April 7, 2013
I was listening to NPR last week as I was getting ready for the day. They were interviewing a screenwriter who has a new movie coming out. He mentioned to the interviewer that he was brought up as a Catholic and he views himself as a sinner. The radio host was surprised at this, as if viewing one’s self as a sinner were a quaint hang-up from a bygone era, which this young man needed to put behind him.
I was also listening when NPR gave a synopsis of the new Pope’s first Easter message. Their report said that it was basically a message calling for peace all around the world. I thought that maybe the press missed something, so I went online and read the full text of the Pope’s message. While he did mention Jesus’ resurrection (after all, it was Easter!), in the entire message, which millions around the world would either hear or read, the Pope never presented the gospel, that Christ died for sinners so that whoever repents of sin and trusts in Him will have eternal life. He did say that God wants the Good News to enter every heart, but then he told his hearers (huffingtonpost.com, 3/31/2013), “Jesus is risen, there is hope for you, you are no longer in the power of sin, of evil! Love has triumphed, mercy has been victorious!” He made it sound as if Jesus’ resurrection means that everyone has already been freed from the power of sin and can love others.
Those NPR reports show that we live in a world where the notion that we are sinners needing a Savior from God’s judgment is really out of sync. The same idea came through in a tribute that Frank Schaeffer wrote about his late mother, Edith Schaeffer. He said (huffingtonpost.com, 3/30/2013), “Mom first introduced me to a non-retributive loving Lord who did not come to ‘die for us’ to ‘satisfy’ an angry God but came as a friend who ended all cycles of retribution and violence.” Really? Having read many of her books, I can’t imagine Edith Schaeffer approving of that statement. But the statement fits with the spirit of our age.
I share those stories to illustrate that we live in a time when few understand the biblical gospel or the need for that gospel. If we aren’t sinners, then we don’t need a Savior. If God isn’t absolutely holy and just, then we don’t need a Savior who died to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin. If He is “non-retributive” and “loving,” then we don’t need to fear His judgment. All we need is a “friend” who can urge us all to be more loving to each other.
John the Baptist did not preach that kind of message. His message was (Matt. 3:2), “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” His opening line to the religious leaders was (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And his description of Jesus, as reported in John’s Gospel (1:29) was, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” In other words, in contrast to the stories that I just mentioned, John preached that we are all sinners and that we need a Savior to atone for our sin so that we do not face the wrath of God. John pointed people to Jesus as that Savior, and so should we. John’s witness to Jesus tells us that…
To be faithful witnesses, we need to tell people clearly who Jesus is.
From our text’s description of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus we can learn five things about who Jesus is that will help us point others to Him:
John 1:29: “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” That verse is so familiar that it doesn’t shock us, but it should. That was a radical thing for John to say about a young Galilean carpenter to a bunch of Jewish people who for centuries had offered their sacrificial lambs at the temple! “This man is the One whom God has sent to be what all of those thousands of lambs over hundreds of years have symbolized! And He is not only the Lamb that God sent for Israel, but also for the whole world!”
But although the title, “the Lamb of God,” is familiar to us, it is used only here (and in 1:36) to describe Jesus and so scholars debate exactly which lamb John was referring to. In Revelation (5:6, 9, 12; 7:17; 12:11; 13:8; 17:14; 19:7; 21:22-23; 22:1-3), John often refers to Jesus as the Lamb, but he uses a different Greek word. Some think that in our text he was referring to the Passover lamb, whose blood spared the Israelites from the loss of their firstborn (John connects Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:36). It could refer to the lambs that were offered as morning and evening sacrifices at the temple (Exod. 29:36-42). Others say that it refers to the lamb of Isaiah 53:7, who died to bear the sin of many (see Isa. 53:3-12). Or, it could refer to the lamb that God provided as a substitute so that Abraham did not have to sacrifice his “only” son Isaac (Gen. 22:7-13).
Leon Morris is probably correct when he states (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 147), “He used an expression which cannot be confined to any one view. He is making a general allusion to sacrifice.” He adds (p. 148), “All that the ancient sacrifices foreshadowed was perfectly fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ.” J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:55) wrote, “It meant that Christ was the great sacrifice for sin, who was come to make atonement for transgression by His own death upon the cross.” He adds (3:57), “He is describing our Lord’s official character as the great propitiation for sin.”
