John 1:19-34, The Lamb and the Dove

[January 9, 2011] Today we consider the baptism of our Lord from the point of view of the Gospel according to John. We will, however, be guided by the gospel itself rather than the particular interest that we bring to it. The passage we are considering is the beginning of the narrative in John, coming immediately after the prologue. John the Baptist is the actor on the stage but the passage centers around Another, the One coming after John who is greater than John because He was before John. The passage begins with the one who baptizes in (en) water and ends with the One who baptizes in (en) the Holy Spirit. It can be divided in three:

  • 1:19-28—Who is John who baptizes in water—or rather, who is he not?
  • 1:29-31—Who is the Lamb of God?
  • 1:32-34—This One also is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.
Who Is John? (John 1:19-28)

The prologue announced John to us as sent from God to testify concerning the Light that all might believe through him. He was not the Light but came that he might testify concerning the Light (1:6-8). John’s testimony was that though this One would come to the public’s notice after John, He was already ahead of John because He was before him (1:15). John says this in 1:30. In 1:27 John says concerning the One coming after him: “The thong of His sandal I am not worthy to untie.” When John says this One is “ahead” of him, he not only means that this One has first place. The word “ahead” of him literally means “in front” of him, that is, before his eyes. When John says this One is “before” him, the word means “earlier than,” prior to or first. The One who will come onto the historical stage after John is the One on whom John’s eyes are set—the One who is in John’s vision—because He already existed before John was born (even though John was born first). The Gospel according to John is alluding to Christ’s pre-existence; He is the One who was before all things, indeed, who was “in the beginning.” The testimony of John is to the One who corresponds to his inner vision. John “sees” Jesus as the One who was “in the beginning.” So already, his testimony is not merely to One whom he has only seen with his physical eyes but to the One whom he recognizes on the basis of what God has revealed to him. We keep this in mind when we read the words, “This is the testimony of John” in verse 19.

The priests and Levites who come to John from Jerusalem are experts who come to investigate his claims on behalf of those who are supposed to be the leaders of Israel—the Temple authorities. By baptizing people John seems to presume authority of his own. Who does he claim to be? They ask him if he is the Christ, or Elijah or the Prophet. On the basis of the then current theories among the Jews, all three of these are messianic figures, persons whom they were expecting at the end of the age to bring in the new age of the Kingdom of God. “Christ” alludes to a royal figure, a king like David. Elijah seems to refer to a priestly figure. This is not obvious to us but people then identified the coming Elijah as a high priest. They associated him with Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron (linking Numbers 25:13 with Malachi 2:4-7; 3:1 and 3:23-24/4:5-6). The Prophet probably refers to Deuteronomy 18:15-19, the prophet like Moses. So these investigators seem to be asking John if he claimed to be the Messianic King, the Messianic High Priest, or the Messianic Prophet, all three being ones whom the people were expecting at the end of the age. The One who IS coming, our Lord Jesus, is actually—as the New Testament understands Him—all three: a King, Priest and Prophet. As such He fulfills the type that each of these roles represented, and perhaps this is hinted at here, for the investigators want to know if the one whom John claims to be is the One whom the believing reader knows came as our Lord Jesus. 

John impatiently answers them, more crisply each time, “I am not the Christ,” “I am not,” “No.”

Why then does he baptize? they want to know, for they correctly recognize that baptism is meant to prepare those who are baptized for the ushering in of the new age, the Kingdom of God.

John’s answer is that he is merely preparing people for the One who is to come. In comparison he is less than a slave in status, for he is not even worthy enough to untie the thong of His sandal. He does not say it here (it waits for verse 33), but he alludes to a similar comparison: “I baptize in water” but what is that compared to the baptism the Coming One will bring the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The word “baptize” means to dip or immerse or dunk, as when one washes their hands or dips a cloth in a dye. The element in one case is water; in the other case, the Holy Spirit. The prophets predicted that the Holy Spirit would be poured out at the end of the age, before the final judgment of the Day of the Lord.

So who then is John? He is merely a “voice,” the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as we read in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40. He is merely a voice, nothing more: a voice that tells people to prepare for Another, to make straight the way for Him to come. Isaiah and the Psalms expect the coming of God. The road that He must travel to reach His people is interior. What it takes to prepare this “road” is repentance, “Make straight the way of God within.” The word the New Testament uses for repentance is meta-noia: to change the mind (mind is nous). It is the mind—the attentive or focusing faculty—that must be straightened for the heart to be prepared. This is John’s role—to direct everyone’s attention to Another, not to himself.

