ohn the Baptist was famous and popular.
When he already had a significant group of disciples, Jesus did not have even one (John 1:35). Many came to John to be baptized in the Jordan River at Aenon (1:28; 3:23), repenting. Those requesting baptism included tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3:12-14). Yes, John had become very famous. However, he acknowledged that what he was doing was to prepare the way for the Lord (John 1:23).
A transition occurred in John’s life by which he became less important and Jesus became more important (John 3:30). John 1:19-51 describes this transition as occurring over four crucial days. Based on the time marker “the next day” (appearing three times in verses 29, 35, 43), this passage can be divided into four parts. If read consecutively, it appears that there were four days involved in the time frame of this passage.
Day 1 (John 1:19-28)
Many people came to John with questions. One of those questions was “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (verse 25).1 Verses 26 and 27 record his reply: “‘I baptize with water,’ John replied, ‘but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’” John introduced Jesus simply as the One standing among the crowd, since He had not yet come to John. Apparently, Jesus was not yet baptized on day 1. According to the Gospel of John, this was the first encounter of John and Jesus. On the first day Jesus was not yet fully exposed—He was just standing among the crowd.
Day 2 (John 1:29-34)
Day 2 begins with another introduction of Jesus by John. Verse 29 says: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” Note the progression of John’s encounter with Jesus. On day 1 Jesus just stood among the crowd and John introduced Him. On day 2, however, Jesus was not only standing among the crowd; He came toward John, who introduced Him to the people. Also, there is a hint that Jesus was baptized by John on the second day.2 John tells more about the nature of Jesus’ ministry by comparing his baptism with the baptism of Jesus. “I would not have known him,” John says, “except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’” (verse 33). There is more exposure of Jesus by John on day 2. After Jesus had come toward John, John introduced Him as the Lamb of God. He acknowledged Jesus as the one baptizing with the Holy Spirit and not only with water as he himself did.
Day 3 (John 1:35-42)
Day 3 begins with another type of correlation between Jesus and John: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb
of God!’ When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus” (verses 35-37).
On day 3 Jesus was just passing by John. He was not standing among the crowd any longer. He was no longer coming toward John. This time, He was passing by John and did not even stop for a while. Verses 37 and 38 describe this notion clearly: “When the two disciples heard [John] say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’” The text suggests that Jesus was just passing by and the two disciples followed Him. John was left behind by Jesus and the two disciples.
How did John react? As he pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God his two disciples followed Jesus.3 The transition is clear. John encouraged his disciples to follow Jesus. By the time Jesus came to the Jordan John had many people following him. In the transition, he encouraged people to leave him and to follow Jesus. The two disciples were not just following Jesus temporarily—they followed Jesus until the bitter end (and beyond). They stuck around and stayed with Jesus.
Day 4 (John 1:43-51)
Day 4 is described by the movement of Jesus: “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (verse 43). More and more people decided to follow Jesus. In addition to Andrew, John the beloved, and Peter, who followed Him on day 3 (verses 37-42), Philip and Nathanael joined the growing number of disciples (verses 43-49). As the group around Jesus increased John remained behind and consciously encouraged his disciples to follow Jesus.
Let’s quickly recapitulate the transition of fame and honor from John to Jesus up to this point. On day 1 Jesus was standing among the crowd when John was preaching. The following day Jesus was coming toward John, and John introduced Him to the people. On day 3 Jesus was just passing by John without even stopping by for a while (which in an Eastern culture is not common!). On day 4 Jesus left with His new disciples, some of whom had formerly been John’s disciples. John is not even mentioned in the section dealing with day 4 (verses 43-51).
Can you see the sequence? On day 1 John is in charge. On day 2 John introduces Jesus as the one in charge. On day 3 Jesus is moving on. On day 4 Jesus is taking over. John could have maintained his popularity without transferring or channeling it to Jesus. He had a chance to confess himself as the Messiah or one of the prophets—but he did not do that.
Not I, but Christ
Day 1 generated a lot of questions about John’s identity. Was he the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet? John answered always: “No, I am not.”4 This series of questions and answers suggests that day 1 is marked by denying self and confessing Christ. Day 2 is a day of exalting Christ, a day of “Not I, but Christ.” On day 3 there is no long testimony. It is a day of pointing to Jesus and “giving up” and surrendering to Jesus. The God-man increased as John voluntarily decreased. On day 4 no dialogue between John and the people is recorded. Day 4 is a day of putting Jesus into the spotlight, a day of being forgotten and being left behind.
The Gospel of John records a clear transition from John to Jesus in four days. These four days represent the period of the gradual process of how the transition took place. However, since day 1, actually since the day John began his ministry, he knew for sure that he was not working for himself. He was not looking for self-fame or trying to build himself up. John did not try to attract people to praise or uplift him. He did not aim at putting his name on the map.
When John began his ministry he knew for sure that he was only preparing the way for the Lord. He prepared people for the Lord, attracted people to the Lord, and worked for the glory of the Lord. This concept of service is expressed in one of the most famous statements of John the Baptist: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). He must increase—but I must decrease.
This statement of John the Baptist is indeed true and is reflected in literary terms by the apostle John (as the author of this Gospel), who highlights this transition by carefully increasing the mention of the name Jesus and decreasing the mention of the name John.5
John’s spirit of service could be described well by the lyrics of a song composed by Fannie Bolton in 1900, “Not I, but Christ.”6
Not I, but Christ, be honored, loved, exalted;
Not I, but Christ, be seen, be known, be heard;
Not I, but Christ, in every look and action,
Not I, but Christ, in every thought and word.
Not I, but Christ, to gently soothe in sorrow,
Not I, but Christ, to wipe the falling tear;
Not I, but Christ, to lift the weary burden,
Not I, but Christ, to hush away all fear.
Christ, only Christ! no idle words e’er falling,
Christ, only Christ; no needless bustling sound;
Christ, only Christ; no self important bearing;
Christ, only Christ; no trace of “I” be found.
Not I, but Christ, my every need supplying,
Not I, but Christ, my strength and health to be;
Christ, only Christ, for body, soul, and spirit,
Christ, only Christ, here and eternally.
Let me throw out a number of questions that may help us to internalize this attitude in our lives. Is Jesus the focus of our service? Are we aware that working for Christ is not the place where we lift up ourselves? Are we serving Him with a spirit of self-denial, pointing others toward Christ? Can we say “I am not” but “He is”? Or are we saying “He is not” but “I am”? Not I, but Christ. That’s the spirit of John the Baptist, demonstrated in a compressed way during four days of transition—a ministry and attitude worthy of our imitation.
1All Bible texts in this article are taken from the New International Version.
2John 1:32 says: “Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.’” In comparison to Matt. 3:16 and Luke 3:21, 22, this text seems to suggest that on day 2 Jesus was baptized by John.
3Gary M. Burge, John, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000), p. 76, suggests that his two disciples “shift their allegiance to Jesus.”
4When the Jews came to John and asked whether he was Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, John replied in the negative three times (John 1:20, 21). It is interesting to notice that while the Gospel of John is the Gospel in which the expression of Jesus as I AM occurs many times (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 58; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), John the Baptist simply describes himself as the I AM NOT. The author of the Gospel of John seems to emphasize a comparison between Jesus as the I AM and John the Baptist as the I AM NOT.
5As far as the mention of the names John and Jesus in John 1:19-51 is concerned, on day 1 the name John is mentioned three times while the name Jesus is not mentioned at all. On day 2 the name John is mentioned twice with only a single reference to the name of Jesus. On day 3 John is mentioned twice but Jesus is mentioned by name five times. On day 4 John is not mentioned at all while Jesus is mentioned five times.
6The lyrics of this song are taken from The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1985), No. 570.
Richard A. Sabuin was born in Indonesia and is currently serving as assistant professor of New Testament and Chair of the Biblical Studies Department of the Theological Seminary at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines. This article was published November 12, 2009.