John the Baptist
Please open up to John 3:22-36. We’re back into the Gospel of John series we started a while back. Life is ever-so-slowly starting to look a little bit more normal – and I think it’s good to get back into the regular exposition of God’s Word as we were doing before.
I think, since we haven’t been here since February, it behooves us to do a bit of a review of the Gospel of John up to this point.
I remember a while back when I was contemplating what series to do next – after coming back from that big stress leave I took – that I wanted to do something simple, straightforward, with lots of stories that wouldn’t be super complicated to study. And so, I figured I’d pick the Gospel of John. After all, a lot of people are told that’s the very first book of the Bible they should read, right?
Wow, was I ever wrong. When I sat down to work on the outline and overview of the book, I had no idea that just introducing the structure of the book was going to take 4 weeks. The Gospel of John is like an onion – every time you peel off a layer, there’s another one underneath. The book is, for lack of a better term, “intricate”.
The first line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) kicks off a prologue that outlines and summarizes the whole rest of the book. It introduces Jesus as the condescended God, incarnated light of the world, John the Baptist as His forerunner, and the message of salvation through the “grace and truth” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Him alone.
It sets up the book as one full of rich imagery meant to expand the reader’s understanding of who Jesus is. It speaks of concepts like light and darkness, the Tabernacle and Moses, Law and Grace, our adoption as children of God, Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and seven other important titles. The concepts in the prologue are then expanded on throughout the rest of the book – and the structure of the book is woven together like a tapestry.
In the first four chapters we see Jesus interacting with individuals, then from chapters five to eleven we see Him interacting with large groups – and always expanding geographically outward, with more people following Him. All throughout, we see the themes from the prologue keep coming back as John introduces Jesus using seven different miracles, or as he calls them “signs”, that point to who Jesus is.
We see Jesus as the source of Life when he turns water to wine, as the Master of Space and Distance as He heals a Nobleman’s son. We see Jesus as Master of Time as He heals a Lame man on the Sabbath. We see him as the Bread of Life as He feeds the 5000, and the Master of Nature as He walks on water and calms the storm. But, with the multitudes we don’t see growth, but instead we see more and more groups rejecting Him.
All throughout, Jesus is becoming more and more controversial. We see little breaks in the story as people are confronted with who Jesus really is and are forced to reckon with that reality. And along with more controversy comes more enemies, who get angrier, more jealous, and more violent.
Until we get to the sixth sign where Jesus heals a man born blind – something completely unheard of, and absolutely miraculous. His enemies argue and complain, but they can’t deny Jesus’ power. In this miracle Jesus shows He is the “light of the world”, able to bring light into the darkest of places, just like the prologue said. And His enemies respond by showing they “love the darkness” and hate the light, just like the prologues said.
Then, in the seventh miracle – seven being a very symbolic number in the Bible – Jesus does something completely otherworldly, something only God could do – He looks at Martha and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:9). Martha says “yes” – and then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
You’d think this would solidify Jesus as Christ, Saviour, and God, right? How can you argue with someone who can raise the dead? Well, no. Instead, Jesus enemies loved the darkness so much that their response to seeing the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry fed, and the dead raised – was… let me read 11:53, “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
At that point, the story of Jesus slows down to a crawl. The first half of the book, 11 chapters, covers about 3 years of Jesus’ life – the second half of the book, 10 chapters, takes place over the course of one week: Passion Week.
The Gospel of John is a truly incredible book. I haven’t even gone over all the ways that John divided and organized it. It’s incredibly interwoven and beautifully designed.
My hope is that this series we’re doing will inspire you to not only read the Gospel of John, but to appreciate it, to meditate on it, and most of all, to see Jesus in new and fascinating ways because of how He’s revealed here.
John the Baptist Exalts Christ
But let’s get into our passage today. I hope you’ve kept your thumb in John 3:22-36. This part occurs right after Jesus spends the night talking with the Pharisee Nicodemus about why he had come into the world, what His mission was, how it would all go, and how people would react.
Then, the next day, hopefully after Jesus got a couple of hours sleep, it says,
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
Pause there a second. This whole section is about argument and interpretations of what’s going on. See the picture here, because a lot is going on. Remember, a lot of what the Gospel of John is doing is simply answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” and to do this he uses a lot of imagery and illustration – which we’ve already discussed a bit. Another thing it uses is contrast.
