March 24, 2013
Several decades ago, “All in the Family” poked fun at the red-neck, blue-collar, bigots of America through the lead bigot, Archie Bunker. On one show, Archie told his wife Edith that he wanted to be on the bowling team so bad that he could taste it! He described the bowling shirts that the Cannonballers wore: All yellow silk, with bright red piping on the collar and sleeves. And on the back, there’s a picture of a cannon firing a bowling ball at the set of pins. He said, “When you got something like that on your back, Edith, you know you’re somebody!” (Raymond Gibson, Minister’s Annual [Abingdon, 1987], ed. by Jim & Doris Morentz)
That show was satirizing that a man could gain a sense of identity and importance from being a part of a bowling team and wearing a gaudy shirt. But that anecdote raises the questions, “Who are you? What is the source of your identity? How should your sense of who you are before God as a Christian shape how you live and what you do?”
Our text shows us that John the Baptist was a man who was clear on who he was not and who he was. He was also clear on who Jesus is. So he was able to point others clearly to Jesus as the only Savior whom they desperately needed.
At this point, we leave the prologue and begin a long section (1:19-12:54) that amasses testimony for Jesus as the Son of God, the one in whom all should believe. The rest of chapter 1 presents the witness of the forerunner, John the Baptist, to Jesus. Andreas Kostenberger (John [Baker], p. 53) points out two purposes for this section: “(1) to show John’s witness to Jesus at the inception of [Jesus’] ministry; and (2) to clarify John’s relationship to Jesus as one of witness rather than rivalry or antagonism.”
Back in 1:6-8, we saw three aspects of the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus: (1) he was not the Light; (2) he was sent to bear witness to the Light; (3) his aim was that all might believe through him. Those three points outline John 1:19-51: In 1:19-28, John testifies that he is not the Light; in 1:29-34, he bears witness to the Light; and, in 1:35-51, we see John’s witness bear fruit as several of his disciples believe in Jesus and begin to follow Him (C. H. Dodd, cited by James Boice, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], one-volume ed., pp. 49, 94; also noted by Kostenberger, p. 53). In this message, we will cover the first point, which we can state as it applies to us:
We need to be clear on who we are in God’s kingdom so that we can effectively point others to Jesus for salvation.
To appreciate this section, you have to use some holy imagination to put yourself in John’s sandals. God has called you to preach, even though you haven’t had any formal training. To be honest, you’re a bit different in how you dress and in what you eat. Rather than the common linen tunic, you wear a camel’s hair garment with a leather belt and your diet consists of locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). You don’t quite blend in with the mainstream of your culture! You don’t go to the capital to launch your ministry, but are out in the tules. Your message isn’t exactly user-friendly or sensitive. Your opening line is (Luke 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” A ministry consultant might tell you that you need to improve your public image!
But surprisingly, thousands are flocking out there to hear you preach. You’re baptizing many who repent for the forgiveness of their sins. And then, one day a delegation of nicely-dressed fellows from the religious “big boys” in Jerusalem arrives to check you out. They take you aside and ask, “Who are you?” It could be a bit threatening if you weren’t sure of your calling and your message! But John was clear on who he was not and on who he was. And because of that, he clearly pointed the religious bigwigs to Jesus.
In this section, the apostle John sets up the tension that will mount between the religious crowd versus Christ and His true followers. In 1:19, he first mentions “the Jews.” John will use this term about 70 times (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 130). Sometimes he uses it in a neutral sense (e.g. 2:6); sometimes in a good sense (e.g. 4:22); but, more often he uses it to refer to the Jewish people and especially the religious leaders from Jerusalem who are hostile toward Jesus (ibid., 130-131). Because of John’s frequent use of this term, some have accused him of being anti-Semitic. But we need to keep in mind that John himself was a Jew (as was Jesus). John was not attacking Jewish people or what was right and good in Judaism. Rather, as D. A. Carson points out (The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 142), he was trying “to controvert those who have so failed to appreciate their own heritage that they have failed to see its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.”
Messianic expectations were running high in Israel as people longed for deliverance from Roman rule. Based on different promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, the people were expecting that one day God would send an especially great person, a mighty deliverer, who would represent God in a unique way and usher in an age of righteousness and peace, including deliverance from foreign rule.
So when the religious leaders in Jerusalem heard about John’s popularity, they decided that they had better check him out. He was a puzzling man to them. He was of priestly descent and he could have been a part of their crowd—living comfortably in one of the cities, dressing in conventional robes, and functioning as a part of the religious establishment. But instead he was living out in the wilderness in a very unconventional way. His message wasn’t friendly toward the establishment. He seemed a bit odd!
Apparently the religious delegation asked John if he were the Christ (the Messiah), or at least John sensed that it was implicitly behind their question, “Who are you?” The apostle John piles up phrases to indicate that the Baptist vigorously denied that he was the Christ (1:20): “and he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” It’s as if the apostle John is saying, “I myself heard him confess and not for one instant deny, and this is what he confessed, that he is not the Christ.” The Baptist’s strong reply left no room for further questioning along those lines.
