The Holy Spirit in John

In this series, Network211 founder Dr. George M. Flattery presents what the gospel of John says about the Holy Spirit.

John 1:29-34

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ “I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. “I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

– John 1:29-34, NAU

John’s purpose for his gospel is clearly stated in 20:31: “but these [signs] have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Through faith in Jesus as the Son of God, we have eternal life.

From the opening verse of his gospel on, John supports his thesis that Jesus is the Christ. In chapter one he brings the testimony of John the Baptist to bear on the case. John (1:6-8) introduces John the Baptist who was sent from God to bear witness to the light. He was not the light, but he was a strong witness. His role was to be the forerunner of Christ.

The Forerunner

In John 1:19-34, the author relates the testimony of John the Baptist himself. Right away, the Baptist drew (1:19-28) a contrast between himself and Christ. He was was baptizing at Bethany beyond the Jordan when the priests and Levites, sent by the Pharisees, came to question him.

The priests and Levites asked John (v. 19), “‘Who are you?'” He responded by saying (verse 20), “‘I am not the Christ.'”

Then, they asked him, “‘What then? Are you Elijah?'” And John answered, “‘I am not.'” Based on Malachi 4:5, the Jews expected that Elijah would come in person to be the forerunner of the Messiah. John was not Elijah in person, but he was Elijah in spirit. According to Luke 1:17, the angel said that John would minister “‘in the spirit and power of Elijah.'” Concerning John (Matthew 11:14), Jesus said, “‘If you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.'” Even though John was not Elijah in person, he was the forerunner of Christ.

The priests and Levites then asked, “‘Are you the Prophet?'” John simply answered, “No.'” In Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses declared that a prophet like himself would be raised up. According to Robertson (p. 20), the Jews thought of the prophet as another forerunner of Christ. However, the Christians believed that this prophecy (Acts 3:22 and 7:37) referred to Christ. Jesus Himself was the prophet-like-Moses.

Again, John’s questioners asked, “‘Who are you?'” Then, John the Baptist cites Isaiah 40:3, saying (verse 21): “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” As Isaiah the prophet said.'” John identifies himself as the forerunner and issues a call to repentance. He was a strong voice preparing the way for Christ.

Then, the priests and Levites asked (1:25), “‘Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?'” At this point John does not explain why he is baptizing. He says (John 1:26-27): “‘I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.'” Although John had an important ministry, he sensed his unworthiness in contrast to Christ.

The Messiah

The next day, according to John, the Baptist stresses the identity, life, and ministry of Jesus. Both the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit upon Him, says Robertson (p. 21), had already taken place sometime before this testimony was given.

The author John does not mention the baptism of Jesus in water. According to Burge (p. 51-52), this was a deliberate shift of attention from the baptism of Jesus to His anointing with the Spirit. The anointing of Jesus with the Spirit is, for John, a matter of great importance.

The Lamb of God

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming to him, and said (1:29): “‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away (airon) the sin of the world!” As we study this passage, we will call attention to three points

First, the meaning of “the Lamb” is much discussed. As Ladd (p. 250-251) points out, some think that the Lamb is the conquering Messiah; others name the suffering servant of Isaiah 53; and still others hold that the figure blends the lamb slain at the Passover and the suffering servant. As far as his position is concerned, Ladd (p. 251) states, “In any case John thinks of Jesus as the Lamb, not as the conquering Messiah but as the atoning Savior.”

Figures of speech are usually very flexible and often inclusive. Morris (pp. 147-148) states that we are “heir to all of the multiple meanings that belong to the history of this rich symbol.” The multiple meanings contribute to our understanding. As the gospel of John unfolds, it is clear that the atoning Lamb will stand out.

Second, the verb airon can mean either “take away” or “take upon.” According to Wescott (p. 20), “take away” is the correct reading in this verse. Then, he states (p. 20): “It was, however by ‘taking upon Himself our infirmities’ that Christ took them away (Matt viii. 17; and this idea is distinctly presented in the passage of Isaiah (liii. 11).'” Christ did both. He took upon Himself the sins of men, and He took them completely away.

Third, the Baptist uses a present tense to describe the work of the Lamb. He “takes away” the sins of the world. As Lenski points out (p. 127), some hold that this is a timeless present. Thus, it means that John refers only to the quality of the action, not to the timing of it. According to Robertson (p. 23), who holds a different view, the present tense is used to describe a future work. However, both Hendriksen (p. 98) and Lenski (p. 127) hold that the present tense has immediate application. Jesus was doing things at the time that contributed to the salvation of men. This in no way precludes the completion of Christ’s saving work later.

The Eternal Christ

Next, John the Baptist states (1:30), “‘This is He on behalf of whom I said, “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”‘” In John’s view, Jesus had a higher rank because He existed from before John did. Because Christ was preexistent, He could both come earlier and later than the Baptist. We can see both the humanity and divinity of Christ in this statement. Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man.

John’s Baptism

The Baptist continues with this comment (v. 31), “‘And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” Lenski claims (p. 131) that John and Jesus had known each other since childhood. Against this, Robertson (p. 23) says that we do not know whether John the Baptist ever met Christ before the day of His baptism. Whether or not they had previously met, the Baptist probably means that He did not know Jesus to be the Messiah.

Previously, when questioned (verse 25) as to why he was baptizing, John the Baptist did not give a reason. Now, he says that he came baptizing in water (verse 31) “in order that [Christ] He might be manifested to Israel.” Here, John does not focus on baptism for repentance but upon witness. His baptism made Christ known to Israel. This was the ultimate purpose.

According to the Synoptics, John baptized people with reference to repentance (Mk. 1:4Luke 1:3Acts 19:4) for the forgiveness of sins. The event of baptism was a public testimony to the repentance of those baptized and to God’s loving forgiveness. This calling of men to repentance prepared the way for the manifestation of Christ.

Morris (p. 151) states, “One might have thought that John’s baptism was concerned largely with leading men to repent. But this was not its final purpose. John baptized in view of the coming of the Messiah. He baptized in order that the Messiah should be ‘made manifest to Israel.'” All that the Baptist did, as the forerunner, was to bear witness to and prepare for the coming of Christ.

The Spirit Upon Jesus

Then, John the Baptist speaks about the descent of the Spirit upon Christ and His work of baptizing men in the Holy Spirit. He bore witness saying (1:32), “‘I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.'”

First, the Baptist does not say a “dove” descends, but the Spirit in the bodily form of a dove does. The dove is mentioned by all the Synoptic writers as well (Matthew 3:16Mark 1:10; and Luke 3:22). The dove may represent many characteristics, including gentleness or graciousness. John the Baptist neither explains nor limits the meaning. Once again, we have a flexible figure of speech.

Second, the Baptist emphasizes the abiding presence of the Spirit. Here, the Spirit descended upon Jesus and remained (emeinen). Burge write (p. 54), “The permanence of Jesus’ anointing is directly stressed in contrast to the transitoriness of every other previous prophetic inspiration in Israel’s history.”

God Speaks to John

God is the One who sent John the Baptist. At some point God said to John (1:33): “‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.'” With regard to this statement, we note the following points.

First, in this verse John uses two participles to describe the presence of the Spirit. John the Baptist saw the Spirit “descending and remaining” upon Jesus. We do not know how long the dove-like form remained, but we do know that the Spirit never left Jesus. John is the only New Testament writer to use the terms “remaining” or “remained.” However, when Luke says (Luke 4:1) that Jesus was “full” of the Spirit, the sense of an ongoing presence is included.

Second, when the Spirit came upon Jesus, the Baptist knew that He was the Messiah. The presence of the Spirit confirmed and authenticated the Messiah’s identity. Later in his ministry, John would have his doubts (Luke 7:19), but here he has none. The Spirit coming upon Jesus was a convincing evidence for him.

Third, Jesus was empowered to baptize others in the Spirit. As the Messiah, Jesus is “the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” One of the reasons why the Spirit came upon Jesus was so that He, in turn, could baptize others in the Spirit. As the Gospel story unfolds, we see that Christ was empowered not only to be the giver of the Spirit but also to empower his entire ministry.

Jesus Baptizes in the Spirit

Jesus (John 1:33) is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. The key question for us is, “What is the purpose of this baptism?” To this discussion we now turn.

The Present Tense

When God spoke to John the Baptist, He said, “this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” The present tense of the verb baptize is used. In the other Gospels (Matthew 3:11Mark 1:8; and Luke 3:16), John is quoted as using the future tense. As in verse 29 (takes away), we might read the present tense here as a rhetorical or prophetic future. However, we may see it also as a timeless present. The emphasis of a timeless present is on the quality of the action without regard to when it happens.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was active in giving the Spirit before His glorification. To the woman at the well (John 4:14) Jesus spoke of the water He would give which would spring up into eternal life. Water was symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the presence and ministry of the Spirit after (John 7:39) Christ’s glorification was far greater.

John the Baptist

In this passage John the Baptist quotes the One who sent Him. The quotation does not define the purpose of the baptism in the Spirit. Similarly, in Mark 1:8 the Baptist mentions the baptism in the Holy Spirit but he does not state its purpose. More information is provided by Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew 3:11-12 and Luke 3:16-17 the Baptist describes the result of the baptism in the Spirit. The wheat is gathered into the barn, and the chaff is burned up. Those who repent will be separated from those who do not. See our discussion of Luke 3:16-17 for additional comments on this impact of the baptism in the Spirit.

The Baptist’s comments about his baptism may provide some insight concerning the baptism in the Spirit. John’s baptism was for repentance, but he says (verse 31) its ultimate purpose was to make Christ known to Israel. In Matthew and Luke John says that Christ’s baptism in the Spirit separates the wheat and the chaff. Whether or not he foresaw just how this would occur, we do not know. We do know that at Pentecost the purpose was to empower men to make Christ known to the world. Through Spirit-empowered preaching, the separation of the repentant and the unrepentant would occur.

John the Author

Although John does not use the term again, one might relate baptism in the Spirit to all that he records about the Spirit in his writings. Next to Paul, John is the most comprehensive in his treatment of the Spirit. He emphasizes the role of the Spirit in the new birth, sustaining the new life, revealing truth, inspiring the disciples to speak. No aspect of the Spirit’s work would be excluded.

As far as the John’s record is concerned, we have no reason to limit or expand the meaning of baptism in the Spirit. The word baptism signifies immersion. To be immersed in the Spirit is to come under His control and influence in all aspect of our lives. Christ continues to immerse us in the Spirit throughout our lives. However, John does not specifically define his usage of the term baptize in the Spirit.


All the Gospels and the Book of Acts record the sayings of Jesus about the Holy Spirit. However, the only specific application of the term by Christ is in Acts 1:5. Jesus applied the term to the empowerment of believers to witness. According to Peter (Acts 11:16-17), the words of Jesus applied to both the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and at the House of Cornelius. Thus, we can with assurance apply the term baptism in the Spirit to empowerment for witness.

The Son of God

Now, John the Baptist declares (v. 34), “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” God, who had sent John to baptize, told him that the One upon whom the Spirit descended would be the one who baptizes in the Spirit. When the Spirit descended upon Jesus, this was ample confirmation to John the Baptist that Jesus was the Son of God. To this he then bore witness.


Each of the writers of the New Testament books has his own purpose. The work of the Spirit is related to that purpose. The purpose of John was to foster faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Even before the cross, the Spirit was at work in the lives of believers. Christ’s disciples were not without salvation while He ministered on earth. When people believed in Christ, they received salvation.

In his Gospel, John relates the Spirit to the giving of new life, to revelation from God, to the truth, and to witness. His approach is quite comprehensive. He mentions the baptism in the Spirit only once (John 1:33). He does not define its purpose, but he may have understood it in rather broad terms. Whether or not this is the case, we know that the work of the Spirit was essential in his thinking to both salvation and the ministry of the Word.

For Further Study

Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Erdman, Charles R. The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944.
Hawthorne, Gerald F. The Presence and the Power. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.
Hull, William E. The Broadman Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig S. Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Keener, Craig. S. The Spirit in the Gospels and Acts. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery

Next Lesson