01.19-35 The Witness of John to Jesus -- Sermon

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February 22, 1998


John 1.19-34

                           The Witness of John to Jesus

1.      What=s a Testimony?

Verse 19 marks the beginning of the gospel story in the Gospel of John.  The apostle chooses to begin this first chapter by telling of the preparation made for Jesus= public ministry.  Hence, he includes two key preparatory events: The Testimony of John the Baptist, and the Calling of the Jesus early Disciples.

For our purposes today, we will confine our attention to v.19-34 -- the Testimony of John.

Let me say something about this word testimony.  It is a favorite of John=s (the apostle John that is) used substantially more times than the other gospel writers.[1]  Whereas the other gospel writers stress the activity of John=s preaching and baptizing, but in this Gospel the single feature that matters about John the Baptist is not his preaching, or baptizing, but his testimony.

Testimony: Now we should not overlook the fact that the word the apostle uses Atestimony@ has a legal or judicial character to it.  Unfortunately, modern usage within the church has largely erased the word=s legal overtones.  So let us recall what a true testimony is.  A testimony, to testify, is a serious matter.  What is required is substantiating the truth, declaring something reliable and true.  We know that when people are called in a court of law to give testimony, often another=s life is at stake based upon the credibility of the testimony.

The apostle John is deeply concerned that we know the testimony to Jesus is true, reliable.  And he knows that at stake is more than life or death.  It is eternal life and death.

 The apostle is concerned in his gospel to show that the witnesses to Jesus are reliable witnesses.  They are giving their opinion about Jesus but their witness. 

This theme of witness or testimony reminds us that truth is no neutral matter. When you stand in the witness stand, you are committing yourself to the thing you declare.  Therefore, notice how the apostle brings out the importance of the Baptist=s testimony.

v.19 ANow this was John=s testimony . . . @   v.32 AThen John gave this testimony.@ And finally, in v.34 he declares AI have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.@  With this in mind, let us see first to whom and about whom did John give testimony.

2.      Who John the Baptist Wasn=t!

John=s testimony to Jesus in v.19-34 is twofold.  In v.19-28 he testifies by way of three denials.  He tells who he is not. In v.29-34 John=s testimony is largely positive. He tells us who Jesus is.  Let=s examine his testimony in this order.

The first thing we discover is that John was attracting attention at the highest levels of Jewish government.  At this point, he has before him is an official delegation from Jerusalem.  This is no minor detail.  It comports with the witness we find in the other gospels which tell us that that John=s ministry along the Jordan was causing an uproar throughout the whole of Judea.  Great multitudes from Jerusalem and the surrounding province of Judea were going out to see and listen to John and many were repenting and being baptized by him. With such an uproar, it is little wonder that the leaders of Israel went out to find more as to who this man was.

Now who is this delegation?  The answer comes from v.19 and 24.  It consisted of priests, Levites and Pharisees.  Such a constituency suggests the strong likelihood that this delegation was linked to the Sanhedrin, which we know consisted of the priests and Pharisees.[2]

Who and what exactly was the Sanhedrin?  The Sanhedrin was the highest authoritative body in Judaism.  Its powers were threefold: judicial, legislative, and through the High Priest, executive.  It was the Sanhedrin, remember, before whom Jesus was put on trial and condemned.  So this delegation to John was no mere group of curious inquisitors.  These were men came to John at the bidding of the highest authoritative body in Jerusalem.  And they came to do one thing: discover who John was.

They asked three questions of identification: Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah?  Are you the Prophet?  To each John answers in the negative.  Though they are denials, the questions themselves are yet another window into the world of 1st century Palestine and what we find is the world of Judaism rife with messianic expectation. 

I deliberately say Judaism to distinguish it from biblical messianic prophecy.  An examination of 1st century Judaism reveals a multiplicity of different sects and sectors of society each having their own peculiar view as to who and what the Messiah would be.

Judaism was not  monolithic in its beliefs.  The Pharisees, Sadducees, zealots, peasants, and sectarians like those at Qumran, had each their own unique interpretation of OT prophecies and their application to contemporary affairs.        

Yet, however fractured and diverse the pictures of the Messiah were, Judaism did hold these in common. For most, the life under the thumb of Rome seemed at times to portend the in-breaking of God=s kingdom.  Eschatology was in the air.  And that meant, that the fortunes of Israel were soon to change. 

Part and parcel of that fortune they knew was the Messiah.  And for most, the Messiah meant Athe king of the Jews.@  He would be the Lord=s agent to fulfill the Lord=s purposes for his people.  With Messiah=s coming, the present evil age would give way to renewal, restoration, a new exodus and the return from exile.

