Willing to See
Sunday School Lesson for September 8, 2002
Background Passage: John 1:19-51
The Identity and Mission of John the Baptist (1:19-23)
Following John’s introduction to Jesus Christ as the divine Word of God, he turns to describe the ministry and witness of John the Baptist in greater detail (cf. Matthew 3:1-17). First, we learn that an official delegation of “Jews” from Jerusalem approached and questioned him regarding his identity and practices. This deputation of Jewish authorities was composed of both “priests and Levites.” The hostile intent of this group is indicated by the use of the term “Jews”—a title typically employed by John to speak of those who were strongly opposed to Christ and the gospel. To this group of officials, John the Baptist “confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ’” (v. 20). Perhaps John’s answer is best understood in light of the fact that first-century Palestine was “rife with Messianic expectations” [Carson, 142]. The title “Christ,” from the Greek word meaning “to anoint,” is equivalent to the Hebrew term masha, the word typically applied to kings and prophets.
This simple reply from the Baptist did not satisfy the priests and Levites, so they intensified their probe. The inquiry “Are you Elijah” was perhaps based upon the promise of Malachi 4:5 as well as the fact that John was dressed in a very peculiar manner (Mark 1:6) which may have brought to mind the appearance of Elijah (Zech. 13:4). While the Baptist may have resembled the prophet Elijah outwardly, “no mere imitation could reproduce the note of judgment and the call to repentance which sounded both in his message and in John’s” [Bruce, 47]. The second question, “Are you the Prophet,” was based upon the words of the Lord to Moses in Duet. 18:15-18. There Yahweh promised to raise up a prophet who would speak His very words. To both questions, the Baptist simply replied “No.”
Having rejected any notions of being another Elijah or the Messiah, John identified himself as the one who was sent to announce the coming of the Messiah in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3—“I am the voice of one calling in the desert . . . .” This announcement from the pages of the Old Testament signaled that the promise of redemption “was now on the eve of its appearance, and it was John’s high honor to be the voice announcing its near approach” [Bruce, 49].
The Identity and Mission of Jesus, the Messiah (1:24-37)
The investigation by the Pharisees—the “separated ones”—continues here with their specific question about John’s ministry of baptism—“Why then do you baptize?” (v. 25). If he were not the Christ Himself, or Elijah, nor the great Prophet, on what authority could he baptize? According to Bruce, this question seems to strongly suggest that the Pharisees, who may have numbered six thousand strong at this time, believed baptism was a rite associated with the end-times that was to be administered by a key eschatological personality. John’s humble reply in verse 26, however, reveals that he possessed a much greater authority for his ministry than the Pharisees could have ever imagined. His ministry of water baptism, as a symbol of true repentance, would prepare the way for the appearance and ministry of “one you do not know.” This One would baptize in a different way (Matt. 3:11) and display an unparalleled authority and power. John saw himself not only as Christ’s representative, but, more significantly, as His salve—one unworthy to even “untie” His “sandals” (v. 27).
Verse 28 indicates that this encounter occurred “at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” This location should not be confused with the Bethany near Jerusalem (the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), but most likely represents an area in northeast Israel. William Hendriksen locates this area about thirteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee and twenty miles to the southeast of Nazareth . Carson observes that this geographic detail cleverly reveals that, for the Apostle John, Jesus was no “regional Messiah” or “parochial preacher” but a Savior and Lord for all of Israel and the world .
According to John the Evangelist, the very “next day” following the encounter with the delegation of Pharisees, the Baptist observed Jesus “coming toward him.” At that moment he announced that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29). The exact background of this messianic title has been the subject of significant debate among biblical authorities. Some see in this phrase a connection to the lamb of Genesis 22:8 in the context of the offering of Isaac by Abraham and subsequently, the paschal lamb of the Levitical regulations (Ex. 12-13). Others find evidence of an apocalyptic or eschatological reference to the lamb of Revelation 7:17. Still others see the lamb of Isaiah 53:7-10 as the background. Whatever might be its actual antecedent, it is difficult to imagine that the Apostle could have employed this title “without thinking of the atoning sacrifice of his resurrected and ascended Savior” [Carson, 150].
Regarding John’s use of the term “world,” it should be noted that this theme of universality is a favorite emphasis in the Fourth Gospel (see 3:16; 4:42; 6:51) and in the epistles (see 1 John 2:2; 4:14). It is Christ alone who “takes away the sin of the world.” The meaning is clear: Jesus Christ is God’s one and only provision for humanity in the darkness of sin and rebellion. Apart from Him there is no salvation for anyone. In addition, His ministry of atonement would embrace the world of sinners without distinction of race, color, socio-economic status, or any other such factor [Bruce, 53; Carson, 151].
In these verses John the Baptist makes two claims regarding the identity of the One he was called to testify on behalf of:
[Ancient Christians] saw in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promises to pour out his Spirit on the coming Davidic king (Is. 11:1ff.), on the Servant of the Lord (Is. 42:1) and on the prophet-figure who announces, “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1). Small wonder, then, that some visible descent of the Spirit on Jesus served as the God-given sign by which the Baptist would know that this was the long-awaited Coming One .
The “next day” following the events recorded in 1:29-34, the Baptist again beheld Jesus “passing by.” As before, he announced to “two of his disciples” the Jesus was the “Lamb of God.” In response, the men left John and immediately “followed Jesus” as His disciples.
One: The fulfillment of the prophetic word—Once again we are led to face the truthfulness of the prophetic word regarding the ministry of the Messiah. Note how specifically Isaiah’s ancient prophecy (40:3), uttered centuries before Christ came to earth, was fulfilled through the ministry of John the Baptist. How does this influence our understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Bible?
Two: The character and humility of John the Baptist—Note how John perfectly executed his role of witness to Christ. What may we glean from his words and action that will aid us in bearing faithful witness to Christ and His kingdom?
Three: The universal scope of Christ’s work of redemption—What is implied by the fact that Christ is identified as the Savior of the world? Hint—Think about the following list:
Four: The radical nature of discipleship—Note how the disciples of John quickly shifted their allegiance to Jesus (1:37). Compare this to Christ’s words in Luke 9:23-26. What are some practical implications for us that grow out these passages?