Born of an elderly couple who had abandoned all hope of ever being parents, John the Baptist’s unusual birth was followed by an unusual life. There was no problem with his family pedigree. The son of a high priest, John was also the cousin of Jesus. In a sense, he actually met Jesus before he was born. Luke tells us that about the experience of his mother, Elizabeth, who at the time was carrying John. Her cousin, Mary, came to visit after learning she was to bear Jesus. Elizabeth shared, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (1:44).
Nothing more is known of John until the time when Christ is ready to begin His earthly ministry. By then, John had made quite a stir among the people of Israel. Taking on the life of an ascetic, he stayed away from the towns and civilized areas, choosing instead to live in the wild wasteland and scrubbrush of Judea. His dress was simplicity itself: a camel hair covering secured by a belt. Nor was his diet any less remarkable, as he survived by eating locusts and honey. Some scholars have tried to say that his diet was a euphemism for something far less objectionable than locusts. However, the considered opinion of the majority is that he ate the insects themselves since they were among the animals that Jews were permitted to eat.
If his appearance, diet and dwelling place set him apart, he apparently was no less striking in his message which hadn’t even a hint of tact or diplomacy. Matthew records that when John saw the religious leaders, he called out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit keeping with repentance. And do not think that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7-10).
Another thing that set John apart was his use of baptism. Baptism was never part of any of the Jewish ceremonies in the Old Testament. In fact, it was in wide use by other religions, especially the Eastern mystery religions. It was adapted over time by the Jews as an initiation rite for Gentiles who converted to Judaism, although even this practice was not universal. John turned the Jewish religious world upside down by insisting that even those born Jews were to go through a rite reserved for converts in order to show the true depth of their repentance. But he never implied that even this was a fully adequate act, stating that “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
His striking appearance, message and methods led a beaten down and hopeful people to speculate whether or not he was the promised Messiah. The universal expectation of the Messiah coming and delivering Israel once and for all from the hands of her oppressors resulted in false messiahs leading and then disappointing thousands. But John was different. He held no sword in his hand. Unlike those who influenced people in his day, he was immune to flattery or the temptation to take power or glory to himself.
In identifying himself he began with a series of denials. He denied that he was the Messiah. And when others speculated that he might be the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet, he as quickly denied that as well. There was a third option that was put forward. Could John be “the Prophet” that the Lord spoke of through Moses? “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among your own brothers. You must listen to Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). But John unreservedly dismissed this as well. He was not the Prophet.
But John did claim something for himself. He found his identity in the words of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. “I am the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). The word for “voice” in the Greek is the same word from which we get the English word for phone. It literally means a sound or a tone. John saw himself, then, as a trumpet blast that sounded the alarm but paled before the true message that was coming.
John further declared that he was to “make straight the way for the Lord” (John 1:23). The roads of the ancient world were largely dual ruts worn that way by the repeated travel of wagons. The portion between was rough and uneven, treacherous for anyone who did not watch his step. But when a king was coming, great effort was made to smooth out the road to make travel better. John said that his job was to act as a common laborer to smooth out the road before the coming King. The road prepared by John was not so they could get to God but so that God could get to them.
When this One came, John said, “I am not worthy to untie the thongs of His sandals” (John 1:26). In using this expression, he perhaps had the teaching of the rabbis in mind who said that a disciple might do anything for his master except untie his sandals. To ask a disciple to do that was considered humiliating, a task left to household slaves as they prepared to wash the feet of the master of the house or his visitors. John said in essence that he was not worthy to perform the lowest task of the lowest slave because of the greatness of this One who was coming.
With all this preliminary work and despite all the pointing that John was doing for the coming Messiah, when the day came he seemed totally unprepared for the moment. And strangely, although there was great curiosity about John there seems to have been no similar curiosity about the One of whom John spoke. As opposition to John rose, those who surrounded him were more focused on attacking him than finding Christ.
It was at Bethany that John met Jesus, the place where tradition said the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land. And rather than at the splendid Temple that was the crown jewel of Jerusalem, it was in the stark wilderness. And there Jesus stood among the crowd, unknown and unrecognized.
When Jesus stepped forward from the crowd and entered the Jordan next to John, in a moment John knew that within arm’s length was the Savior whose presence split history asunder, whose work would force Hell into retreat. John didn’t want to baptize Him, asking instead that he be baptized. But Jesus, fully identifying with the human race, compelled him to do so. It was then that the visible sign of His heavenly anointing appeared. “The Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice from Heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).
It was a couple of days later when John was speaking to his followers that he looked up to see Christ walking by. In prophetic utterance and awed acknowledgement, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The word “look” in the original language signifies an immediate recognition but also a lingering examination. John was seeing someone remarkable and knowing who he was looking at, he could not turn his eyes away.
In calling Him the Lamb, John brought to mind the sacrificial system that God gave to signify the redemption of His people. It was the lamb that was killed every Passover to remind the Israelites that the blood of the lamb on the doorposts in Egypt notified the death angel to leave the family inside untouched by the scourge of death (Exodus 11, 12).
But more than that, his pronouncement spoke of the lamb foreseen by Isaiah when he said that it was Jesus “who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
He was despised and rejected by men
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
Surely He took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered Him stricken by God,
smitten by Him and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted ,
yet He did not open His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so He did not open His mouth. (Isaiah 53:3-7)
The Lamb that takes away the sin of the world banishes it to a place beyond God’s sight, casts it away beyond His remembrance. Augustine wrote, “How weighty must be the blood of the Lamb by whom the world is made, to turn the scale when weighed against the the world.”
Wherever there is a sinner bent beneath the crush of sin, there echoes the cry of John the Baptist: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”