Sermon Helps

The question put to John the Baptist by the Pharisees in the deputation reflects one of their concerns: Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? Their interest is in what authorizes John’s baptismal practices. It is not that baptism was unknown. Some Jewish groups practiced ‘proselyte baptism’, i.e. proselytes were baptized in the process of converting to Judaism. In the monastic community at Qumram, members invoked passages such as Ezekiel 36:25 to justify their daily baptism, a sign that they were the righteous community of the end-time. But in both instances baptism was self-administered. Candidates baptized themselves. One of the things that characterized the baptism of John the Baptist is that he himself administered it. It may even be that the authority implicit in such an innovative step triggered the assumption in the minds of at least some Pharisees that John’s baptism was an end-time rite administered by an end-time figure with great authority… Looking around for an adequate authority to sanction so extraordinary a practice, they wonder if he is an eschatological figure. And if he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet (principal eschatological figures), then what could possibly justify his baptism? The Synoptic Gospels preserve more details about the scope of John the Baptist’s preaching and the significance of his baptism. Unlike those who held themselves to be adequately related to God by virtue of their descent from Abraham (Mt. 3:9; Lk. 3:8), John insisted that personal and individual repentance and faith were necessary (Mt. 3:1–10; Mk. 1:2–5; Lk. 3:3–14). In this he resembled the Old Testament prophets who sought to call out a holy remnant from the descendants of Abraham, and anticipated Jesus’ insistence that his messianic community would transcend the barriers of race and depend on personal faith and new birth (e.g. Mt. 8:5–12; Jn. 3:1–16). – D.A. Carson

Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29). Every interpreter finds this phrase to be difficult because the words “Lamb of God,” while commonplace in Christian vocabulary, do not appear elsewhere in the New Testament except here and 1:36. The crux is understanding what “Lamb” (Gk. amnos) means. Some suggest that it refers to the Passover sacrifice, which could be a lamb (although this was not necessary). However, this animal was not termed amnos in Greek-speaking Judaism but rather “the pascha.” Since John is keenly interested in seeing Jesus as a Passover victim (see 19:31–36), it would not be unnatural for him to use this concept and language for Jesus. Other suggestions include the sacrificial lamb of Isaiah 53:7 or even the lamb of Genesis 22:8 (provided to Abraham in order to preserve Isaac). John may have been thinking of the triumphant eschatological Lamb of Revelation 5. Another possibility is that John is thinking about the daily temple sacrifices, in which a lamb was offered both morning and evening (Ex. 29:38– 46). But this is uncertain. It is at least clear that for the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifices were memorials of deliverance (esp. Isaac’s deliverance), forgiveness of sin, and messianic salvation.8 It would not be impossible for John to have the Passover lamb in mind in the present context. The chief thing to keep in mind is that here we see Jesus as a gift provided by God to take away sin. As a lamb he becomes a sacrificial animal whose death “carries away” a condition that is prohibited in the presence of God. Since this Gospel highlights the festivals of Judaism, and in particular the Passover, it is not unreasonable to see Passover imagery here as well. – Gary M. Burge

The actual baptism of Jesus isn’t described in this gospel (nor, for that matter, is the Last Supper). The writer seems to assume that we know about it. In fact, throughout this first chapter he seems to assume that his readers are already familiar with a certain amount of the story of Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s writing after the other gospels were written; the stories were well known in the early church long before they reached their present written form. But here, and frequently, John has in mind the larger scene which we know from elsewhere. He doesn’t bother repeating it, because he is keen to draw our attention to its meaning. Here we have the heart of John’s ‘evidence’: Jesus is the one upon whom God’s spirit comes down and rests. And this means that he is the one who will baptize not just with water, like John, but with the holy spirit. Once again, then, John the Baptist points to one of the key things Jesus has come to do. Like Jesus’ death, this will be fulfilled in the last pages of the story. We hear about the spirit intermittently in this gospel, particularly in the remarkable passage 7:37–39, and in the great ‘farewell discourses’ of chapters 14–16. But it’s only in the final scenes that the spirit is given to Jesus’ followers. Only when the lamb has been killed for the world’s sins can the spirit of the living God be poured out on his people. Only when the Temple has been made clean and ready—the Temple of human hearts, polluted by sin and rebellion—can the presence of God come and live there. So, on the evening of the first Easter Day, Jesus breathes on his disciples, giving them his own spirit, his own breath, to be theirs (20:21–23). – N.T. Wright