John Focuses Attention on Jesus (John 1:19-37)

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In Jerusalem, John’s preaching raised concerns among the Pharisees. Probably because John was the son of a priest and therefore himself a priest in the Aaronic line of the tribe of Levi, the Pharisees sent a delegation of priests and Levites to question him. Arriving at Bethany on the east side of the Jordan, where John was then baptizing, they asked him, “Who are you?” This question implied that they wanted to know on whose authority he was acting and what basis he had for his activity. In response, John told them he was not the Christ. Answering their other questions, he said that he was neither Elijah nor “the prophet.” (John 1:19-21, 24, 28)

Although John did the work of the foretold Elijah, he was not the Elijah who had lived centuries earlier and whom the questioners expected to return literally. Seemingly, they also believed that “the prophet” greater than Moses would appear before the coming of the Messiah. (Deuteronomy 18:18, 19) That “prophet,” however, proved to be the one for whom John was preparing the way.

Wanting a specific answer from John, an answer they could relate to those who had sent them, they again raised the question, “Who are you?” Referring to the words of Isaiah (40:6), John identified himself, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord.” The delegation then asked why he was baptizing if he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. John’s reply focused on the greatness of the one to come and before whom he was preparing the way, “I baptize in water. In your midst, one is standing whom you do not know. [As for] the one coming after me, I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandal.” (John 1:21-27)

The next day, after the interchange with the questioners from Jerusalem, John saw Jesus (after his return from the wilderness) approaching and then said to those within hearing distance, “See, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) This identification suggested that Jesus, like the lambs offered daily at the temple, would die sacrificially for the sins of mankind.

Stressing the greatness of Jesus, John called attention to what he had said earlier. “This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who comes to be ahead of me, because he was before me.’” John thus revealed that Jesus would surpass him and, in relation to time, had priority. He already “was” before John’s birth. (John 1:30)

John acknowledged that he did not know Jesus in the manner that he then could identify him but did baptizing so that he would be revealed to Israel. Before John started his activity of calling the people to repentance and baptizing, God had revealed to him that the one upon whom he would see the spirit descending and remaining would be the one who would baptize with holy spirit. As he did see the spirit coming down like a dove from heaven and remaining on Jesus, John testified, “This is the Son of God.” (John 1:31-34)

The next day Jesus again went to the area where John was baptizing. At the time, John was standing with two of his disciples. Seeing Jesus walking, he said to them, “See, the Lamb of God!” This prompted the two disciples to leave and head toward Jesus. (John 1:35-37)


The location of Bethany on the east side of the Jordan, where John did baptizing, is unknown.

After the laws respecting becoming a Jewish proselyte were codified, a man had to submit to circumcision and, after the wound healed, to immerse himself in water in the presence of witnesses. The immersion served as a cleansing ceremony. Whether the practice existed when John the Baptist began his activity cannot be established with certainty. At any rate, John’s baptism for repentant Israelites was different. He did the baptizing, and it was not an arrangement for non-Jews.

The prophecy of Ezekiel indicated that God would cleanse the Israelites by sprinkling clean water upon them and then would put his spirit upon them. (Ezekiel 36:25-27) Zechariah’s prophecy (13:1) pointed to the time when God would open a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness. Such prophecies may well have given rise to the expectation of the coming of one who would act as the agent to carry out God’s work of cleansing by means of water, and the Jews would understandably have concluded that this one would be an extraordinary personage—the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet like Moses.

The example of John the Baptist as a true prophet, in focusing on Jesus Christ (and not himself), contrasts sharply with the kind of self-promotion often carried on in denominational and nondenominational churches or various movements professing to be Christian. Such self-promotion and the kind of claims made respecting the importance of the church or the movement not infrequently are more prominent features than is emphasis on Christ’s important role as the only one through whom a relationship with the Father is possible.