And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 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?” 23 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.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 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.”
You need to decide whether you are going to listen to John the Baptist’s testimony in this message. Here’s what is at stake. In John 1:33, John said, “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water [namely, God] said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” John the Baptist said, “My testimony about Jesus does not come from what I know about him naturally. It comes from God. God told to say what to say about Jesus.”
You don’t have to believe that, of course. But if you are wrong, you may miss the way of truth and life entirely. I appeal to you to make your judgment on the basis of understanding and not ignorance. There is a lot at stake for you. God has you here for a reason. You can know if John is telling the truth. But in order to know, you need to listen to what he has to say. That is what we will be talking about this week and next week.
A Great, Protruding Root
John the Baptist appears at the beginning of John’s Gospel (and the other Gospels) and then falls to the background because he is a link or a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He is prominent at the beginning of the Gospel because he is part of the roots of the Gospel. The roots of Jesus go back to eternity (John 1:1), and his roots go back to the Old Testament. John is like one of those great tree roots that protrudes above the ground a few feet out from the trunk of the tree.
Over and over we will see in this Gospel that John the writer explains Jesus in terms of the Old Testament. Jesus doesn’t appear on the scene of history without historical preparation. God had been at work in Israel for two thousand years, and even before that, putting in place a historical backdrop that would make Jesus’ life and ministry more intelligible.
John the Baptist is a root partly under ground in the Old Testament and partly exposed in the New Testament. He has a foot in both worlds—a prophet something like Elijah (but not Elijah reincarnate, 1:21) and voice crying that the long-expected Messiah has come.
Three Amazing Testimonies
One of the purposes of John the Baptist’s ministry is to make sure he is not confused with Jesus—and to make sure that Jesus is seen as utterly amazing. John got a running start in verses 6–8 and verse 15, but now in verses 19 and following, he launches with three amazing testimonies that we will look at today.
1) Jesus Is Yahweh Come
He says, first, in verse 23, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” That’s a quote from Isaiah 40:3–5:
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. . . . And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
In other words, in Isaiah “the LORD” (note the all caps in the ESV) refers to Yahweh, Jehovah, the God who is the Creator and Ruler of the world, and the Covenant God of Israel. Now here is John the Baptist saying that he is that voice crying in the wilderness, and the Lord whose way he is preparing is Jesus Christ. That’s his first witness in these verses. The man coming after me is more than anyone ever dreamed. He is the God of the Old Testament—only now he is man as well as God.
2) Jesus Is Superior
Second, when they ask John the Baptist why he is baptizing, he answers in verses 26–27, “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.” We will say more next week, Lord willing, on the meaning of John’s baptizing with water and Jesus’ baptizing “with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).
But for now notice this. They ask why he is baptizing, and he answers simply by saying the one I am preparing for is so superior to me that I am not worthy to untie his sandals. So his second witness is: My baptizing is not about me. It’s about Jesus, and he is infinitely superior to me.
3) Jesus Ranks Before
Third, in verses 29–30, John the Baptist says the main thing about why Jesus, the Lord of glory, has come to earth. “The next day [John] 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.”’”
Verse 30 repeats verse 15: “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’” The point is that John is emphasizing Jesus’ rank. He is absolutely before John. Jesus is from eternity. “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).
And the reason for saying it here is that John wants to underline what it takes for Jesus to be “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” No ordinary human being can be “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Everything he has told us is essential to Jesus being the sin-removing Lamb of God. Jesus is the Lord God of Isaiah 40. Jesus is so infinitely superior to John that John isn’t worthy to untie his sandals. Jesus is absolutely before John and therefore ranks infinitely above him. And because of all this, he can be “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
“Behold the Lamb . . .”
So verse 29 is the highpoint of John’s testimony: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He will repeat it in verses 35–36: “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’” This testimony caused the two disciples of John the Baptist to leave him and become followers of Jesus. That is what John’s witness is supposed to do. That is why he is saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He wants people to leave him and follow the Lamb (see Revelation 14:4).
So the emphasis in John’s witness to Jesus falls on this amazing designation: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And all the other superlatives show what it takes for Jesus to be the Lamb of God who can take away the sin of the world. So John warns us against thinking that any mere man can take away the sin of the world. What Jesus had to do to take away the sin of the world required that he be more than a man. He was the Lord God of Isaiah 40. He was so great that the great John the Baptist was not worthy to untie his sandals. And he was absolutely before John in time and rank.
