29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 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.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:29-34 ESV
John the apostle is providing a chronological outline of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, the Word of God, and the light of the world. He is using John the Baptist as a witness to the unique nature of Jesus’ deity and humanity. There had been some speculation among the Jewish religious leaders that John the Baptist might be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, but he put that rumor to rest when he told them, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20 ESV). He declared himself to be the precursor, sent to prepare the way for someone greater, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV).
Now, John fast-forwards to the very next day, when Jesus arrived on the scene in the Judean wilderness. This was likely not the first time that Jesus and John the Baptist had met. In fact, there is a good chance that they had met long before because they were relatives. The Gospel of Luke records the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, when he announced to her that she would conceive and give birth to a child.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” – Luke 1:35-36 ESV
Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, which means there is a good chance that Jesus and John the Baptist knew one another during their childhood and early adulthood. Extended family relationships were important in Jewish life and it only makes sense that the families of Jesus and John the Baptist had spent time together over the years.
Luke provides an important insight into John the Baptist’s background. His father, Zechariah, was a priest. His mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. And when the angel had visited Zechariah to announce that his barren wife was going to give birth, he provided insight into his son’s future role.
“…for he will be great before the Lord.… And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:15-17 ESV
Now, three decades later, the time had come for the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth to fulfill the role he had been destined to play. From this day forward, his relationship with Jesus would be forever changed. No longer would they interact as family members, but John the Baptist would now recognize Jesus as His Messiah and Lord.
When Jesus appeared at the shores of the Jordan River that day, John the Baptist immediately identified Him, not as his relative, but as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). It would appear that John, the author of this gospel account, has compressed the timeline, leaving out some of the details provided in the synoptic gospels. At this point in the story, Jesus had already been baptized by John. Matthew records that encounter.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” – Matthew 3:13-15 ESV
And Matthew goes on to describe the scene that took place as John baptized his relative, Jesus.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17 ESV
This must have been when the light went on and John the Baptist fully recognized the identity of Jesus. He even confessed, “I did not recognize him as the Messiah, but I have been baptizing with water so that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31 NLT). John had been following his divinely ordained instructions, proclaiming the coming kingdom and baptizing all those who would repent of their sins. And while doing God’s will, God’s Son had shown up. But this was something John had been expecting to happen. God had told him, “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33 NLT).
It is unlikely that John fully understood what this message meant, but he had proclaimed it to all those who would listen.
“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” – Mark 1:8 NLT
So, when Jesus showed up asking to be baptized, John had obliged Him, and immediately, the confirmation God had promised occurred. And John the Baptist gives his personal testimony as to what happened.
“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” – John 1:32 ESV
He had been an eye-witness to a miracle. He had seen the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove, just as God had promised. But not only that, he had heard the voice of God, audibly confirming the identity of Jesus.
“This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” – Matthew 3:17 NLT
The witness was fully convinced. From that moment forward, John the Baptist harbored no doubts as to the true identity of Jesus. He was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The image of the sacrificial lamb was a vital part of the Jewish way of life. The offering on an unblemished lamb was and had been an instrumental feature of the Jewish sacrificial system and the means by which they could receive atonement for their sins. John’s statement, “Behold, the Lamb of God” recalls the story of Abraham and Isaac, recorded in the book of Genesis.
God had given Abraham a difficult assignment, designed to test his faith and to teach an invaluable lesson about God’s provision.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” – Genesis 22:2 ESV
Isaac was the son Abraham and Sarah had waited years to receive from God. And now, God was asking Abraham to offer him up as a sacrifice. As Abraham and his unsuspecting son made their way to the land of Moriah, Isaac innocently asked, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7 ESV). And Abraham had responded, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). It is doubtful that Abraham was expressing a belief that God would provide a substitute lamb to take the place of his son. He was simply acknowledging that God had been the one who had made possible the miraculous birth of Isaac to an elderly man and his barren wife.
That Moses believed his son to be the “lamb” God had provided for the sacrifice is made clear by the fact that he bound his son, laid him on the altar, and prepared to follow through with the command. But God intervened. He sent an angel to stay Abraham’s hand and to declare that he had passed the test.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” – Genesis 22:12 ESV
And then, suddenly, God revealed to Abraham the answer to Isaac’s question.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. – Genesis 22:13 ESV
God provided the sacrifice. He offered up a substitute for the life of Isaac. And the momentous nature of this divine act did not escape Abraham. He named the place Jehovah Jireh – “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14 ESV). God had graciously spared the life of Isaac by providing a stand-in or substitute in his place.
And centuries later, John the Baptist recognized that God had sent another substitute, an unblemished Lamb, who would take away the sins of the world. Jehovah had provided a Savior – His own sinless Son.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.