I take a lot of pictures these days. I set up a lightbox in my office to take pictures of the various little projects I do. A lightbox is simply a big, white, cloth box that you shine a bunch of lights in. If you’ve ever seen anything sold by Apple, you’ll know they love lightboxes. They take their phone or whatever, and stick it on a completely white background. That’s what I try to do.
When I’m editing the pictures, there’s a bunch of settings I can use, but , to me, the one that makes the biggest difference is the “contrast” setting. The more contrast there is, the bigger the difference between the white and the object. The colours get richer, the blacks get darker, and whatever I’m taking a picture of pops off the screen.
Many times in the Gospel of John you’ll see the author boost the contrast so that we can see something about Jesus – when compared to someone else. In this case, Jesus is being contrasted with John the Baptist.
We’ve already seen that John the Baptist is called the “witness”, while Jesus is called “the light” (1:7-8). John the Baptist is a “voice”, Jesus is “the Word” (1:14,23). John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Spirit (1:33).
Here we see both Jesus and John are having baptisms, but Jesus is in the Judean countryside, and John the Baptist is in Samaria. John is called “rabbi” (or teacher) – and this is the only place in scripture anyone other than Jesus is called “rabbi”, so you know something’s going on.
So, what’s happening there? The stage is set in verse 22-24, but the situation comes about in verse 25, “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” This was a major point of argument between the followers of John and Jesus, and the rest of the Jewish leadership. The Jews, meaning the Pharisees and members of the ruling counsel, would often, it seems, come to John and confront him about why he thought he had authority to baptize people. He wasn’t an official in the temple, he wasn’t an authorized teacher, and he wasn’t even in Jerusalem. So it rankled them that people kept coming to John to be ritually washed – or baptized. For the Pharisees, as most of you know, ritual washing was a HUGE deal. They were all about rules and regulations and religion and ceremony. They were always upset with Jesus – not because He broke the Mosaic Laws – but because He kept breaking all the extra laws they had put on top of them.
For example – you know how we’re all about sanitization and washing hands right now? – well, we have nothing on the Pharisees. Consider this: at one point (in Matthew 15), a bunch of high-ranking Pharisees and scribes travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Gennesaret (which is, like, 130 kilometers) to ask him one, super huge important question that had been bothering them so much they just couldn’t wait. That question:
“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” (Matt 15:2).
For them, washing hands wasn’t about personal hygiene, it was about being ceremonially, religiously clean. Before a Pharisee would eat they had a special ceremony for washing. For them, the condition of your hands was the condition of your soul. Some taught that if you didn’t wash your hands, you could get a demon. Others, that it showed how much sin was in your life. Others said that if you ate with unwashed hands, you could forfeit eternal life.
Their ceremony was interesting. Every home had to have a certain amount of ceremonial water available. They were told to use the amount of water that would fill one and a half eggshells. They were to hold their hands upwards, have water pored over their fingers while the water ran off their wrists. Then they were to turn their hands with fingers pointed downwards and do it again. Then, they were to rub the fist of one hand in the palm of the other, and then do it with the other hand. If you were really devout, you would do this in between every course of the one meal!
You can see the heart of the one that came to John’s followers with questions about “purification”. Which is why, every now and again, one of the officials would take the trip to wherever John was and basically say, “What are you doing and why?” And start an argument.
John’s baptism wasn’t about an external show of religious devotion, or some kind of superstition. His baptism was one of repentance. It was an external symbol of what was going on in the heart of the person being baptized. They were saying, “I’m a sinner. I need God. I want to change my life and priorities. I want my heart to be ready and clean for when the Messiah comes.” And they would show that by publicly immersing themselves in water.
Which is why we see in verse 26,
“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
Apparently the argument with the Jewish official got pretty heated. Not only was he upset at what John the Baptist was doing – but he had brought a report that there was another person, named Jesus, who was nearby, just on the other side of the Samaritan border, who was baptizing people too.
This was all too much! The Jewish official was upset because now two people were breaking their ceremonial laws… and now the followers of John were upset too because Jesus was starting to gather more followers and baptize them. In fact, some of the people who had been baptized by John were headed over to Jesus to be baptized again. So, they ask, “What’s that all about?”
