Recent Sermons
“Identity”
John 1:19-34

Bob DeGray

Preaching Date: December 29, 2002
Key Sentence: Like John, we can find our own identity in pointing to Jesus.

Outline:
I. Who I’m Not (John 1:19-21)
II. What I am (John 1:22-28)
III. Who He is (John 1:29-34)

Message:
        So you’re walking along in Walmart, minding your own business, exchanging some Christmas gifts that were two sizes too big, when suddenly someone stops you, looks at you, takes you by the arm and says “Who are you?” How do you answer?

        Most of us have a script we use to answer that question, and we use different parts of the script in different circumstances. In Walmart I might just say “I’m Bob DeGray.” In a little bit more personal or predictable setting I would usually say “I’m Bob DeGray, I’m the pastor of a church in Friendswood” or maybe “I’m Bob DeGray, I live in Clear Lake” or “I’m Bob DeGray, I’m Gail’s husband”, “or “Bethany’s dad”, or “the father of six.” I imagine that you have a similar set of scripts.

        “Who are you?” To some extent that words that have gone through your head in the last several seconds define your identity. But now turn the question around and ask “Who am I?” This requires a deeper level of thought. Some would prefer to ignore this question altogether. Others have wrestled with it for years. Still others have asked it with an awareness of God and answered it with great meaning and purpose.

        “Who are you?” Today’s text, John 1:19-34, illustrates how one man answered that question in a way we can apply to our own lives. That man is John the Baptist and the answer is that he sees himself as a voice announcing Jesus. That’s key, because like John, we would do well to find our identity in pointing to Jesus.

I. Who I’m Not (John 1:19-21)

        Last week we finished the prologue of John’s Gospel. This week we enter the main text. Like the other three Gospels, the initial focus is on John the Baptist, but this fourth gospel emphasizes his self-identity rather than his actions. We first learn who he is not. John 1:19-21 Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ." 21They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No."
        
John’s witness has already been mentioned twice in the prologue. Now the author gives a more detailed account. He doesn’t start with John’s baptizing in the Jordan, or with John’s message, he doesn’t even start with Jesus’ baptism - it appears all this has already taken place. Instead the story turns to a moment when the leaders of the Jewish people had heard enough about John to send a committee of investigation. Our author says they are sent by ‘the Jews of Jerusalem.’ He uses this term, ‘the Jews’, over seventy times in this Gospel. As a result he has been accused of anti-Semitism. But a close look reveals that many of these uses are merely geographic pointers or other neutral or even positive uses - as when Jesus is called a Jew.

        The negative ones tend to be like this one, references to the Jews as represented by their leaders, especially those of Jerusalem and Judea. These are the people who actively oppose Jesus, fail to understand him, and seek his death. They are the focal point of opposition to Jesus. But not all of the Jewish leaders are lumped into this group: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, for example, are both portrayed positively.

        Working through the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, these leaders send a delegation of priests and Levites to John the Baptist. Both of these groups would have had an interest in questions of ritual, and therefore in John’s baptism. The priests, descended from Aaron, were the ones who performed all Temple rituals, and the Levites were their assistants, scholars, musicians, or even Temple guards.

        The first question asked by the group is evident from John’s plain answer “I am not the Christ.” The Jews of Jesus’ day were filled with messianic expectations. Some expected the Messiah to come from David’s line while others, especially at in the community at Qumran, expected two messiahs, one of whom would be a priest. So everyone who heard about John the Baptist was wondering, “Is he the Messiah?” John’s answer is clear: ‘No way.’ The author words it strongly: “He did not fail to confess, but confessed.” This admission that he was not the Christ carried a clear implication that one greater than he must be coming.

        Next the priests and Levites ask “Are you Elijah?” They knew, from Scripture, that Elijah was supposed to come before the Messiah. Malachi 4:5 “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Furthermore, the way John the Baptist dressed – in camel’s hair with a leather belt – could have been a conscious imitation of Elijah. Even his message was similar to Elijah’s. But John responds to the question by saying simply “I am not.”

        The other Gospels report that Jesus did identify John the Baptist with the coming Elijah. For example, after John’s death, Jesus says in Mark 9:13 “But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished.” It could seem to be a contradiction for John to deny he was Elijah. But even in the other Gospels John himself never makes that claim: maybe John didn’t detect as much significance in his ministry as Jesus did. It could also be that as he ministered in the spirit and power of Elijah, he was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah’s coming, a fulfillment Jesus saw, but which was hidden from John, or dismissed by him.

