Who are you? What a profound question! What a hard question to answer at any depth! Part of the answer will need to be not just who you are but who you are not.
When a victorious Roman general returned to Rome riding in his chariot, there also stood a slave with him, holding a golden crown over his head, and he would whisper to him throughout the procession, “Remember, you are mortal”. In the general’s ear would be the message, “You are only a man. One day you will die.”
It’s important to know who you are and are not.
When Jesus comes into the world, he doesn’t burst in unannounced. He doesn’t break into human history expecting everyone to believe him because he says so. The light of the world comes into a world in darkness with witnesses testifying to who he is. And not the least of these witnesses to Jesus is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist.
John the Baptist knows who he is and who he is not. We find John the Baptist in the desert, on the banks of the Jordan River. He is baptizing all Israel. By baptizing Israel, he is calling on the whole nation to start again. He effectively excommunicated the whole nation, treating them as non-Jews. For up until this point, only non-Jews got baptized.
So John the Baptist takes the nation of Israel back to their birthplace. Israel first started its life in the promised land in this very desert. It was on the east side of the Jordan River, the same side where John the Baptist is baptizing, where the nation Israel hundreds of years earlier prepared to cross the river Jordan for the first time.
John the Baptist was popular. He had become so popular that the heavies from the Jerusalem Vatican came to check him out. Verse 19:
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. (NIV)
The temple police had sent representatives to check out John’s credentials. They wanted to know what exactly was going on and who John was claiming to be.
If you’re going to baptize a nation, you had better be someone important. And this is what the investigators wanted to determine. Was John the Baptist someone they should take notice of. Or was John another religious nut job who had a bad hair day. John very clearly says who he is and who he is not. Verses 20 to 21:
He [John the Baptist] did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (NIV)
There were three possibilities, according to the religious authorities, and John says ‘no’ to all three.
John was already popular enough. He might have been able to pull it off he claimed to be someone, but John refused to admit to being something or someone that he was not. John knows who he is and who he is not, and that is exactly what he tells people.
1300 years before Jesus came, God had prophesied in Deuteronomy 18 that a prophet like Moses would come. But John makes it clear that he himself was not that prophet. 1000 years before Jesus came, God had promised in 2 Samuel 7 that a Messiah, a king, would come whose kingdom would never end. But John made it clear he was not that Messiah king. 500 years before Jesus came, Malachi chapter 4 verse 5 predicted that Elijah would come. John made it clear that he was not Elijah—at least, not in the way that the investigators thought. John knows who he is, and he knows who he is not. He openly confessed who he was not.
We normally think of confession in terms of admitting to sins. But confession can simply be a declaration of what is true, or what you believe. At the heart of being a Christian is not just confessing sin but confessing that “Jesus is Lord”. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord”, we are confessing that we are his slaves. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord”, we are actually confessing that I am no longer lord of my own life. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord”, each of us is in effect saying, “I am not the savior because I can’t rescue myself. I am not the prophet because God has said it all. I am not the Lord because I cannot control others. I am not king, and I refuse to be worshipped.”
Church creeds are such confessions. Consider the Nicene Creed, when we declare, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” But as good as that is, the problem with the creeds—most of them, anyway—is that they only give us half the story. For it’s as important to say what you don’t believe as what you do believe.
Some of the older creeds would include both what they did not confess as well as what they did. They declared, “I believe this but I don’t believe this.” For example, “I believe in God the Father, but I don’t believe in Allah, Zeus, or Buddha. I believe God created the heavens and the earth, but I don’t believe in randomly generated evolution.”
Part of confessing is denying what you don’t confess. John the Baptist confesses who he is by denying who he is not.
Well if John the Baptist is not the Messiah, then who is he? Verse 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?” (NIV)
It’s clear that these men were not interested in the truth. Their questions were not their own. They don’t seek the truth for themselves. They were more interested in satisfying their bosses in Jerusalem. Some people want to find an answer so that they won’t get in trouble. Others want to get an answer to win an argument.
So who is John if he is not the Christ? Verse 23 tells us:
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (NIV)
John quotes Isaiah 40:3 and sees his job as to “make straight the way of the Lord.” His job was to introduce the main act—John himself was not the main act. He was to prepare the way for the Lord—John was not the Lord himself. The quote from Isaiah 40 called on him to prepare the way for the “LORD”, that is, Yahweh, Jehovah, the name of God as he revealed it in the Old Testament. And who should turn up after John prepared his way, but Jesus! Again this reminds us that Jesus is Yahweh, Jesus is Jehovah, Jesus is God.
And this means that John the Baptist is the first true Jehovah’s Witness. We are all the true Jehovah’s Witnesses, because Jesus is Jehovah. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses are false witnesses, because they don’t treat Jesus as God. In fact, whenever the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on the door, or I pass them, I say, “Don’t forget now that Jesus is Jehovah”. It drives them nuts, because for them, Jesus is not Jehovah and not God.
How will John make straight the way for the LORD? By calling on Israel to start again, and by announcing that in one sense the nation was still in spiritual exile. She was lost in her disobedience. They needed to receive a Messiah King who would save them. They needed to be reborn by the Spirit to transform them.
When John the Baptist began his ministry to Israel, God had been silent for 400 years. But when John began speaking, God also began speaking again—through John himself, the last and greatest of all Old Testament prophets. John began his ministry of preparing Israel by calling on Israel to submit to baptism. But the highlight of John’s ministry is by testifying to and bearing witness to Jesus.