The Jewish official was mad because traditions were broke and his culture and authority were being insulted. The followers of John were jealous on behalf of their master, because Jesus was getting more popular. Everyone is upset because this ceremony, this ordinance, these ritual washings, were all being done by different people for different reasons.
John the Baptist’s Answer
So what does John the Baptist say? Remember, they have just called him Rabbi. John the Gospel writer makes a point of that. In other words, this Jewish Official and the followers of John, and everyone else gathered around them, look to John the Baptist, the teacher, for an explanation.
And in essence, in his answer, John contrasts himself and everyone else – including the Jewish officials – with Jesus. He looks at them and
“John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
What does John say here? “I might be a rabbi, a teacher, who talks about God – but Jesus literally is God and the source of all knowledge. I didn’t come up with any of this, it was given to me by God… and He’s right over there. I am the forerunner, He is the Christ. I am the best man, He’s the groom. I might be at the party, but the party is all for Him. I’m from earth, He’s from heaven. I’m a witness to the truth, but He’s the truth incarnate. I talk about repentance and wash people with water – Jesus utterly changes people and gives them the Holy “Spirit without measure”. I was chosen for a mission, but Jesus has been “given all things”
“Therefore – now look at me everyone – look at me Jewish official – look at me disciples – look at me people who are here to get baptized… I am hereby announcing my retirement. I refuse to be a distraction to what Jesus is doing. I will not compete with Him. He must increase, but I must decrease. My job was to tell you the problem. I’ve warned you about the wrath of God, the death of your soul, the corruption of your religion, the poison of the Pharisees, and the need for repentance, and you’ve listened to me – but now instead of talking about the problem, I’m pointing you to the solution. He’s right over there… His name is Jesus, He’s the Son of God, and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
And that’s the point of this whole narrative – and where we can find something to apply to our lives. Just like the Jewish Officials, Christians and religious people argue about all kinds of things too. Just like John the Baptist’s disciples, the way we practice our faith, religion, Christianity can become competitive, and we can get jealous and upset as we argue about which teacher is best, which translation of the Bible is best, which music is best, which tradition is best, which church is best…
Individually, we can be like the Jewish Officials by being argumentative, stubborn, superstitious, overzealous for trivial issues. Or, we can be like John the Baptist’s disciples and start to worry more about our positions, traditions, focusing on numbers and finances and growth, rather than on Jesus or serving people. Both of these two groups had it wrong because they were worried more about the external things: teachers, washing, popularity, respect — and not worried enough about the internal things: Am I right with God? Is my heart full of sin? Where is my faith? Do I “believe in the son” and “obey the Son”?
John the Baptist’s words here, and John the Gospel writer’s intent here, is for us to stop comparing ourselves to others, stop comparing our ministries or church to others, stop comparing our families to others, stop trying to impress God and others through external things – and to realize that in order to be a Christian, it is our internal priorities that need to change. “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.”
Over and over we see John the Baptist say what he’s not. “I’m not the Christ.” “I am not Elijah” (1:21), “I am not worthy to untie” Jesus sandals (1:27). Those are the words of a man that is more concerned about what God thinks than what anyone else thinks.
He’s courageous enough, and bold enough to stand up and declare what God wants to say – even if it gets him in trouble, even if it gets him arrested, even if it gets him beheaded. But every word he speaks, everything he does, points away from himself and toward Jesus. And when one of his own people try to elevate John – he reacts by debasing himself and declaring the praises of Jesus as God, Lord, Saviour and Christ, and in no uncertain terms, stepped away from the spotlight, humbled himself, humiliated himself, so Jesus could be seen all the more clearly.
And so, I want to ask you this morning: Do you see yourself in this narrative? Are you like the Jewish Official, more worried about external things than what’s going on inside you? Are you like John’s disciples, competitive with others, comparing yourself, your life, your church, your ministry, you marriage, your kids, your job, with others – always worried about success, and numbers, and finances, and what people think?
Or, are you willing, if that means Jesus gets more glory, to “decrease”. Are you willing to decrease your influence, decrease your expectations, decrease your finances, decrease your comfort, decrease the authority you think you have over any part of your life – and turn it all over to Jesus so He can “increase”?
