In our examination of the witnesses of Jesus the Messiah, the first witness in the fourth gospel John the Baptist. His words can be found in John 1:6-8 of the prologue, presenting Jesus as the light. This testimony is powerful and emphatic as well as prophetic in the sense that it foretells the purpose of Jesus and His messianic mission to forgive sin and deliver salvation. John the Baptist, an iconic New Testament figure, was the first to declare Jesus the Messiah, or as he said, “Lamb of God.” His witness is critical in the sense that he represents “one from the earth who speaks of earthly things: the line between the divine and the human runs between Jesus and John.” His testimony establishes the credentials of Jesus and provides an incentive for some of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus. Everyone who believes in Jesus owes a debt to John the Baptist, for he gave the first witness of Jesus.
John the Baptist is one of the most impressive men in the entire Bible. For this reason, during the peak of his ministry, the Jewish religious authorities came to question whether he was the Messiah. While John was not the Messiah, he was a prophet of God, a Nazarite, and a priest. He was the son of Zacharias, a Levite priest whose duty it was to serve in the Temple. Even the birth of the Baptist was unique. An angel of the Lord, Gabriel, came to Zacharias while he was working in the Temple to announce that he and Elizabeth would have a son and the son would be a forerunner of the Messiah (Luke 1:8-20). Their son, whom they would name John, would not drink wine or liquor, and the Holy Spirit would fill him even in his mother’s womb. A few months later, when both Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant, Mary went to visit Elizabeth, and the baby inside Elizabeth leapt for joy (Luke 1:43-44) in the presence of Jesus.
John was six months older than his cousin Jesus. As a Nazarite, John was committed to God in every aspect of his life. As a priest, his commitment was vocational. He could not drink alcohol, which indicated that his physical desires belonged to God. He kept his body under subjection and did not cut his hair. As a Nazarite, he could not touch a dead body, including that of a family member. This sense of separation symbolized his devotion to God. The appearance and preaching of John were much like the prophets of old. He attired himself as a prophet, in that he wore “a single garment, serving for both cloak and coat, made of woven camel hair, and a leather belt round the waist – though some say that this was a leather loincloth.”  His resulting physical appearance was a visual reminder to those around him of his commitment to God. In the Bible, only three such men are found: John the Baptist, Samson, and Samuel.
The Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem sent a delegation to ask if he was Elijah because his appearance and demeanor so led his audience to recall the great prophet of old who “did not die like other men, but was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire. Thence he would be sent forth before the great and terrible day of the Lord, and his task would be to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the head of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.”  Thus, there was the possibility that John was Elijah returning to proclaim the coming day of the Lord. Also, Moses foretold the Prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15-18.
“The testimony of John found in verses 1:19-22 involves three negations: (1) He is not the Messiah; (2) he is not Elijah; (3) he is not the prophet.”  Since he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, the religious leaders sought to find by what authority he was baptizing and what he meant about the coming kingdom. “However much his public conduct and the spirit and power of his preaching of repentance reminded people of Elijah, John himself rejected any notion that he would identify his coming with that of Elijah or of the Prophet.”  Like Moses (Exodus 3:10), Elijah (Isaiah 6:8), and, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-7), God chose and sent John the Baptist for a specific mission. At the time of Jesus, devout Jews believed Elijah would return before the day of the Lord and the Prophet would appear before the coming of the Messiah. While Jesus, in fact, identified John the Baptist as Elijah (Matthew 11:14, Mark 9:13) and John did resemble the prophet of old in many ways, Jesus was referring to how John was the typological fulfillment of prophecy. John the Baptist also said he was not the Prophet whom Moses foretold.
The Apostle John said several times that John the Baptist’s purpose was to testify about Jesus. As Barclay notes, he was the culmination of many prophets, and he was a witness to Jesus, who was the One of whom all the prophets foretold. This was his single purpose for which he had been sent. This sole purpose of John’s ministry in the fourth gospel is different than what the Synoptic Gospels say about him. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he preached repentance and offered counsel about how to live. In this gospel, his purpose was to tell what he saw concerning Jesus. “For John’s Gospel, John is less John the Baptist and more John the Testifier.”  It should be understood that the purpose of John’s testimony was not merely to tell what he had seen and heard. It was also to proclaim the news so others might believe. John was to bring people to a point of decision. “He taught men to look through him, and pass through him to Christ; through the doctrine of repentance for sin to that of faith in Christ. He prepared men for the reception and entertainment of Christ and His gospel.”  Conerning Jesus, John the Baptist said in John 1:15-16 that another would come after him who would be greater than he.
This testimony drew attention because the cultural norm was that the first or the oldest enjoyed greater esteem and honor than any who follows, and John was older and had spent more time in the ministry when Jesus began His teaching. Going contrary to these socio-cultural standards, John insisted that he was the lesser. John understood that “Jesus has surpassed him precisely because he was before him.”  In fact, he said he was not worthy to untie the thong from His sandal. That was the act of a slave, not of a disciple, which illustrates the degree of separation John established between himself and Jesus. He testified as to the position and stature of Jesus about himself. This testimony is important for what John said later about Jesus.
The second thing to which he testified was the baptism of Jesus. Constructing the time line, Jesus apparently sought out John for baptism. After the ceremony, Jesus prayed, and the Spirit descended and rested upon Him. The Spirit then led Him into the wilderness where He faced temptation for forty days. After that period, John 1:30-34 explains that Jesus returns to where John was still preaching repentance and baptizing. The day before Jesus returned to John, the religious leaders had been questioning the Baptizer. It is unclear whether those religious leaders were present when John made his announcement of seeing the Holy Spirit descend and rest on Jesus after His baptism. Probably, the religious leaders had already left for Jerusalem, so he was proclaiming the Lamb of God rather than answering questions of the religious representatives. If that was the case, then John made his announcement concerning Jesus in the presence of his disciples and the multitude, which had come to hear John and be baptized by him.
