They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize 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 baptizing. 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.”
Last time we focused on one of John the Baptist’s testimonies about Jesus. He said that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John 1:29: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” This is the best news: The eternal Son of God came into the world not to judge us, but to take away our sin. I hope that you are enjoying this freedom from the guilt of your sin.
Today we focus on another great testimony that John gave about Jesus, namely, that he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John 1:33: “I myself did not know him, but [God] 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.’” That’s our focus today—what is meant by Jesus’ baptizing with the Holy Spirit. Why did John make this part of his message? Of all the things he could have said about Jesus and his ministry, why did he say this? Why is it that saying this is, in fact, a great testimony to Jesus? Why isn’t it mainly a testimony to the Holy Spirit?
A Contrast Between John’s and Jesus’ Baptism
Notice first that John the Gospel-writer sets up a contrast between John’s baptism with water and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit. Let’s watch how he does this. First, verse 31: “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” So John is emphasizing again the great not that is over his life: Not the Christ. Not the prophet. Not Elijah reincarnate. Not the great knower of Jesus. Just a voice saying, Get ready to meet the God of Isaiah 40 in human form. And just a baptizer in mere water so that I can get some people ready to recognize Jesus.
The Spirit Like a Dove
Then verse 32: “And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.’” Amazingly, the Gospel of John does not report the baptism of Jesus. We know from the other Gospels that the decent of the dove happened at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16). But John simply says that the Spirit came like a dove—without mentioning Jesus’ baptism.
Why a dove? The dove was one of the clean animals that you could sacrifice if you were too poor to afford a lamb (Leviticus 5:7). So it stood for purity and lowliness or humility. So, of all the birds that connect heaven and earth by their flying and landing, the dove was the one that seemed the most suitable symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is holy! The Holy Spirit is pure. And the Holy Spirit, we will see in a few minutes, is the most self-effacing (that is, lowly or humble) person of the Trinity.
The Spirit Remained on Jesus
So John’s Gospel omits the baptism of Jesus without a mention in order to focus all attention on one thing: The pure, meek Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and remained on him. Look at that phrase at the end of verse 32: “And it remained on him.” Don’t stumble over the “it” as though the Holy Spirit were a thing and not a person. The “it” is referring to the dove. But in reality it’s the Holy Spirit himself who remains. And we will see plenty of evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person in his own right. A person, not an “it,” came upon Jesus.
The point of stressing that that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and remained on him is that this makes it clear that he can baptize in the Holy Spirit. That’s where John is going. Isn’t it amazing that John the Gospel-writer not only doesn’t report Jesus’ baptism, but he also doesn’t say a word about the meaning of John’s baptism—like that it’s a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4)? He only says that it’s meant to reveal Christ (verse 31). The reason for this lean reporting is that John is riveted on one thing: John-Water vs. Jesus-Spirit.
The Vast Superiority of Jesus
He wants us to feel the vast superiority of Jesus in this contrast. Baptizing with the Spirit and baptizing with water is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. It’s the difference between a person and a painting, between a marriage and a ring, between a birth and a birth certificate, between immersion in water and immersion in God.
So what John is saying in this contrast is what he has been saying all along: I am nothing compared to this one. What I do and what he does are in two radically different categories. I dare not untie his sandals. He was absolutely before me. He ranks infinitely above me. I am the voice. He is the Message. I am the temporary pointer. He’s the eternal Person. I am mere man. He is the God-man.
The Days of the Messiah Are Here!
And the focus of Christ’s superiority in this passage is the fact that he baptizes in the Holy Spirit, while John merely baptizes with water. Why? Why did John choose to mention this here at the beginning of his Gospel? Here is one reason.
The Old Testament makes plain that the long awaited Messiah would be empowered by the Spirit of God and that in his day, the Spirit would be poured out on all his people in wonderful new ways.
The Spirit and God’s Messiah
- Isaiah 11:1–2: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.”
- Isaiah 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
- Isaiah 61:1: (This is the text Jesus quoted about himself in Luke 4:18) “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
This is why God said to John in John in 1:33, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the prophets said it would be this way; so when you see it happen, know that the one who baptizes with the Spirit has come.
The Spirit and God’s People
And the Old Testament described what would happen for the people of the Messiah. For example,
- Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
- Isaiah 44:3: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”
- Ezekiel 36:27: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This is at least part of what would be included in this baptism with the Holy Spirit. So John mentions the Holy Spirit and his coming upon Jesus, and Jesus’ baptizing with the Spirit, to emphasize that the days of the Messiah are here. The long awaited promises are being fulfilled.
What Does Jesus’ Baptism with the Holy Spirit Mean?
So what does it mean? What does John the Gospel-writer have in mind when he tells us what John the Baptist says in verse 33, “This is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”? What does baptism with the Holy Spirit mean?
1) The Holy Spirit Comes Through Jesus
First, it means that from now on—now that God has come in the flesh—the Holy Spirit will come to people through Jesus Christ. The Spirit came upon Jesus and remains upon Jesus, and therefore Jesus is the one who gives the Spirit (John 15:26). The Holy Spirit will not do his redemptive work apart from Jesus. Jesus will be the means by which anyone receives the Spirit. Whatever saving work the Spirit does, he does because of Jesus. The Spirit does not flow like a fluid through the world unattached to Jesus. Everywhere he moves he moves with Jesus and for Jesus. That’s the first thing it means to say that “Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.”
