John 1:19-28.
Jesus, the Lamb of God

      American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

The writer of the gospel of John opens the book with a testimony to the character, and purpose of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, ascribing to Him all of the attributes of the Hebrew YAHWEH of the Old Testament.  Jesus is described as the omnitemporal (timeless, eternal) Word, the agent of creation as well as the source of salvation.  As God dwelling amongst us, the Messiah is the light of God's goodness and grace in a lost and dark world.  The first part of the first chapter of John is a prolegomena, or summary prologue, of the remainder of John's Gospel.  The testimony is the product of the personal witness of the author.  As John unfolds the book, which is a presentation of Jesus' life and ministry from a theological perspective, he introduces the coming Messiah through the testimony and ministry of John the Baptist. 

John 1:19.  And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?

John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, a Levite of the Aaronic priesthood, and Elizabeth his wife.  Elizabeth was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  This would make John the first cousin of Jesus.  When it was Zechariah's turn to burn incense in the temple, he was greeted at the altar by an angel of the LORD who announced to him that his wife would have a child in their late years, and that he was to be named John.[1]  The angel also told Zechariah that he was to bring the child up in the manner of a Nazirite,[2] dedicated fully to the work of the LORD.  John was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, making him unique among all men, except the Messiah, Jesus Himself.  Later Jesus would refer to John the Baptist as the greatest man who ever lived.[3]  Prior to Jesus' ministry, John went throughout the region surrounding the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,[4] that was to be done in preparation for the imminent coming of the LORD.  John, by virtue of his close relationship to God and to Jesus was truly unique among men, and he functioned in every way as a prophet of old.  Consequently, people wondered about him.  Who was he?  As the "forerunner" of Jesus, he continually ministered with the knowledge of the coming Messiah, fully understanding his personal call by God to prepare the people for His coming. 

Because of the nature of John's message, the Jews sent priests and Levites to meet with him.  They were interested to find if John's message is in conflict with the teachings of the temple.  These leaders were hopeful that John's teaching could be found to be inconsistent with the writings of the law and the prophets, so they could bring accusations upon him and ultimately silence him.  Still, for some, their knowledge of the Old Testament prophets engendered a curiosity as to whether a prophet of God had truly come.  It had been over four hundred years since a prophet had spoken.  The people had hoped for a prophet, so the priests and Levites came to make that determination, demanding that he explain himself to them.

John 1:20-23.  And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.  21And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not.  Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.  22Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us.  What sayest thou of thyself? 23He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the LORD, as said the prophet Esaias.

John's uniqueness was well-known, and his power of prophesy (the telling of the message of God) was as none had ever heard of since Elijah and Isaiah.  When he spoke of the things of God, he spoke with a knowledge and authority the people had never heard before.  Consequently, one of the first issues to be settled by the priests and the Levites concerned his identity as the long-awaited Messiah.  John’s response to the question implies that it was thought by some that he was presenting himself in this manner.

The people responded to John's message, many came and were baptized.  John faced many skeptics, but also found many “converts.”  As people heard of this prophet who was preaching around the Jordan, they were curious to know if he was the returning Elijah (vs.  20), the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15,18,  or Isaiah (vs.  23).  It was easier for these (many of whom denied the doctrine of resurrection) to believe that John was a resurrected prophet than it was for them to believe that he was yet another, new, prophet of the LORD.  Many of the people wanted to recognize John for the true prophet that he was and lift him to a high place of honor, and some thought that he was the Messiah Himself.  Though John continued to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness he always made his message clear that he was only a messenger, and that his purpose was to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.  He was emphatic that he was not Isaiah, but his calling had been foretold by Isaiah.[5]    His mission was to be "the Voice" that would announce the coming Messiah.

John 1:24-25.  And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.  25And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? 

We are beginning to observe who the opposition party will be as Jesus starts his ministry.  In addition to the intensive inquiry of the priests and Levites, representatives from the sect of the Pharisees now enter the picture.  Where the priests and Levites are looking for the coming of a new prophet of God, the Pharisees as guardians of the oral law, had a slightly different purpose.  To the Pharisees, their religion and their subsequent influence over the people was fixed upon the authority of the law.  They wanted to know by what authority John preached his message.  The question posed by the Pharisees was far more direct than that of the priests and Levites, when they literally asked, "Since you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, what gives you the right to proclaim the forgiveness of sins."  It was this same question that the Pharisees asked of Jesus when the lame man was healed.[6]  The Pharisees could not conceive of any source for the forgiveness of sins other than through the temple sacrifices (which they controlled), so they set themselves firmly in opposition to John and Jesus at the very beginning of their ministries.

