The Witness of John (John 1:19-37)
Thirty years ago, my wife Jeannette and I concluded that God was leading us to attend Dallas Theological Seminary. After college, I began to teach school in a little town called Gig Harbor, just across the Narrows Bridge from Tacoma, Washington. God led us to a wonderful little church and a godly pastor, who fueled a passion to expound the Word of God. When we left, we had a one-year-old child and another on the way. Bidding a tearful farewell to our family and friends, we set out on an adventure which we believed would be four years long. It has ended up being many more years than that. We had a part-time job waiting for us in Dallas, managing an apartment complex, which would at least provide us with our housing. We did not know of any other employment for certain, and even when we learned that God had another job waiting for me, our income met only half of our monthly needs. I am sure there are those who feel that we should have waited to come to Dallas, until we were assured of the means to accomplish what we believed God had called us to do, namely to graduate from Dallas Seminary.48 Our seminary years were some of the most challenging and exciting times of our lives, as we witnessed God’s care and provision on many occasions.
Our experience was not unique. Can you imagine Abraham leaving his family and homeland and setting out for an undisclosed place far away from home? Or think of how Moses felt leaving his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness and going to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand that he let God’s people go. Think of what it would have been like for the Israelite priests to step into the Red Sea, trusting God to somehow make a path through the sea to the other side. Or imagine setting off into the desert with your family and all of your possessions, trusting God to provide all you need until you reach the promised land of Canaan.
Now place yourself in the sandals and camel hair suit of John the Baptist. God commands you to go out and to begin calling the nation Israel to repentance, announcing that the Messiah is soon to be revealed. You are not even certain at the time just who the Messiah is—or how He is to be revealed. You are to preach in the wilderness, so that all who want to hear you must come out of the city and into the wilderness. You have never even performed so much as one miracle. Can you imagine faithfully preaching a message of repentance in preparation for Messiah, as John the Baptist did, without even knowing the name of the one about whom you were preaching?
Truly John the Baptist is a remarkable man, and Jesus had only good things to say about him:
7 While they49 were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Those who wear soft clothes are in the homes of kings. 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes. I tell you, even more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it was written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 “Now I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. 15 The one who has ears, listen!” (Matthew 11:7-15 NET)50
It was not just our Lord who thought highly of John the Baptist. Even though John had condemned Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herod had great respect for John and his preaching. He even protected him:
17 For Herod himself had sent men to seize John and bind him in prison, on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he married her. 18 For John told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him, but she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John, since he knew that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was thoroughly baffled, yet he liked to listen to him (Mark 6:17-20).
By nearly any standard, one would have to admit that John is “unique.” He dressed strangely, wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). He kept the Nazarite vow, refraining from wine and strong drink (Luke 1:15; 7:33-34). Filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb (Luke 1:15, 40-41), he was a man of prayer, who taught his disciples to pray (Luke 5:33; 11:1).
John was the “talk of the town” from the time of his birth. His father, Zacharias (a priest), and his mother had been unable to bear children, especially after she reached old age (Luke 1:5-25; 59-66). John’s birth was supernatural. When John began to preach, people came in large numbers to hear him:
People from all over Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan river, as they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5).
“He was a lamp that was burning and shining, and you wanted to rejoice greatly for a short time in his light” (John 5:35).
John’s popularity continued, even after his death. John’s ministry and message reached far and wide. Peter used the words of John to defend his actions at the home of Cornelius (Acts 10-11, see especially 11:15-18). Paul included the message and ministry of John in the gospel he preached (Acts 13:23-25). Apollos was a man “well-versed in the Scriptures,” and until he came across Aquila and Priscilla, he knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-25). When Paul reached Ephesus, he came across those who were disciples who knew only John’s baptism (Acts 19:1-7).
John did not gain popularity by catering to his audience. His headquarters were not in Jerusalem with a fine church building and full service programs; he offered no childcare or free meals. In fact, John never attracted crowds by performing signs (John 10:41-42). From what Luke writes, we know that John’s message did not appeal to the flesh:
7 So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruits that reflect repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Already the ax is aimed51 at the root of the trees; thus every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 10 So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do?” 11 John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none; and the person who has food must do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.” 14 Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us—what should we do?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay. 15 While the people were filled with anticipation, and they all pondered in their hearts whether perhaps John could be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but there is one coming more powerful than I am, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.” 18 Thus with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news to the people (Luke 3:7-18).
