Humility of The Baptist
Scripture: John 1:19–28
Humility of The BaptistJohn 1:19-28
Sunday, July 21, 2002
Pastor Randy Smith
One evening the great conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was a brilliant performance, at the end of which the audience went absolutely wild! They clapped, whistled and stamped their feet, absolutely caught up in the greatness of the performance. As Toscanini stood there, he bowed and bowed and bowed, then acknowledged his orchestra. When the ovation finally began to subside, Toscanini turned and looked intently at his musicians. He was almost out of control as he whispered, "Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" The orchestra leaned forward to listen. In a fiercely enunciated whisper Toscanini said, "Gentlemen, I am nothing." That was an extraordinary admission since Toscanini was blessed with an enormous ego. He added, "Gentlemen, you are nothing. But Beethoven," said Toscanini in a tone of adoration, "is everything, everything, everything!"
As I meditated on our text this morning John the Baptist spoke to me through God's Word and said, "Randy, I am nothing. Randy, you are nothing. But Jesus, He is everything, everything, everything!" This morning, I'd like to study the ministry of John the Baptist. Our primary focus will be his understanding of the greatness of Christ, which evoked within him a spirit of utter humility. The Baptist himself said, "He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn. 3:30)." May we emulate his example as we study the humility of the Baptist.
1. WHO ARE YOU? (1:19-23)
Let's begin with "Who are You?" in verses 19-23. At this point in John's gospel, we find ourselves having just concluded the prologue found in verses 1-18. Through the duration of three sermons, we learned in the prologue that Jesus Christ was with the Father in the beginning of time. Being God Himself, the world was created through Him. He is the epitome of life and light and grace and truth. At the fulness of time, He took on flesh and dwelt amongst the humanity He came to save. He came to reveal God as the final and most supreme revelation. Many, including the Jews rejected Him. But to the few who received Him, He gave them the right to become children of God, children of spiritual birth.
The prologue (in verses 1-18) also made much mention of John the Baptist, the first one on the scene to bear witness of Christ. John 1:6-8- "There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light." John 1:15- "John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, 'This was He of whom I said, He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me." I remind you, John was the forerunner who bore witness of Christ. He was a God-appropriated messenger who prepared the way. He pointed men to the Light, to the One who would soon take center stage.
In verse 19, our new material this morning, the evangelist again picks up on the ministry of the John the Baptist now with greater detail. His concern, however, is not so much to focus on John's activities, but rather John's witness. Verse 19 begins, "And this is the witness of John…" In verse 7 he said, "He came for a witness , that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. As I mentioned before, the evangelist's goal in writing the gospel is to bear witness of Christ. And what better way is there to begin than to speak of the one who was first sent by God to bear that witness!
The word "witness" itself makes for a fascinating study. The Greek word translated "witness" is marturia. From that word we derive our English word, "martyr." This was due to the fact that those in the early church who witnessed for Christ often paid for it with their lives. We know the Baptist was a witness for Christ. We also know that the Baptist was a martyr for Christ. And even as I speak, countless brothers and sisters are being martyred around the world simply due to their witness for Christ. Their passion is so strong to tell others about Jesus, they'd rather die than keep their lips closed.
Though we in America may not suffer to the extent as other Christians worldwide, there is nevertheless a cost in witnessing for Christ. The cost primarily comes as a deathblow to our pride. Witnessing for Christ acknowledges the fact that we are sinners in desperate need of a Savior (that's humbling!). It demands us to boast of another and not ourselves (that's humbling!) It often results in personal critique, isolation and ridicule (that's humbling!). Proud people make terrible evangelists. Better put, proud people don't evangelize because they'd rather talk about themselves and protect their reputation in the sight of men.
The Baptist's success in witnessing came from the simple fact…he was a very, very humble man. Like a witness in a courtroom scene, the Baptist didn't come to talk about himself. He came to talk about another. He came to testify as to what he saw and what he heard. God called him to the stand, he stated his case, and then God took him home. He became less as Christ became greater.
During this time in Israel there was also much buzz in the air as to the coming of the Messiah, or as Luke put it in chapter 2 of his gospel, they "were looking for the redemption of Israel." So you can imagine the excitement when John the Baptist appears on the scene and begins to baptize people and create a band of disciples that numbered in the hundreds (Mt. 3:5-6)! Additionally, the Baptist wasn't a hard guy to miss. He was a Nazirite so he never cut his hair. The Bible says he was dressed in camel's hair and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Additionally he was a fire and brimstone preacher concentrating on repentance. So based upon his appearance and his popularity, it would have been irresponsible for the Jewish leaders not to investigate the matter more thoroughly. So we read in verse 19 that "the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem (a special delegation) to ask him, 'Who are you?" That's a good question to start with!
