The scene is the first-century Israel in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John is drawing attention from the Jewish authorities because of his ministry and message, which includes a water baptism (1:25).
The ministry of John is primarily as witness to Christ; he has been ‘sent’ by God for this very task.
Introduced to the world with two titles as the Lamb of God and the Son of God, we are reminded about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Gen 22.
Jesus comes to redeem the world through the sacrifice of his life.
The word that begins and ends this section is the word “witness”.
The term “Jews” appears for the first time here. “The Jews” are mentioned in this Gospel 71 times, but in the Synoptics only 17 times.
Half of the occurrences are in conflict scenes where they are opposed to Jesus and his ministry.
At the same time, some Jews appear to be believers (8:31; 11:45; 12:11), and Jesus himself is called a "jew: by the Samaritan woman (4:9).
We have to understand this term within the context of the first century - not within our own post-holocaust context.
Both “Jews” and “Israelite” were used to indicate that a person belonged to the ancestry of Israel and the religious community of Judaism.
In the context of the Gospel the term is regularly applied by John to Judaism and its official leaders, the center of which is at Jerusalem.
They defend the letter of the law (5:16), refuse to accept the authority of Jesus and his messianic status (9:22), and, after denying his kingship, ultimately deny their own status as the people of God (19:14–16).
The conflict with of Jesus and the Gospel with the “Jews” reveals the conflict of Jesus and the Gospel with sinful humanity. The Word is the Light that shines in the darkness.
1:19 - a serious business and so an official delegation is sent. It is interesting to notice that John himself belonged to the tribe of Levi according to Luke 1:5.
They were sent to ask a specific question about John’s identity: “who are you?” (See Luke 3:15 for the background of the question).
John makes it plain: “I am not the Christ” which means the anointed one whom the people expected, dreaming of liberation.
Stating that truth, “I am not the Christ”, John has become an image of the Christian preacher, apostle, and missionary whose goal is to point others away from himself towards the Christ.
For the Jews the title “the Christ” had a a clear messianic connotations, but for the Gentiles it could be understood as a personal name.
Because of different understanding of the title “messiah” - (1) Davidic messiah - often understood as warrior-king kind of messiah, (2) priestly messiah, and (3) the Prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15–19) - Jesus did not used that title and particularly rejected the warrior-king type (see 6:15; 18:11, 36).
“Are you Elijah?” - In the Synoptic Gospels, there is an understanding that the ministry of John the Baptist fulfils the prophecy of Mal 3:1–4, 23 (see Mark 1:6 - 2 Kings 1:8, and Mark 9:13; Luke 1:17). But, John himself never makes such connection.
“Are you the prophet?” - the background to that question is Deut 18:15–19. Based on Matt 16:14; Mark 6:15; Luke 9:19; 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41, we know that the Jewish tradition conceived of all sorts of “prophets’ who would appear before the coming messiah. But, ”the prophet“ could refer to Moses-like prophet promised by Moses and expected to come at the end of times. John’s answer is ”no“ again. John was not a second Moses. The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the new ”Moses".
1:22 - The ministry of John portrayed by the Synoptics indicates clearly that John was a prophetic figure speaking about the coming judgement and calling the people to repentance. But, who was he? The authority wanted a concrete answer.
1:23 - the quote from Is 40:3 is the answer.
Is 40 - 66 contains:
(1) a message of hope for those who were exiled to Babylon after 586 BC. They will be liberated by a Gentile king Cyrus;
(2) a message of redemption by the obedient Servant of the Lord who would suffer for the sins of others;
(3) the vision of new heaven and earth.
John was announcing the fulfilment of the second and third part of Isaiah’s prophecy. The only other time, Isaiah is quoted in John’s Gospel is in 12:38–41 (see Is 53:1; 6:9–10). The Evangelists sees the ministry of Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophecies in Isaiah.
See particularly John 12:41 - when did Isaiah see the glory of Christ? In that year recorded in Is 6:1?
John the Baptist is just “a voice”. “The Word” is coming after him.
1:24 - We take the Pharisees as the part of the same big group mentioned in 1:19.
It is unlikely, that the Pharisees alone at that time would sent their own representatives alongside the priests and the levites. But, it is very likely, that the Pharisees as a very influential group in that time could insists on their own presence within the group sent by the Jerusalem authority to investigate the case of John the Baptist.
The Pharisees first appeared in history towards the end of the second century BC. They were spiritual heirs of the pious groups who played part in defence of their religion when Antiochus Epiphanes (175 –163 BC) attempted to abolish it (see 1 Macc 2:42; 7:14; 2 Macc 14:6).
The term “Pharisees” means “separated ones” (Heb “perushim”), which indicates their separation from everything ethically or ceremonially impure.
They built up a body of oral tradition - known as “the tradition of the elders” - which was designed to adapt ancient principles of the written law to the changing situations of later days.