A message is hinted at here at the very beginning of this gospel. Both in the prologue and here, and again in chapter 3 John the Baptist functions as the witness who directs our attention to Jesus. The gospel does not call him John the Baptist but simply John, which is striking since the first readers of the gospel knew that the author of the gospel was also named John. The message, I believe (I follow Karl Barth on this), is that the author of the gospel—and by extension the gospel itself—plays an analogous role to John the Baptist. Just as John the Baptist only bears witness to Jesus, but does indeed bear witness to Him, the Gospel according to John does the same. It is the eyewitness testimony to Jesus, not in the mundane sense of merely a reporter of facts, but in the sense of one who, having physically seen Him, has “beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father,” just as the Baptist had before his eyes Him who was before—prior to—him. John indeed saw Him as a mundane witness but with eyes that saw through to the reality of who Jesus is. He saw not only with the eye of flesh but with the eye of spirit, yet not one without the other. The divine became flesh. He saw both the divinity and the flesh; the flesh of this One was divine: in beholding the flesh of our Lord Jesus, he also beheld His glory.

The author of the gospel then is telling us that the gospel itself is his testimony to Jesus. It does not succeed in its purpose unless our inner eyes are open to see Jesus. It is not the text itself but the reality to which it bears witness. Yet in doing so, the text actually has this role and therefore cannot be dismissed as of no consequence. This is likewise the role of all Scripture. In itself it is only “flesh,” but this flesh is the bearer of revelation and therefore it is more than “flesh.” Nevertheless, just as the flesh of Jesus seen only with the eye of flesh, the “historical” Jesus so to speak, is not the revelation of God—else Caiaphas and Pilate would have been enlightened by it, so the text of Scripture waits for the listener (or reader) to behold it with the eye of spirit. In this way, the Scripture is sacramental. It points to a reality other than itself yet it nevertheless participates in that reality.

The gospel writer John, however, is simply establishing in the beginning of his gospel that it too is only the testimony to Jesus and functions, like the Baptist, only to bring us to the Light that we might see it and believe.

The Lamb of God (1:29-31)

An example of John’s (both Johns) role is in verse 29, when the Baptist says, “Behold,” thus directing our attention to Him, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John came baptizing in water in order that He might be manifested to Israel. That is the role of John the Baptist, to point Israel to Jesus, to escort Him onto the stage and introduce Him to the people.

Yet John himself did not know that Jesus was the Coming One until God revealed it to him by anointing Jesus with the eschatological Spirit. This tells us that it is not enough to simply know Jesus as an historical figure—to know Him with the “eye of flesh.” We need to have our eyes opened by God to see who Jesus really is. In John’s case, he saw inwardly first who Jesus was before he recognized that Jesus was this One. “This is He of whom I said …” He proclaimed His coming on the basis of this inward vision before he realized that this One was Jesus.

But who is this One? John tells us He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “In ancient Israel the lamb and sheep were the principal animals of sacrifice. Thus the term ‘lamb’ usually occurs in sacrificial contexts” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, 1986, under “Lamb”). A lamb was offered every morning and evening; two additional lambs were sacrificed every Sabbath day. They were used for the sin offering, for purification and cleansing and for the dedication of an altar. A lamb was also sacrificed on the new moon, at the Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths, and especially on each of the days of the Passover.

To say that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” alludes to all of these, especially the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; see Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7). He is the sacrificial Lamb that is the basis of our relationship to God. His death redeems us and feeds us.

He is also that which we offer to God in our praise and the holiness of our lives. God wants us to offer Christ to Him: in Him alone do we become worthy (holy) enough—crucified and risen with Him (as alive from the dead and thus as living sacrifices)—to be offered to God.

He is also the Lamb in the Book of the Revelation, the Lamb (freshly slain) who is worthy to sit on the throne of God and take the scroll and to open its seals. As the Lamb of God He executes the new covenant and, overcoming the enemies of God, establishes God’s Kingdom. In view of the connection between the Book of the Revelation and the Gospel according to John, this identification should not be overlooked.

“Who takes away the sin of the world” refers to more than just forgiveness. If it only referred to forgiveness the word “sin” would be plural. It does not therefore mean that His sacrificial death causes everyone’s sins to be forgiven. This, the Scriptures does not teach. His atonement is limited. The fact that the word is singular means that the Lamb takes away the whole problem of sin. He overcomes the hostility to God that sin is. This corresponds to the Lamb in the Book of the Revelation. Jesus solves the problem of sin and eventually His sacrificial death will overcome the rebellion of the world.

