2. John the Baptist's Witness to the Lamb of God (John 1:19-34)

Audio (26:59)

Francisco de Zurburan (1598-1664), ‘Agnus Dei’ (1635-40), oil on canvas 38 x 62 cm., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Francisco de Zurburan (1598-1664), 'Agnus Dei' (1635-40), oil on canvas 38 x 62 cm., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
We've begun the second major section of John's Gospel. After the Prologue (1:1-18), comes the Public Ministry of Jesus (1:19 - 12:50)

John carefully selects incidents in Jesus life that tell us Jesus' significance, who Jesus is. Who he really is. Remember John's purpose:

"Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (20:30-31)

Before we meet Jesus, we meet John the Baptist, who reveals him to Israel.

The Significance of John the Baptist for the Jews

Notice that the author assumes that we know who John the Baptist is. The Apostle John probably wrote his Gospel rather late, in the 90s AD. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that told John the Baptist's story had probably been in circulation among the churches for at least a decade or two. Furthermore, John the Baptist seems to have been well known in Jewish circles as a revivalist. He was a rough country preacher who was drawing great crowds and baptizing in the Jordan River.

Josephus records several paragraphs about him.

"John, that was called the Baptist ... who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness...."[33]

Peter refers to John the Baptist as he preaches about Jesus in the Roman city of Caesarea. Paul speaks of him in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:24). Even as far away as Ephesus in about 52 AD, Paul finds a zealous Jew from Alexandria who "knows only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25).

John's preaching made a huge impact on the Jewish world -- and produced a reaction among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, who sent a delegation down to the Jordan where he was baptizing to interrogate him.

"Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was." (1:19)

In our text, there seem to be two groups sent to investigate and interrogate John -- (1) priests and Levites from Jerusalem (1:19), the power elite of the Temple who tended to be Sadducees; and (2) Pharisees (1:24), who were especially strict in their adherence to the commandments in the Law of Moses.[34]

Who Are You, John? (1:19-21)

In response to his questioners from Jerusalem, John the Baptist is forthright and humble.

"20  He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, 'I am not the Christ.' 21  They asked him, 'Then who are you? Are you Elijah?' He said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No.'" (1:20-21)

John records that John the Baptist made no pretentions about who he was. The Jewish leaders inquired if he were one of the three figures whom the Jews expected to return in the Last Days.

  1. The Messiah or Christ.
  2. Elijah. Malachi's prophecy says,

"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes." (Malachi 4:5)

  1. The Prophet. This figure was referred to by  Moses:

"The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." (Deuteronomy 18:15)

John was not Elijah himself, but prophecy given by his father Zechariah indicated that he did come "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). Jesus said that John had fulfilled the prophecy about Elijah's coming (Matthew 17:11-13).

At any rate, John the Baptist himself didn't see himself as any of these figures, so he categorically denied being any of them.

The Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1:22-23)

James J. Tissot, ‘The Voice in the Desert’ (1886-94), gouache on paper, 11.5x6.7”, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'The Voice in the Desert' (1886-94), gouache on paper, 11.5x6.7", Brooklyn Museum, New York.

John had told him who he wasn't. Now they ask him who he is on his own terms.

"22  Finally they said, 'Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?' 23  John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, 'I am the voice of one calling in the desert, "Make straight the way for the Lord."'" (1:22-23)

John's answer was that he was the voice in the wilderness mentioned in Isaiah 40:3-5 calling people to prepare a highway on which Yahweh would come. Building a highway requires both cutting high spots and filling low spots to create a level roadbed, figurative of the repentance that God requires in our lives.

"3  A voice of one calling:
"In the desert prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
"4  Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5  And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:3-5)

John came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent (Matthew 3:1-2) and called for baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He was that voice prophesied from old to prepare for the Messiah, the Son of God, "to prepare the way of the Lord."

Q1. (John 1:19-23) Why do you think John the Baptist was being hassled by the religious leaders from Jerusalem? What were they afraid of? How did John understand his own mission? How much conflict do you think could be expected from John's mission?

John's Baptism and the One Who Comes After (1:24-28)

Possible location of John's baptizing
Possible location of John's baptizing (larger image)

"This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing." (1:28)

John was baptizing east of the Jordan River at a place called Bethany, a location we can't pinpoint twenty centuries later, though it may well be near the Hajlah ford across the Jordan from Jericho. [35]

"24  Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25  questioned him, 'Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?'" (1:24-25)

The Pharisees, legalists that they are[36], don't seem impressed with John's response. If you're not one of the three figures expected in the Last Day, just who do think you are to take it on yourself to baptize? they ask.