John 1:26-28.  John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; 27He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.  28These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John's ministry consistently pointed the way to the coming Messiah, and on this he never compromised.  The Pharisee's question was one of authority.  John's answer was not as direct as the Pharisees surely wished, as he never actually referred to any authority since he did not exercise any.  John answered that his ministry was simply to invite people to repent and be baptism of water.  Water baptism was not uncommon among the pagan near-eastern cultures of John's day.  Baptism was used as an act of contrition, an act that would serve as a testimony to a decision to change, or to be cleansed.  The authority for John’s baptism came from the heart of the one being baptized since it is a personal testimony, not from John.  As a literal answer to the Pharisee's question, this answer alone was sufficient.  Because of their intense interest, John was able to accurately discern the true motives of the Pharisees, and knew that their concerns ran far deeper than the simple and common act of baptism.  It was John's attachment of the act of baptism to the forgiveness of sin that was unique and challenged the beliefs of the Pharisees.  Note, however, the John did not teach that the baptism itself resulted in forgiveness.  Baptism was simply exercised as a testimony of the baptized that they would repent and, with John, await the coming of the Messiah.  John developed a significant following, and the misunderstanding of John the Baptist's ministry resulted in a small faction of people who followed John alone.  There are a few people groups today who continue that tradition.[7]

Still, John turns to the question of authority that deeply concerns the Pharisees.  Consistent with his message, John told the Pharisees that he is not the one with authority, but one with the authority they seek will follow, one who literally stands now  among them, noting that the One, the Messiah who has the authority to forgive sins has come.  Though venerated as a prophet, John makes it clear that when compared to the one who is to follow, he is not even worthy to be considered his slave.  The authority of the one to follow is so great that John, the prophet, is not worthy to untie his shoes, the most menial of a slave's tasks.

John 1:29.  The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

The connection between the testimony of baptism and the actual forgiveness of sin is found in the person of the Messiah.  John knew Jesus, as they grew up together as cousins.  John appreciated and understood the significance of who Jesus was long before this next day.  When the time had come for Jesus' ministry to begin, John was reluctant to baptize Jesus because of his own humility and his knowledge that Jesus did not need to repent.[8]  Though John did not know the details of how Jesus would provide forgiveness of sins for the people, he fully understood this as Jesus' Messianic mission, and any doubts he had of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah were removed when he baptized Jesus.[9]  So, following that baptism, John introduced Jesus as the "Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world."  

What did John mean by using the metaphor of the Lamb?  John's description of Jesus in this manner would set the stage for the context of Jesus' ministry, and the Lamb metaphor would continue to be used to describe Jesus' atoning act on the cross.  During the early years of Judaism, a lamb was sacrificed to God on the day of atonement.  The lamb's blood was sprinkled on the altar, and on occasion upon the people, to represent their being cleansed from their sin.[10]  The offering that was given to God for the atonement of sin always required the shedding of blood.  Yet, even in the Old Testament, the sin offering was affective only for sins of error.  Sins of choice were not covered by the shedding of the lamb's blood.  This is why King David could not simply sacrifice a lamb and be free of his sins of adultery with Bathsheba or for the murder of her husband, Uriah.

The word used for sin that is used by John the Baptist is the word that refers to all sins, not just sins of error, leading the Pharisees to question him.  Though they did not understand it, the practice of the shedding of the blood of a lamb as an atonement for sins in ancient Israel was simply a sign that pointed to the true purpose of the Messiah.  This metaphor of the Lamb is a common thread throughout the law,[11] the prophets,[12] and as ascribed directly to Jesus in the New Testament.  It would be through Jesus' shed blood on the Cross of Calvary that final and lasting forgiveness for all sin would be found.  This was the purpose for the coming of the Messiah.  Those who were expecting a military messiah were completely missing the point.

John 1:30.  This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me.

As John the Baptist continues to describe who Jesus is to his hearers, he moves from His characterization of the Lamb, to Jesus' preeminent existence.  John, the writer of this text, started the book with the concept of Jesus' omnitemporality, that is, His timelessness, His eternal character.  The Christ, the Messiah, is eternal with no temporal beginning or end.  This prepared John's later description of Jesus as the Son of God.

John 1:31.  And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.

We have no real knowledge of any of the details of the relationship between John and Jesus prior to Jesus' baptism by John, the starting point of Jesus' ministry.  We do know that Mary and Elizabeth were close, so it is likely that the two cousins spent a good deal of time together as they grew.  So, when John states that he did not know Jesus, he is not referring to knowledge of Jesus as a friend or cousin.  John would have known of the unusual circumstances surrounding both conceptions, that of himself, and that of Jesus.  He knew that God had called him to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  However, it is apparent that John did not know for certain that Jesus was the Messiah until Jesus came to John to be baptized.  John saw that his ministry of baptizing was established so that through it Jesus would be made known to Israel.  This was probably a very recent revelation to the Baptist.