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is depicted as One “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers” (53:7). In the New Testament this image is alluded to (Acts 8:32; see 1 Peter 1:19). Jesus identified Himself with the Servant in Matthew 12:18. The word for “Child” in Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27 and 30 also means “Servant” and probably alludes to the same. Isaiah 53:10 says that He makes Himself an offering for sin. It is this Sin Offering that purifies the people of Israel whose idolatry in the days of the first Temple brought them into ruin. Through it Israel will be redeemed when He comes again in glory.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The Gospel calls us to “behold” the Lamb of God who solves the problem of our sins and our sin, both its guilt and its power over us and its dominion over the human race. This refers to Jesus’ death. It is essentially negative but nonetheless necessary. Without it, the coming of the Holy Spirit is irrelevant. For unless we are purified of the stain of sin—its guilt—the Holy Spirit cannot enter us. This stain is existential, not psychological. Psychological guilt does not help us unless it alerts us to our existential guilt in the sight of God. Often our psychological guilt misses the mark, and it is almost always problematic. However, it may alert us to our real guilt, to our spiritual alienation from God and soulish rebellion against God. The blood of Christ immediately removes our alienation from God and we can—and should—enjoy this as soon as we believe. The removal of our rebellion is another story. The process begins the moment we believe, but the soul must die before it can be saved, and this takes a long time. It requires, in fact, the presence of the resurrected Christ dwelling in us through the in-spiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Heavenly Dove (1:32-34)

John did not “know” Him—who He really is, not just in the flesh apart from His whole reality—until he saw the sign that God gave him: “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending and abiding upon Him, this is He who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” John did. He beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He abode upon Him. By this sign John “saw” that Jesus is the Son of God. This—the descent of the Holy Spirit—was the proof that meant that—that He is the Son of God.

The word “Christ” means Anointed One. It was at His baptism that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became the Christ, for it was at that moment that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit. In Luke this anointing equipped Jesus for His ministry. Though Jesus as the Son of God was indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the Person of the Holy Spirit was (is!) indwelt by Him—in His divinity and humanity—the Holy Spirit came upon Him in His kenosis (self-emptying), upon His human nature as a power so that He could carry out His ministry in complete dependence on God. It was not by any supernatural power of His own but by the transcendent power of God that He performed signs and miracles and works. He did not rely on Himself but on the Father. While the Gospel according to Luke emphasizes this power for mission, the Gospel according to John emphasizes His Sonship: that in everything He did, it was the Father who acted through Him. His Sonship however was hidden in His humanity. He performed His works through the Holy Spirit “upon” Him. Therefore it requires an act of God for a person to see through His hiddenness, to have revealed to him or her that Jesus is the Son of God.

When John looked at Christ he did not see a literal lamb, but he did see a literal dove descending on Him. Doves are often sacrificial and often are the only offering that the poor can afford.

In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God broods over the waters, and Rabbi Ben Zoma, a contemporary of the apostles, quoted a rabbinic tradition that the Spirit of God brooded like a dove brooding over her young (ISBE). In the story of the flood, Noah releases threes doves in seven-day intervals after sending out a raven. The first dove returns with nothing, the second returns with an olive leaf (a symbol of new life), and the third does not return, symbolizing that earth is again habitable. Doves are migratory birds that know the time of return (Jeremiah 8:7) and the sound of their cooing is the harbinger of spring (Song of Songs 2:12). In all these images, doves are associated with new life and new creation.

They also have a homing instinct that inspired the prophets to use them to symbolize God’s returning to His people (see Hosea 11:11; and Isaiah 60:8).

 Jesus associates doves with innocence, simplicity and purity (Matthew 10:16). Doves are also associated with harmlessness, and gentleness. Also with the association of longing, the dove and the dove’s eyes are terms of endearment (Song 1:15; 2:14; 4:1; 5:2, 12; 6:9). They are shy creatures that hide in the recesses of cliffs and clefts of rocks (see Song of Songs 2:14; Jeremiah 48:28; Ezekiel 7:16).

All these are probably connoted in the dove that descended upon Jesus. The dove’s homing instinct brought it to Jesus (“This One is My Son, the Beloved”) and there the dove remained (abode), at home in Jesus. Jesus’ own purity and innocence corresponded to the dove’s nature and thus He was “safe” for the dove; the dove could overcome its shyness and make its home upon Him, hiding in Him as it were. The dove also brooded over Him as the firstborn of the new creation, for through His resurrection the new creation would come into being. Through His life and passion the new creation would be brought to birth like a Child (John 16:21).

Most important, however, for the Gospel according to John, is that this sign signified that Jesus was the One who in His resurrection would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. Though in Luke-Acts, the baptism in the Holy Spirit denotes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church on the day of Pentecost, in John the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit is the One who breathes into His disciples—into all who believe into Him—the Holy Spirit so that He Himself may dwell in them. This—His dwelling in us after His resurrection—is the climax of the entire Gospel according to John. It is why He has come and presented Himself as Life and it is the subject of His long talk with His disciples in John 14—16. He who is able to dwell in us because He has passed through death—as the Lamb of God—is the One who proves Himself to be the eternal Son of God, He who was from the beginning, or rather, who was in the beginning God with and toward God.

Here then, John, the gospel writer, introduces Jesus in His twofold role as the Lamb of God and the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, the one negative and the other positive, the one making way for the other. These two sides are brought out fully in the Gospel according to John.

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