And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.
In the last two messages we have been dealing with the testimony of John the Baptist. I fear that many Christians fail to realize how much God, by the Holy Spirit, committed to His servant John. Many of us think of him as one who had very little gospel light or understanding of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we have already seen that he recognized in the Lord Jesus the preexistent One. He says in verse 15, “He was before me,” and those words are repeated in verse 30. So John recognized in our Lord Jesus One who did not begin to live when He was born here on earth, but One who had life with the Father before He deigned in grace to come down to this world and link His Deity with our humanity, apart from its sin, and be born as Mary’s Child.
If we are to take verses 16-18 as uttered by John, we would have a wonderful unfolding of truth indeed. But it seems much more likely that these words are the Spirit’s commentary through the apostle. They form a parenthesis, and then the record of John begins again in verse 19, “When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?”
Let us consider more fully the parenthetical portion. Out of the fullness of grace manifested in Jesus, we who believe have received abundant supply for every need—even grace for grace, or, as we might read, grace upon grace. It is just one evidence after another of God’s rich grace, as we go on to know and enjoy communion with our blessed Lord, whose ministry was so different from that of Moses, the mediator and messenger of the old covenant. Through him the law was given, and that law was the revelation of the mind of God, according to which men (in Israel) were responsible to walk, until Jesus came. “The law,” says Paul, “was our [child trainer up] to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Now grace and truth have been told out in Jesus, so “we are no longer under [the child trainer]” (v. 25)- We see in Christ the full revelation of the Father: grace and truth manifested in a Man here on earth, and that Man the delight of the Father’s heart. The law, as we have pointed out, was truth, but it was truth without grace. God is light and God is love, so both the holiness, which is according to truth, and the grace, which covers every sin and meets every need, are seen in Jesus. He, the only-begotten Son, ever dwelling in the bosom of the Father, has told out God in all His essential glory. People speak of Jesus leaving the bosom of the Father. But that is not the language of Scripture. The bosom is the place of affection. He never left that. He subsists in the Father’s bosom. When here on earth He was as truly the Object of the Father’s love as when He was in the glory from which He came to redeem us by His atoning death.
If John the Baptist saw all this and spoke these words, then his was a knowledge of Christ far beyond that with which he is generally credited. But if, as seems evident, we have here the Holy Spirit’s later comment, we would not forget that all was true of Jesus even in John’s day.
Let us now follow the Baptist’s further testimony.
He had aroused wonderful interest by his preaching and baptizing. Over all the land of Palestine people were speaking of this strange new prophet who had appeared in the wilderness and was drawing great throngs after him. He sternly rebuked sin and iniquity, called men to a baptism of repentance, and proclaimed the near coming of the kingdom of God on earth. Many believed his message and manifested their faith by taking their place in baptism as those who deserved to die. Everywhere the people were stirred.
The Jews sent some of their important leaders down to Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ” (vv. 19-20). He knew that many were thinking that probably he was the long-promised Messiah who was to bring in the era of peace. But he said, “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Promised One.” They said, “Who are you then? Are you Elias?” Elias, you know, is just the Greek form for the Hebrew word, Elijah. Why did they put that question to him? One who prophesied four hundred years before John came into the world, uttered this prediction, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet… He shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Mai. 4:5-6). And so they said to him, “Are you Elijah? Are you he who was to bring the solemn message warning of judgment?” John says, “No, I am not.” And yet you remember that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when the disciples put the question to Him as to whether Elijah must not first come, answered and said, “Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they [would]” (Mark 9:13). And they understood He spoke of John. He came in the power and spirit of Elijah.
But John denied that he was personally Elijah. He would not direct attention to himself. He had come to occupy people with Another. Then they asked him, “Art thou that prophet?” (v. 21). What did they mean? To whom were they referring? In the book of Deuteronomy it is written that Moses said, “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet… like unto me” (Deut. 18:15). God had said, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, [shall be destroyed]” (vv. 18-19). These words refer to Christ, not to John. So again he disavowed any such claim.
They asked, “Who art thou? … What sayest thou of thyself?” (v. 22). He had not been talking about himself at all. We like to talk about ourselves, but John was not as we. He was not talking about himself. He was not trying to draw people’s attention to himself. He came to occupy them with the coming One. So when they asked, “What sayest thou of thyself?” He replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (v. 23). You cannot see a voice. You can hear it, but you cannot see it. “I am just here as a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”
The fortieth chapter of Isaiah begins with these words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (vv. 1-2). That is, her sins are paid for, referring to the atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so the prophet then proclaims the gospel to comfort the people of God. In verse 3 we read, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Whose way was to be prepared? The way of the Lord. Who was the Lord? “A highway for our God.”