The Apostle John, author of the Gospel of John, seems to have previously been a disciple of John the Baptist. It must have been with great affection and regard for the Baptist that the Apostle writes of him in the first chapter of his Gospel. We find the ministries and messages of John the Baptist and Jesus interspersed and inter-twined in this first chapter. John sought to identify himself with Jesus, and Jesus surely sought to identify with John and his message. There is, however, a great difference between these two individuals, as the Apostle John makes clear in this chapter. William Hendriksen52 calls attention to these points of contrast:
a. was from all eternity
b. is the Word
b. is mere man
c. is himself God
c. is commissioned by God
d. is the real light
d. came to testify about the real light
e. is the object of trust
e. is the agent through which men came to trust in the real light, even Christ
In trying to expound this text about John the Baptist, I feel very much like that future time when I am supposed to preach my grandmother’s funeral. Nearly 20 years ago, Grandma Deffinbaugh wrote me a note, asking me to preach her funeral sermon. Now almost 99 years old and doing quite well for her age, she has given me the texts she would like emphasized. In essence, she has directed me to preach the gospel and to avoid a great deal of talk about her. It is a noble request, but a difficult thing to accomplish, especially at her own funeral!
It is clear that the Apostle John is attempting to honor the Baptist’s guiding principle of exalting Christ and not himself. Nevertheless, we will not do justice to our text, or to John the Baptist, if we do not reflect on those things which set this man apart. After all, our Lord Himself referred to the Baptist as the greatest Old Testament saint (Matthew 11:11). We will do well then to explore the greatness of John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet.
Although our text begins at verse 19 of John 1, we must go back to the earliest references to John the Baptist in this Gospel to learn about, and from, this great prophet.
6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.
The Word was; John came. The Word was the Light; John came, sent from God as a witness to this Light. John was a witness, and the Lord Jesus was the One about whom John testified. John was not the light, but a witness sent to testify that the Light was coming. To us, these words may seem redundant—old news. But they were, and they are, revolutionary. Nothing like the coming of our Lord in human flesh has ever happened before—nor will it ever happen again. John’s role in this is important, yet definitely subordinate. No one knows this more than John. What the Apostle John writes in verses 6-8, the Baptist53 reiterates and underscores in his own testimony. These verses give us the reality by which John the Baptist governed his life and ministry.
John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am54 because he existed before me.’”
The first words of the Baptist, which the Apostle John records in verse 15, concern the Baptist’s subordinate status in relation to the Word, the One of whom he bears witness. Notice that the Baptist does not refer to Jesus by name. How can he? He doesn’t know for certain who the “coming One” is. This is partly the reason He is called the “Word” (verse 1) and “He who comes after me” (verse 15). The identity of the Messiah is yet to be revealed to John. What he does know, he tells us: this “coming One” outranks him because He existed before him (verse 15).
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed—“I am not the Christ.” 21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”
We have already seen that John is exceedingly popular. The unusual circumstances surrounding his birth aroused interest and curiosity, if not hope (Luke 1:65-66), and his public ministry fueled the flames of Israel’s messianic hopes: “While the people were filled with anticipation, and they all pondered in their hearts whether perhaps John could be the Christ” (Luke 3:15).
John drew large crowds, and many were going to him for baptism. John recognizes some of these baptismal candidates as insincere, and he appears to refuse to baptize them (Luke 3:7-9). John is of a priestly line, although his ministry is certainly independent of official mainline Judaism. Early in his youth, he retreats to the deserts to live until the time comes for him to commence his public ministry (Luke 1:80), and even then his ministry is conducted in the wilderness rather than in Jerusalem or any city (Luke 3:1-3). While it seems that nearly every segment of society is represented in the crowd which comes to hear John and to be baptized by him (see Luke 3:10-14), one group is conspicuously absent: “However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John” (Luke 7:30).
Are these Pharisees some of those John refused to baptize? It does not seem likely. Luke does not tell us John refuses to baptize them, but that they refuse John’s baptism. I am therefore inclined to believe these Pharisees and lawyers are folks who never went out to the wilderness to hear John. In fact, I am inclined to think these same Pharisees and lawyers are those who sent the delegation to John to inquire who he claimed to be, and just what his ministry was about.