John's reply in verse 20 is, "And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, 'I am not the Christ." I love it! "Confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed." I mean…could the Baptist have been any more emphatic? No one even mentioned the Christ! But obviously he wanted to make it clear from the get-go, before they even asked, that he was not the Christ! In other words, "Even though you folks are looking for the Messiah, remove any speculation from your mind. I am not He!"
False christs' (or false Messiahs') were making the rounds during this era. The Jewish historian Josephus testifies to some and a few are even recorded in the book of Acts (5:36-37; 21:38). The Scriptures also declare that "false christs" and "false prophets" will especially arise just prior to the tribulation to lead the multitudes away through false signs and wonders. There can be no doubt that these "false christs" are amongst us today. Let me give you one example.
Recently I was appalled in reading an advertisement in the Star Ledger (July 7, 2002) entitled, "A Cloud of Witnesses." The ad was sponsored by The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. The preface begins…"What follows is a complex document. It was produced at a seminar in spirit for world leaders of five of the great religions. It includes testimonies to the True Parents, Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon….Since Jesus called him in 1935, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon has carried on a ministry to the spirit world in parallel with his ministry on Earth. He has sought to gather the founders and saints of all faiths around one table of unity. In recent times he has ministered to the spirits of people in hell and opened the gates of their liberation. This collection of testimonies is one fruit of that ministry…This message has significant practical as well as spiritual importance. It is a unifying message, addressing believers of all faiths as one global family…The testimonies that follow bear witness that the Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon are those exemplars that have opened the gates for all people to inherit, through them, God's complete salvation, prophesized in all scriptures."
One of the many testimonies supposedly comes from the apostle Paul himself. "I, Paul, pledge to believe and attend the Lord of the Second Coming, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, as Messiah , Savior and True Parent, with the fire I felt when I met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. I will live with the words, 'You must save the saints' in my heart."
With Reverend Moon, David Koresh and so many others today claiming to be the Messiah, the Baptist made it clear, I am not the Christ (or the Messiah)! So in verse 21 the delegation "asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' And he said, 'I am not." Since he denied being the Christ, the delegation now went for the next most logical figure. After all, he resembled Elijah in his appearance (Mk. 1:6/2 Ki. 1:8). He sounded like Elijah in his proclamation. And even Malachi 4:5 predicted that God would send "Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." This expectation from the second to last verse in the Old Testament was taken literally by the Jews to mean that Elijah would come prior to the coming of the Messiah. But when asked if he were Elijah, the Baptist said, "I am not!"
Interestingly, almost to the point of contradiction, are two biblical accounts. When the angel Gabriel spoke of the birth of the Baptist, he said, "And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah , to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk. 1:17). Then in Matthew 11:12-14 our Lord said, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come . Though John the Baptist was not a reincarnated Elijah, he was, according to the Scriptures, to be identified with Elijah. However, the Baptist did not see as much significance in his ministry as did the Lord. In humility, he rejects any association with Elijah.
So who's next? He's not the Christ or Elijah. Ah, next best, (vs. 21), he must be "the prophet!" Not "a" prophet, but rather "the" prophet. Most likely the delegation was making a reference to a comment spoken by Moses in Deuteronomy. "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him…I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him" (Deut. 18:15, 18-19). This grand prophet was one to whom the Lord would raise up to speak on His behalf, a second Moses. An individual directly fulfilled in the Messiah.
Was the Baptist this prophet? This time the Baptist simply says, "No." As a footnote, notice how the Baptist's answers continually get shorter almost as if he is getting tired of talking about himself! He had come to bear witness of another, not to discuss his own identity. He must increase, but I must decrease.
The delegation was getting frustrated. Their questions were going nowhere. Each was met with a strong denial, yet something must be behind John's popularity. Something must be gleaned as to this man's identity. Some information pertaining to him must be brought back to Jerusalem! So in verse 22, "They said then to him, 'Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?'"
John replied in verse 23, "I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said." About 700 years before Christ the prophet Isaiah predicted the Babylonian invasion. Nebuchadnezzar and his troops would conquer the land, and Judah would be led off to captivity for her disobedience. It was obviously a grim report for the people of Israel at that time. But the final chapters of Isaiah end on a positive note. Those chapters highlight God's wonderful plan of restoration. The physical restoration is spoken of in Isaiah 40:3-the same verse quoted in John 1:23 by John the Baptist. "Make straight the way of the Lord." Israel would return to the Promised Land. In Isaiah 40:3 the prophet metaphorically called for an improvement in the road system of the desert to accommodate God's return of the Jews to their homeland.