What's your authority to baptize? The verb baptizō was used in Classical Greek to mean "to put or go under water" in a variety of senses. It could be translated, "plunge, dip, wash, baptize."[37]The origins of John's baptism are difficult to discern precisely. We know that the Community at Qumran (in John's desert "territory," certainly) practiced repeated ritual washings,[38]but John's baptism seems different -- an act of purification and forgiveness that can be looked back upon as a single event (Acts 19:3-4). Probably, the antecedent for John's baptism is the first century practice of Jewish proselyte baptism, a ritual bath by which a Gentile convert to Judaism was cleansed from moral and religious impurity.[39]

But John wasn't baptizing proselytes to the Jewish faith; he was baptizing Jews! What authority do you have to do this? the Pharisees demand.

John gives the only answer he has. He repeats his call from God.

"26  'I baptize with water,' John replied, 'but among you stands[40]one you do not know.
27  He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.'" (1:26-27)

This personage John speaks of is of such high rank that John feels unworthy to untie his sandal-thongs, the task of a house-slave. This person is among you now, John says, though John doesn't seem to know yet who it is.

Q2. (John 1:26-27) Why did John baptize? What is the meaning of the baptism he was performing? What do you think baptism represents to those John baptized?

Q3. (John 1:19-27) How does John the Baptist show humility? How can a person see himself as the fulfillment of a passage from Isaiah and still be humble about it? How does John see himself in relation to the coming Messiah? How can a person be such a strong revivalist preacher and still remain humble? Can humility and powerful, confident speech co-exist?

Behold, the Lamb of God (1:29)

The day after the interrogation by the Pharisees, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and it is supernaturally revealed to him just who he is.

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" (1:29)

John repeats this saying a little later in 1:36. The context of these verses doesn't tell us a great deal about what John the Baptist actually meant when he said this. So let's examine the words themselves.

"Behold" (KJV) is the Greek particle ide, which can be taken two ways. (1) to point out something to which the speaker wishes to draw attention -- "Look! See!" and (2) to indicate a place or individual, "Here is (are)" so-and-so.[41] Hence the translations, "Look!" (NIV), "Here is...." (NRSV), "Behold!" (KJV). John draws attention to Jesus and indicates that Jesus is the focus of his words that follow.

"Lamb," the Greek noun amnos, refers to a young sheep, including at least up to one year old.[42] We'll come back to this word.

"Of God" can mean either "sent from God" or perhaps "owned by God." John says that Jesus is in some way like a lamb sent from or provided by God himself.

"Sin" is the common Greek noun harmartia. Originally it meant "to miss the mark, be mistaken." In the New Testament it occurs 173 times as a comprehensive expression of everything opposed to God.[43] Sin and forgiveness of sin are major themes of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Our modern society really doesn't like the concept of sin at all -- though dealing with guilt is a major psychological problem that plagues people of all religions and no religion.

"Of the world" employs the Greek noun kosmos, which refers here to "humanity in general."[44] Jesus doesn't come to deal with just a single person, or the sin of just the Jewish people for that year, but for the sins of everyone in the whole world for all time.

"Take away" describes what the Lamb will do with sin, employing the Greek verb airō, which means generally "to lift up and move from one place to another." Here it means "to take away, remove, blot out."[45]

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." (1:29)

The Sacrificial Lamb

What specific lamb is John the Baptist referring to? It could be a sacrificial Passover Lamb or the lamb described in Isaiah 53, or perhaps he is using it in a general way.[46] Clearly, John indicates that Jesus is the Lamb of God in some sacrificial sense, since lambs were commonly used by the Jews for sacrifices to obtain forgiveness for sin (Exodus 27; Leviticus 1-7). God provides animal sacrifice as a way that justice can be done, that men's and women's sins can be atoned for, and that they can approach God once more. The taking of any life affects us as it affected the Israelites -- blood indicates taking of life. And taking life, even to eat, is never a trivial thing. God tells Moses:

"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." (Leviticus 17:11)

"Atonement" in Hebrew seems to mean, "to wipe clean, purge," a sacrifice that cleanses from sin.[47]

"When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin." (Leviticus 5:5-6)

The amazing prophecy of Isaiah 53 describes this ministry of atonement and sacrifice that Jesus took upon himself by divine appointment:

"He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Sacrifice for sin is the context from which John the Baptist speaks when he says, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29). Jesus is greater than our analogies, of course. But there is a sense in which the analogy of the sacrificial Lamb fits Jesus accurately, since he, as Son of God and Son of Man is the only One perfect and great enough to actually atone for sin and, at the same time, represent and substitute for all men in this atonement -- once and for all.