We know from our Lord’s later words that the scribes and Pharisees loved a following: “Woe to you experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You cross land and sea to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!” (Matthew 23:15).
From what the Gospels tell us, it also seems that these Pharisees were not inclined to give up the place they had made for themselves: “47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation’” (John 11:47-48). It is neither orthodoxy, nor a love for the truth, which motivates these religious leaders, but garden variety jealousy (see Matthew 27:18).
“The Jews” who send the delegation to investigate John the Baptist and his ministry are the religious elite of that day, Jews who hold positions of power which they are not inclined to give up, either to John or to Jesus. These men do not come to John personally, for this would acknowledge John’s importance. Instead, they send a lower level delegation of “priests and Levites”55 to John, telling them what to ask, and by so doing, send John a signal that they are in power: they are the ones who accredit the ministry of others. In their minds, they issue religious franchises to men like John, and he can only operate with their permission and under their authority. John is being interrogated like a recent seminary graduate going through an ordination exam.
The first question the delegation asks is, “Who are you?” (verse 19). No one in this delegation seems able to actually speak the word “Messiah.” They do not ask directly, “Are you the Messiah?” But John knows this is the essence of their question.56 Thus he answers, “I am not the Christ” (verse 20), which prompts a sequence of follow-up questions. If John is not the Christ, is he Elijah (verse 21)? This question arises due to the prophecy of Malachi:
4 “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 6 And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:4-6, NKJV).
This question about Elijah, and the answer John gives, may pose a problem for some because of what Luke and our Lord said about John:
15 “For he will be great before the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:15-17).
11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come” (Matthew 11:11-14).
How can John the Baptist say he is not Elijah, when Jesus says that he is? The answer may not be difficult. You may remember that Elijah did not die, but was taken into heaven in a chariot of fire, so that his body could not be found (see 2 Kings 2:1-17). It seems some expected Elijah to return in person. John rightly denies being Elijah in person. Yet, we read in Luke’s Gospel that John the Baptist will go before Messiah “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Jesus then tells His disciples that John is “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14) and prefaces His statement with, “If you are willing to receive it.” Thus, John is a kind of Elijah, who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, fulfilling (or partially fulfilling) the prophecy of Malachi 4. John both is and is not Elijah. He is Elijah in spirit; he is not literally Elijah in the flesh.57
If John is not Elijah, then is he “the Prophet”?58 “The Prophet” must refer to the “Prophet like Moses,” prophesied in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy:
15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, 16 according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ 17 And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. 18 I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. 19 And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19, NKJV).
This “Prophet like Moses” is not John the Baptist; He is the One for whom John is the forerunner, the Messiah. And so John quickly responds “No” to their question about him being this Prophet (John 1:21). Here is a man of very few words, and his responses are becoming shorter and shorter. The longer response of verse 23 is a quotation of Scripture taken from Isaiah 40, verse 3.
This delegation of less-than-prominent Jewish officials is becoming concerned. They have been sent to put John on the spot by asking for his credentials and his agenda. As they press him with possible options, he persistently answers in the negative. He is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet. Who, then, is he? These fellows must return to Jerusalem with a report, and yet they have almost nothing to tell the Jewish Sanhedrin. They must fill out their “report forms,” and John is of no help at all. And so they press John to tell them who he is. They do not really want to hear his answer, because it is merely the citation of a text from the Prophet Isaiah: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Isaiah 40:3, NKJV).
John’s answer is still not satisfactory. Here is a man who virtually refuses to dwell on himself. Verse 24 presents some problems for Bible scholars. It is not entirely clear whether John is telling us:
- that a second delegation is present, sent by the Pharisees; or,
- that some in the first delegation have been sent by the Pharisees; or,
- that the whole delegation formerly referred to has been sent by the Pharisees.
It really does not matter greatly. We know that the question about to be asked expresses the concerns of the Pharisees. If John is not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the Prophet, then what in the world is he doing baptizing (verse 24)?