You’ll often hear the gospel framed as a pitch for all the wonderful things that you can get from Jesus – and there are many wonderful gifts that come from Him – but there’s another part, a deeper aspect of faith. It’s that the closer you get to Jesus, the more you are with Him, the more you study about Him, and worship Him, the brighter He will shine – and the duller you will look. Are you ok with that? Are you ok if God uses you in a mighty way, changes people’s lives, speaks through you in a special way – but no one will ever know? Are you ok with never getting rewarded, praised, or thanked for doing the right thing? Or maybe, in your obedience, in doing the right thing, a whole lot of people misunderstand and it actually costs you. Are you ok with that?
I think of the story of David in 2 Samuel 6. Do you remember that one? The Ark of the Covenant, the very Throne of God, was coming back into Jerusalem for the first time in a long time. It had been taken by the Philistines, recovered and then profaned by Saul (which cost him is throne), and, because it was so powerful and dangerous, had been kept at someone’s home. But when David became king and heard that the one who had the ark was being blessed, he decided it was time to bring it to Jerusalem so the whole nation could be blessed.
And David, being a passionate, musical, worshipful guy who loved God, made it into a huge deal. It was like a parade with music and dancing and instruments and party food and sacrifices to the Lord. And it says in 2 Samuel 6:14, “And David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.” A “linin ephod” was a simple version of the type of garment that priests used. So there’s the king of Israel, not walking all dignified in a fancy royal robe, but dancing with all his might, in a simple outfit, right in front of everyone.
David’s wife Michal sees him and is super upset. Her dad, Saul, would never have done that. It says she “despised him in her heart” (2 Sam 6:16). Once the party was over and the Ark was set in its place, David returned home and his wife tore a strip off him. (2 Samuel 6:20)
“How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Sam 6:20)
And what was David’s response:
“It was before the Lord [I was dancing]… and I will celebrate before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible (other translations say “undignified”) than this, and I will be abased in your eyes.” (2 Sam 6:21-22)
In other words – I don’t care what people think. I was worshipping God, dancing before Him, and if it means more worship and glory goes to God – then I will become even more undignified. In other, other words: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
I think of Jesus words in Matthew 5:11–12,
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
So I ask you: Are you willing to decrease, to be undignified, contemptible, abased, unpopular, reviled, persecuted, uttered against, falsely accused – if it means obeying Jesus and that Jesus gets more glory? Or does your self-image come before your obedience and worship of God?
 Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 189). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 You Are the Christ, David Whitcomb, Ambassador International, Pg. ??
Please open up to John 1:19-34.
But before we get into the reading, just a quick reminder about the context. The Apostle John is writing his gospel to introduce his readers to who Jesus really is. The rest of the gospels had already been written and circulated for about 30 years by the time John wrote this one and so what we read here is a sort of supplement to them – which is why some of the details that are in the other gospels are left out and other details are added in.
God inspired John to write something different than the other three synoptic gospels – something that would answer different questions and present a clearer picture of Jesus.
We talked last week about how important John the Baptist was during his time. A lot of people around the world had heard of him and had even participated in his baptism of repentance. We talked about the importance of that baptism last week and why it was important for the Apostle John to differentiate him from Jesus because there were still a lot of people confused about who John the Baptist really was and whether or not following Him was what God wanted in order for people to be saved.
The Apostle John wanted to be absolutely clear to everyone who read his gospel about who John the Baptist was and what his role was in the story of salvation. He was important, powerful, popular, divisive, courageous, certainly vital to God’s plan, and definitely prophesied about in the Old Testament – but he wasn’t Jesus. Jesus, as we talked about last week, is “the Word” of God that “became flesh”, the source of all “life” and “light”, the one who gave people the “right to become children of God”, the only one who “has ever seen God” because He “is God” (1:1-18).
But the next, natural question for anyone to ask would be, “What about John the Baptist?” He came out of nowhere, looked like an Old Testament prophet, said he was chosen by God to speak prophecies, was a powerful teacher who challenged the religious establishment, baptized followers and had many disciples, and even died as a martyr. A lot of people following John the Baptist would need to know what makes Jesus better than him?
That’s where we come today. Now, the assumption that the Apostle John seems to make here is that people already know a lot about John the Baptist, which is why he leaves out some details, like the miracles around John’s birth in Luke 1, that him and Jesus are cousins, John’s connection to the prophecies about Elijah in Malachi 4, how he dressed like Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1, or how so many of the Jewish people, from the highest to the lowest, had been anticipating and longing (Luke 2:38) for the coming of the Messiah for the past century since the Roman Empire took over the land of Israel (63BC) – and that when John the Baptist came on the scene that Messianic hope was at its absolute peak. He doesn’t even tell the story of John baptizing Jesus because it’s already in the other gospels.