Understandably, then, these officials, perceiving that John may have some association with the Messiah, asked the most obvious question: Are you the Christ?  And he answered emphatically: Av.20  I am not the Christ.@

With that settled, they asked the next relevant question: if not the Christ, then v.21 Are you Elijah?  Again, a good question.  What do they mean by it?  They are referring to the very last chapter, of the very last book of the OT, the Book of Malachi, which predicts that prior to the restoration of God=s people on the Day of the Lord, AElijah@ would come to prepare the people. Malachi 4:5-6 ASee, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

Now we are not to understand this to mean the reincarnation of Elijah, for the Scripture=s reject reincarnation.  Nor would it be a Elijah=s resurrection from the dead. Rather, the prophecy meant that one in the spirit of and with a ministry similar to Elijah would come prior to the Day of the Lord. 

And these officials were right to make this connection between Elijah and John. John dressed like Elijah and took up a similar diet

(Mk. 1.6; 2 Ki. 1.8).  Moreover, his ministry was like that of Elijah -- a call to national repentance.

Interestingly enough, John the Baptist denies he is Elijah even though later, Jesus himself makes this very identification. Says Jesus in Mt. 11.14 AAnd if you are willing to accept it, John is the Elijah who was to come.@  All of this to show that John did not detect at the time as much significance with his own ministry as Jesus did.

Now to the question, Are you Elijah? John answers simply: AI am not.@  So his interlocutors ask a third question.  Are you the Prophet?  This question too has its root in an OT prophecy -- Deut. 18.15-18.  There the Lord promised Israel that one day he would raise up from among them a prophet like Moses who would speak the very words of God.  1st century Judaism and the Early church understood that this prophecy concerned not merely God raising up of prophets, but the Prophet who at the end of time would be sent to bring about a new exodus.   However, to this question John again answers ANo.@        Now before we move on to who Jesus was, note well the solemn, unequivocal, unambiguous, straightforward testimony of John in v.20 AHe did not fail to confess, but confessed freely . . .  I am not the Christ.  I am not.  No.@  However great John was, however extensive his ministry, he knew who he wasn=t.

3.      Who John the Baptist Was

Not willing to return with no more than a series of denials, John=s interlocutors ask: v.22 AWho are you  . . .  What do you say about yourself?@ 

To this John replies, v.23. AI am the voice of one calling in the desert, >Make straight the way for the Lord.@  His words, we are told, are taken from the prophet Isaiah.  Specifically, Isa. 40.3. 

There the Lord promises his people that their time of exile would be over.  He would bring his people back to the promised land.  Israel will return from exile. Consequently, the prophet calls for a leveling, a making straight and level a highway for the Lord=s returning people.           Yet, even in Isaiah, the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem served as a type --a foreshadow-- of an even greater day of return -- the return of the Lord when he would restore his people and fulfill all of his promises.[3]  And it is to this greater return that John says he is the forerunner, the pointer-prophet.

          When asked in v.24-25  AWhy then do you baptize?@ John answers by speaking of One already living among them who is greater than himself: AI baptize with water but among you stands one you do not know.  He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.@

This then is the first-half of John=s testimony.  He tells us who he isn=t.  He disabuses all as to his greatness.  He even doesn=t see his connection with Malachi=s prophecy. But he does know this -- he is a preparer, a pointer-prophet whose most significant work is to point people to the Messiah.

4.      Who Jesus Is

And it is the second half of his witness, given in v.29-34, where we find the positive testimony of John. Av.29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ALook, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!@  And in v.34 John says: AI have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.@

Now at the heart of John=s testimony is his mention that it came by revelation from God the Father.  Look carefully at v.33 John says:   33 I 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.=           It is because of this revelation from God, that John testifies in v.34 AI have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.@

Now both of these titles present us, at least at first reading, with a problem. The difficulty is this.  A reading of the whole gospel story makes evident the fact that the full recognition as to who Jesus really was did not readily dawn upon the disciples.  Only after Jesus= resurrection from the dead did they come to understand the greatness of his person and the true nature of his work on the cross.

Consequently, some have charged John=s Gospel with putting in the mouths of John the Baptist, and later Nathaniel, words they never spoke: such as calling Jesus Lamb of God and Son of God. Hence, this apostle is accused of doctoring the facts.

In answer to that charge, let me say two things, one general one specific.  First, John likes to show two things in his gospel.  One is how many people misunderstood who Jesus was.  In John 6, Jesus claimed he was the Bread of Life and called all men to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and it seems no one understood what he meant by it and so many ceased to follow him.

Another thing John likes to do in his gospel is to show that people often speak better than they know.  A great example of this is John 18.14 where we are told the high prist, Caiaphas, advised the Jewish leaders at Jesus= trial that it would be good if one man died for the people.

His cynical, politically expedient solution to trouble with the Romans is shown in the light of future events that Caiaphas spoke better than he knew.  This Jesus of Nazareth would be the one man to die for the many and save them not from Rome=s wrath but God=s wrath! 