        If he is not the Messiah and not Elijah, the delegation will try another possibility: “Are you the Prophet?” The promise in Deuteronomy 18 of a prophet like Moses who would speak the words of God was taken to refer to a mighty prophet coming in the last days. But John denies this possibility as well. In fact our author will later give us many indications that he considers Jesus to be the one who fulfills Moses’ description of that mighty prophet.

        So in this first section we see that John defines his identity by what he is not: ‘I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not the Prophet.’ Is there any value in this for us? I doubt anyone is going to accuse you of being the Messiah, and even if I buy a camel’s hair coat, no one’s going to accuse me of being Elijah. But there is one person who tends to want to make me the key figure in things - it’s me. Unless I’m careful, I tend to inflate my own importance, making myself rather than God central to all that happens. Could you have the same problem? The discipline of saying what we are not may be helpful. ‘I am not God: you are God. I am not sovereign: you are sovereign. I am not central: you are central.’ John is right, especially with the pressure being applied to him to define his identity, partially, by what he is not.

II. What I am (John 1:22-28)

        In the middle section of our text John finally tells his questioners not who he is but what he is. John 1:22-28 22Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.' " 24Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25questioned him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26"I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know. 27He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." 28This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

        The delegates from the leaders in Jerusalem knew they had to return with more than a series of denials. The least John the Baptist can do is tell them what he makes of himself, and what significance he attaches to his own ministry. “What do you say about yourself?’ John answers in a way that could sound strange, but really isn’t. When you and I are asked the question ‘who are you’ our customary response is not to tell people who we are but what we are and what we do. ‘I’m an engineer with Exxon.’ ‘I’m the pastor of a church.’ John answers the question by telling them what he is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘I am a voice crying in the wilderness ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ All of the Gospels cite this verse, Isaiah 40:3, when talking about John the Baptist. It was undoubtedly a major part of his self identity, his life verse.

        What does it mean? In the original context in Isaiah it was call to prepare the way for the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, with God leading them as king. But even in Isaiah, chapter 40 is a turning point, as Isaiah begins to describe the Messiah, the one who would ultimately rescue God’s people. Recognizing this, the Jews would understand what John was saying - that he saw himself as one preparing the way for the Lord, announcing the coming of the Messiah. What is John’s self-identity? ‘I’m a voice, announcing Jesus’. Again, not a bad thing to imitate. We do well to see ourselves as heralds of the one who has rescued us, like the herald angels that announced Christ’s birth, or the herald in a king’s court who proclaims his arrival.

        In verses 24 and 25 some Pharisees who were part of the delegation step forward with a question. The Pharisees, though a minority, had enough political clout to be part of this kind of inquiry. The Pharisees had originated in response to attempts by the Greeks to add idolatry to Jewish Temple worship. After the resulting revolt, the Pharisees were free to pursue a scrupulous attention to every detail of God’s law.

        The question put to John the Baptist by the Pharisees reflects one of their concerns: "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" They wondered what Scriptural authority John claimed for this ritual. It’s not that baptism was unknown. Some groups baptized everyone who converted to Judaism. In the community at Qumran members baptized or purified themselves daily, citing passages such as Ezekiel 36:25 “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” But in both these cases the baptism was self-administered, whereas John himself baptized those who came to him in repentance. If John wasn’t the Messiah or someone else promised to Israel, what authority did he have to baptize Jews? After all, weren’t the Jewish people adequately related to God by the descent from Abraham?

        The other Gospels give enough details to answer that question. John did not believe that descent from Abraham was enough to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. He insisted that individual repentance and faith were needed. In this he echoed the Old Testament prophets who sought a holy remnant among the descendants of Abraham. He also anticipated Jesus, who insists that his new community, the kingdom of God, transcends barriers of race and depends on personal faith and new birth.

        In this Gospel, however, John doesn’t answer the question with any of this. Instead he does what he always does - turns the question around to point people to Christ. He admits he baptizes with water, but he tells them that there is someone greater than he, someone already among them who they do not know – yet. That little phrase ‘among you’ implies that John has already baptized Jesus. He knows that Jesus is on the scene, but he doesn’t know exactly where he has gone since his baptism.

        John says a second thing in answer to this question which gives a further clue to his self-identity. Of Jesus he says “He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” In other words, John sees himself as under authority, not just as a disciple, but as a servant, not just as a servant, but the least of servants. There was a saying among the Jewish rabbis that a disciple might do anything for his rabbi except untie his sandals. That was too menial a service for a disciple to render. In fact it was a service most slaves were not required to render - it was appropriate for only the lowest slaves. John is saying that he is not even worthy to be the lowest slave of this one who is coming.

        And it’s not so much that John has an awful view of himself - you don’t get that impression when reading the Gospels. It’s that he has a great view of Jesus. He sees Jesus as worthy of great honor. He knows Jesus to be extraordinarily extraordinary. Is there any man so great that a normal person could honestly say “I’m not worthy to be the slave that unties his shoes”? No. But Jesus is that great and that worthy - and our self image needs to recognize that greatness. Barclay says it this way: “Any greatness John had came from the greatness of the one whose coming he foretold. John is our example, a man prepared to obliterate himself in order that Jesus Christ may be seen. He was only, as he saw it, a sign post, pointing to Christ. God give us the grace to forget ourselves and remember only Christ.”

III. Who He is (John 1:29-34)

        So we’ve seen how John the Baptist responds to the question “Who are you?” First, he keeps in mind who he is not: “I am not the Christ, not Elijah, not the Prophet.” But he also knew what he was: a voice preparing the way for Jesus by announcing his coming, a servant heralding his master. In verses 19 to 34 John carries out this role, pointing to Jesus and announcing who He is: 29The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' 31I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." 32Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' 34I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."

        Our author uses many time markers in his writing, and a careful reading of this Gospel has to take them seriously. When John says it’s the next day, he means the day after the questioning we just saw. From the other Gospels we can figure out that it is also about forty days since Jesus was baptized - days in which he was in the wilderness and was tempted. Now that he has returned from that experience, John sees him again and immediately draws the crowd’s attention to him. He literally points to Jesus and says “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

        Modern Christians are so familiar with this phrase, ‘the Lamb of God’ that it takes an effort to realize how startling and strange it must have sounded in the ears of John’s audience. Before the coming of Jesus this was not a common messianic designation. It only became common after the resurrection. This has given some liberal commentators ammunition to declare that John the Baptist could not have said what the Scripture reports. In other words, our modern understanding is judge and jury over what the Word of God clearly tells us. I don’t think so. In fact, there may have been a couple of things in John’s mind that led to this striking phrase.

        

        First, there was a usage in some circles of Jewish thought which depicted the Messiah of the end times with the image of a horned ram or lamb. The literature of that time describes Samuel and David and Solomon that way. The lamb was a conquering champion from God. It may be that Jesus is represented here as the champion of God who fought with sin and mastered it, the one who defeated and abolished sin.

        But a fuller understanding of ‘taking away the sins of the world’ comes from associating Jesus with one or more of the sacrificial lambs described in the Old Testament. None of these seems like the exact reference, but the cumulative weight is strong. In Genesis 22 Abraham prepares to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but he is confident, verse 8, that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Of course a burnt offering does not take away sin. In Exodus we find the Passover sacrifice, lambs without spot or blemish, whose blood causes the angel of death to pass by. This is a great image of Christ, but is not explicitly linked to the sins of the people. In Leviticus and Numbers we do find descriptions of the sin offering and the guilt offering, and lambs were one of the animals used for this ceremonial atonement.

        But the most significant reference may be Isaiah 53, speaking of the Servant Messiah: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

        These references provide ample support for the idea that Jesus was the lamb whose death would effectively deal with sin. Yet John the Baptist seems to have doubted Jesus at a later time because Jesus wasn’t taking political power or bringing judgment. It’s actually kind of reassuring to see that even John the Baptist had periods of doubt about Jesus’ mission. He knew what he was saying when he uttered the words “behold the lamb of God.” but he doubted his understanding at some later point. This doesn’t change the fact that his prophetic phrase is a rich and enduring picture of Jesus and his work. He is a lamb whose sacrifice takes away or removes the sins of the world - that is, of all human beings without distinction, though not without exception. Some reject him, yet he is still God’s provision for all who will believe.

        The Baptist goes on to reassure his hearers that this Jesus is none other than the one he had announced earlier. John is now physically pointing at the one he had verbally pointed toward, probably for years: he is pointing at Jesus, which is the heart of his self-identity. It’s this about John, more than anything else that we need imitate. We need to ask: “how can I point people to Jesus, in my work, my neighborhood, my relationships, my family? How can I point to him with my life, my words, my attitudes? How can I be voice for Jesus in my circumstances?”

        John gives an us example of how to do this in verses 31 to 33. He says “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” John had been told by God, the one who sent him to baptize with water, that the promised Messiah, would be ‘the one on whom you see the Spirit come and remain.’ God gave John this supernatural evidence that Jesus was the one, and now he can confidently share his personal testimony of God’s work, to point people to Jesus.

        His evidence was the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus as predicted in Scripture. There are three exceptionally clear passages in Isaiah that link the Messiah to the Spirit. Isaiah 11:1, a well known Christmas prophecy: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 42:1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” Isaiah 61:1, the verses Jesus used to describe himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” The Messiah’s mission was energized by the Holy Spirit, who descended on Him and remained with Him.

        Small wonder then that Jesus alone is equipped to baptize others, not merely as John did, with water, but with the Holy Spirit. The one who is himself full of the Holy Spirit provides the Spirit without measure to those who believe. This is another fulfillment of the prophecies, which looked forward to the time when God’s people would have the Spirit poured out on them, when God would give them a new heart and put a new Spirit within them. That Jesus would baptize people in the Holy Spirit is a witness to who He is and a confirmation that the long awaited promises were now being fulfilled. We believers are those who benefit from that fulfillment, as we have the Holy Spirit working in our lives to make us what we ought to be.

        For John, the descent of the Spirit on Jesus brought the culmination of his ministry. It enabled him to point to Jesus with clarity and conviction, to say “I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” That bold statement implies that John not only saw the dove at Jesus’ baptism but heard the voice from heaven which said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The Messiah was expected, based on Psalm 2:7, to be God’s Son in a special way, but it is the Gospel of John that shows the relationship of Jesus to his Father most fully. Over and over we will see Jesus kneeling before the Father, submitting himself to the Father, doing the Father’s will and the Father’s work. More than that, he will tell us that the Father loves him and is in him. Their relationship is the foundation for Jesus’ work and his obedience to the Father the foundation of our salvation. John is making no small claim in reminding us that the one he points to is without doubt the Son of God.

        So what have we seen? That for John the Baptist, self-identity and purpose in life came out of pointing toward Jesus - knowing Jesus, seeing who Jesus was, and calling others to recognize Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Son of God. Our application of this is simple. Like John we can find our identity and fulfillment in pointing people toward Jesus. We need to be those who think little of ourselves and much of our Lord, who set aside our own personal pride and self interest to serve the interests of Jesus in the lives of others.

        Two practical things will help us find this kind of self identity. First, we’ve got to know Jesus. John had supernatural help to gain assurance of who Jesus was. Fortunately, so do we. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus has been given to us by Jesus, and one of the things the Spirit does is to create assurance of who Jesus is. He gives supernatural testimony to our hearts that Jesus is our Lord, the Lamb slain for us, the Son of God who rescues us from our sins. Furthermore, the Spirit helps us to get to know Jesus in the perfectly practical sense of finding him in Scripture. If we are going to have a deep personal relationship with Jesus it is because we have taken the time to get to know him through the study of the Word as the Spirit blesses that study to our hearts. Our study of the Gospel of John is perfect place to get to know Jesus, especially if you will spend some time with the inductive materials we have prepared, and most especially if you will meet with others in the men’s or ladies studies to share what you have been shown.

        The second practical thing is simply to be a witness. Pointing people to Jesus means living a Christlike life in front of others, showing them Christ in you, while at the same time having words that draw people to Jesus: words that honor him for what he is doing in your life, words that express his care to others and words that share the Good News of his salvation with those who desperately need to hear it.

        You know in your heart that you want your life to be wrapped up in Jesus. John shows us that people who are fully identified with Jesus find their fulfillment in calling others to him and pointing him out to those who need him. This is our challenge in the new year that is about to begin. Like John we can find our identity and experience great fulfillment when we point people away from ourselves and toward the Lamb of God, who has come, and who takes away the sins of the world.