The Apostle John leaves a lot of that out because it’s already in the other gospels, but He gets to the meat of the question: “Then who was John the Baptist anyway?” and the best way to answer that is through John the Baptists’ own testimony.
Who is John the Baptist?
Let’s read from verse 19:
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “’I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)”
The Pharisees had come up with four options as to who John the Baptist was. John was either the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, essentially a second Moses who knew God “face to face” (Exo 34:11), who could perfectly interpret the Law, and who spoke with the authority of God. Or John was the second coming of the greatest prophet, Elijah, as foretold in Malachi 4:5, who would perform great signs and wonders and challenge the corrupt rulers of the people. Or, John was the Christ, the Messiah himself, a great King and military leader in the line of David who had come to rescue the people from their Roman oppressors. Or, John was a false prophet.
John the Baptist made the whole of the Jewish leadership look and was a source of great embarrassment for them, but they knew he was something special and wanted to pin Him down. Not necessarily to follow Him (as we learn from how they treated Jesus) but to clarify his claim and see if they could disqualify and then get rid of him.
But John, like Jesus, didn’t fall for their games. He refused to take the bait and wouldn’t claim to be something he knew He wasn’t. All he knew was what God had called Him to do: to speak one very specific message: repent and prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord.
Essentially, John was saying, “Don’t look at me. I don’t matter. Stop stereotyping and arguing and trying to wiggle out of what I’m saying by some kind of loophole. Just listen to the message. The significance is not in the speaker but in the message. I’m not talking about me; I’m just the herald to someone greater. I’m not pointing to myself, I’m pointing to Him. I don’t want attention on myself; I want it on what I’m saying. Listen: Repent from your sins, prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. He’s coming very soon.”
But did they listen? No.
Look at their next question:
“They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’”
Ok, if you’re not going to let us ignore you by pinning you down to disqualify you by claiming to be something you’re not – then we’ll try a different tack. Maybe we can disqualify you by what you’re doing. Then we won’t need to listen to what you’re saying.
Do you see how hard they are working so they don’t have to hear the message of repentance? They can’t argue with the message, but they sure can argue with the man.
Their argument was that since John wasn’t claiming to be a prophet or messiah, and He wasn’t a Jewish leader, and he didn’t work in the temple, then by what right does he baptize people? New, gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as an initiation rite. Part of becoming a Jewish proselyte was to go through the waters of baptism.
But John the Baptist was calling Jews to be baptized! This was new. What religion was he calling them to join? Was he a cult leader? Was he a schismatic? Was he going against the temple and God’s Laws? The Pharisees, who were especially concerned with obeying the Law of Moses as perfectly as possible, would be especially interested. Look at John’s answer in verse 26, “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
John’s answer is, essentially the same as our own: “I’m just using water to symbolize something that has happened on the inside. I’m just giving people a practical, obvious, public, way to show what has happened in their hearts. I tell people to repent, to realize they are sinners who need cleaning up, and then I use the water to symbolize that they have obeyed the word of God. The cleansing of their bodies in the water shows that they desire the cleansing of their souls.”
But John then takes it one step further with a big “but”. He says, “But I have a surprise for you. The Messiah, the One I’ve been talking about is already here. He is already walking among us. He will be revealed very soon. Stop arguing. Repent. Prepare yourself. Now is the time.” When John the Baptist talks about his unworthiness to carry or even tie Jesus’ “sandals” it points us to something he has skipped. Those words are in Matthew, Mark and Luke and all point to the story of Jesus’ baptism. So at this point, as the Jewish Leaders stand before Him, John the Baptist has already baptized Jesus in the Jordan, has seen the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove, has heard the voice of the Father commissioning Jesus’ earthly ministry, and seen Jesus sent for the 40 days of temptation in the desert. And, it seems that the very next day after the Jewish Leaders questioned John, Jesus comes back from the wilderness.