Baptism was not a new or novel ritual to the Israelites. Baptism was one of the rituals59 by which Gentiles were brought into Judaism as proselytes.60 John’s baptism is distressing in light of the meaning and use of baptism in Judaism. These were not Gentiles who were being baptized, but Jews. These were not Gentiles who were being indicted for their sin and warned of God’s coming wrath, but Jews. John was treating Jews as though they were lost sinners, in need of salvation. Most distressing of all, many Jews were believing John and coming to him for baptism. Jewish religious leaders had convinced their Jewish followers that simply being Jewish and keeping the Law (as they interpreted it) was sufficient to save them. John’s ministry and message said otherwise. The Jewish religious system was under siege, and it looked at the moment as though John was prevailing. Of all those who were threatened, the legalistic Pharisees (along with the status quo Sadducees) were most often singled out by John (see Matthew 3:7-9).
Those sent by the Pharisees challenge John to defend his practice of baptizing those who follow him. If he is not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, then why is he baptizing? The Baptist does not really answer their question, at least in an immediate response.61 We are inclined to anticipate the way he will finish his response by the way he begins: “I baptize with water, but …” We immediately supply what we have read elsewhere: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (see Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:15-16). But the Apostle John does not include these words. The Baptist does not want to get into a debate about baptism, whether it be his baptism or that of the Messiah to come. The Baptist continues to press the point that the Apostle John has been underscoring in this first chapter of his Gospel—the supremacy of Christ and the subordination of John, His forerunner.
This delegation wants John to talk about himself and his ministry. But John’s ministry is to magnify the Christ—to focus Israel’s attention on Him. He cannot do so by talking about himself, and so he answers their question about baptism by once again emphasizing the superiority of the coming One, by whom he is outranked. This coming One is somewhere among them, but simply not yet designated. They have not recognized Him either (verse 26).
This One outranks John the Baptist, because He existed before John.62 John begins his Gospel by declaring the Word to be God, who existed before time and creation began. Now the Baptist chooses to underscore the same fact in his response to his questioners. The One who “was” in the beginning is the One who is among them and who is soon to be designated as the Messiah. This One “was,” but John “came.” This One is God, while John tells us that he is simply a man, sent by God. This One is so much greater than the Baptist that John says he is unworthy to loose his sandal straps (verse 27).63
We are told that “these things” took place in Bethany (NIV, NAV, NAB) or Bethabara (KJV, NKJV). But no one knows exactly where this place is—or was. It cannot be the Bethany near Jerusalem, where Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived (John 11:1, 18; 12:1). The “Bethany” of which John writes is “beyond the Jordan.” There could be more than one city in Israel with the same name, so the fact that there were two Bethany’s is no real problem. Even the fact that the location of this place is not known should come as no surprise. When the Jews sought to stone Jesus, He is said to have gone “beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first” (John 10:39-40). It should be safe to conclude that Jesus departed to an out-of-the-way place, where He could not be easily found. If this were the “Bethany” of our text, we would expect that few knew of it, and that none would know today where it once was.
29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this one is the Son of God.”
If the Gospel of John includes a great deal of new material, there is also a lot of material in the Synoptic Gospels which is not in John. The Synoptic Gospels record the baptism of our Lord by John the Baptist:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan. 14 But John tried to prevent him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” 15 So Jesus replied to him, “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John yielded to him. 16 After Jesus was baptized, as he came up from the water the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is the Son I love, in whom I have great delight” (Matthew 3:13-17).
9 Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10 Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with you” (Mark 1:9-11).
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and after Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying, heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).
In his Gospel, Matthew emphasizes John’s humility at the time of our Lord’s baptism. If—as John has been constantly saying—our Lord is vastly superior to him, then why should John baptize Jesus? Should Jesus not baptize him? Matthew’s words tell us even more—they tell us that John has some inkling before His baptism that Jesus is the Messiah. John protests against baptizing Jesus because Jesus is the greater One. Jesus convinces John to baptize Him “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). In being baptized, Jesus identifies Himself with John, and thus with John’s message and ministry.
More importantly for John, in the process of baptizing Jesus, God confirms Him as the promised Messiah. The Synoptic Gospels all speak of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and remaining upon Jesus. All the Gospels tell of God the Father’s testimony, coming from heaven, declaring Jesus to be His beloved Son, in Whom He is well pleased.
