Sermon, September 27, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
We continue this morning with our study of John, and I hope that you’ve had as great a time as I have even just in these first two weeks looking at the prologue. Those first 18 verses are so masterful, so full of theology, full of Christology, and function together as an incredible reminder of who is the God we serve. Christ is the Word, Christ is Light which is life. Just wonderful. I hope you enjoyed that study.
Well, with those first 18 verses behind us we turn to verse 19 and beyond, and it is a this point that John turns from introducing to us all of these lofty metaphors, these eternal truths about God the Father and Jesus and their relationship, and he begins at this point his narrative, the particulars of the story he is about to tell. And he begins with John the Baptist. Let’s read together, shall we, the verses for our consideration today, John chapter 1, verses 19-28. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The Word of the Lord.
Like I said, this is the beginning of the narrative, the focus shifts from as broad as it can be—the heavens and the earth, eternity past—and it focuses down now on one man, in one place, Bethany across the Jordan, and at one time. We look down and we see what John introduces to us as the testimony of John the Baptist. So the first thing we’re going to do is walk through this story and see if we can give even more context to what is going on here. And following that we will look at the example of John the Baptist, his testimony here, and see what we can apply to our lives as Christians.
Let’s walk through the story. The first thing we notice about the story of John the Baptist, is that it’s the story of John the Baptist! No, I’m not going crazy or forgetting where I am, but that is where John chooses to begin the story. There is no mention of the Christmas story, there is no account of the childhood of Christ, which included a visit from Magi, a flight to Egypt, the boy Jesus at the temple, none of that. We skip right from the introduction to the story of John the Baptist, and we’ll see over the next couple of weeks how great a story that is, since he will figure in the story for at least two more sermons. But remember back to the introduction to this whole series—John is the last of the gospels to be written, and he writes in a context, to a people that he assumes know about the other gospels, have heard their stories, that for the most part, John’s audience has access to what is in those gospels. Some people trying to discredit the authorship of John, or denying its place in scripture have pointed to the fact that it seems to be missing a lot of the stories and the teaching that the other ones have in common. To that we say, “so what?” Because what is the Apostle John’s purpose with this gospel, let’s remember his thesis from chapter 20: he is writing this to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and that he is the Son of God. And to stay focused on that, he skips over the information he assumes you already have, and he focuses on the ones that prove that thesis. So we should approach this account of John the Baptist assuming that it adds weight to that argument, that it proves that point.
Here we go! Now we know from Luke’s gospel a little bit more about the back story of John the Baptist. There Luke tells of how John the Baptist’s birth had also been a miraculous event, and announced in dramatic fashion. If you don’t recall Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel, just like Mary, and told that he and his wife are going to have a son. And of course, Zechariah, like Abraham and Sarah centuries before says, “we’re too old, how is that going to work?” I’m a bit puzzled sometimes about how that question comes out—the angel Gabriel is standing in front of you telling you it’s going to happen, that’s how. And recall that because of that lack of faith on Zechariah’s part, he is rendered mute until the child is born. But what does Luke record for us that Gabriel told Zechariah about his son who would be John the Baptist? Luke 1:16-17:
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
His job was to make ready for the Lord a people, to prepare people for his arrival. Had the Jews not been preparing for his arrival? Remember that, as we said last week, the Jews had in their possession the entire canon of what we now call the Old Testament for about 400 years. And it hadn’t been sitting on a shelf for that time, they had been studying it all those years looking for the Messiah, looking for clues, looking for signs of the Messiah. In the end they didn’t read them correctly, but they had found many nonetheless, and there was discussion about what those signs actually meant, and that is what leads us to this conversation beginning in verse 19:
the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
I can imagine that in four hundred years with no prophesy, this situation had happened before. The Jews in Jerusalem hear of a person somewhere else who is gaining lots of followers, who has a unique story, and the rumor mill has begun that possibly this person could be the Christ, the one they’ve been waiting for. That rumor, that word reaches the higher-ups in Jerusalem, and at some point the possibility seems credible enough that they do what? They put together a delegation, a little investigative team to go check out the situation, see what all the fuss is about.
