John 1:19–34: The Testimony of John the Baptist, Behold the Lamb of God
In the previous passage John (the author) had given a brief mention of John the Baptist, but in this passage we zoom in on John the Baptist’s ministry. It starts with the Jews sending some priests and Levites out to the desert, where John is ministering, and asking him point blank: “Who are you?” (verse 19). The intent behind the question seems to be whether or not John is claiming to be the Christ/Messiah, because that’s how John answers the question: “I am not the Christ” (verse 20). But this is obviously not good enough for them:
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.” (verses 21–23)
This puzzles them, however, because John is baptizing; they ask how he can be doing that if he’s neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? (See below for my thoughts on this, but they seem to feel that baptism is something that only one of these three men is supposed to be doing.) John doesn’t really answer their question, but he indicates that his baptism is only a precursor to a real baptism, still to come:
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.” (verses 26–27)
This comes to pass the next day, when Jesus arrives to be baptized:
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.” (verses 29–34)
To the modern reader—or at least to me—this passage is somewhat confusing, because it has to do with expectations the Jews had about the Christ/Messiah, Elijah, and “the Prophet,” along with some expectations about what baptism is, and who’s supposed to be doing it. Not only do we not have these same expectations (and we have a proper understanding now about who the Christ was and what He did), but we also use baptism in a very different way (I think) from how these folks were expecting it to work; “baptism” seems to be very tied to some of the Jewish rites about cleansing.
The Christ, Elijah, and the Prophet
This passage focuses on a few people whom the religious leaders are questioning John about: the Christ, Elijah, and the Prophet.
The first two are a bit easier to get my head around:
|The Christ||The Christ (or Messiah) was expected to be a saviour for the Jewish people. Pretty much universally, at this time, people would have understood the Christ/Messiah to be a king who would rule over the Israelites and cast off the yoke of the Romans.|
|Elijah||2 Kings 2:11 indicates that Elijah never actually died, he was just carried up to heaven in a whirlwind. So, given some of the prophecies for the future that were supposed to have included Elijah, some of the Jews seemed to believe that he would return in person, still alive. After all, he’d never died, so he could still come back!|
As for the Prophet, I don’t know who, exactly, he was supposed to be. There was a prediction from Moses in Deuteronomy about a prophet, however, which the ESV Study Bible notes seem to indicate is who the Jews were thinking of:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18)
What’s clear, however, is that John is not claiming to be any of these three men. He is only claiming to be announcing another who is to come after him; he doesn’t explicitly say that it’s the Christ/Messiah who’s coming, and I wonder if even John himself knew the details properly. It’s possible that he didn’t have any clearer of a picture of the Christ/Elijah/the Prophet than others did. At least, not at this point. But he definitely knew someone was coming after him, who would be giving a “real” baptism (if I can put it that way). Which brings us to…
There is obviously some cultural and/or religious significance going on with baptism that I’m not familiar with; the religious leaders sent to question John seem to be of the opinion that only one of the men mentioned above (the Christ, Elijah, or “the Prophet”) should be baptizing anyone, whereas John doesn’t claim to be any of those people. So why is he doing it?
As mentioned—and this will come up again in a future passage—baptism also seems to be somehow intertwined with the religious cleansing rites that the Jews would perform, so it all would have been very confusing at the time.