Sunday 13 October 2013

Witness (John 1:19-34)


I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.
John 1:34

What we have in these verses is the testimony of John the Baptist. By which, I don’t mean that John gets up in front of the microphone to tell us a heart-warming story about God doing an amazing miracle in his life. Rather, John is giving us an eyewitness account of what he has seen and heard. A testimony is what you give in a law court as proof of an event that has taken place.

John says in verse 34, “I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” We learn two things as we read this passage from John Chapter 1, verse 19 onwards: (1) John tells us it’s not about him; (2) John tells us it’s all about Jesus.

1. Nobody

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”
John 1:19-20

The scene opens with a religious delegation comprising priests and Levites, sent from Jerusalem to report on the ministry of a radical new pastor called John the Baptist. They are sent there to find out one thing: Who is he? Who does he think he is?

John answers them by telling them who he is not. Verse 20: “I am not the Christ.” Verse 21: “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” John answers each time in the negative, “I am not.” “Nope.”

On the one hand, here are the top religious leaders of the land - the priests and Levites - coming all the way to Bethany (the middle of nowhere) to check John out, asking him if he is the Christ, Elijah or the Prophet, which is a big deal. They think he is The ONE!

“John, the guys in Jerusalem have been very impressed with this new ministry of yours.”

And yet, verse 22, reveals that these guys have a hidden agenda.

22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John 1:22

That last question is quite telling. What do you say about yourself? In other words, they think it’s all a fad. What’s your angle? Your brand? If you see that, you will see how wise John’s reply is. Because they’re asking him, What do you say about yourself? John replies, in effect, by telling them what God’s Word says about him.

23 John replies in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
John 1:23

John says, “I’m a voice. That’s all I am. A voice.” Or another way of putting is: I’m nobody.

John is not calling attention to himself. He is directing our attention to God. “Make straight the way for the Lord.” I’m a nobody telling everybody about Somebody.

Now what is so interesting is how the bible does give attention to this guy called John the Baptist, even though he keeps calling himself a nobody. All four gospels open with the ministry of John the Baptist before introducing us to the ministry of Jesus Christ, as if to say, there is something about John that helps us understand Jesus. There is something about what we see in John the helps us to recognise who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do.

I think the way John does this is by drawing our attention to God’s Word. That’s why he quotes Isaiah the prophet. You see, John is saying his ministry is not new. The whole Old Testament is there to help prepare us to understand who Jesus is. All that the prophets have written in the Old Testament - whether it’s from Moses or David or Isaiah - are there to help prepare us for Jesus. What we need to do is to listen and pay attention to what God is saying to us in his Word about his Son.

So that’s the first thing John does: He draws attention away from himself to focus on God’s word. But the second thing John does is to focus our attention on Jesus and he does this through baptism.

24 The Pharisees who had been sent, 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptise if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah nor the Prophet?”

26 “I baptise with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals (or ‘shoelaces’) I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:24-27

In verse 24, the Pharisees try to humour John. “OK, so we get that you’re not the Christ, nor Elijah nor the Prophet. But in order for you to baptise, you might be somebody special, right?” It’s the same question with a different spin. Instead of focus on who John is, they try to get at what John is doing, namely, baptising people in the Jordan.

Just to clarify: To baptise is just another way of saying ‘to dunk’, as in, to dunk a chocolate chip cookie in a glass of chocolate milk. So, when John says in verse 26, “I baptise with water,” what he is doing is dunking people in the river Jordan.

Furthermore, baptism was not new in John’s day. Priests would baptise non-believers who wanted to worship God. What was unique about John’s baptism, however, was that it was a baptism of repentance. John was telling Jews, “You need to be baptised.” John was saying to believers, “You need to repent.”

Why? Because in verse 26, John looks directly at the Jews around him and directly at the religious leaders standing in front of him and says to them, “Actually, you do not know God.”

“Among you stands one you do not know.”

How surprising is that! How offensive is that! To say to a group of Levites, priest and Pharisees from Jerusalem, “Even if the Christ were standing right in front of you, you wouldn’t recognise him.” Look back to Chapter 1, verse 11, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” And if you read the gospels, that was exactly what happened to Jesus.

Why is that? Why is it that the very people who are looking for Jesus, who are expecting Jesus to come and rescue them and change the world, are the very people who end up walking past him in the street?

Now in a few moments, John himself admits in verse 31, “I myself did not know him.” So at one level, the answer is: It wasn’t obvious. God was keeping it a secret. Jesus didn’t go around with a T-Shirt saying, “I’m God.”

But on another level, John reveals a big problem that keeps us from seeing Jesus and that’s pride. Look again at verse 27, and this time, notice how John describes his relationship to Jesus.

“He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Next to Jesus, John is saying, “I’m a nobody. I don’t even deserve to tie his shoelaces.” Now most people who say, “I’m nobody special, I’m useless, I’m good for nothing,” have a problem with low self-esteem. Sometimes we even use language like that to project a sense of false humility, “Oh I couldn’t help out with bible study, I’m not worthy of such a high honour.”

If you know anything about John the Baptist, the last thing you would call him is timid. Here is a guy who gets in your face. He preaches hell-fire and brimstone. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 2:7. He lives in the desert and eats bugs for breakfast!

