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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 4

John the Baptist – the prophet of Jesus

| Martin Charlesworth
John 1:19-34

John's identity is questioned, reflecting views about Messiah. He calls Jesus 'the Lamb of God' referring to the Passover lamb in the Old Testament. Like John, we are to point others to Jesus. The episode ends in Revelation and the future role of the Lamb.

John's identity is questioned, reflecting views about Messiah. He calls Jesus 'the Lamb of God' referring to the Passover lamb in the Old Testament. Like John, we are to point others to Jesus. The episode ends in Revelation and the future role of the Lamb.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 4. This is entitled ‘John the Baptist, the Prophet of Jesus’ and we're going to turn in a moment to John's Gospel chapter 1:19 - 34.

Introduction and Recap

Let's remind ourselves of the context in the story so that we can see how things fit together. In Series 2, Episode 2, I described the baptism of Jesus, having previously mentioned John the Baptist's prophetic message and his baptisms of thousands of people in the River Jordan. Then we discussed the situation of Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil in the last episode, Series 2, Episode 3. We're now moving to John's Gospel because our methodology is to see all the Gospels as a single story and pick up the threads of the story from whichever Gospel is appropriate for the next part of the story. John takes time to tell us more about John the Baptist and what he said to people around the time of his ministry and Jesus' baptism. In fact, the time-frame is slightly after Jesus has been baptised and John the Baptist, as we'll see in this passage, is questioned about who he is and what he's doing; this leads him to explain even more clearly who Jesus is, what his mission is, and how it all fits together.


This is ‘John the Baptist, the Prophet of Jesus’. At the beginning of this passage you will notice that some priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem - also some Pharisees, as we'll see later on in the passage. There's an investigating group that has come down from the Temple and from the religious authorities - the religious council, called the Sanhedrin - the chief priests and the High Priest; they're investigating what's going on down by the River Jordan. They've heard all these rumours of preaching and prophecy, Messiah and baptisms; people confessing all sorts of sins, lots of people going down, and they want to clarify what's going on. There's a note of hostility in the questioning as we'll see in a moment. We're going to read John 1: 19 - 34:

‘Now this was John's testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that (so) he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God's Chosen One.”’

John 1:19-34, NIV

The first question that the enquirers from Jerusalem wanted to work out was ‘Who on earth is John the Baptist?’ They had a system of recognition of rabbis or teachers. Priests had to be from a particular tribe; they had to be trained ;and they had a system of being on duty at certain periods. To become anyone significant in the religious establishment you needed to go through a process of education and training and accreditation by others. John had none of that. He was a nobody - we mentioned this before when we discussed his sudden appearance from the Judean wilderness. He just arrived on the bank of the River Jordan and started speaking out loud, calling on people to repent and change, and telling them the Messiah was coming soon, and calling them to be baptised. He had no credibility, no religious recognition. The system in those days was that you went and checked out people to see what their status was.


The first question they asked was, ‘Are you the Messiah?’ One of their jobs was to interrogate and observe people who claimed to be the Messiah. By the way, there were people like that in Judaism from time to time. They tended to be rabble-rousers; they tended to be people who wanted to pick a fight with the Roman authorities and start a bit of a terrorist campaign - those kinds of people. So they wondered, ‘Is John one of those people? Is he claiming to be the Messiah?’ It's a question they had to ask and he said, ‘No!’ emphatically.

Then they asked him two other questions: ‘Are you Elijah?’ and ‘Are you the Prophet?’ This is very significant: in Judaism, the Old Testament the prophet Elijah was held in very high esteem and there are a number of reasons for this. One of them was the remarkable circumstances recorded in 2 Kings 2 where he didn't die a natural death but he was literally taken up to heaven when he was walking along the road with his colleague and disciple, Elisha, and he just disappeared. He never experienced a natural death and it became traditional in Judaism to suggest that Elijah would reappear in the end times, so to speak. This was fuelled by the prophet Malachi, who in 4: 5 says:

‘“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total (desolation).”’

