The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
John 1:29-34 (NIV)
I really love John the Baptizer! You would have to look long and hard to find anybody who was more sold out to the Lord and to His agenda!
Soon after John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, he saw Jesus walking by and clearly and unequivocally identified Him as the one who would give Himself as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the whole world. The Jewish people who were following John would easily have understood that as the meaning of the title “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” even if they really couldn’t comprehend how a man like Jesus was going to be able to pull that off. The people understood that a pure, spotless lamb was a God-chosen sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity. But this whole concept that John was talking about was a little different. When God initially instituted the process of animal sacrifice, the rule was: one sin, one sacrifice. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), so there had to be a death for each sin. But the people quickly realized that if they tried to keep that up, they would quickly run out of animals! And so they eventually “tweaked” the rules, bringing one animal to pay for all of the sins they had committed since their last sacrifice.
But here was Jesus, now proclaimed by John to be God’s sacrificial lamb, able to pay for the sins, not of just one person, but the sin of the whole world! Had I been one of John’s followers, I think I would have been asking for some additional information. And John gave it! He indirectly points to Jesus as God Himself by his statement that Jesus had “surpassed me because He was before me.” Jesus was actually 6 months younger than John in the flesh, so the only way He could have been before John was if John was referring to His existence before He took on flesh. He then identifies Jesus as the very Son of God. It would be impossible for a human being to pay for even his or her own sins, let alone the sins of others. But the Son of God could do the job!
I also find it fascinating that, according to John himself, the key reason that he was sent by God to baptize was so that he would be able to clearly identify Jesus when He appeared. God’s instructions were very clear: “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I can see John now, dunking each person, and then looking around to see if the Holy Spirit is coming down. Nothing. And so he moves on to the next one, always with a sense of anticipation. Finally Jesus comes. John seems to have had some initial discernment that Jesus was more than He appeared to be, because He argued briefly that he, John, needed to be baptized by Jesus, and not the other way around (Matthew 3:13-15). But after John consented, and Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit descended and remained on Jesus, clearly indicating that this was the one that he (and everyone else) had been waiting for!
John also clearly understood that he himself had been given only a preparatory ministry. He would baptize with water, bringing people to the point of repentance, turning their hearts back to God. But this was in anticipation of the greater work of Spirit baptism that Jesus was going to do after He had risen from the dead. John was to prepare the people, Jesus was to receive to Himself the people that John had prepared. John was to lead the people to repentance, Jesus would lead them right on into the kingdom of heaven. John was to clean the outside of the body with water in a symbolic manner, Jesus would clean the hearts of the people with the promised Holy Spirit in a concrete manner.
John was fine being the one to prepare the way. He never tried to grab a little bit of the spotlight for himself. He never seems to have shown any jealousy of Jesus rising acclaim. He knew the part that he had been given to play by heart, and seemed to simply be glad that he had a part to play at all.