2) Jesus Immerses People in the Spirit
Second, it means that Jesus immerses people in the Spirit. That’s what the word baptize means. There are pictures in the Bible of the Spirit being poured out. But when the idea of baptism (that is, dipping or immersion) is brought in, the point is that the Spirit is poured over us to such an extent that we are enveloped in him.
The point of this image is that the Spirit becomes profoundly and pervasively influential in our lives. When you are immersed in something, it touches you everywhere. So when John says that Jesus is going to baptize with the Spirit, he means that the day is coming when the lives of God’s people will be plunged into the life of the Spirit with profound and pervasive effects.
3) Baptism Signifies All That the Spirit Does for Us
Third, what are those effects? Now here we could let ourselves go straight to the debate about whether the term “baptism with the Spirit” refers to a second blessing in the Christian life sometime after conversion marked by speaking in tongues, or whether it refers to the point of conversion. But I don’t think the way that question is posed will help us yet.
As I have tried to let John define for us what he means by baptism with the Spirit, it seems to me that the term is a broad, overarching one that includes the whole great saving, sanctifying, and empowering work of the Spirit in this age. I don’t think it is a technical term that refers to one part of the Christian life—say conversion, or speaking in tongues, or a bold act of witness. It is the continual, and sometimes extraordinary, outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. It immerses them not just in one or two, but in hundreds of his powerful influences.
In other words, if you are not born again, one way to describe your need is that you need to be baptized with the Spirit. That is, you need to be plunged into God’s Spirit with the effect that you will be born again and come to faith in Christ. If you are born again, but you are languishing in a season of weakness and fear and defeat, one way to describe what you need is to be baptized in the Spirit. That is, you need a fresh outpouring of his Christ-revealing, heart-awakening, sin-defeating, boldness-producing power. Every spiritual need that we have before and after conversion is supplied by Christ immersing us in greater and lesser degrees in the Holy Spirit.
So I don’t take baptism with the Spirit in John as a technical term for one experience of the Christian life, but as a general term for all that the Holy Spirit does for us because of Christ.
Four Effects of the Holy Spirit in Our Lives
Let’s get specific and see from the rest of the Gospel why I think this is the way John saw it. Here is a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel. I’ll mention four effects of the Holy Spirit in our lives. There are more.
1. The Holy Spirit gives new life.
John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life.” How? By causing the new birth. “Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:3, 6). The first great saving effect of being baptized in the Holy Spirit is to be born again.
2. The Holy Spirit makes us not just life-getters, but also life-givers.
John 7:38–39: ““Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit.” The Spirit not only makes us alive; he makes us life-giving. He flows out of you like a brimming spring.
3. The Holy Spirit witnesses to Jesus.
John 15:26: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” We will have much to say about this glorious internal witness of the Spirit to Jesus Christ, but suffice it say for now, that if any of you sees Christ as compellingly worthy and true, it is because of the work of the Spirit in your life. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
4. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus.
John 16:14: “When the Spirit of truth comes . . . He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The all-integrating work of the Holy Spirit is to cause us to see Jesus as magnificent.
The Most Self-Effacing Member of the Trinity
These last two points (3 and 4) give an answer to one of the questions we asked but haven’t quite answered. We asked, Why is it that saying Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit is testimony mainly to Jesus, and not mainly to the Holy Spirit? In other words, why does saying this exalt Jesus and not the Spirit? It could sound like Jesus is just a stepping stone to the really great person, namely, the Spirit—that Jesus is great because he pours out the really great one.
But what have we seen in John 15:26 and 16:14? When the Spirit comes, he will witness to Jesus! When the Spirit comes, he will glorify Jesus! This is why I said at the beginning that the Holy Spirit is the most self-effacing, “humble” person of the Trinity. When he comes, he comes to witness to Christ and to glorify Christ.
Jesus: The Ground and Goal of Baptism in the Spirit
So back to John the Baptist. John says that Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Now we see why that is a great tribute to the greatness of Jesus. It’s not just because Jesus is the ground of all the good that the Spirit does in us and for us. If Jesus were not first the Lamb of God who takes away sin by dying, he could never be the baptizer who gives the Spirit by rising. But he is not just the ground of the Spirit’s work.
Jesus is also the goal of all that the Spirit does in us and for us. He immerses us in the Spirit, and no one else can do it. And then the one in whom he immerses us witnesses back to Jesus and glorifies Jesus. Jesus is the ground and goal of the baptism in the Spirit.
All Things from Jesus and for Jesus
So the ultimate point of John’s testimony is that, under God the Father, all things are from Christ and all things are for Christ, including even the Holy Spirit.
The main reason we need the baptism of the Holy Spirit—the great outpouring of the Spirit, the great immersion of every part of our lives in the Spirit—is because God’s aim in every part of our lives is the glory of Jesus Christ. Is your life magnifying Christ in every part? If not, pray, as I do so often, for a fresh, fuller baptism in the Holy Spirit. O Holy Spirit, come. O risen Christ, for your great name’s sake, grant us a fresh baptism in your Holy Spirit.