Malachi 4:5, NIV

‘I'll send Elijah again before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.' That prophetic text was in the mind of the Jews - it's actually the last verse of the Old Testament as we have it - one of the later prophets of Judaism. Elijah was held in special esteem and associated with the last days, the time when the Messiah would appear. It was a very reasonable question for them to say, ‘Are you Elijah who has reappeared?’ and he said, ‘No.’

Then they asked another question which is a bit more mysterious to us, ‘Are you the Prophet?’ Not 'a' prophet, 'the Prophet'. This is a reference to what Moses said in Deuteronomy 18, towards the end of his life, both at verse 15 and verse 18; but I'll read Deuteronomy 18: 18:

‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.’ And then verse 15: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. (and) You must listen to him.’

A prophet like Moses is a tall order, because God spoke to Moses face-to-face in a way that few prophets really could say, on a consistent basis, happened to them. He had what appeared to be a uniquely close relationship with God and an astonishing amount of revelation came. The Jews always anticipated a prophet like Moses of supreme prophetic status, who they tended to call, by this era, the Prophet. That expression appears in the Gospels from time to time - Jesus is asked, ‘Are you the Prophet?’ It's a similar question. In the case of John the Baptist, he says, ‘No, that's not me.’ Acts 3: 22 and 23 tells us that the early Church identified Jesus as fulfilling this role. John is not the Messiah; he's not Elijah; he's not the Prophet - so who on earth is he? How can he describe himself? As we've seen on previous occasions, he goes back to that remarkable passage in Isaiah. He says that he is ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness.’

I'm just going to turn to that passage in Isaiah 40 and just comment on it again. There is a very interesting series of statements made here. There's a sudden change in feeling in Isaiah 40, because it describes a new era in the history of Judaism when the Jewish people will return from an exile they'd experienced, or would be experiencing, in Babylon. So Isaiah 40 is seeing the Jews coming back into the land and seeing God's purposes unfold and it starts in verse 1:

‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.’

Isaiah 40:1-2, NIV

This is a reference to coming back from the punishment of exile. But then it goes straight on, into this particular passage that John quotes:

‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”’

Isaiah 40:3-5, NIV

As the Jews came back from exile, they were coming back into the land God wanted them in, and Isaiah looked forward from that moment, many hundreds of years, and saw that from that land would come this ‘voice in the wilderness’ and that he was that voice. This is the same, as what he said about himself, in the initial description of his ministry which we dealt with in an earlier episode. John - his identity: not the Messiah, not the Prophet, not Elijah; just ‘a voice in the wilderness.’ - the spiritual wilderness, as well as the physical wilderness where he dwelt; the Judean wilderness but spiritual wilderness of Judaism where people were really lost. They didn't really know how to anchor their faith; it had gone dry and stale and frustrated. ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”’ That's what John did: he's opening the door for Jesus.

Jesus - the Lamb of God

The second half of our passage takes us on another step. In the first half, John is talking to these representatives of the Jewish authorities from Jerusalem - answering their questions. But in the second half, a very interesting thing happens: Jesus arrives. The chronology is that Jesus has already been baptised right here, at this very place that this passage is set in. Then, as we recall from our studies, and we dealt with this in the last episode) he went off into the Judean wilderness nearby and was tempted for 40 days and that involved also going up to the city of Jerusalem, to the Temple. That's all in the previous episode, and then he returns to the baptism site. John was staying there for an extended period. In fact, he had disciples there, people coming and going, and it was a kind of area of activity at this place which John describes as Bethany beyond the Jordan. Jesus comes back again, having been baptised only a few weeks earlier. John, when he saw him, said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Here is John, the prophet of Jesus. He's already said previously that he's going to baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire; he's already said that he's not worthy to undo the sandals of Jesus because of his greatness and his holiness and his divine status; but now John specifies his prophecy a little bit further - and this is very important as part of his ministry.

