the image of this awful desolation. Wilderness takes away all hope of deliverance. And God makes a way to redeem His Church when there is no hope of redemption.

The questioners now conclude John’s baptism is unlawful. So, John says he baptizes with water. Then he points them to Christ. This should have been enough to show John was the true Elijah. The true Elijah testifies the time has come for the renovation of the Church.

John claims nothing for himself. He is only administering an outward sign. The power and efficacy are in the hands of Christ alone. John does not argue over the usefulness of his baptism. In that sense, our administration of baptism is the same as John’s baptism. We only administer the outward sign. Christ alone performs the true baptism.

There two ways to think about the sacraments. Scripture says they are a layer of regeneration. That is, by the sacraments our sins are washed away. (Titus 3:5, Act 2:38) The scriptures join the power of Christ with the ministry of man. We have a tendency to fall into superstition. We try to manipulate the signs. That is why we have churches using manipulative techniques to get people baptized. When we do that, all we doing is get them wet. Christ is the one who does the true baptism.

When we try to manipulate the signs from God, we try to take away God’s honor and glory. The glory and honor due Him and give it to ourselves.

When John sees Jesus the next day he says. Hey, there is the person I told you about yesterday. “Behold the Lamb of God.” When he calls Jesus the Lamb of God he alludes to the sacrificial Lamb under the Law. But John goes further than saying Jesus is the substitution for the sacrificial lamb. Jesus takes away the sins of the world. John extends Christ’s atonement beyond Israel to the whole human race. Christ had not come for the Jews alone. It is the whole world that is under condemnation. All men are guilty of treason against God. There are no exceptions. Christ takes away our sin.

Johns says,”…takes away…” This denotes a continuing act. Christ takes away all our sin. What a tremendous thought! Christ atonement is for all our sins, past present and future.

John not only says Jesus takes away our sin but he tells us how. Jesus reconciles us to the Father by His death. He is the sacrificial lamb.

John’s says Jesus was before him. But John was older than Jesus. Here John is recognizing the deity of Christ.

He goes on to say he did not always know this. But it was revealed to him.

John says he saw the Spirit descending like a dove. This is not a literal expression. We cannot see the Spirit with eyes. This type of metaphorical language is common in the sacraments. Why does Christ call the bread his body? The name of the thing transfers to the sign. This is especially true when the sign is also a pledge by this sign we are certain of the thing it signifies. In the same way, we know Christ’s body is not connected with the bread and yet we partake of his body.

There is always a correspondence between the sign and reality. So why did the Spirit appear in the form of a dove? When the Spirit came on Pentecost it was in the form of tongues of fire. The apostles were to spread the gospel through the whole world by speaking with tongues. But here God intended to show Christ mild, like a dove.

Why did John say he did not know Jesus? John and Jesus were cousins. As a rule, families at that time were close. It is improbable they had not played together as children. Close examination of the context reveals John is not intending to say he did not know Jesus the son of Mary. He is saying he did not know Jesus was the one he came to herald.

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