But even in Isaiah, this event of restoration was only to foreshadow the One, The Suffering Servant, who would lead His people to a greater restoration. Not merely geographical freedom from her enemies, but rather spiritual freedom from her sin through the sacrifice of His body. "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Isa. 53:4-6).
The Baptist's connection is rather obvious. Just as the physical way was to be prepared for the Lord to bring His people back to Israel from captivity, a spiritual way is to be prepared for Jesus who will bring His people back to Himself through the forgiveness of their iniquities. A greater redemption indeed! The Baptist (and the NT authors) saw himself in that unique role. He saw his role as clearing a roadway, removing obstacles, leveling paths in preparation for the Messiah's arrival. Those were the first words out of his mouth to the delegation and the essence of His ministry.
Instead of the desert which preceded physical Israel, John calls himself "a voice of one crying in the wilderness." John's claim to fame is not his teaching or his popularity, but rather his desire to be identified as "a voice" for the coming Messiah. In other words, "Don't look at me for one cannot see a voice. Rather listen to me. For I come with a message not of my own. I am merely a workman preparing the road for the King." John wanted to be known as nothing more than the one who rolled out the "red carpet." He must increase, but I must decrease.
2. WHY ARE YOU BAPTIZING? (1:24-28)
John's answers, though true, were nevertheless evasive. The delegation felt they weren't getting anywhere so they resorted to a new tactic. They turned their attention from his identity to his practice. In verse 25 (beginning our second point this morning), "they asked him, and said to him, 'Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"
It was common when a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism that he or she would undergo a self-administered baptism. The purpose was to ceremonially wash away all the pollutants contracted in a dirty Gentile world. So you can imagine the Pharisees (vs. 24) in this case being utterly appalled. First, they already viewed themselves as God's people, believing they were the cleanest in the land. Why would they need a ritual cleaning like the Gentiles! And second, how could John conduct this practice without any authority!
Though John makes his authority known later in the chapter (c.f. 1:33), for now he answers in verses 26-27 by saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." Again in his typical humility, John turns the attention off of himself and onto the coming Messiah.
Before we assume the ease of John's humility, let's not forget that John had the complete package for spiritual pride. He had a miraculous birth. He was called into ministry directly by the Lord. He was dedicated and faithful to his calling. He had tremendous preaching skills. He lived a pure and devoted lifestyle. And he had a tremendous following. If there were ever someone who faced temptation to spiritual exultation it was John! However, when Jesus came and center stage shifted, John told his disciples, "You follow Him…for He must increase, but I must decrease."
Possibly his most remarkable statement of humility is found in verse 27. "It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." Sandals were the common foot attire of the day. A thong was a leather strap used to tie a sandal. Carrying a sandal, or worse yet, loosening a sandal was the task of a slave. A teacher would never expect this task from a disciple. Even a Rabbinic saying from near this time said, "Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher, except the loosening of his scandal-thong." Simply put, John is saying that there is no comparison between my ministry and His. I would bow down in a heartbeat to untie His sandals as a slave, but unfortunately I am not even worthy to perform that task! In response to this verse, one commentator said, "Humility could scarcely take a lower place."
On a visit to the Beethoven museum in Bonn, a young American student became fascinated by the piano on which Beethoven had composed some of his greatest works. She asked the museum guard if she could play a few bars on it; she accompanied the request with a lavish tip, and the guard agreed. The girl went to the piano and tinkled out the opening of the Moonlight Sonata. As she was leaving she said to the guard, "I suppose all the great pianists who come here want to play on that piano." The guard shook his head. "Padarewski (the famed Polish pianist) was here a few years ago and he said he wasn't worthy to touch it."
The Baptist responded in a likewise manner. "Though I am His slave and the task of a slave is to untie sandals, I am not even worthy to touch His sandals to perform such a humble role of service." Do you think this guy had a high view of Christ? Do you think this guy had a low view of himself? Someone once said, true joy is found in following the acronym of the word itself, J-O-Y: Jesus, others, yourself. There can be no doubt that the Baptist put Jesus first and himself last. It was evidence by his lifestyle.
In speaking of all the Old Testament saints, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Mt. 11:11). Affirmed by the lips of Jesus Himself, John was a great man. Being known as a great man almost contradicts being known as a humble man. But John was not a great man because he ascended to his greatness; rather, he was great because he descended to his greatness by living a life of sheer humility in service to His Savior. He knew full well that his greatness was not in himself, but through Him.