The delegation tried a different tack (1:21): “What then? Are you Elijah?” It was a good guess. John looked like the description of Elijah, both in his rugged wilderness lifestyle and in his fiery message of judgment (1 Kings 17:4-6; 2 Kings 1:8-10). Malachi (the last O.T. prophet, 400 years before) states (4:5) that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God would send Elijah the prophet to restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. This was taken to mean that before Messiah came, Elijah would come. But again, John’s answer was not ambiguous: “I am not.”
This denial seems to contradict what Jesus later stated, that John was the Elijah of Malachi 4 (Matt. 11:14; 17:11). Also, the angel who predicted John’s birth to his father Zecharias, cited the same prophecy and said that John would go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). So why does John deny that he is Elijah?
There could be several answers. First, John probably knew that some Jews were expecting the literal Elijah, who did not die but was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, to return in a spectacular way from heaven. John denied that he was this literal Elijah. But Jesus was not speaking of the literal Elijah, but of John coming in the spirit and power of Elijah. Also, John had a humble opinion of himself. He may not have seen as much significance in his ministry as Jesus did (Carson, p. 143). Leon Morris (pp. 135-136) observes, “Jesus confers on John his true significance. No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.” John was not interested in building a following after himself as a latter-day Elijah, but rather in pointing others to Jesus as the Christ. So John denied that he was Elijah.
The delegation tries a third possibility: “Are you the Prophet?” John’s answers are growing increasingly short: “No.” He wants to cut off all this misleading speculation about himself. The religious leaders were referring to the prophet that Moses had predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” The Jews distinguished between this latter-day prophet and Messiah (John 6:14; 7:40-41), but early Christian preachers equated the prophet that Moses predicted with Messiah (Acts 3:22; 7:37). But John doesn’t want to go there, so he just gives the terse reply, “No.”
At this point the delegation has nothing positive to put in their report to the leaders back in Jerusalem, so they repeat their question (1:22): “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” This leads to John’s plain statement of who he is:
John was clear on who he was and on what his role was in God’s economy. His interchange with these leaders brings out three positive ways that John viewed himself:
John 1:23: “He said, ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.’” He was citing Isaiah 40:3. The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatever (Morris, p. 137). He did not say, “I am the great voice referred to by Isaiah in the Scriptures!” He did not say, “I am the important voice, the voice that will forever change world history. That is my exalted role!” Rather, he is just a voice, calling attention to the coming of the Lord. The imagery was that before a king would visit a town, a messenger would go before him to announce his coming. The townspeople would hurry out to clear away the obstacles and fill in the washed out parts of the road to smooth the way for the king’s coming. The messenger didn’t call attention to himself, but to the coming king. And John here makes it clear that the coming King is none other than the Lord. Messiah is God!
“Wilderness” here may have a spiritual allusion to the barren state of the Jewish religion (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:51). It had degenerated into religious ritualism and legalism, rather than a personal relationship with the living God. It is the tendency of all religions, including Christianity, to devolve from knowing God and walking with Him on the heart level into outward observance of rituals and rules. Whenever that happens, God raises up spokesmen to call people back to walking with Him. To do that, we have to clear away the obstacles of sin and fill in the ruts of ritualism that have robbed us of reality with God.
Some Pharisees in the delegation were still not satisfied with John’s answer. So they ask (1:25), “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” At this point, John could have gone into a lengthy discussion of himself and his role as the baptizer. But again, his reply with regard to himself is as brief as possible and then he directs things to Christ (1:26), “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know.” John waits until the next day to draw the contrast between his baptizing in water and Jesus’ baptizing in the Holy Spirit (1:29, 31-33). In verse 28, John identifies the location where John was baptizing as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (the NJKV follows an inferior textual variant, “Bethabara”), distinguishing it from the Bethany that was near Jerusalem.
John’s baptism was unique. It was common for Gentile proselytes to Judaism to be baptized. And some Jewish communities practiced self-baptism for cleansing. But John was doing the baptizing and he was doing it on Jewish people, even calling on the Jewish religious leaders to repent and be baptized (Matt. 3:7-12). This surely would have been offensive to the racially and religiously proud Jews.
His baptism seemed to have two facets: First, it was a baptism of repentance in which those being baptized confessed their sins and prepared themselves for the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 3:2, 6; Luke 3:3). He exhorted those being baptized to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, as opposed to relying on their Jewish heritage for right standing with God (Luke 3:8-14).