And so John’s disciples start to leave him for Jesus. Crowds will shift from following John to following Jesus. It would have been very easy for John to want to keep all the glory for himself. But John so beautifully shows that Jesus and he were in a different class. John says that Jesus is so great that he is not even fit to be Jesus’ servant. Verses 26 to 27:
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (NIV)
John knows who he is and who he is not. A disciple would not be expected to untie the sandal of a master, but a slave just might. Jesus is so much greater than John that John believes that he wasn’t worthy to do what a slave might be asked to do.
John keeps focusing on the difference between him and Jesus. John said, “I can only baptize in water. I deal with symbols. My ministry is to prepare the people for another. But Jesus will give you the Spirit.” John emphasizes the gap between himself and Jesus.
And as a side point, there is not a hint of jealousy or envy from John the Baptist towards Jesus. We so often make everything about us. John could have let himself be jealous about his younger cousin. But instead, John made everything about Jesus.
And because of this, John didn’t get in the way of his testimony about Jesus. John didn’t hold onto his disciples. Later John will say that he, Jesus, must increase, and that I, John, must decrease. John not only proclaimed that he was not the Christ, and pointed to the Christ, but he also prompted others to follow the Christ. If Jesus is your focus, then you can celebrate the success of others.
Like everyone else, John was in the dark about who the coming one would be. Like Israel and the world, John the Baptist did not know the identity of the Christ until he was given the code by God the Father, as he explains in verses 33 and 34:
And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One. (NIV)
God wants to be known. But here is the important reminder: we need God to be able to know God.
Even John needed the witness of the Spirit to recognize who Jesus really was. And the sign for John was that a dove—symbolizing the Holy Spirit in bodily form—would at his baptism descend from heaven and remain on Jesus.
When everyone else got baptized, they confess their sins. The heavens were silent, as if to say, “You will get no argument from me”. But when Jesus gets baptized, the heavens open, and the Spirit descends, marking out Jesus from the rest, and anointing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. And having that information, John then opens his mouth and says, “I have told you who I am and who I am not. Now let me be clear as to who Jesus is.” Verse 29:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (NIV)
When we read “the lamb” here, we need to understand that there is a significant Old Testament theme being fulfilled. When Abraham took his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him at God’s command, he was stopped at the last minute. When Isaac had asked Abraham where the lamb was, Abraham had said as they walked to the place of sacrifice, that God would provide the lamb. And he was right, for that lamb was Jesus.
When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, the last and final plague that would bring their release required that every Israelite was to kill a lamb and place the blood on the doorposts of their houses. This was so that when the angel of death came to kill the firstborn of Egypt, he would not kill the firstborn of each family that had the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorframe of the family home. The angel would ‘pass over’ that home, and the eldest son was saved by the blood the lamb. Jesus is that Passover lamb.
The book of Leviticus required that because Israelites sinned, lambs without blemish would be taken to the temple, hands would be laid on them symbolically transferring the sin to the lamb, and then the lamb would have its throat cut and die in the place of the sinful. The lamb would carry the sins placed on it to its death. Jesus is lamb who dies in the place of the sinner.
The man whom John pointed out—Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—will be slaughtered in our place.
There was a movie about a very skilled doctor who was not very kind to his patients. Then one day he finds out he has a malignant tumor in his throat. He is about to have a life threatening but life saving operation, and a fellow doctor walks alongside the operating table and asked him, “Bill do you want me to go with you?”, and he replied, “No I don’t want you go with me. I want you to go instead of me.” The lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is slaughtered instead of us, in our place, as a substitute for us. This is how the lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.
An important truth we must recognize here is that Jesus will remove the sin not just of Israel but of “the world”. Jesus didn’t die for the sins of only one people. This is an international sacrifice. Jesus died for Croatians and Chileans, Paraguayans and Portuguese, for Afghanis and Armenians and Algerians, for Italians and Iranians, Rwandans and Romanians, Egyptians and Ethiopians, Somalians and Sudanese, Austrians and Australians. He even died for New Zealand!
But the one person he didn’t die for is you!
What? Well, that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Somehow Jesus died for everybody else but you. For some of you, you don’t think that you need him to die for you. For others, you feel like he could not love you that much.
But if you’re part of this world, that means you needed him to die for you, and if you’re part of this world, that means you have an interest and share in his death, no less than anybody else. You need Jesus’ death for you no more or no less than anybody else in “the world”. It is intended for you, that you would trust in it to be saved. It is perfectly suited for you. His death meets all your needs. You’re a sinner—his death was to remove your sin. You deserve wrath—his death removes God’s wrath from you, when you trust him. Remember that Jesus didn’t just die for your past sins, but for all of your sins. And Jesus’ death takes effect when you trust him.
No one has ever seen God. We are unable to see God since he is invisible, and we are unworthy to see him since we are sinners. But with the coming of the Son of God, both problems get solved. When God became flesh, humans got to see God, because God became human. And when God the Son took on himself the sins of the world, we could now approach God with freedom and confidence, because he had taken away our sins.
We friends are like little John the Baptists. We point away from ourselves and to Jesus. We say to people, “Look, there’s the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It’s not about us, and all about Jesus. And so we are happy to see people leave us if they go to follow Jesus.
Toscanni was a great classical musician and conductor last century. One night he had just finished conducting a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 9’. It was a great night. It was a stellar performance. The applause was out of this world. Toscanni bowed to the crowd, and the orchestra bowed. And in the midst of the applause and adulation, Toscanni turned to the orchestra and said, “I am nothing”. He then looked at the orchestra and said, “You are nothing”. But Beethoven is everything.
That is what John the Baptist did for Jesus. John the Baptist is telling us, “I am nothing. You are nothing. But Jesus is everything.” That is what we too must do for Jesus.