Josephus (37–100 AD) - Jewish historian - states that they were some 6,000 Pharisees in his day (Antiquities 17.42). Apparently, they had popular support and many of them explain scriptures by teaching in many synagogues.
In the Gospel of the Pharisees are the ever-watchful and suspicious adversaries of Jesus. They keep the people under surveillance and influence them with their teaching (cf. 4:1; 7:32, 47–52; 11:46; 12:19,42).
They are presented as experts in religious matters (cf. 3:1–2,10; 7:47–49; 8:13; 9:16,28–29,40–41).
The Pharisees would be especially interested in the religious implication of John’s activity. Their question suggests that they viewed baptism as a special rite - perhaps associated with the end-time, with the time of restoration (see Ezek 36:25).
Moreover, John himself administered this rite to others. Where did he get the authority for doing it from? (See 1:33).
A rabbi said: “every service which a slave performs for his master, a disciple will perform for his teacher, except to untie his sandal-strap”.
John actually does not respond to their question. His answer focuses on the one who is to come.
In the synoptic Gospels the comparison is between “water” and the “spirit” (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:7–8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). But, here, the comparison is between John and Jesus (see Luke 1). John does not see himself even fit to perform what the rabbis did not allow their students to perform for them - to untie Jesus’ sandal-strap.
But, there is one more thing. Those who ask John about his baptism, do not know the one who already stands among them.
There was Bethany near Jerusalem (11:1), where the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus was located and there was Bethany in Transjordan, known to Origen (AD 231) as Bethabara - a variant reading of this passage. That place was located in the Peraean part of Herod Antipas’ tetrarchy.
It was John’s activity in Perea that incurred Herod’s enmity and it was in the Peraean fortress of Machaerus that John was imprisoned and put to death.
“Next day” - from the previous day when John met the deputation from Jerusalem.
The Gospel of John does not record actual scene of Jesus’ baptism. But, the present scene had to take place after some days of Jesus’ baptism. What was Jesus doing between his baptism and today’s scene?
It is worth noting that only the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation uses the word meaning “lamb” - (“arnion” in Rev, and “amnos” in the Gospels) - as a title of Christ (Rev 5:6; 7:17; 17:4; John 1:29,36).
The background to this statement could be (1) Gen 22 - the sacrifice of the lamb in exchange for the life of Isaac (John 8:56), (2) the passover lamb, which was in the Evangelist’s mind in the passion narrative (John 19:36), and (3) Is 53:7,10.
Note, in the book of Leviticus, lamb is never prescribed for sin offering (see Lev 14:25).
“Take away” or “remove” (cf. Heb 9:28 and 1 Peter 2:24 for “bearing the burden of sin”). If we combine these two ideas, we can say that (1) Jesus removed sin and then (2) bore it himself.
The Greek word “αίῤω” can mean “remove, take away” (John 1:29), but it can also mean “destroy” (11:48).
The phrase “take away/remove sins” is present in LXX (Ex 28:38; 34:7; 1 Sam 15:25; 25:28 - r. transgression; Mic 7:15 - r. Injustice).
See also Is 53:11–12 LXX - a similar term is used here as in Heb 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24 - bear, take upon.
“Sin” is described as that of “the world” (cf. 3:16; 4:42; 6:51; 1 John 2:2; 4:14).
The “sin” refers to unbelief (John 16:9) and the “world” embraces all without distinction of race, religion, or culture (John 12:32).
1:30 - see 1:15
1:31 - here, the Pharisees can find an answer to their question why John was baptising.
“Israel” used only four times in the Gospel (1:31; 1:49; 3:10; 12:13) carries no negative connotations, unlike “the Jews” (1:19).
One can ask: what is the difference between “Israel” and “the Jews”? (see Mt 2:1).
So, what was hidden for “the Jews” is revealed to “Israel”?
1:32 - the event is recorded in all synoptic Gospels. The author of the Gospel seems to presume that the reader is familiar with the synoptic tradition (cf. Mt 3:13–17; Mk 1:10; Luke 3:22).
The descent of the Spirit on Jesus marked Jesus out as the Davidic ruler of Is 11:1 ff, as the servant of God in Is 42:1, and as the one announcing good news in Is 61:1.
According to Acts 10:38, in that moment Jesus was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and power.
We can find here as the background Gen 1:2 and Gen 8:8–11.
The Spirit “remained on him”.
John again repeats that he did not know the coming One’s identity and how he was able to recognise the Him. We also hear about the difference between his baptism with water and Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit (see Ezek 36:25–27).
1:34 - we heard the statement “you are my beloved son” in the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Luke 3:22).
Here, John himself testifies to the words of the Father - “this is the Son of God”.
What John proclaims - that Jesus is the Son of God - the author of the Gospel makes the goal of the entire Gospel - to lead the reader to the same confession of faith - See John 20:31.