He describes Jesus, and this is the first time this happens in Jesus' life, as the ‘Lamb of God.’ Now, what does that mean? To those who don't know the Bible and the background of the Old Testament it's a very mysterious title, but to the Jews listening it would make a lot of sense. The lamb, the young sheep, was obviously a well known animal in their society used in sacrifices. and, particularly, used in the sacrifice associated with the festival called Passover - which we've referred to already and we'll come back to in other episodes - which celebrated the escape of the Jews from Egypt, the passing-over of the Red Sea from Egypt to the Sinai wilderness and then on to the promised land and the passing-over of God's angel of judgement over the houses of the Jews in Egypt just at that time when they were to escape. They were told to kill a lamb, to place some of the blood on the door-posts and the lintels of their houses, and that that blood would act as protection for them from God's judgement - that it would be a sacrifice for them and enable them to escape shortly afterwards and make their exodus out of the country. This is all told in Exodus 12. The lamb became very significant. Let us read then from Exodus 12: 5 and 6:

‘The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.’

Exodus 12:5-6, NIV

...and then taking the blood 12:13,

‘The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.’

Exodus 12:13, NIV

Hence the concept of Passover. The lamb is a symbol of the sacrificial system and the fact that the blood of the killed animal is considered to have the power to protect and to bring forgiveness. We'll talk more about this in later episodes when we look at the death of Jesus. When John is speaking here and saying, ‘Behold’ or ‘Look, the Lamb of God,’ he's pointing out the fact that Jesus is going to be sacrificed like the lambs of the Passover and, in fact, interestingly enough, Jesus died during the Passover feast in Jerusalem as we'll see when we study the death of Jesus later on. John makes a very clear confession of what the purpose of Jesus' life is.

He also says that he saw the Spirit coming down from heaven as a dove and remaining on Jesus when he was baptised. We saw this in the description in Matthew's Gospel of Jesus' baptism - that the Spirit came down and there was a physical representation of that in the form of a dove. John said, ‘I saw that,’ and he knew what it meant. He then concludes by saying ‘the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit’ He points to the fact that Jesus is going to dispense the Holy Spirit, give the Holy Spirit, to those who follow him and he concludes by saying that ‘I testify that this is God's Chosen One, the Messiah.’


Some reflections as we draw this talk to a conclusion: First of all, John points to Jesus, but that's our job too, so if you're a believer in Jesus and you're listening to this talk, then what John does, on a rather grand scale there, we can do in a small way in our own lives, in our witness, we point to Jesus. It is the Christian witness to direct people towards not ourselves but somebody else. John, unashamedly, said ‘Look, here's the Lamb of God.’ He made it clear and so we too, as Christians, find ways of telling our story, perhaps pointing people to Scripture, if we have the opportunity, maybe to read the Gospels, it's a very good place to start by the way, and to introduce them to Church, to Christian leaders, to other books and resources on the Internet about the faith and to introduce them, perhaps, to teaching material like this. John points to Jesus and all Jesus' followers must follow that example. There's something prophetic about that: we open the door for people when we explain a little bit of what we know.

The second thing I want to draw your attention to here is that underlying this story is an emerging conflict. It doesn't really come to the surface fully on this occasion, but there's something rather sinister about the implication of this questioning group, representatives of the religious authorities - priests, Levites and Pharisees - who came down from Jerusalem to the River Jordan and they were interrogating John. They were, of course, entitled to interrogate him but the religious establishment was suspicious of outsiders and suspicious of anything that threatened the status quo and John was beginning to become a threat. People were drawn to him: his charisma, his prophetic gifts, his dramatic act of baptism, his incredible signposting to the Messiah. Raising people's expectations and pointing them to Jesus was not going down too well in Jerusalem. They liked to have control of the religious situation and they also didn't like to disturb the Roman authorities and create mass public events that could involve the political authorities. John was threatening to do that because of the number of people that were coming down to the Jordan - and the text tells us, in various places in the Gospels, that they were coming down from Jerusalem, in particular. There is a conflict between John and Jesus, and the religious and political establishment. Can I just say, this conflict will continue and develop throughout the Gospel stories and will come to a conclusion when the Jewish religious authorities specifically decide to trap Jesus in his last few days: to get him betrayed by one of his followers; to conduct a show trial; to hand him over to the governor; and to pressurise the governor to have him executed. What starts here is going to end in a huge conflict and a real tragedy at the end of the story. Keep that idea in mind as we continue with our narrative as we go through the story.

