25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptising, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptise with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptising.
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 baptising 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.”
A. [John 1:29] Separate from sinners
We just have to start with verse 29: The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Not only is it the central verse in the central section of [John 1:1-2:5] His Own Hearing about Jesus and Seeing him for Who he is; but it takes central stage among the other great annunciations about Jesus that map out the doctrine of God’s Son so comprehensively. We have angels announcing his conception and his birth at the beginning before announcing the tomb empty and the expected return of Jesus at the end; between all that we have the voice from heaven that spoke at his baptism and again at the Transfiguration. Uniquely, “Behold, the Lamb of God …” is spoken by a man; and that makes John the Baptist unique among all the followers of Jesus and indeed, singularly honoured among the prophets. So, when John talked about “not [being] worthy to untie the strap of [his]sandal” or repeatedly said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ it wasn’t just self-deprecation. If John was thus unworthy, what does that then make everyone else? Therefore when John spoke in cosmic terms of Jesus “taking away the sin of the world” he was qualified to do so and he was not exaggerating.
So, why a lamb? Lambs are quintessential sacrificial animals and all seven types of sacrifice in Israel are at one place or another referenced to describe the perfect sacrifice and obedience of Jesus Christ. If John was thinking of God himself providing the sacrifice he was probably recalling Abraham’s answer to Isaac in Gen. 22:8 – “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
B. [John 1:30-32] Superior to all followers
It’s quite possible that John’s disciples interpreted his reason for Jesus outranking him — ‘… a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’— to be a matter of age for John was only six months older than Jesus and who could tell which of two thirty year old men was born first just by looking? On the other hand, everything else John was saying about Jesus is so exalted that the cosmic, creational significance of his words could not have been entirely lost to them if they had ears to hear. We need always remember that familiarity with Christian teaching about Jesus can cause us to depreciate the wonder of it but we must stir up a due appreciation of these things because we — in our “Days of Elijah” — are faced with a majority who deny that John’s words could possibly mean that Jesus was the Creator incarnate. (Not to mention a minority who would still pick up stones with murderous intent at “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” [John 8:58].
So why did John baptise with water? The purpose of John’s baptism was so that the unknown Jesus might be revealed to Israel. To John was vouchsafed the initial sight when he baptised Jesus; of the Spirit descending ‘like a dove’ and remaining on him but the beginning of that eyewitness testimony that forms the basis of the revelation happened when Jesus returned to Bethany across the Jordan simply because John was baptising there. If we desire to encounter Jesus it is a good idea to start hearing a sent preacher who is able to proclaim: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
C. [John 1:25-28] The Stranger in the crowd
Was Jesus actually in the crowd when the priests and levites sent by the Pharisees were interrogating John about his credentials? That may well have been the case for the very next day John was making his epochal “Behold, the Lamb of God …” statement when he saw Jesus coming towards him. We know from the other Gospels that Jesus had been Spirit-driven into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil immediately after being baptised and we know from what happened to Moses that a forty-day absence could be long enough to cause even Aaron to stumble. Not John the Baptist, though, not then anyway; whether or not Jesus was actually in the crowd at the otherwise-unknown Bethany across the Jordan or was still being ministered to by angels after his ordeal is immaterial. John knew that the Creator of the world was in the world: a man, as they say, among men. Again, are we losing the wonder, the reality and the relationality of Matt. 18:20 – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” There is no indication that any of that delegation started looking around for Jesus but he would be forced on their attention back in Jerusalem soon enough.
So why were the priests and levites sent by the Pharisees so interested in John and his baptising? Much of the Messianic expectation in “Second Temple” Judaism incorporated speculations about who the four craftsmen of Zechariah 1:20f. might be. It could just be that this delegation of priests and levites — sent by the Pharisees and therefore not Sadducees like the chief priests — were hoping that John would claim to be the Righteous Priest of their expectation so that they could rally to him. But the Gospel doesn’t make that clear if it was the case and anyway the Hellenistically-inclined first readers could not have been expected to recognise such typically Hebraistic convolutions of thought. We, like the first readers would have been able to do should realise that there were many distinct groups who were ready to believe in John — and afterwards in Jesus — as long as it was on their terms.