John’s Gospel alone explains the significance of our Lord’s baptism to John the Baptist. All the time John has been preaching, telling the Israelites that the Messiah is coming, the Baptist has not known the identity of Messiah for certain. As mentioned, John may have had his suspicions, but he does not have absolute proof. That proof comes at the baptism of Jesus. One day, John the Baptist is proclaiming to the people of Israel that Messiah is among them—but not yet identified. The next day, John is pointing to Jesus, testifying that He is the Messiah—the One of whom he has been speaking, and declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).64
What made the dramatic difference in the Baptist’s preaching from one day to the next? It is what John the Baptist saw and heard at the baptism of our Lord. When, under protest, John baptizes Jesus, he sees the Spirit descend upon Him and remain upon Him. He hears the voice of the Father from heaven, declaring Jesus to be His beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. He now knows for certain who the Messiah is, and from this point on, He refers to Jesus as God’s Messiah, the Son of God (verse 34).
35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Looking at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When his two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
Technically, these three verses are a part of the text we will study in our next lesson, but they also reveal a great deal about John’s character. John has no ambition, other than to exalt the Messiah, and to urge men to prepare for His coming. He refuses to talk a great deal about himself, but he persistently speaks of the greater One, who is coming after him. He keeps pointing men and women to Christ, rather than to himself.
We sometimes hear that “words are cheap,” and so they may be. But John the Baptist is a man whose words are powerful, even seizing the attention of powerful pagan rulers like Herod. Whenever John speaks, he exalts Christ and not himself. Proof of John’s greatness can be seen by the way he responds to Christ’s appearance. John does not play down his message, hoping to keep his following; John promotes Jesus as the promised Messiah. John calls Him the “Lamb of God” (verses 29, 35), and so He will prove to be.
Perhaps the greatest reflection on John’s character is the way in which he encourages his disciples to cease following him and to begin following Jesus as the Messiah. When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he identifies Him to his two disciples as the “Lamb of God.” The two disciples with John at that time leave John and set out after Jesus. This is precisely what John intended. He couldn’t be happier that Jesus is taking some of “his” disciples. He knows this is what he has been called to do—to prepare men to leave him and to follow the Messiah. John’s work is nearly done. It will not be long before God takes him home at the hand of an unwilling Herod.
We can do nothing less than agree with our Lord about the greatness of this man, John the Baptist. Let us pause to summarize some of the things that made John great.
John serves as a model of humility and true servanthood. John is a great man, yet a man of humility. He grasps his role in life, his calling and ministry, and devotes himself to carrying it out. He does not agonize that he cannot be more prominent. He rejoices in exalting the Savior and does not seek to further his own interests.
When the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians, he speaks of sending his “son” Timothy to them before he visits. It is sadly true that then, as now, there are few men like Timothy, or John:
19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you quickly, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. 20 For there is no one here quite like him who cares so genuinely for you. 21 Others are busy with their own concerns, not the Lord’s. 22 But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel (Philippians 2:19-22).
The norm is for men to “seek their own concerns,” rather than the things of God, or others. Timothy is rare in this regard, and so is John. John refuses to feather his own nest at the expense of the gospel. Even when he does not know for certain who the “coming One” is, he still exalts Him above himself.
Those who “seek their own” are many, and examples of such are easily found. Satan is the chief self-seeker (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:11-17). When he tempts men, he tempts them to seek their own interests, as we see in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). He even attempts the same strategy with our Lord in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). The scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus did so out of a desire to protect their own interests. In the Gospels, it is easy to find the disciples individually seeking their own interests, oblivious to our Lord’s resolve to die for sinners on the cross of Calvary. Later, Paul warned of church leaders who would get caught up with gaining a personal following:
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears (Acts 20:28-31, emphasis mine).
John the Baptist is to Jesus in this Gospel what Barnabas is to Paul in the Book of Acts.65 Both these men have their time of prominence and visibility. Both prepare the way for the one who comes after them, who surpasses them. Perhaps it is best to say that John is most like his Master, the Lord Jesus, who is the model for all who would serve others in humility:
1 If there is any comfort in your relationship with Christ, any consolation in love, if any fellowship in the Spirit, and any affection and mercy, 2 complete my joy by being in agreement, having the same love, being harmonious and mutually committed to unity. 3 Instead of doing things for selfish ambition or personal vanity, each of you should be characterized by humility and treat the other person as more important than yourself. 4 Rather than taking care of only yourself, look out for the welfare of others as well. 5 The attitude Christ Jesus had, you should have toward one another, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).
