The ancient world had seen many great men: feared leaders like Alexander the Great; judicious lawgivers like Hammurabi; profound thinkers like Socrates; religious leaders like Moses and David. But the greatest of all men lived in obscurity far from the seats of power and influence. He was not educated or wealthy and by his dress identified with the poor. Yet he had one of the most elevated tasks in history–to announce the arrival of the Messiah. John the Baptist was the last Old Testament prophet. Jesus pronounced him the greatest man that had lived before His coming (Matt. 11:11). Let’s look at John the Baptist’s ministry and how it prepared people for the Messiah.
Let’s first see the examination by the Jews (1:19-28). On the first day, a committee (priests and Levites) from the Jewish leaders interrogated John the Baptist. They had every right to investigate, as the custodians of the faith. They quizzed him about his identity, authority and ministry. “Who are you?” John the Baptist confessed that he was called of God, but was not the Christ, nor Elijah–though his boldness and dress were similar. Based on Malachi 3:1 and 4:5, the Jews looked for Elijah to burst upon the scene. John wasn’t Elijah in the literal sense, but according to the angel’s pronouncement to Zacharias, John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). John described himself in the humblest of terms, “A voice, crying in the wilderness” (Isa 40:3). “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Prepare your hearts and lives for the coming Messiah! In the ancient world before a king would enter a city, the roads were straightened, leveled, and paved. The filth and squalor were cleaned up and the beggars were driven away. John was preaching “Do what is necessary to get ready for the Messiah.”
The Jews baptized Gentile proselytes into Judaism, but John baptized Jews! They confessed their sins, admitting they were no better than Gentiles. John explained that his baptism was with water, but the Messiah would baptize with a spiritual baptism. John made it clear he was not starting a new religion or exalting himself but was pointing people to the Savior. Jesus’ ministry would eclipse John’s brief ministry (27). “He was preferred before me” speaks of rank and authority. Jesus is the ultimate authority and John felt unworthy to untie his sandals. John baptized because the Jews needed to repent so they could recognize and serve their Messiah.
But then notice a proclamation by the Baptist (1:29-34). “The next day” is used by the Apostle John to describe each day in this first week leading to the launch of Jesus’ public ministry at Cana (2:1). Faithful to his duty as a herald, and defining this momentous redemptive occasion, John the Baptist called the crowd’s attention to Jesus by exclaiming, “Behold! The Lamb of God of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (29). The question in the Old Testament was “Where is the lamb?” (Gen 22:7). In the Gospels, the emphasis is “Behold the Lamb of God!” After you have trusted Him you sing with the heavenly choir, “Worthy is the Lamb” (Rev 5:12). The people of Israel were familiar with lambs for sacrifice. Each family had to have a Passover lamb. During the year two lambs were sacrificed every day at the Temple. Those lambs could not take away sin, but the Lamb of God could! Those lambs were for Israel, but the Lamb of God would shed His blood for the whole world!
It is generally agreed by scholars of all denominations that the New Testament baptism was by immersion. It pictures the death, burial and resurrection. When John baptized Jesus, it picture his suffering on the cross as the Lamb of God, his burial in the tomb and his resurrection on the third day. When John baptized Jesus, all present heard the Father say, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Then the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove. What a beautiful picture of the Trinity.
Next there was an invitation to become disciples (1:35-51). The phrase “the next day” continued the seven consecutive days leading to the feast of Cana (2:1). John the Baptist again announced that Jesus is the Lamb of God. Two would-be-disciples, Andrew and John, began to follow Jesus. Jesus asked, “What do you seek?” challenging their motive in following Him (38). They didn’t answer Jesus’ question, but asked, “Teacher where are you dwelling?”, looking for an extended interview. “Come and see.” So vividly was this day etched in John’s mind that he remembered it was “the tenth hour” (39). They were so impressed they each brought their brother to Jesus. Wherever you find Andrew in John’s gospel he is bringing someone to Jesus–he was a soul-winner. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon to Cephas (Aramaic for rock) or Peter in Greek. Jesus called Philip and Philip called Nathaniel. Nathaniel had serious doubts that anything good could come of Nazareth (46). Philip used Jesus’ words, “Come and see.” Jesus in his omniscience described Nathaniel’s character as well as where he was meditating when Philip called him. Nathaniel made a clear and bold profession (49). At the end of the fourth day Jesus had six believing men who were his disciples. They did not immediately forsake all and follow Him–that would come later.
John MacArthur summarizes these verses with these insightful words, “Jesus’ call of His first disciples to salvation, pictures the balance of salvation taught throughout scripture. Salvation takes place when seeking souls come in faith to the Savior who has already sought them.”