Look! This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Q4. (John 1:29) What does the title "Lamb of God" tell us about Jesus' ministry? According to 1:29, whose sins did he come to take away? In what ways did Jesus fulfill Isaiah 53?

John Came to Reveal Jesus to Israel (1:30-31)

Now John the Baptist identifies Jesus with the person he had described to the Pharisees the day before (1:26-27), and the person he had previously proclaimed who would surpass him (1:15). He is the One who is the Lamb of God.

"30  This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. 31  I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.'" (1:30-31)

It's interesting that John begins to understand more why God called him. John had known that he was to be a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of the king. He was doubtless aware of the angel's word to his father Zechariah that John was "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). He knew his father's prophecy at his birth:

"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him." (Luke 1:76)

But now he realizes that he has been given the awesome privilege of introducing the Messiah to Israel! His life's work has been fulfilled in this moment![48]

The Spirit as a Dove (1:32-34)

The Synoptic Gospels give the incident of the dove in the context of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. For example, Luke writes:

"When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'" (Luke 3:21-22)

But in characteristic fashion the Apostle John truncates the story narrative to get to the point of John the Baptist's testimony about who Jesus is:

"32  Then John gave this testimony: 'I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33  I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, "The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit." 34  I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.'" (1:32-34)

John's clear message about Jesus is: "This is the Son of God!" which accords precisely with the purpose of John's Gospel:

"... that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (20:31)

Baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33)

The Holy Spirit plays a large part in Jesus' teaching in John's Gospel -- far more than in the Synoptics. And this promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit to those who believe is a major theme of the Gospel.

"The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'" (1:33)

What does it mean that Jesus "will baptize with the Holy Spirit"? This is very controversial. Pentecostals and some other groups see the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" as a "second work of grace," separate from regeneration or new birth by the Spirit.

This is probably the case because many Pentecostals have an experience with the Holy Spirit that includes speaking in tongues that happens after their conversion. There is also the example of the Holy Spirit falling upon the church on the Day of Pentecost, after the disciples had believed (though see John's "Pentecost" in 20:22), and some experiences in the early church (8:15-17; 10:44-47; 11:15-17; 19:4-7). I myself had an experience that Pentecostals would term the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" when I was eighteen years old that was life-changing, long after I had received Christ as my Savior at age nine. It helped introduce me to a spiritual world in which I believe God can do anything!

While I believe my experience, and that of many Pentecostals, is valid, I think we have misnamed it. It is certainly a filling of the Holy Spirit, like the early believers experienced in Acts 4:31. If we're walking close to the Lord we can expect many fillings.

I believe that the New Testament -- and John's Gospel in particular -- uses a number of analogies to express what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. And I believe that many of these analogies are functional equivalents of each other. Consider how John describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in different analogies and figures:

  • "Born of the Spirit" (3:6, 8), "born from above/again" (3:6).
  • Worship "in Spirit and in truth" (4:24).
  • "Rivers of living water" flowing out of one's heart (7:38-39), offered to "whoever believes in me."
  • "The Spirit of truth," who is with you and will be in you (14:16-17) -- another Counselor (Greek Paraklētos), the indwelling Spirit.
  • The Spirit (Paraklētos) who will teach and remind believers of what Jesus said (14:26).
  • The Spirit (Paraklētos) who testifies of Jesus (15:26).
  • The Spirit (Paraklētos) who will guide us into all truth (16:13-15), and who will convict the world of sin (16:8-11).
  • The Spirit Whom Jesus breathed upon his disciples -- "Receive the Holy Spirit" (20:22).

It makes more sense to me that John and Jesus are talking about many of the same experiences, but with different terminologies -- though I know that will upset some of my dear Pentecostal brothers and sisters.

We don't need a watered-down, low-power Christianity, however. God forbid! We need the full power of the Holy Spirit to come upon us -- by whatever terminology -- and fill us and keep us full so that we might fulfill Jesus' mission here on earth (Acts 1:8). When the Spirit possesses fully, many people won't understand, but that doesn't really matter so much as pleasing God and receiving his bountiful gifts! O Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, dunk us again in your Spirit's waters![49]

Devout Christians differ on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As you discuss this, make sure that your attitude is one of love for your brothers and sisters, even if you might disagree with some things they believe.

Q5. (John 1:33) How does John the Baptist's baptism differ from the baptism that Jesus brings? Baptism is a word that means "immerse, plunge under water." What does a "baptism of the Holy Spirit" imply about this event?

Lessons for Disciples

What should we learn from these verses? I see several things.

  1. John humbly and faithfully fulfilled his mission, which he saw clearly enough, even though he may not have fully understood how he fit into God's plan (1:23).
  2. Jesus is the "Lamb of God," God's sacrifice for our sins, prophesied in Isaiah 53 and fulfilled on the cross. Jesus' mission was to take away our sins (1:29).
  3. John realizes that his job is to reveal Christ to Israel -- and he's okay about that, even though he doesn't get to take the glory for himself (1:30).
  4. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, that is, he floods people with his Holy Spirit (1:33).
  5. Jesus is the Son of God (1:34).
John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

In this lesson, John the Baptist has testified about God's words to him and how they were fulfilled. This last of the Old Testament prophets has declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God -- God's sacrifice to atone for all our sins -- and to be the Son of God, who sends the Holy Spirit. In the next lesson we'll examine how Jesus began to gather disciples for this new chapter in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God of whom John was the herald.


Father, thank you for sending to us Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away all our sins. I pray that you would forgive us for our foolish joking that undermines the solemnity of this awesome role that led to the cross. Work in us true reverence -- and holy joy. And flood us afresh with the Holy Spirit that Jesus was sent to baptize us with. In Jesus' holy name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"'I baptize with water,' John replied, 'but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.'" (John 1:26-27, NIV)

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29, NIV)

"I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." (John 1:34, NIV)


[33]Josephus, Antiquities, xviii. 5.2.

[35]"Bethabara" (KJV) is a textual variant of "Bethany" in 1:18, though the best manuscripts read "Bethany." Bethabara was the only location known to Origin (185-254 AD). We can't be sure of its location, but since it was known to origin, that would explain the textual variant as scribes sought to correct it (Ralph Earl, Bethabara, ISBE 1:463). The Byzantines built a church to commemorate it at a site across from Jericho at Beth-nimrah. Other traditions identify it with Qasr el-Yehud, west of Jordan; with Makhadet 'Abara, just north of the Harrod Valley, and other locations. J. Carl Laney ("The Identification of Bethany Beyond the Jordan," from Selective Geographical Problems in the Life of Christ, a doctoral dissertation by (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977), who has looked all the possibilities notes that reliable ancient tradition does appear to associate Bethany near the Hajlah ford in the vicinity of Wadi el-Kharrar, east of Jericho. Urban C. Von Wahlde ("Archaeology and John's Gospel," in Jesus & Archaeology, pp. 528-33) doesn't see enough evidence to make any firm conclusion.

[36]Appendix 3. "Religious Leaders in Jesus' Day."

[37]Baptizō, BDAG 164, 2.

[38]Manual of Discipline 1QS 3:4-9; 6:14-23. See also D.S. Dockery, "Baptism," in DJG, p. 56, who thinks the Qumran washings are the most probable antecedent for John's baptism.

[39]G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1962, 1973), pp. 23ff.

[40]Histēmi, "to stand," perfect tense, that is, a past action that continues to the present.

[41]Ide, BDAG 446.

[42]Amnos, BDAG 54.

[43]Walther Günther, "Sin," NIDNTT 3:573-583.

[44]Kosmos, BDAG 562.

[45]Airō, BDAG 28. Joachim Jeremias, "airō," TDNT 1:185-186, indicates that airo can refer here to either the substitutionary bearing of penalty (if the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is in mind) or "the setting aside of sin by the expiatory power of the death of Jesus." Jeremias prefers the latter approach.

[46]George R. Beasley-Murray, John: Word Biblical Commentary 36 (Word, 1987), pp. 24-25; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible vol. 29; Doubleday, 1966), 1:58-63; C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (Second Edition; Westminster Press, 1978), 175-177.

[47]The word translated "atonement" here is the Hebrew verb kāpar, kipper, "to make an atonement, make reconciliation, purge." An equivalent Arabic root means "cover" or "conceal," but evidence that the Hebrew root means "to cover over sin" is weak. Rather, the root idea of kipper seems to be "to purge," related to an Akkadian cognate kuppuru meaning "to wipe clean" (Richard E. Averbeck, "Sacrifices and Offerings," DOTP 706-732, especially p. 710; R. Laird Harris, kāpar, TWOT #1023).  Our English word "atonement" comes from the Middle English "at-one-ment" or "reconciliation," which expresses the result of an atoning sacrifice.

[48]Later, of course, John in prison has a moment of doubt (Luke 7:18-23), but there beside the Jordan it was all clear, and even his moment of doubt does not diminish his greatness (Luke 7:24-28).

[49]For more on how I understand the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, see my article, "Spirit Baptism, the New Birth, and Speaking in Tongues" (https://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/spirit-baptism.htm).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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