Chapter 1:29-34 (ESV) - The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Question to consider: What did John mean when he said Jesus was “before” him?
As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the beginning of John’s gospel account paralleled that of Mark, but it provides some details that supplement it. So Mark described Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the witness of God that Jesus was His beloved Son. The apostle John includes John the Baptist’s testimony about why he baptized and what the descending of the Holy Spirit meant concerning Jesus.
We know from the other gospel accounts that Jesus was John’s cousin, that John was six months older than Jesus, that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was close with her cousin Elizabeth, and that Elizabeth knew that Mary miraculously carried in her the promised Messiah. So on the surface, it seems confusing that John would say that he didn’t know this man whom he called the Lamb of God, and that he “was before him.”
I’m sure John was well acquainted with Jesus growing up and what was prophesied concerning Him. From the end of today’s passage, John revealed that someone (presumably an angel) sent him to baptize with water, and that he did so knowing that God’s Anointed One would be revealed to Israel. What sign would be given to reveal the Messiah to Israel? The Holy Spirit would descend on Him and remain.
We know from Matthew that when Jesus showed up, John recognized Him. He knew that Jesus ranked before him, meaning that John was the forerunner, and Jesus was the Anointed One. Because of this, John expected that Jesus would be the one to baptize him and that when He did so, the Holy Spirit would descend on Jesus and remain letting everyone know that Jesus was the Messiah and would be the one to baptize people with “the Holy Spirit and with fire” (see Matthew 3:11). John was taken off guard when Jesus instead told him to baptize Him to “fulfill all righteousness” (see Matthew 3:15). The Holy Spirit descended just as John expected, but what John did not expect was the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus was His beloved and well-pleasing Son.
John proclaimed that Jesus was “before him” to point out the shocking revelation that Jesus was the eternal Son of God. John proclaimed that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” because Jesus submitted to being baptized by John to fulfill all righteousness. All of those who came to John to be baptized left their sins in the Jordan. Jesus was “well-pleasing” to God which meant that He was without sin (think of what God called “very good” in the creation account). God’s perfect Son agreed to be baptized into the dirty, sin-filled waters of the Jordan to fulfill the righteousness of the people who gave Him their sin. He received their sin in order to make atonement for them as the sacrificial Lamb who was sent by God.
John knew Jesus was to be the promised king of David, but once John heard the proclamation of the Father, he realized that Jesus was the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world.
Dear heavenly father, thank You for sending Your Son to be the perfect and holy sacrifice for our sins. Thank You for baptizing us into Christ and continuing to lavish Your Spirit upon us. Help us to remember that we belong to You and have been set free from sin and death. Amen.