And it happens again, they hear of this man, in the wilderness, by the river Jordan, and he is a little rough around the edges, wearing the simplest of clothing and eating only locusts and honey, and people are flocking to him, and he’s preaching about repentance and generosity. And they send a delegation. If you read the other accounts of John the Baptist, there is actually a lot more detail about what he was preaching, the kinds of people who were around him, etcetera. But John is not using this story to tell us about John the Baptist, he’s using it to tell us about Jesus Christ, so see how the Apostle John stays completely Christ-focused through this whole telling of the story. First, the delegation from Jerusalem asks him, “who are you?” Now that question was not general, tell me about yourself, right? The delegation is there to first and foremost answer one question: “Is this person we’re hearing about the Messiah?” So when they ask this, that’s what they’re asking, and John’s response confirms that.
20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
This is a bit of an awkward, contorted phrase used to answer here, but it is that way in order to be emphatic: He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed—he says it positively, then in a double-negative, then positively again, “I am not the Christ.” But the conversation continues, as you might expect it to:
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
We got the answer to our first question, our primary question, but we can’t go back to Jerusalem just saying that, because the higher-ups are going to immediately come back with, “well, who was he then?” So they ask more. And there are two possibilities they offer, both rooted in their study of the Old Testament and their theories about who the Messiah would be. The first they suggest is Elijah, and we read for our Old Testament reading earlier the closing passage of the Old Testament, the last chapter of Malachi. And in that chapter, the final words from God before the 400 years of silence “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
And so one of the things that they would be looking for is a reappearance of Elijah. And John the Baptist was Elijah, symbolically. Luke recorded, and we just read, how the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be “filled with the spirit of Elijah.” Jesus himself calls John the Baptist Elijah, in spirit. But John is not lying here in our story when he tells the delegation “no,” because he knew they were asking if he were actually Elijah in the flesh. The Pharisees of the time of course knew that Elijah never died, he was taken up in a fiery chariot, and so they thought when he was promised in Malachi, that they were looking for Elijah himself, who never died, to return. So John responds in truth, “no.”
What is their next suggestion? “Are you the Prophet?” Here again, they are looking for clues, and they remembered Deuteronomy 18:15, where it says: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” So they were looking for this promised prophet as well. And John says, “no, I’m not that one either.” Instead he says:
23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
And this is the passage that all four gospels relay in reference to John the Baptist, and is set so beautifully at the very opening of Handel’s Messiah, the first five verses of Isaiah 40:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
And note when John says he is the one crying, that is crying out, shouting, announcing, being a herald for who is coming.
So that’s it, then, they have their answer, right? John has told them that he is not the Christ, he is not Elijah in the flesh, he isn’t the Prophet from Deuteronomy, but he is the herald mentioned in Isaiah 40. But then there’s a little note in the next verse: 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) Uh oh. The Pharisees were very strict, they had figured everything out, and they had a further problem with Elijah. They wanted to know whether or not he was the Messiah, definitely, but their bigger problem was that they had heard, and now the delegation saw, that John was in fact baptizing people. And what’s wrong with that? He was not authorized. They asked him if he was three different things, and any of those three could have given him the right to baptize people, but he wasn’t any of those three, so:
25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
John’s answer here should have hit them over the head like a ton of bricks. Could he have been much clearer? He says he is the one in the wilderness making the path straight, making a highway for the Messiah to ride in on—that’s who he claims to be—and then he says that person, the Messiah is standing among you! He says I may be baptizing, yes, but this is just a sign, the power to do what the sign shows is in the one who is here, the one I’m pointing to. This baptism signifies cleansing, repentance and being free from sin, but it doesn’t come from me, this is just water. But he who is among you, the Messiah, he is the power to do this thing, to actually cleanse the sin from people.
And if you haven’t yet gathered where I seem my place compared to that person, the one that I’m pointing to, I’ll tell you, I am not worthy enough to untie his sandal. That is a weighty statement in the culture, and has even more symbolism tied to it. It of course points to Christ washing the feet of his disciples (which is only recorded in John), but that episode and this one points directly to our first major application of this story to our lives, and that is our humble posture toward our Savior.
When John says that he can’t even untie Christ’s sandal, he is saying that in rank, in worth, he is beneath the level of slave. Many teachers had disciples, and those disciples would serve their masters, for sure. Find them lodging, get them food, etcetera. We see Jesus’s disciples do the same for him elsewhere in scripture, but there is one thing that disciples were above, and that was doing anything that had to do with their master’s feet. At the time, feet were viewed as a dishonorable part of the body, always dirty and never clean—anything dealing with feet was reserved for children or slaves. And John goes one step further, he says I am so low compared to Jesus that I can’t even begin to try to serve his feet by untying his sandal, that’s how low I am!