So too, John the Baptist, Nathaniel, and later Martha would each call Jesus the Son of God.  But we must not think they said this with the same depth of insight into who Jesus was as they would after his resurrection from the dead.  Surely their testimony was not the same level of insight as Thomas when he saw the risen Christ with the nail prints in his hands and cried: AMy Lord, and My God.@  But the apostle wants to show that people like the Baptist and Nathaniel and Martha spoke better than they knew when they said of Jesus AYou are the Son of God.@.

What about John=s cry: ALook, the Lamb of God@?  Was John the Baptist entertaining ideas about the messiah as the Suffering Servant, the one who would give his life as an atonement for his people?

Again, the answer is no.  Later in John=s life he would doubt who Jesus was and send messengers to Jesus and ask:@ Are you the Christ or should we wait for another?@  John, though God=s prophet, though seeing the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus, though being told by God that this was the Christ, was still a man of his times.  And the one thing that John the Baptist was not prepared to consider was a Suffering Messiah or a Messiah who was not ushering in the Day of the Lord as Mt.11. shows.

How then did John understand Jesus to be the Lamb of God?  Well, the words that follow give the answer.  John says, ALook, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!@   All of us read that with our post-Pentecost understanding. But the Greek word Atakes away@ (ai[rwn) is not the typical word used on the New Testament to describe Jesus= atoning work which was ajnafevrw.  The word used here means simply take away, remove.

Moreover, in John=s day the figure of the Lamb was not so much an atoning figure as one that referred to the Davidic King, the Messiah, who would vanquish the enemies of God.  We typically conjure up images of gentleness and atonement when we think of Athe Lamb of God.@  But not so the 1st century Jew, and it wasn=t the predominant image even for the 1st century Christian. Of the thirty-eight occurrences of the word Alamb@ in the NT, 31 of them are found in the book of Revelations.  And what does the Lamb describe?  It is the Jewish Idea of the Conquering, Leader.  Listen:

In Rev. 7.17 we find the Lamb as Shepherd, leader.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.@

In Rev. 17.14 The Lamb is the Conqueror of God=s enemies.

They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kingsCand with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.@

And in Rev. 6.16 and 14.10 the lamb is a fearsome figure as the wicked cry out to escape the lamb=s wrath:

Rev. 6.16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, AFall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!

It is this Lamb that John says will Atake away the sins of the World -- that is by removing the enemies of God by a decisive war against them.@


Let me make three concluding applications of this text. The overall theme is the Testimony of John.  John was a pointer-prophet.  His special prophetic role in redemptive history was not to predict but to point out that Jesus was the Christ.  His testimony therefore can instruct us about the general responsibility of believers to testify to Jesus.

1]       First, John testified to Jesus as much and as far as God had revealed to him. So should we.  That you aren=t a Bible Scholar should not be excuse to keep quite.  Though you cannot defend the faith against every objection raised, should not be excuse to keep silent.  Take the lesson from John. What God has revealed to you, that much tell others about.

2] Second, John=s testimony we saw was double-edged. He testified not only to who Jesus was but who he himself wasn=t.  And that too has broad implications for our testimony.  As you share the gospel with others, you have need not only to tell others about who Jesus is but also who and what he isn=t.  He is not just a good man, or a great religious leader, or a savior among many saviors. 

The claims of Jesus are astounding in world history.  No man made claims like that, did works as he. None rose from the dead.  Moreover, Jesus claims upon us are absolute and invariable.  He is Lord.  His call to follow him are non-negotiable.  His call to follow is all inclusive.  To every inch of ground he claims AThis is mine.@ To every second of our lives he states: AOf this I am your Lord.@

3] Finally, John=s Testimony should give us a greater appreciation of our place in redemptive history.  John gives a great and fearless witness to Jesus despite the fact that he didn=t have the fullness of truth.  That would come after Jesus rose from the dead.  But John spoke what he knew.

In similar way, we too are to confess what we know about Jesus.  We may not be scholars of the Bible, but if a believer, we know more about Jesus than John ever did.  How much more, then, ought we to confess before others what we know about Christ. 

John could testify to the Conquering Lamb.  We can testify to the Atoning Lamb. John could testify that Jesus was the Christ of God, even the chosen of God.  But we can testify that Jesus is the true Son of God who became man.  John could testify that all the hopes of Israel are set upon this Christ.  But we can testify that Jesus is the Christ on whom the whole world, every man, woman or child can set their hopes, their eternal hopes.  Let us then walk in the ways of John the Baptist and point men to that Christ-- the only Hope of the World.


[1] The noun (marturiva) is used 14x, vs. (Mt=0; Mk.=3; Lk.1). The verb (marturevw) is used 33x vs. (Mt.=1; Mk.=0; Lk.1).

[2] See Jn. 18.3, 12-14; Mt. 26.3, 57, 59; Mk. 14.53; 15.1; Lk. 22.66; Acts 4.1, 5ff; 5.17,21, 34; 22.30; 23.6.

[3] Compare Isa. 35.8-10; 35.1. Isa. 40.3-5; 62.10-12.  Because it is the highway of the Lord=s purposes, it is identified as Athe way of the Lord.@

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