Taking Humanity to Take Away Sin
In other words, Jesus was able to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world because he was the God-man. The Word became flesh (1:14). And now we see the central reason why: to take away the sin of the world.
When John wrote his first letter, he put it like this in 1 John 3:5: “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” The reason why the Son of God appeared—the reason the Word became flesh—was to take away sin. John is witnessing to the central reason for the incarnation.
A System Pointing Forward
Why did John add in 1 John 3:5, “And in him there was no sin”? Because the lambs that were offered in sacrifice to take away sin in the Old Testament had to be spotless, without blemish. Listen to what the law demanded:
If he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring a female without blemish and lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. . . . And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:32–35)
But every serious believer knew that the blood of animals could not really take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). That whole system was pointing forward to what would happen someday in a final sacrifice for sin. And John is saying: It’s happening now. God is sending his own Lamb into the world to take away sin, once and for all.
The Lamb Without Sin
When Peter, another eyewitness, described how Christ ransomed us, this is the language he used. He said, “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18–20).
How could Jesus be without sin? Every person born in the ordinary way inherited Adam’s sin. That’s why Paul said, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Every man born in the ordinary way is a sinner. And sinners can’t take away the sins of sinners.
Because He Is God
How could Jesus? Because he was not born in the ordinary way. He was not born of two humans. He was the God-man because God ordained that the way the Word would become flesh would through a virgin birth. Remember the way Luke describes his birth:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “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.” (Luke 1:30–35)
Jesus was holy. He was without sin. No original sin. And no active sin in his own behavior. Jesus asks in John 8:46, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” The answer was, No one has ever been able to convict Jesus of sin. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22; cf. Hebrews 4:15; Romans 8:3).
And the reason he was without sin is that he was God. In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14). Everything about Jesus in this Gospel shows how he could be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Two Shocking Meanings
So what does it mean when John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? It meant two shocking things for the Jews—and both of them are relevant for us today.
First, it meant that the God-man would die. And not just die, but die like a lamb dies—be slaughtered (see the Greek sphazō in Revelation 5:6, 9, 12; 13:8). Second, it meant that the whole world would benefit from this and not just Jews. This God-man was the Jewish Messiah (see John 1:41). But his death would take away the sin of the world, not just the sin of Israel.
1) Death and 2) Worldwide Sin-Bearing
He was called the Lamb of God, because he would die. That is why God sent him. And that is why he came. That’s why the Word became flesh. Otherwise, he could not die. And he was God’s Lamb for the world—not just a Jewish lamb for Israel.
Those two truths—death and worldwide sin-bearing—are summed up together in John 11:50–52. The high priest Caiaphas spoke prophetically like this:
“Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
He will die for Jews. But not just for Jews, but for people scattered all over the world. John put it like this in his first letter: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Propitiation means that his death removes the wrath of God because it takes away sin. That’s what propitiation means. The Lamb takes away sin and removes God’s wrath, not just for Jews but for Gentiles scattered among all nations. “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe . . . .” (Revelation 5:9).
No Status Excluded
And we see this precious wrath-removal in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). This means that when John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he doesn’t mean that every person in the world is saved. He means every person in the world—Jew or Gentile—will be saved if they believe in Jesus and follow him. If they believe, their sin has been taken away by the Lamb. If they believe, God’s wrath has been removed by the Lamb.
There is no race, no nationality, no ethnicity, no socio-economic status excluded. To as many as receive him, who believe on his name (John 1:12), their sins are taken away (John 1:29; 1 John 3:5) and the wrath of God is removed (John 3:36; 1 John 2:2) and they are made the children of God (John 1:12) and given eternal life (John 3:16).
Jesus: Our Lamb and Our Lord
Everyone in this room is a sinner deserving of God’s wrath. There is only one way to have your sins taken away and find favor with God—not working for God. Not cleaning up your life first. That comes later. That’s fruit, not root. The one way is believing in Jesus as the glorious Lamb of God. Jesus said in John 8:24, “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Therefore, believe in Jesus as your Lamb and your Lord. And you will say with the apostles, “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).