Let’s consider verse 29 phrase by phrase. We’ve already considered “Lamb.” “The Lamb of God” means that Jesus is the supreme Lamb and the only Lamb that God has provided to take away our sins. There is no other. “Of God” means that God sent Jesus to bear our sins. He is God’s gift to us (John 3:16). “Takes away” signifies “atonement, and that by substitution” (Morris, p. 148). He was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He died so that sinners who trust in Him will not incur God’s judgment. Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself put an end once for all to all of the Jewish sacrifices (Heb. 9:24-10:18). “Takes away” is also in the present tense, signifying the ongoing sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice and the fact that it is available at all times for every sinner who will trust in Him.
“Sin” is singular, heaping together all the trillions of sins in human history into one gigantic pile. It also means that Jesus not only took away the guilt of our many individual sins (1 Pet. 2:24), but also the guilt of the inborn sin that we inherited from Adam (Rom. 5:18). “Of the world” does not mean that Christ paid the penalty for every sinner who has ever lived, because then all would be saved. It refers to people in general, both Jews and Gentiles, not to people without exception. As John puts it (Rev. 5:9), You “purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” “Of the world” also points to the adequacy of Christ’s atonement for any person, no matter how terrible that person’s sins may be. Christ invites all to come to the feast that He has prepared (Luke 14:16-24; Rev. 22:17).
There is one more word in John’s proclamation: “Behold.” It’s a command to look to Jesus. John doesn’t say, “Look at me! I’m a great prophet!” He doesn’t say, “Look at your good works; they will save you.” He doesn’t say, “Look at your religious rituals; they will put you in good stead on judgment day.” He doesn’t say, “Look at your religious heritage or your church attendance.” He says, “Look to the Lamb of God!” Jesus saves sinners who look in faith to Him.
This reminds me of the story of Charles Spurgeon’s conversion. He was 15 years old and both his father and grandfather were pastors. Young Spurgeon had read many solid Puritan books that presented the gospel, but it didn’t get through to him. He agonized over his sins so much that if a 15-year-old did this today, we’d consider him mentally unbalanced!
Then one snowy day, Spurgeon could not get to his normal church, so he turned down a side street and came to a small Primitive Methodist Chapel. There were about 12-15 people there that day. The minister didn’t make it because of the snow, so a man from the church went into the pulpit and began to preach on Isaiah 45:22, which in the King James Version reads, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He began (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:87),
“My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.”
Then he pointed out that the text says, “Look unto Me,” not to yourself. He went on about ten minutes or so telling everyone who Christ was that they were to look to. He seemed to be at the end of his tether when he looked directly at young Spurgeon and said (1:88), “Young man, you look very miserable. And you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” Spurgeon said that he had been waiting to do fifty things, but that word “look” cleared away the clouds. He looked to Christ and the boy who would go on to become the greatest preacher of the 19th century was saved! And you will be saved too, if you look in faith to Jesus, the Lamb that God provided to take away your sins.
I’ve spent the most time on verse 29 because it is the most crucial verse for everyone to understand. I’ll be briefer on the rest.
John 1:30-31: “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” We already considered the first part of this verse when we studied 1:15. As I pointed out then, the phrase, “for He existed before me,” could be translated, “because He was first with respect to me.” We don’t know whether John the Baptist was aware that Jesus was the eternal Son of God in human flesh, but he may have spoken better than he knew. The apostle John came to know that Jesus is the eternal God. In John 8:58, Jesus told the skeptical Jews, “Before Abraham was born, I am,” which clearly refers to His eternality as Yahweh (Exod. 3:14). So verse 30 reinforces both Jesus’ humanity (He was born after John) and His deity (He existed before John).
When John says, “I did not recognize Him” (1:31, 33) he means, “I did not recognize Him as the Messiah and Lamb of God who is to be manifested to Israel until I came baptizing in water.” God had revealed to John that the One on whom he saw the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven would be the Messiah. It’s interesting that John does not report the actual baptism of Jesus, but rather focuses on the purpose of John’s baptism, which was to reveal Jesus to Israel as her Messiah. And our purpose when we have opportunities to talk to others about Jesus should be to let them know that He is eternal God in human flesh, the promised Messiah of Israel, who came as the Lamb of God to bear our sins.
John 1:32: “John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.’” The other gospels (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22) report that this happened when John baptized Jesus. Some argue that because it is said that the Spirit descended as or like a dove, that it wasn’t an actual dove that came down on Jesus. But if that is so, I don’t understand what John and Jesus saw, since the Holy Spirit is invisible. Luke (3:22) says that “the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove.” So there was some visible manifestation of the Spirit that looked like a dove to those who saw it.
The meaning of why the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove is not clear. A rabbinic tradition links the dove with Genesis 1:2, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 153). The dove may point to the gentleness and purity of the Spirit (William Hendriksen, John [Baker Academic], p. 100), but we can’t be sure.
But the Old Testament was clear that the Messiah would be anointed by the Spirit. Isaiah 11:2 states, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 42:1 prophesies, “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.” Or, Isaiah 61:1-2a (which Jesus quoted of Himself, Luke 4:18-19), “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord ….”
Jesus was not destitute of the Holy Spirit before His baptism, but the revelation of the Spirit coming on Jesus and the voice from heaven affirming that Jesus was God’s beloved Son, in whom He was well-pleased, was a revelation of the Trinity at the outset of Jesus’ ministry (Ryle, 3:64). John’s statement that the Spirit “remained upon Him” shows that this was not a temporary arrangement, but that Jesus’ entire ministry would be characterized by the fullness of the Holy Spirit. By living as a man in dependence on the fullness of the Holy Spirit, Jesus showed us how we should live. He is uniquely God’s anointed one (= “Messiah” or “Christ”).
John 1:33: “I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’” John’s baptizing in water, which was symbolic, is contrasted with Jesus’ baptizing in the Holy Spirit, which is the real thing. Jesus promised the disciples that it was to their advantage that He go away so that He could send the Holy Spirit to be with them and to dwell in them (John 14:16-17). That promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and empowered them to bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. This fulfilled several Old Testament prophecies that God would pour out His Spirit on His people in the last days (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-32 [see Acts 2:17-21]).
Since Jesus promised to send the Spirit from the Father (John 15:26), it attests to Jesus’ deity as the eternal Son of God. While all three persons of the Trinity are equally God, there is a hierarchy in which the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit to the Son to carry out the divine plan for the ages.
There is debate among Christians as to whether all believers receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit at conversion or whether we should seek it as a second blessing. J. C. Ryle (3:66) argues that the baptism of the Spirit refers to the Spirit’s imparting new life at the moment of regeneration, and I agree with him. Paul told the carnal Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:13), “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” When God saves us, He imparts new life through the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in us (Rom. 8:9). “Baptism” pictures total identification with Christ and an abundant supply of the Spirit for our every need.
So I think that it’s incorrect to teach that believers should seek to be baptized in the Spirit. But I also think that we’re wrong if we do not continually seek the Spirit’s fullness in greater measure. The baptism of the Spirit is once-for-all, when He imparts new life to us and comes to dwell in us. But the filling of the Holy Spirit is not a once-for-all done deal. We need repeated fillings of the Holy Spirit to resist temptation, to grow in godliness and the fruit of the Spirit, and to bear witness for Christ. I think it was John MacArthur who was asked why we need to be filled with the Spirit over and over again and he said, “Because I leak.” Yes! Finally,
John 1:34, “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” Several early, important manuscripts read, “This is the chosen one of God,” referring to Isaiah 42:1. Because it is less likely that a copyist would have changed the familiar, “Son of God,” to the less familiar, “chosen one of God,” Leon Morris and D. A. Carson think that “chosen one” was the original reading. Both are true of Jesus, of course, but the critical Greek texts and almost all modern translations adopt “Son of God” as original. This is the first of many references in John that “state either explicitly (1:49; 5:25; 10:36; 11;4, 27; 19:7; 20:31) or implicitly (3:16, 17, 18, 35, 36; 5:19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26; 6:40; 14:13; 17:1) that Jesus is the Son of God” (Colin Kruse, John [IVP Academic], p. 84).
While believers are children of God through the new birth, Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He stands in a unique relationship with the Father. The Jews recognized that when Jesus called God His own Father, He was making Himself equal with God (John 5:18). To be faithful witnesses, we must show people that Jesus is the eternal Son of God in human flesh, the Lamb of God who atoned for the sins of all who believe in Him.
Knowing who Jesus is can keep us strong when difficult circumstances may cause us to doubt. Later, when John the Baptist was in prison, he began to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus didn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah that John had envisioned. He probably thought, “If He is the Messiah, then why doesn’t He get me out of prison? Why doesn’t He judge the wicked Herod for his sins?” Jesus answered those doubts by referring to how He fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah 35. He said (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
We need to know for ourselves and then proclaim to our world the good news of who Jesus is and what He came to do. We are sinners and He is God’s only Savior from sin. We dare not compromise those truths to fit in with our adulterous and sinful generation (Mark 8:38).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation