But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.
-- Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service, ll. 13-16
The mention of the next day here sets up an interesting sequence, extending through the miracle at Cana in the second chapter. Taken with the other mentions of day intervals (vv. 35, 43, 2.1), we get a total of seven days, from the original testimony of St. John the Baptist until the changing of the water into wine. This, like the prologue, suggests the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, and the references here to the Holy Ghost in baptism thus hark back to the mention of the Spirit of God hovering -- or brooding, like a bird -- over the face of the deep. The theme that Jesus is the inaugurator and agent of a new creation is yet another recurring motif in John.
This encounter between Jesus and the Baptist is one of the few events that is addressed in all four Gospels. Unlike the Synoptics, John records a description from the Baptist, rather than describing the event itself. Why this should be so is hard to know for certain. It is possible that the evangelist wanted to focus primarily on outside testimony to Jesus for a little longer, before passing on to those words and actions that would speak for themselves about Him; it is also possible, on analogy with 7.39, the author wanted to emphasize the distinction between Jesus' baptismal anointing and the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church in general that would succeed it (and, for that matter, the ordination of the Apostles to the ministry of absolution, recorded in 20.21-23).
The phrase "the Lamb of God" is a vital one for understanding not only the Gospel, but the whole Johannine corpus (even if the three letters and the Apocalypse are not by the same author as the Gospel). The lamb was, of course, an eminent sacrificial animal in the Levitical system, though other animals and various vegetable offerings were also employed. Its use in the Passover was older than the Temple or even the Tabernacle, going back to the Exodus itself, the primitive moment of definition for the people of Israel. Saint John the Baptist's use of this phrase, recorded by none of the Synoptics, fits into the evangelist's emphasis upon the significance of the Baptist's ministry: he points beyond himself, and his baptism points beyond itself, to Christ as the one who truly and finally delivers from sin. As we shall see later, the Gospel of John implies that the Crucifixion took place at the very time when the lambs were being slaughtered to provide the meal for the Passover feast.
Man, God is kinda metal sometimes.
The mention that "he was before me," i.e. existed before I did, is rather intriguing. Jesus is never presented as ignorant in the Gospel of John, but most of the other characters are; here, however, we find the only human witness to the eternity of the Son apart from Jesus Himself, or at any rate the only one before the Passion and Resurrection. Every other hint of the Son's Deity comes either from Himself, or from some unwitting double entendre on the part of His disciples, the crowds, or the Pharisees and Sadducees, but this passage suggests that John the Baptist already knew it -- or, rather, recognized it at the descent of the Dove upon Jesus.
The descent of the Spirit here is slightly odd. If Jesus was God, then why did the Spirit need to descend upon Him at all? However, I think this is adequately explained by the same theological fact that explains His decision to be baptized: namely, His deliberate submission to the conditions of full humanity. Saint Paul addresses this in the famous hymn in Philippians 2:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus [other translations read "which was also in Christ Jesus"], who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The Church after Him would be animated and empowered by the Holy Ghost rather than by its native spiritual faculties; or, to put it more exactly, the Holy Ghost would become the driving force both within and above those faculties ("not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God"). Therefore, as our pioneer and example, He chose to submit Himself to the same limitations and to make use of the same economy of the Spirit.
To make use of His Divinity "in His own right," so to speak, would, I think, even have frustrated one of the purposes for which He became incarnate in the first place. He might well have had a human soul, but to perform miracles and prophesy and all the rest through His own divine Person, rather than in the Person of the Spirit, would have drawn too close to the Apollinarian or Eutychian heresies -- the beliefs that He had no human soul but that the divine Logos replaced it, or that His Divine and human natures were so fused as to be a third kind of thing. This may sound like a mere abstraction, but it is dead practical. For in that case, His actual experience of humanity, from a spiritual and psychological perspective, would have been effectively destroyed. Dorothy Sayers addresses the practical challenge of these heresies in her essay, Creed or Chaos?:
God and man at the same time, in every respect and completely; God from eternity to eternity and from the womb to the grave, a man also from the womb to the grave and now.
"That," replies John Doe, "is all very well, but it leaves me cold. Because, if He was God all the time, He must have known that His sufferings and death and so on wouldn't last, and He could have stopped them by a miracle if He had liked, so His pretending to be an ordinary man was nothing but playacting." And Jane Doe adds, "You can't call a person 'altogether man' if He was God and didn't want to do anything wrong. It was easy enough for Him to be good, but it's not at all the same thing for me. How about all that temptation stuff? Playacting again. It doesn't help me to live what you call a Christian life."
John and Jane are now on the way to becoming convinced Apollinarians, a fact which, however interesting to theologians, has a distinct relevance also to the lives of those average men, since they propose, on the strength of it, to dismiss Christian principles as impracticable. There is no help for it. We must insist upon Christ's possession of a reasonable soul as well as human flesh; we must admit the human limitations of knowledge and intellect; we must take a hint from Christ Himself and suggest that miracles belong to the Son of Man as well as to the Son of God; we must posit a human will liable to temptation; and we must be quite firm about "equal to the Father as touching His Godhead and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood." Complicated as the theology is, the average man has walked straight into the heart of the Athanasian Creed, and we are bound to follow.
According to legend, Saint Nicholas here straight-up clocked a dude in the face for teaching heresy. Considering
that he sneaks into your house every year, this also can be regarded as a truth having practical application.