Like I said at the outset, this entire telling of John the Baptist’s role in Christ’s story stays, more than the other accounts, focused squarely on Christ and not the baptizing ministry that John was doing himself. All Christ-focus, not John focus.
This is our task of humility. When you think about it, John the Baptist holds an enormously lofty place in the story of history, doesn’t he? Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, David was the greatest of the Kings, Elijah the greatest of the prophets—John the Baptist is somewhere in that club. He was the herald announcing the arrival of the Messiah. But with that “rank,” he sounds an awful lot like Paul, doesn’t he? Don’t look at me, I am nothing except Christ in me. Is that often enough our attitude? This world, our culture, our society is built with not just a different, but an entirely opposite bent. Humility is not rewarded, it is achievement. It is rank, it is wealth, it is all of this material world that the Devil likes to distract us with, distract us from seeing the reality. We are nothing, and all that we can achieve is nothing, without the Messiah, without the Christ.
And that is humbling, is it not? John is a model of humility for us. And why is John humbled, and we should be too? He’s not saying this because someone told him to “be humble,” it is because he is recognizing the place that actually occupies. Because of the astounding thing that happened when God became man to save us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I remember last fall when we were studying Philippians 2, and reflecting on the Christ Hymn there. You cannot get an accurate picture in your mind of how great Jesus is until you understand (if that were possible) how great the humiliation of the Son of God was for him to take on flesh. To be clothed in the nature of one of his creations. When we truly understand the magnitude of that, we can start to see how lowly and in need of that Savior we are. And John the Baptist got it.
Which brings us to the second application. Once you understand how great and awesome Christ is, there is only one thing that you can do. You can testify. The section begins, “And this is the testimony of John….” We are all like John the Baptist in that our whole purpose, our whole lives have no other real purpose than to point. Our lives are a testimony, they are testifying to those around us constantly, aren’t they?
What is testimony? We use that word and its derivatives a lot. We testify as witnesses in court. We write testimonials to tell others about a person or an organization. We prepare our last will and testament for our families. What is the purpose of all of those situations where we use that word? It is to bring truth into the light, isn’t it? And even more, it is to deliver that truth to someone who needs it, who can benefit from it. There’s always an active communication in a testimony, a delivery of truth to a recipient. In court, we need testimony to establish truth, why? Not just so truth can be known, but so that judges and juries can act on that truth with wisdom. I brought up testimonials, are they not also to reveal truth to people and aid them in wise decision-making? And in a will and testament, isn’t that to guide those we leave behind with knowledge of our wishes, so they may also be wise?
So too do these testaments, the Old and the New ones in our hands right now, require action. They are here to deliver to us truth, not so that truth can sit there, but so that truth may set us free through faith in Jesus Christ.
We are like John the Baptist in that we stand next to Christ in the greatest of humility, but also in the confidence of our testimony. Why would I need to gather riches and glory for myself when I’m already a slave to the one in whom all power, glory, life, and riches are held? That’s worth shouting from the rooftops. There’s a fair amount of encouragement in the epistles to live lives that to the outside world are above reproach. And that’s important, because our entire lives, every decision we make, how we appear to the world is all part of our testimony of Christ. And he deserves the greatest testimony possible.
In Christian circles we are occasionally asked to give our “testimony,” and it often includes the story of how we became aware of our being saved by Christ. Things cited are often dates of conversion, church histories, various crucial points in a Christian walk, etcetera. I think perhaps we sometimes miss why use that word to describe that activity—a testimony. Aren’t we really asking not for a story of yours or my faith life, what we really want to know, and should want to know, is all of the ways that God has ordered your life to point to Christ. How do the events in your past and present testify to the greatness of Jesus Christ? We may get a lot of the same story asking it that way, but I think the focus is better.
Our wish, our prayer today then, is that the Spirit of God would move in our hearts like it did in the heart of John the Baptist, so that we order our lives to point to him, to testify in both word and deed to the greatness of this Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We do pray this day that you would work in all of us to show the light of Christ to the world. If there are those among us today that have never known the comfort, the peace of resting in the greatness of Christ and not their own greatness, we ask that you move in their hearts through the power of your word preached, to bring them into that rest. Grant that we would always through our actions, as individuals and as this church, that we would testify to our neighbors, to Casper, to all those around, that we would communicate the majesty and excellence of Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.