Summary: John the Baptist is a great model of Christian ministry - he's willing to direct people away from himself to Jesus. he wants the glory to go to Jesus not himself and points others to Jesus even at his own cost.
I like John the Baptist. He’s such a contrast to the dominant model of the celebrity today. I assume you’ve noticed how important the cult of the celebrity is today. When celebrities speak it’s all about them. It’s just assumed that everyone is interested in what they’re interested in. Whether it’s some prince getting married or a princess having children or Oprah at the Opera house we’re all expected to watch with bated breath for what they’ll do or say next.
John the Baptist was certainly a celebrity. Matthew tells us about him. He appears in the wilderness telling people to repent. He wears “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” This is code: John appears dressed like Elijah. His message is like that of the Old Testament prophets - a call to the nation to turn back to God. He’s clearly a celebrity. But look at the previous section of John 1. When the priests and Levites ask him who he thinks he is, he tells them “I’m not the Messiah.” In an age when there was a rising hope of the coming of the Messiah, John’s arrival must have caused quite a stir. People from the whole region of Judea were going out to him to be baptised as a sign of their repentance. And many would have wondered whether he was the Messiah. But no, he says. I’m not the one. “Well then”, they say, “Are you Elijah?” “No.” “Then who are you?” “I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” he says. A quote from Isaiah of course.
Then when they push him harder for an explanation of what he’s doing, he tells them: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
And not only is John not interested in being looked up to as a celebrity, he knows what his mission in the world is all about. He actively points people away from himself to the real celebrity.
The next day he sees Jesus coming towards him and he says to his disciples: “Look. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about.”
Now remember John is a prophet; one through whom God speaks to his people. And God gives him words to say. It’s unlikely that John fully understood these words. The Lamb of God who takes away sin, might have meant something to him. But the sin of the world? Clearly he’s speaking a word of prophecy given to him by God.
But let’s think about what this name means. What does it mean that Jesus is the Lamb who takes away sin? Is this the lamb that was sent out into the desert on the day of atonement, bearing the sins of the nation? Is it perhaps a reference to the lamb caught in a thicket that God gave Abraham to use for his sacrifice in the place of Isaac? Is it a reference to a guilt offering where an animal is killed as an offering for a person’s guilt before God? Or is it perhaps a reference to Isaiah 53 where the suffering servant, who’s wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, is compared to a lamb that’s led to the slaughter?
Perhaps it’s all of those things. Jesus is the one who has come to take our place; He’s come to die so that we wouldn’t receive the punishment we owe. But notice the second half of what John says: Jesus isn’t just the lamb who takes away the sin of the nation. He’s come to take away the sin of the world. This is an announcement of universal proportions.
And John has a further testimony to add to this name he’s given Jesus. He says he saw something amazing when Jesus came to him to be baptised. As Jesus was coming up out of the water he saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and it remained on him. Up until this point he hadn’t known who it was that he was preparing the way for but now he knows. How? Because God has told him that the one on whom the Spirit will descend and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.
John is clearly a prophet like the Old Testament prophets, but he also understands where that puts him in God’s scheme of things. He’s just a servant, sent to prepare the way for one who’s so much greater than he. The comparison is made clear by the two modes of baptism that he mentions. He baptises with water - a baptism of repentance that lasts until it needs to be done again, whereas Jesus baptises with the Spirit. Jesus’ baptism contains the means by which we can be remade, renewed, enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, changed from the inside, from the heart. And so John has no hesitation in directing his disciples to Jesus.