19 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.”

This is an interesting interaction that John has with these “religious leaders.” Essentially they ask him, “who the heck are you?” He immediately knows what they are thinking, “I’m not the messiah if that is what you are wondering.” They then begin to consider who he might be (similar to who people think Jesus is in Mark 8:27-30, Elijah, one of the prophets, and ironically John the Baptist). But John said “No, none of these. They responded, “we can’t go back empty-handed, give us some indication of who you are since you are doing these things.” So John replied, “I am the one who prepares the way for Messiah” and thus marks his own ministry as the fulfillment of Isaianic prophecy (Isaiah 40:3).

These religious leaders are no idiots – they immediately call him on his ministry, “why are you baptizing then?” They recognize that there are certain signs that accompany the ministries of those who are legit – if you aren’t Elijah or one of the other prophets or the Messiah, you’ve got no business performing the signs that accompany them. John legitimizes his ministry by saying, “look guys you are squabbling over details that I have no authority to squabble about – there is someone here that you don’t know who is much greater than me – just wait!”

It is important to ask the question, “why did John include this?” Why is this detail about John the Baptizer’s ministry important to John’s (the author) purpose for the book? Why is always a good question when reading the Bible and trying to understand it in context. I think the reason is that this encounter between John & the religious leaders sets the stage for all of the conflict Jesus later has with the religious leaders that wind up opting to kill him. John the Baptist essentially says, “don’t get pissed off at me – I’m just dunking people in water – get pissed off at the one who is greater than me – the one who has authority over me.”

This is further illustrated by what John records in 29-34. John says “Look! There’s the Lamb of God!” John the Baptist shares his rationale for why Jesus is greater than him – because even though he comes after him (historically), Jesus was before him (eternally – go back to John 1:1-5). John immediately recognizes something special about Jesus (it turns out that John was a prophet after all) – the Spirit descended like a dove on him and remained. John recognizes that this Jesus has received a special anointing that is far greater than a sign of water baptism. This is an anointing for him to carry out the mission of “taking away the sins of the world.” This leads John the Baptist to an obvious declaration of who this guy must be – “the son of God.”

And this is where we see the Gospel in this passage. Mere baptism cannot save us. Religion cannot save us. In fact there is one greater than the priest or pastor who oversees the religious ritual. This one who is greater has undergone a baptism of his own and was declared truly righteous. See it is only the “Lamb of God” who can take away the sins of the world. Men will try to atone for sin on their own, but there is only one sacrifice that can completely atone. It takes a Lamb to atone for sin and only a spotless Lamb can atone once-for-all. It is only the Son of God that can truly atone for sin – it is only by the Spirit of God remaining on someone that they can live the life that God requires.

Because Christ was completely human he can adequately represent “the sins of the world” and because he was the Son of God endowed with the Spirit he was able to live the life that God requires. On the one hand Christ paid our debt by being the Lamb and on the other hand he lived the life that we were supposed to live by being spotless, by being the Son of God. The gospel is pretty simple – all we have to do is believe as John the Baptist did. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?