So John spoke in the full recognition of the fact that the One who was coming was God, manifest in the flesh. For when he said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” he used the word that means “Jehovah.” This lowly Man, Jesus of Nazareth who appeared among the people, was none other than Jehovah Himself who came to redeem poor sinners. But let us follow the declaration of Isaiah. “The voice said, Cry.” He asked, “What shall I cry?” and the Lord replied, “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isa. 40:6-8).
“Why,” you say, “there isn’t very much comfort in that.” No, apparently not. But that is always the way God begins to comfort people. Men are so proud and so forgetful of their own sinfulness. Their consciences are so inactive that if God is going to do something for men, He must make them realize their own littleness and their own sinfulness. That is why the apostle Peter linked this passage with the gospel and the new birth. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:24-25). Why do we need to be born again? Because “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and “all flesh is as grass.” Why do we need a new life? Because we are under judgment and this life is soon going to pass away and we must meet God. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Let this word sink into the depths of our souls. Let it rebuke our pride and self-sufficiency. All the glory of man—the things that men are most delighted with—is just like the flower that is soon gone. How we need life from God! “He that hath the Son hath life” (1 John 5:12).
And so, John sees in this fortieth chapter of Isaiah a prophecy referring to himself. He says, “This is who I am. Simply a voice crying in the wilderness.” They which were sent were of the Pharisees, and they continued questioning. They were not satisfied. They just went on from one question to the other and did not stop to consider the answers. They were not interested in learning the truth of God. They started questioning him along another line. “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?” (v. 25). John did not attempt to defend himself or explain to them, for he knew their unbelieving attitude. He simply said, “I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (vv. 26-27). Apparently with that, these Pharisees went their way. They had no real interest in this matter that was exercising the minds and consciences of others.
But now in the next statement of the passage we find John giving utterance to one of the greatest truths of the gospel. “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him” (v. 29a). No doubt he had often looked out over that great throng and mused, “I wonder if He is here yet. I wonder if the time for Him to be manifested has come.” But day after day there was no answering voice to his heart’s question. But now he sees Jesus coming toward him and the Spirit of God says, “There He is, John,” and John immediately exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, which [beareth] away the sin of the world” (v. 29b).
Have you ever thought what must have been involved in that? All down through the centuries Israel had known of the sacrificed lamb. They knew that long years ago when Abraham and Isaac were going up the mountain, Isaac turned to his father and said, “Father, here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” And then they knew that when Israel was about to come out of Egypt God said, “You are to take a lamb and kill it and sprinkle the blood. The death angel is going through Egypt at midnight, but when he sees the blood he will pass over you.” And they knew that in the temple service, every morning and every evening a lamb was placed upon the altar for a burnt offering. Isaiah had prophesied of the One who would be led as a lamb to the slaughter, in order to become the sacrifice for sins. At last He had come of whom the prophets had spoken, and John exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which [beareth] away the sin of the world”! He recognized in Jesus the object of all prophetic testimony and the fulfillment of all the types of the law. Notice how he dwells on the vicarious atonement: “Behold the Lamb of God, which [beareth] away the sin of the world.” He knew that in Isaiah 53 it was written of the Lamb of God, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (v. 5). At last He had come in accordance with the Word of God!
And you will notice this. He does not say merely “sins.” It is sin, in the singular. I think that you will find that when people attempt to quote this verse they generally say sins. Sins are only the effect of a cause, and the Lamb of God came, not only to take away the individual’s sins, but to take away or deal with the sin question as a whole. The apostle Paul said, “ [God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). He is not only the bearer of our transgressions, He not only atoned for all our acts of sin, but He died for what we are as sinners by nature. And let me say something to you that may make you think you can never trust me again: “I have been guilty of many sins that I have had to go to God and confess, and I know those sins have all been forgiven. But I am a worse man than anything I have ever done!” Would you like to trust me now? I mean this. Within this heart of mine there are tendencies to sin that are worse than any act of sin I have ever committed. This is true of us all. We are sinners by nature. Sin dwells in us. Christ died to put away sin, not merely sins, by the sacrifice of Himself. We have in us that thing which God calls “sin in the flesh.” God took all that into account when Christ hung on the cross. He died because of what we were. He took our place. He was made sin for us, and sin, as a barrier, was taken away. Now the vilest sinner can come into the presence of God and find forgiveness. Do you know this “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”?
Then John says, “This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not” (vv. 30-31a). Evidently he had been out in company where Jesus was, but he did not understand that this was the Messiah until now. He “knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove”—you see this event takes place after the baptism, which is not referred to here, but is mentioned in other Gospels—”I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” (vv. 31-33). The great work that John was sent to do was nearing an end. Now here is the climax: “I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Did John really know that? Yes, he did—“I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God” (v. 34). Do you know that, dear friend? Have you trusted Him for yourself? Oh, if you have never trusted Him before, won’t you come to God, owning your sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”