Second, his baptism anticipated the coming Messianic baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17). It was a sign to point people to the coming of the Messiah (John 1:31). John may also have seen his baptism as a rite of prophetic symbolism. The Old Testament prophets often performed symbolic acts to make their message more vivid. John may have been symbolizing through baptism the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of God cleansing His people before the coming of Messiah (Ezek. 36:25; 37:23; Zech. 13:1). But as with his role as a voice crying out in the wilderness, so with his role as baptizer: He was preparing people for the coming of the Lord, the Messiah. He was not building up his own following. The third way that John saw himself lines up with the first two:
After telling the religious leaders that they did not know the One standing among them (1:26b), John continues to describe Him (1:27): “It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (A.D. 250) taught, “All manner of service that a slave must render to his master, the pupil must render to his teacher—except that of taking off his shoe” (cited by Kostenberger, p. 65). So John saw himself as a lowly slave and Jesus as such a worthy Master that John wasn’t even worthy to untie His sandal strap. To point people to Christ, we need to join John in esteeming ourselves less and exalting Christ more. People don’t need to be impressed with us, but with Jesus!
The world will always give us opportunities to esteem ourselves more highly than we ought, but those who are growing in godliness see themselves as unworthy slaves (Luke 17:10). The world will ask, “Are you the Christ?” While they may not go so far as to answer “yes,” there are plenty of self-inflated preachers who will say, “No, I’m not the Christ, but I’m glad that you noticed the resemblance!” “Well, then, are you Elijah or the Prophet?” “Well, you could say that I’m a lot like them. Yes, if Elijah were here now, I’m sure that we’d be best of friends because we’re so much alike!” Many of the TV preachers reek of pride. But genuine prophets, like John, don’t call attention to themselves, except to admit, “I’m just an unworthy slave. Jesus is the only worthy Master. Follow Him!”
We’ll see more of how John pointed these religious leaders to Jesus in our next study. In the study following that, we will see how he pointed his own disciples to Jesus. He wasn’t trying to hang onto them for himself or to build a following or a legacy to “John the Baptist Ministries, International.” John’s motto was (John 3:30), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” It’s a good rule to keep in mind when you get a chance to talk about spiritual things. Ask, who do you think Jesus is? Have you considered His claims? Have you read the gospels to learn about His supernatural life? Everything hangs on who Jesus is and what He did for us on the cross.
Also, the need of every sinner is to know Christ as Savior and Lord. That’s especially true of religious sinners. John easily could have thought that these religious leaders had it together spiritually. After all, they meticulously kept the Law of Moses. They went beyond the Law by tithing their table spices and keeping rituals of cleansing and other outwardly observable religious duties (Matt. 23). But their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-9). Religious sinners are often the most difficult to reach for Christ, because they are proud of their religion and blind to their pride. But they need to be confronted with the fact that in their midst stands One whom they do not know (John 1:26).
Here are four lessons from John the Baptist on how to evaluate accurately who you are so that you can point people to Christ:
First, if you’re only into religion rather than Christ, you will flatter yourself with your religious performance rather than humble yourself in the holy presence of Christ. These religious leaders didn’t go out to hear John preach so that they could repent and come to know God better. They were quite satisfied with their religious performance, thank you! They were there to bring John under their control so that more people didn’t follow him, because he threatened their comfy religious establishment. Their religion filled them with pride and kept them from knowing the Messiah and Savior. Religion is always the enemy of reality with God.
Second, you can only evaluate yourself correctly and point people to Jesus to the extent that you truly know Him. Ask yourself, “Do I have reality with God? Do I walk daily with Christ? Do I repent of my sins on the heart or thought level?” J. C. Ryle (3:48) observed, “It will be better at the last day never to have been born, than to have had Christ ‘standing among us’ and not to have known Him.”
Third, humility is essential for a correct view of yourself, but self-esteem is detrimental. That may shock you since self-esteem is viewed in evangelical circles as foundational for the Christian life. But that “doctrine” has only flooded into the church in the past 40 years thanks to Christian leaders importing it from worldly psychology.
When you read the godly men from the past, they consistently pit self-esteem against the self-denial and humility that Jesus commanded. John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], ed. by John McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2:1:2) observed, “There is, indeed, nothing that man’s nature seeks more eagerly than to be flattered.” He goes on to point out that self-love is innate in us all and that people will flock to preachers who tickle their pride and build their self-esteem. But such talk only deceives us and drives us into utter ruin (see also, Calvin, 2:8:54; 3:7:5; 3:8). In commenting on John’s humility, J. C. Ryle (3:44-45) said, “Never shall we feel the need of humility so deeply, as when we lie on our deathbeds, and stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. Our whole lives will then appear a long catalogue of imperfections, ourselves nothing, and Christ all.”
Fourth, whatever your gifts and calling, you can do as John did and point people to Jesus. John’s aim was to deflect attention from himself and to exalt Christ as the one worthy of all glory. As we’ll see in verses 29 & 36, he pointed everyone to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Sinners need their sins forgiven. By offering Himself as the substitute for sinners, Jesus will forgive the sins of all that trust in Him. Tell people that wonderful news!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation