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John the Baptist Witnesses to the First Disciples, and They Follow Jesus
Jesus surpasses John
John Chapter 1, verses 15-18
John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
John the Baptist was the first prominent proclaimer of the truth in Jesus Christ, so the apostle John returns to his testimony. The Baptist not only has left a testimony for us, he has cried out urgently that all might listen, and his words speak the same urgency in each generation. He calls our attention to the Word made flesh and identifies him as the human-divine Savior. This Word was Jesus, who was coming after John. John was born before him, and John became prominent as a prophet before him. Nevertheless, John adds, “He . . . has surpassed me because he was before me.”
To many listeners, John the Baptist surely seemed to be talking in riddles. Jesus was coming after John, but he was before John, and he had gotten ahead of John. Perhaps it was like a riddle—nevertheless, it was all true in the God-man. The Word was eternal God and as such lived in eternity and surpassed John in every way. Now the listeners would see Jesus coming after John, and it was important for them to understand who Jesus really was. Jesus was coming to bring blessings beyond measure. “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” The fullness of Jesus was the fullness of God dwelling in him, a fullness with which he also blesses us, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13; see also Colossians 1:19; 2:9,10). The words of the Baptist echo the words of verse 14, “full of grace and truth.” That fullness brings us the rich blessings of God’s grace.
As hard as it is to measure or describe that grace, John uses an expression here that can help us appreciate it more. The English translation here is “one blessing after another,” but that is weak alongside the literal translation, “grace instead of grace.” Or think of it as “grace in place of grace.”
God’s unfathomable love, which he gives us in spite of our unworthiness, never ends. We use some, and more takes its place for us to use another time. It is there to comfort us when we hurt. It forgives us when we sin. It relieves us when we feel guilty. It supports us when we’re afraid. It gives everything to us who can give nothing to earn it or to repay it. God’s love is so great that the eternal Word became flesh and sacrificed himself on the cross for us. Jesus gives us grace in place of grace. We always have his love. We cannot exhaust the supply.
The coming of Jesus Christ fulfilled everything commanded by and promised by God. The Jews of Jesus’ day looked to Moses to learn from God. Now, however, the Baptist testifies, we have something better, “for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Moses gave the moral law that reveals God’s will and our sin. He gave ceremonial laws that foreshadowed the redemptive work of Christ. He presented prophecies that promised a Savior to come.
Now the Savior has come. In his grace he has fulfilled God’s moral law perfectly in our place. He has offered the one sacrifice needed for all time, for all sin. He has turned the promises in Moses to living reality and established God’s truth forever.
Jesus has come to reveal God to us and to make us God’s children. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” As Jesus himself said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). The Logos, the Word, came to make the Father known. The Word, who is with God and is God, reveals the Father to us.
No mere human being can make God known as Jesus does, because no human being, not even Moses, has seen God in all his fullness and glory. Jesus is “God the One and Only.” He is the only Son of the Father, of the same essence, or being, as the Father, begotten from eternity. He “is at the Father’s side,” literally, “in the Father’s bosom.” He has a personal, fully intimate relationship with the Father. He makes God known to us. Look at Jesus Christ and see God.
John prepares the way for Jesus
John Chapter 1, verses 19-23
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
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.’”
The apostle continues his narrative with more about John the Baptist’s testimony. John had been carrying on his ministry in the wilderness for a while already, and he was attracting the attention of significant religious leaders. The Jewish authorities, representing the Jews as a group, invariably lined up in opposition to the testimony about Jesus. This time they sent priests and Levites, who also carried out priestly duties in the temple, to ask their questions. John’s own father was a priest and so, by descent, was John. Perhaps they wanted to find out why John wasn’t doing the work of a priest the way they were.
“Who are you?” they asked. It was a loaded question. Certainly they knew he was John, the son of Zechariah, but they wanted to know why he was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. What claims did he make for himself? What was he seeking to gain?
John understood their intent. He did not shrink from answering. He did not seek personal glory. He confessed boldly: “I am not the Christ.” He knew that many of the Jews hoped for the Messiah (“Christ”) to lead them out from under the oppression of the Romans. He knew they were wondering whether he claimed to be that Messiah. “I am not the Christ,” he confessed, emphasizing the word “I.” Perhaps he was thinking to himself, “I am not, but one is coming soon who is.”
“Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” The Jews wanted to know if John claimed to be any of the great leaders they expected from Old Testament prophecies. God had promised, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5). They expected Elijah to be reincarnated, but John didn’t claim to be that Elijah. In truth, Jesus later would identify John as “Elijah” (Matthew 11:14; 17:9-13), but not the reincarnated Old Testament prophet. Rather, as the angel Gabriel said when he promised John’s birth to Zechariah, “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).
Similarly, John denied being “the Prophet.” Moses had prophesied: “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). Some thought of that prophet as a forerunner of the Messiah, others as the Messiah himself. “The Prophet” would be the Messiah, but he was not John the Baptist. The line of questioning was going nowhere as far as the priests and Levites were concerned. They needed some answer to take back to the Jewish authorities who had sent them, so they asked simply: “Who are you? . . . What do you say about yourself?”
John answered directly, claiming his office on the basis of Isaiah’s prophecy: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (40:3). John had no purpose beyond bringing a message, being a voice. He was carrying on a ministry for another, for the Lord, gathering audiences in the wilderness near the Jordan River. More than that, he was crying out his message to a world that spiritually had become a wilderness made barren by sin and unbelief.
“Get ready!” John cried. “Clear the way! A king is coming who is the Lord.”
In the absence of paved roads such as we enjoy today, the roads then (often only paths) were rough, sometimes blocked with rocks or debris, and dangerous. Whenever a king would come to visit, the roads needed to be prepared and made ready for his safe travel. That image fit perfectly the purpose of John’s ministry. Christ the King was coming. John needed to tell the people to prepare the way.
John’s exhortation was not literally to prepare a road. He was speaking spiritually. This preparing begins with recognizing and confessing one’s deep and damnable sinfulness. It includes sorrow over sin and a turning in faith for forgiveness to the Lord whom John proclaimed. The Christ is coming. Repent; be baptized; believe!
John Chapter 1, verses 24-28
Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“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.”
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Some Pharisees who were also sent, apparently apart from the priests and Levites, now took up the questioning. The Pharisees might be expected to ask more probing questions than the others because of their position as the religious elite among the Jews. No one knew more about God’s law and religious traditions than a Pharisee. No one seemed to put more effort into keeping God’s law than a Pharisee. If any person could be called holy, surely it must be a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the most outwardly religious people among the Jews and were the religious experts.
They now asked, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” They didn’t seem opposed to baptizing, but wondered if John had the authority to do it. Perhaps they thought back to such a prophecy as “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean” (Ezekiel 36:25). Maybe this baptizing was the promised cleansing. If so, John must produce his credentials for doing it.
In reply, John again turned the spotlight away from himself and onto Christ. Yes, he, John, baptized with water, and it was a valid baptism that made the people clean just as Ezekiel had prophesied. But the question of his authority was misplaced, for they needed to see someone far more important than he: “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.” Slaves of the day had the duty of loosening their masters’ sandals. John felt unworthy even to be a slave to the Christ. John had no personal credentials to present. He had a Savior to proclaim. To this day, preachers, teachers, and other witnesses of Jesus need to emulate such selfless humility as we see in John.
The Christ was even then standing among the people. At an earlier date, John had baptized him. Yet Christ is the one who brings the power to Holy Baptism and makes us forever clean from sin. He is the one who made John’s baptism more than just a symbol and has made the Sacrament of Baptism a means for our salvation to the end of time. The time had come to stop trying to pick apart John the Baptist and to look for Jesus the Christ.
The apostle John now identifies where this all took place, namely, at Bethany east of the Jordan (not to be confused with Bethany near Jerusalem). From that location John easily managed his baptizing in the Jordan River. Just because he baptized in the river, however, in no way proves that the baptisms were necessarily by immersion, as some insist. It is just as likely that he poured or even sprinkled water on the people as they stood in the river. The term baptize, which means “apply water for washing,” includes immersion along with pouring and sprinkling. God did not dictate how the water needs to be applied.
Jesus is the Lamb of God
John Chapter 1, verses 29-31
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
The very next day John had the opportunity to testify even more clearly and emphatically to the Messiah, as Jesus came to where John was. As soon as he saw Jesus, John said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” That single sentence has established the standard for all Christian preaching since then. The faithful preacher will continually point to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus is that Lamb of God who came to give himself as the sacrifice to win forgiveness for a sinful world. He is the Passover Lamb whose blood saves us from death (Exodus 12:1-13). He is the lamb of the daily offering (Exodus 29:38-41), the burnt offering —“without defect”—(Leviticus 1:10), the fellowship offering (3:6,7). He is the sin offering through which we receive forgiveness (4:32-35). As Isaiah prophesied, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (53:7).
Jesus lived in the flesh without sin, “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19), thus fulfilling God’s law in our stead. Then with his bloody sacrifice on the cross, the Lamb of God—who came from God and who was God—satisfied God’s just wrath against the sin of all the world. He lifted the sin onto his own shoulders and carried it away in death. He still takes our sin away and always will by the merits of his holy sacrifice. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12).
So John could say Jesus came after him, yet Jesus surpassed him. Jesus was born later than John and began his ministry after him, yet Jesus was the Word from the beginning and the Lamb of God. God revealed Christ to John so John could preach repentance and Baptism and thereby guide the people of Israel to Jesus.
John Chapter 1, verses 32-34
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 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.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
Once again John fulfilled his calling as a “voice” for the Christ and testified about Jesus: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” John referred to the day Jesus came to be baptized in the Jordan River and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. It is significant that the Spirit remained on Jesus because God the Father had told John to watch for this sign to identify him “who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
John was told to watch for the Spirit. When he saw the dovelike being rest on Jesus, he knew that was what God had meant. First the heavens had opened, from which the Spirit descended. Then a voice came from the open heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
That dove was God’s promised sign. John knew the Christ and then used his knowledge to help others see and believe. “I have seen,” he emphatically declared, “and I testify that this is the Son of God.” John wanted everyone to know why Jesus surpassed him and why Jesus could take away the sins of the world. Jesus was the Son of God. The apostle John also wanted his readers (us!) to see this truth and believe and live (20:30,31).
This testimony by John also explains why John said earlier that he “would not have known” Jesus without the sign from heaven. John certainly knew Jesus as his relative, but the sure sign that Jesus was the Christ (the Anointed One), the very Son of God, was the manifestation of God’s Spirit on Jesus. “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:38; see Luke 4:16-21).