In a day when individualism, competition and success are the guiding principles for life, for work, and even for Christian ministry, we would do well to reflect on the spirit of humility so evident in the life of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is a man who boldly proclaims the truth of the Gospel. John is marked by humility, but this does not prevent him from preaching with boldness. John’s message is not watered down to please his audience. He speaks against sin, whether it be that of tax-gatherers or soldiers or even Herod himself. He clearly identifies sin, condemns it, and calls for repentance. This boldness is not a contradiction to his humility, but a manifestation of it. He is inferior and subordinate to his Lord, the Messiah. He was called of God to proclaim the message he was given. He would do no less than proclaim that message with boldness and clarity. No doubt this played a part in the powerful impact of that message on those who heard it. There are those today, as there have always been, who water down the gospel, and leave out the hard words which define and condemn sin, and which call for repentance. Those who do so think they are doing the gospel a favor by making the message more appealing. In fact, they are emasculating it. Let us not seek to dilute the truth of God’s word as we proclaim it to men.
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, as one who had been crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit; but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:17).
1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged. 2 But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God. 3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, 4 among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).
1 I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom, 2 preach the message, be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and teaching. 3 For there will be a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. Instead following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have a craven curiosity to hear new things. 4 And they will turn away from hearing the truth, but on the other hand they will turn aside to myths. 5 You, however, be self-controlled in all things, suffer hardship, do an evangelist’s work, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
John the Baptist does not assume that just because a person is religious (even a leader) they are righteous. John does not assume that a devoutly religious person is exempt from the preaching of the gospel and the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins. Some of John’s strongest words are addressed to those who are convinced they will be sitting on the 50-yard line in the kingdom of God (see Luke 3:7ff.). Neither the liberal (but powerful) Sadducees, nor the conservative and strict Pharisees were exempt from John’s rebuke (Matthew 3:7). John, like the Lord Jesus whom he served, recognized hypocrisy when he saw it. Both had the harshest words for “religious” hypocrites. Being religious does not get anyone into heaven. Feeling religious is just what Satan wants for you, so that you can rush on to your destruction, all the while supposing that God is pleased with you and your religion. As John said to them, the day of judgment is rapidly approaching (Matthew 3:7-12).
John has much to teach us about witnessing. The Gospel of John speaks of John the Baptist, not as a baptizer, but as a witness. He is a witness whose testimony was faithful and powerful. We can learn both from his message and from his method. John always exalts the Messiah, keeping the spotlight on Him. He avoids drawing attention to himself or even talking about himself. He continually brings the conversation back to Jesus and to what men must do to be saved. While I would not wish to belittle the value of a personal testimony (after all, Paul’s personal testimony is given three times in the Book of Acts), John’s ministry warns us that we must beware not to let ourselves become too prominent, so that the Lord Jesus receives only an “honorable mention” while we get the “first prize.” John always keeps the focus on Christ.
John is an example of a man of faith, the kind of person every Christian should be. Faith believes in what God has promised, rather than in what we now see. Faith lives in the present, in light of the future God has told us is certain. Faith is willing to suffer now in order to enter into God’s glory for all eternity. John spends a good deal of his time in public ministry speaking about a person whose identity he does not know for certain. He speaks a great deal about a Person who is going to come, who is even then present, but not identified, trusting that God will reveal Him. This is faith. And this is the very same kind of faith each of us is called to exercise. Faith is what Hebrews 11 is all about—and faith is what the Christian life is all about as well.
16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. … 5:7 for we live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 5:7).
John is an example of true spirituality. I wish to be very careful how I say this, but I believe the Apostle John represents John the Baptist as a spiritual (shall we say “Spirit-filled”) man of God. We know that the Holy Spirit came upon him while he was still in the womb. We can see many evidences of the fruit of the Spirit in his life. But this is also the man who never performed a miracle. His spirituality was not evidenced by unusual phenomenon, by signs and wonders and healings, because there were none (see John 10:41). His spirituality was evidenced by his faith, his integrity, his humility, and his message. Let us be careful about the kinds of things we look for as proof of piety.
By example, John teaches us a lesson about knowing the will of God. Specifically, I am referring to the “will of God” as to the identify of the Messiah. John had been instructed by God to proclaim the message of the coming of Messiah. John was given the privilege of identifying the One who was the Messiah. But for much of his ministry John did not know who this person was. The way John learned the identity of the Messiah was by going about his “job” (his work) faithfully, and in the course of doing his job, God revealed to him that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Some are tempted to give up the normal routines and duties of life in order to find God’s will. Such was not the case with John. He discerned God’s will by doing the will of God he already knew—preaching his message of the coming of Messiah and of divine judgment, calling men to repent in preparation for His coming, and baptizing.
May God grant that we become more like John the Baptist, living obediently and expectantly, proclaiming to men that the Savior is coming, and urging them to repent of their sins, knowing that a day of judgment is coming. With the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah, John’s message then focused upon Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Have you trusted in God’s Lamb? Jesus was God’s full and final sacrifice for sin. To trust in His sacrificial death for your sins is to enter into eternal life. I pray that if you have not yet trusted in what Jesus Christ has done on your behalf you will do so today.
48 There are a very few times in my life when I have made commitments, not knowing at that moment how God would provide, but assured somehow that He would. By what I am saying, I am not encouraging you to “put God to the test” by taking some precipitous action, assuming that God will bail you out. On the other hand, it may well be that God will give you opportunities to exercise your faith by taking action without knowing how God will provide, if you are convinced that God is leading you to act.
52 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), p. 76. I have modified his words somewhat, but the essence of this contrasting chart comes from his work.
53 I am referring to John the Baptist as “the Baptist” to clearly distinguish between the Apostle John and John the Baptist. I do this knowing that the title “John the Baptist” is not found in John’s Gospel, but only in the Synoptic Gospels.
55 It is logical that the priests came, since John the Baptist came from a priestly line (Luke 1:5). The Levites were almost a kind of security guard for the temple. No high level Jewish authorities appear to be present. They remained in Jerusalem, for it was from there that they dispatched this delegation to look into John’s ministry.
56 In reading of the arrival of this delegation and the questions they ask John, I have the distinct impression they have never personally heard John speak. How can they possibly ask such questions if they had?
57 An illustration of what I am saying might be found in the bread and the wine which we eat and drink in the celebration of Communion. Symbolically, the bread is our Lord’s flesh and the wine is His blood; in reality they are not, they are just symbols (see Luke 22:17-20; John 6:51-66).
58 It seems evident that then, as now, the various elements of prophecy are confused. The Prophet and the Messiah were one and the same person. “Elijah” was not. It is easy to see this when looking back on fulfilled prophecy, but not at all easy when looking forward.
62 You will remember that John the Baptist was born before our Lord (see Luke 1 & 2), so this prior existence cannot be understood to mean that Jesus was older than (born before) John. Furthermore, John has not yet been informed that Jesus is the Coming One. He must therefore be speaking of our Lord’s pre-existence (i.e. pre-incarnation existence) as God.
63 “Loosing the sandal was the task of a slave. A disciple could not be expected to perform the task. To understand the full impact of this, we must bear in mind that disciples did do many services for their teachers. Teachers in ancient Palestine were not paid (it would be a terrible thing to ask for money for teaching!). But instead, in partial compensation, disciples were in the habit of performing little services for their Rabbis. But the line must be drawn somewhere, and menial tasks like loosing the sandal thong came under this heading. There is a Rabbinic saying (in its present form, dating from c. A.D. 250, but probably much older): ‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong’ (SBk, I, p. 121). John selects this task which the Rabbinic saying stresses as too menial for any disciple, and declares himself unworthy to perform it.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 141,
64 Much has been written on this verse. It is true that one may not be able to clearly link John’s words with any one verse or portion of Scripture (e.g., the Passover Lamb of Exodus or the “lamb led to slaughter” in Isaiah 53), but they may well sum up the sacrificial references to Messiah in the Old Testament. John the Baptist’s words are pregnant with meaning, more than he knew at the time (see Luke 7:18-19ff.; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
65 At the outset of the Book of Acts, Barnabas is the prominent person (see Acts 4:36-37; 9:26-29), who is the leader when he and Paul minister together (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1), but then suddenly Paul emerges as the leader, who overshadows Barnabas from that point on (Acts 13:9ff., see especially verse 13). Barnabas not only graciously accepts this, one gets the distinct impression this was his intention from the beginning.