The final thing that I want to point out to you, by way of conclusion, is this concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God is something that, as Christians, we should be very excited by - very thrilled by. He is a sacrifice for us. In the same way that those lambs, at the time when the Jews were in Egypt, were sacrificed, and their death meant the life of the people who escaped from that terrible situation. From time to time, the New Testament writers followed on using this similar analogy that John uses here. For example, Paul in 1 Corinthians 5: 7 says this: ‘Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed’ - a statement of historical fact.

With this I conclude: in the book of Revelation, a very remarkable vision in chapter 5: 6 - 10, we're going to read this in just a moment. Chapters 4 and 5 in the book of Revelation are, essentially, opening up for us a vision, for us to see the worship that takes place in the heavenly world right now and in the future. If you read through chapters 4 and 5, you'll find that John the writer (by the way, the same writer of John's Gospel as far as we understand it from the history) is given this insight into what's going on in heaven. Some extraordinary scenes of worship are described. Chapter 5, in particular, focuses on Jesus being worshipped in heaven, having died, been raised again from the dead and then ascended to heaven, as described in Acts 1 and the end of Luke 24, Jesus ascended to heaven and seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. That's how Jesus is today, as I speak, he's in a position of glory and John catches a glimpse of some of this glory. The symbolism of this worship comes back to the metaphor, and the ultimate reality, that Jesus is the Lamb of God. Come with me to Revelation 5: 6 - 10:

‘Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (and) He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God's people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelations 5:6-10, NIV

There's a very important narrative going on here about the scroll which is representing further judgements that God's going to bring on the world and it turns out that Jesus is the one who God the Father gives the authority to enact these judgements before his second coming. That's the context but I don't want to go into that in detail, rather just to focus on this magnificent verse 9

‘with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.’

Revelations 5:9, NIV

John the Baptist could see what was going to happen prophetically; he saw in his mind, the Holy Spirit revealed to him what was going to happen. Jesus was going to die, symbolically being the Lamb of God in a similar way to the lambs of the Exodus period, Exodus 12 as we read in the Passover period. The death of Jesus, John knew when he said he was the Lamb of God, was going to be the key that provided the power to, as it were, purchase or buy people back for God. It paid the price for you and me. Notice the wonderful reality - those people come from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is the story of the Church and it's particularly the story of the Church in recent centuries and very much so now in the first part of the 21st century. This Gospel is reaching every tribe, language, people and nation. Men and women are being purchased for God through what Jesus did on the cross. Therefore, for Christians, this title, the ‘Lamb of God’, is filled with wonderful meaning - meaning that John the Baptist's first hearers could never have had because the events of Jesus' death and resurrection had not yet taken place. John saw it, in the Spirit, as a prophet and he said that Jesus was the Lamb of God - ‘Look at the Lamb of God.’ And that's what we can do today in worship as we reflect on the greatness of Jesus and what he's done for us.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God’? What does this mean? Remember the significance of his death.
  • Discipleship
    1. Take time to thank God that the Gospel is reaching the ends of the earth
    2. What was John’s main role in the Gospel spreading? Think of ways you can be like him.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Read part of Elijah’s story found in 1 Kings 17 - 2 Kings 2. In what ways could John the Baptist be seen to be like Elijah?
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