John 1:32-33.   And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.  33And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

Though the gospel of John does not cover the details of the baptism of Jesus as is done in the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist refers to the one experience at the baptism that convinced him that Jesus was the Christ.  When Jesus came up out of the water, John saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus.  The metaphor, "as a dove" implies the descent to be gentle and quiet.  It is because of this event that the dove has become an iconic image of the Holy Spirit to many in the Christian church.  When John saw the Holy Spirit come down and dwell (live, abide, or tabernacle) in Jesus, he knew the Messiah had come.  He knew now that the purpose and direction of his ministry would be fulfilled.  Where he immersed people in water in hopes that people would repent, Jesus came to immerse people in the power of the Holy Spirit so people would be saved. 

John 1:34.    And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.

In addition to describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, again identifying him with the one who would save His people from their sins, and with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.  John also referred to Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus is given this title in all four of the gospels.  When we look at the use of this title, we find many examples of sons of God in the Old Testament.  Several people were referred to as sons of God,[13] and the nation of Israel was referred to as a son of God.[14]  However, this title also came to be accepted as the traditional title for the coming Messiah, and it is in this context that John refers to Jesus.[15]  John's close association with the paradigm of the prophets of the Old Testament would point to his use of this title for this latter purpose:  Jesus is clearly identified by John the Baptist as the long-awaited Messiah.  John, the writer of this gospel would also use this title within a context that would illustrate Jesus close relationship with God. 

It might be interesting to note that Jesus did not use this title of himself, but rather used the title, "Son of Man."  It was Jesus' desire, and God's purpose, that His identity as the long-awaited Messiah would become known through the testimony of the faithful, and until the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit in the upper room following Jesus' resurrection,[16] they were often told by Jesus to stay silent concerning His deity.  This contradiction is referred to as the Messianic Paradox.  Jesus came as the Messiah, but did not proclaim that title openly.

The priests, Levites, and Pharisees wanted to know who John was.  John responded by telling them who Jesus is.  As we come to know the person and identity of Jesus it is important that, like the Baptist, we see Jesus as the Lamb of God who was taken like a lamb to the slaughter to save us from our sins, and as the Son of God who has the authority to be our LORD.  It is this two-fold confession of faith in Jesus Christ that separates the lost from the saved for all ages.

John 1:35-37.  Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; 36And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!  37And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

John the Baptist was the first witness to the coming Messiah, and as such was the first evangelist.  When the people came to John they inquired as to his identity, placing him among the most respected prophets, Elijah, The Prophet, and Isaiah.  There was no better company.  It would have been possible and could have been attractive for John to accept this acclamation, and build for himself a huge religious following.  He could have stepped into the spotlight and become known as the greatest of the prophets (which, by the way he was, according to Jesus' own testimony).  We have seen no shortage of modern evangelists who may have started in sincere humility, but fell victim to the notoriety and fame that came from a successful ministry.  Few are like John the Baptist who pointed everyone away from himself to show them the way to Jesus.  Among the school of contemporary evangelists, the Rev. Billy Graham might be an example of one who was able to continue leading people to Jesus rather than bringing them to himself.

Later, when asked by his disciples of whom their loyalties should lie, John made it clear that Jesus is the Christ.  Jesus is the one of whom he feels unworthy to even untie his shoes.

John 3:30-31.  He must increase, but I must decrease.  He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. 

Christians today are called, like John the Baptist to bear witness to Jesus.  The model that John the Baptist sets for us is an excellent one to follow.  He knew from his witness of the descending Holy Spirit at Jesus' baptism the identity of the Christ.  He clearly understood that Jesus was “from above,” whereas he (and every other created human) was from “the earth.”  Christians today did not have the opportunity to witness these events that took place at the beginning of Jesus’ saving ministry, but can believe by faith that what the Bible describes is true.  Like John the Baptist, Christians can bear testimony that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, the only way that sinful man can be forgiven and approach the throne of God, the Savior who will never leave us or forsake us, the Advocate who will defend our case before God, assuring our eternal salvation.  Like John the Baptist, Christians can bear testimony that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God, the one Messiah, the One and only LORD who is given authority over all heaven and earth, who was and is the eternal agent of creation, God's incarnation of Himself, sent to save a lost world.

The gift that God has given to us in Jesus Christ is without measure.  No man deserves this favor of God, but receives it only because of God's great love for every person.  It is only through God's mercy and grace that His love is demonstrated for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, the just for the unjust, that we might find eternal life with God, rather than eternal separation from him.

For this we give God all of the praise, all of the honor, and all of the Glory.  Forever.   

[1] Luke 1:5, ff.

[2] Numbers 6:1-21.

[3] Matthew 11:9-11.

[4] Luke 3:3.

[5] Isaiah 40:3.

[6] Mark 2:5.

[7] C.f., the Sabeans

[8] Matthew 4:14.

[9] John 1:32-33.

[10] Leviticus, Chapters 4 and 5.

[11] Deuteronomy, Chapter 4.

[12] Isaiah, Chapter 53.

[13] Genesis 6:1; Psalm 82:6.

[14] Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1.

[15] 2 Samuel 7:11; Psalm 2:7.

[16] John 20:22.