As part of his announcement, John notes he did not know Jesus. It is not known exactly what he meant by this statement. There are two possible explanations. One is that since John was from Judea to the south and Jesus from Galilee to the north, they did not know one another. However, the fact that Mary and Elizabeth were sisters makes it doubtful that the two did not know each other. The concept of “knowing” is an important theme in this gospel. John spoke of knowing in the spiritual dimension rather than the physical or experiential. “John twice declared that ‘even I did not know Him,’ indicating his radical dependence on a special revelation from God to acknowledge Jesus.”  John did not recognize Jesus for what He was until the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and rested upon Him. In fact, John twice said he did not recognize Jesus (John 1:31, 33), which only strengthened his witness. “Hence, his testimony is all the more valuable because it was given to him from above, resting on supernatural revelation.”
The dove indicated two important factors about Jesus. First, God ordained Him for His ministry, and second, it indicated His qualifications. The significance of the dove remaining on Jesus was that, unlike previous instances where the Spirit came upon a person and depart after the person fulfilled the purpose of the Spirit, Jesus experienced a continual, long-standing relationship with the Spirit, which continued throughout His earthly ministry. God gave this divine sign uniquely to John the Baptist; in all other instances, a human being introduced other followers to Jesus. Even the first disciples, Andrew and John, came to Jesus through the testimony of the Baptizer. Thus, he was able to serve in his role as the ideal witness for the Messiah. As Dunn notes, John the Baptist was the model witness because of his credentials and influence to both the Jews who came to hear him preach and also to his disciples, who transferred their allegiance to Jesus because of John’s testimony.
The next occasion for John to testify for Jesus is seen in John 3:31-33 when the two were in proximity of one another and both were active in their ministries. This is his final testimony. Soon after this, Herod put John into prison and later executed him. He explained in this passage that Jesus Christ, “sent by God, and speaking the words of God, testifies to what He has seen and heard. To accept this testimony is to affirm the veracity of God Himself (to refuse it, it is implied, is to deny God’s truth).”  When John made this statement, Jesus and His disciples were in Judea where John the Baptist continued to preach and baptize. At some point, likely jealous by the popularity of Jesus, John’s disciples complained that Jesus, who had come to John for baptism, was now baptizing and His ministry was growing. Tthe ministry of Jesus was becoming more popular. The disciples of John believed that he should be the greater of the two instead of Jesus. This was because when they compared John to Jesus, John was older, came before Jesus, and introduced Jesus to the world.
The response of the baptizer to his disciples must surely have been one of surprise when he explained he was fully aware of his role, and he rejoiced at Jesus’ success. John the Baptist explained to his followers that his relationship to Jesus was like that of the best man at a wedding. Along with the normal activities of the best man, he was to wait outside the home of the new couple and proclaim the consummation of the marriage. The happiness of the best man was for the groom and his new bride. In the same way, John was the best man for Jesus. Just as the best man plays an important, yet secondary role at the marriage of the groom, so did John willingly subordinate himself to Jesus. John the Baptist was the friend of the groom, and the attention rightly belonged to the groom.
John also observed, “He who comes from above is above all,” which is a clear allusion to the divinity of Jesus as the one from above and refers to His heavenly origin. The Baptizer stated the superiority of Jesus because of His coming from above and contrasted Him with those of the earth who speak of the earth. “There is no suggestion of evil in being ‘from the earth,’ but rather one of limitation. Even John’s witness, excellent as it was, was subject to limitations because, while he was a man sent from God, he did not come down from heaven as the Son of Man did.”  It is noteworthy that the phrase “of the earth” is found three times in this passage. “It expresses the limitations of earthly messengers, even though entrusted with a divine message.”  The testimony of John the Baptist “is, in fact, an affirmation of the crossing point in history because the old era of Israel’s prophetic voices was giving way to the new era of the Messiah with the proclamation of Jesus as the agent of eternal life.”  After John the Baptist’s statement here, the author of this gospel affirms that Jesus bore witness to what he had seen and heard, namely the decision to accept Jesus and His testimony. The Apostle John notes that natural man cannot receive His testimony because that person cannot accept Jesus. Once a person is born again, he or she receives the witness, and Jesus sets His seal upon the individual. At the time of Jesus, a man signified approval of a document, such as a will or similar legal document, with a seal. Some scholars think the believer sets the seal on the testimony of God about Jesus. The likely correct interpretation is that Jesus sets His seal upon the believer. In this action, the believer proclaims acceptance of the truth of His (Jesus’) testimony and also that what God says is true.
It is interesting that Jesus, a little later in His ministry when the Jews question Him, conversed with His critics about witnesses and brought into the conversation John the Baptist as we read in John 5:33-35. It is unclear in this passage whether Jesus referred to when John identified Jesus as the Lamb of God or later when He started becoming increasingly popular. Since the Jews were apparently unwilling to accept what Jesus said about the Father being a witness, Jesus reminded them of the testimony of John. “Since Jesus’ audience had accepted John as unquestionably truthful and accurate, the logic of the situation demanded that they should believe his verdict concerning Jesus.”  In this passage (John 5:33-35) Jesus referred to John the Baptist in the past tense and spoke of him as the lamp that was burning and was shining, which infers John the Baptist was already in captivity or possible dead at the order of Herod.
Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.