No, what John means when he calls himself “unworthy” and a nobody is: You can’t be talking about yourself if you’re want to tell people about Jesus. We’re back to the meaning of testimony in the bible. A lot of people think that when they are asked to give their testimony in church, it means they get to tell us what they feel about God. No, a testimony is an account of who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. A testimony is an opportunity to tell the people around you about the God of the bible and the measure of a good testimony is faithfulness: Is what you are saying true?

The scary thing is: People may want your testimony to be about you and not about God. Hence the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to interview John the Baptist. They are not at all interested in what he has to say about Jesus. They just want to know: What’s his secret for success? Is he one of us? The reason why John looks straight at them and says, “You don’t know Jesus,” is because they have made their ministry all about themselves, and that’s really scary. It is possible to take up a position in a church in order to gain popularity. It is tempting to want to go into ministry with the desire to plant a big church, to write books, to become influential - and all the while to make your ministry about yourself and not about God, and to have people applaud you along the way!

When that happens, it’s a symptom of pride and delusion. It might even mean that such a person doesn’t know Jesus and isn’t a Christian at all.

That’s our first point: John’s testimony is not about himself. Which brings us to our second point: John’s testimony is all about Jesus.

2. Somebody

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.
John 1:29-34

So the next day, John sees Jesus coming towards him and says, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This is guy I’ve been talking about. He is the Son of God, the Messiah. Compared to him I’m a nobody; he’s the real somebody. I’ve come to dunk you in water; he has come to dunk you with the Holy Spirit - to completely immerse us with the Holy Spirit.

Here is the question. You hear John saying these words to you, “Here’s Jesus.” You turn to see the person he is talking about. What do you expect to see? How does the passage describe Jesus right after John introduces him with such colourful language?

My point is this: It doesn’t say anything. All we have is John’s testimony. He tells us to look. “Look!” he says in verse 29. He says it again in verse 35, “Look the Lamb of God.” But when we try to look for a description of Jesus - maybe what he looks like, or how tall he is or what he is wearing - the bible is silent.

Instead, what the bible does is describe Jesus with words from the Old Testament. Lamb of God: that comes from the Exodus rescue from Egypt. The lamb was sacrificed to pay for the life of the first born child. Later on in Israel’s history, a lamb would be sacrificed each year in the temple to pay for the sins of the people.

Or the Spirit of God that comes down to rests on Jesus. That, too, is a picture from the Old Testament, from Isaiah Chapter 11, verse 2, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the  knowledge and fear of the LORD.”

Yes, John is telling us what he saw at the baptism of Jesus with the Spirit descending like a dove. And all the other gospels record for us the event as an important marker of Jesus’ approval as God’s chosen Son and the promised suffering Servant, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased,” God says of him at his baptism. But more important than that is how the bible wants us - how John wants us to see - that Jesus fulfills all these promises that God gave for thousands of years in his word. More important than what merely happened, the bible wants us to know why it happened.

Because in God’s wisdom, it is not merely seeing that leads to believing, but hearing that leads to faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Or as Romans 10:17 says, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”

John is giving his testimony about Jesus Christ. He tells us what he sees. But notice, he tells us what God says. Look at verse 33.

And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’

How did John know that Jesus was the Son of God, the Lamb of God and God’s Chosen One. It wasn’t because of what he saw. It was because of what God told him in order that John would understand what he saw.

Now someone might say, “Well, that’s nice for John. But I wish I could have seen the Spirit come down on Jesus. Then, maybe then, I’ll believe that he really is the Son of God.” If that is you, turn to John Chapter 20, and verse 31.

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John 20:31

Here it is worth pointing out that John, the author of this gospel, is a different John from John the Baptist. Why that is important is because John the Baptist died soon after his witness to Christ. This account called the gospel according John was written by one of Jesus’ followers, it says in verse 31, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.”

Friends, you are in a position to understand so much more compared to John the Baptist because you get to see the cross. You have the whole story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist never got to see that, but this gospel was written so that you can not only see but understand why Jesus came to die for our sins, and how by believing in Jesus, “you may have life in his name.” In a sense, you get to see things, John never got to see in his lifetime.

Conclusion: Hearing the voice in the wilderness

To recap, we have seen two things in today’s passage: (1) John pointing away from himself; and (2) John pointing us towards Jesus. By way of application, I would like to apply these two points towards the Christians and non-Christians here today.

The first point is for the Christians here today, who claim to know Jesus, to have been saved by him in order to live for him. Well, the question is: When someone looks at your life, do they just see you - your accomplishments, your gifts, your personality - and if so, how are you directing that attention to God? Are you consciously pointing away from yourself like John, “It’s not me, It’s not about me,” and directing your focus on Jesus, “It’s all about him.” That’s the first point of application: If you’re a Christian, think of the biggest investment in your life - your career, your marriage, your business - how does that look to the world and do people see as something you’re building for your own gain or for God’s?

The second point is a challenge for non-Christians here today. It’s this: Can you imagine living your life for someone other than yourself? What would that be: A cause? Someone you love? God? Can you imagine a purpose that is bigger than just your own comfort and happiness?

In John the Baptist we meet a man who claims he is a nobody speaking to everybody about Somebody who really matters - Jesus. He gives us his eyewitness account of Jesus as the Lamb of God, God’s chosen Son, the Christ whom God has chosen to receive all glory and power and dominion. And the gospel ends by telling us that the proof is there - it’s all right there, if we care to read it - to show that Jesus is, indeed, the promised Messiah, and that by believing in him, we receive life in his name.

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