Look at verse 29-34,
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”
And so now we hear from John the Baptist himself who he thinks he is, and who he knows Jesus to be. His whole life was meant to point to the coming Messiah, and when Jesus came, John stepped back. But before he did, he “bore witness” that Jesus was the One he had come to prepare the world for. He said he didn’t know in advance, but when Jesus came for baptism it became absolutely clear. God showed up, God spoke, God showed Him exactly who Jesus was. And so John pointed people to Jesus. When John was preaching he deflected all attention away from himself to his message – and now that He knew who the Christ was he reflected every bit of attention onto Jesus.
That’s what the Apostle John wants everyone who is reading this to know. John the Baptist’s message, witness, and ministry all pointed to Jesus. So if you are following John, now is the time to follow Jesus.
Jars of Clay
There’s something I want to chew on for a bit though here. It must have been very tempting for John the Baptist to try to take some of the credit, to accept some praise, to want to share the spotlight with Jesus. According to chapter 3, even John’s own disciples were jealous on his behalf when Jesus started to gain popularity.
What prevented John from getting puffed up with pride? How did he stay humble?
If you’ve ever done something well, something that you know you couldn’t have done without God, you’ll know it’s not easy to deflect praise. Whether it’s a piece of art you have designed, a successful ministry, having good kids, doing well in a difficult class, learning a skill few people have and then using it to bless others, having the ability to make money, or a great sense of humour, or strong administrative skills, or the ability to be patient and kind during difficult times, you’ll know that when people see you, they automatically want to give you credit – and it can be extremely difficult to reflect that praise back to God. Even when you say, “It wasn’t me, it was God”, they want to give you extra credit for being humble!
So how did John do it? How did he keep his heart in the right place? If I had to guess from what we’ve read and know about John the Baptist it was that he knew who he was and who Jesus is.
Think about when you go out to a restaurant. You sit down at the table, the server comes over and gives you water, takes your order, and then delivers the food. As Canadians it’s our habit to thank everyone for everything all the time, right? A lot of us even thank inanimate objects like ATMs and traffic lights for doing their job. So when the food comes we automatically say thank you, right? What are we thanking the server for? For bringing the food, right?
But, then, inevitably – and usually when you have a mouthful of food – they come by again and ask how the food is. And we say, “Oh, it’s so good! It’s amazing!” Now, imagine if the server started to get a big head about it. The owner buys all the food and the chef prepares everything – but who gets to hear everyone “mmming” and “wowing” and “this is so good”? Who gets to hear the thank-yous and watch people smile? It’s the server.
But wouldn’t it be crazy if the server tried to share the credit with the chef? “You’re absolutely welcome for that dish. It was half me, half the chef. Because without me, the food would have just stayed in the kitchen and no one could eat it. So, actually, I should get more of the credit for being the one who allowed you to have such a fine meal. And really, since I’m the one who gave it to you, I’m the one in the fancy suit, I’m the one who listens to you and brings you what you want, and no one else, then I must be the most important person in the room right now. You would go hungry without me. You would starve without me. No one would even know the chef exists without me. The whole restaurant would close if I weren’t here to bring you your food. In fact, I was the one who recommended that meal to you in the first place, so you don’t even get any credit for ordering it! I get all the credit! This whole place revolves around me!”
That’s crazy, right? But that’s what Christians sound like we sound like when we try to share glory with God for something we’ve done. A server, a servant, is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it. Regardless of what your gift is – music, art, speaking, generosity, crafts, administration, physical strength, even physical beauty – it is, and you are, merely a delivery system for God’s glory and greatness. He gave it to you as a gift, has used the experiences of your life to hone that gift, and has designed you in such a way that when you use it not only are other people blessed, and not only do you get to receive pleasure from using it, but in doing so He gets glory. We often realize the first two of those and forget the last. We’re happy to use what we have to help people, happy to feel good doing it, but when it comes to who gets the credit, who gets the glory… we often want to steal it, or at least share it, with God. That’s crazy when you really think about it.
Consider 1 Corinthians 4:7 where the amazing apostle Paul said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The “treasure” is the gospel, and the “power” belongs to God – he’s just the clay jar it was carried in. Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as a potter and His people the clay (Isa 64:8). In Romans 9:20–21 when Paul is talking to people who complain to God about their lot in life he says,
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
In other words, he’s the potter, you’re the clay. In this context, the Apostle is talking about saved versus unsaved, but the lesson is still sound. God knows what He’s doing, knows what you’re good for, knows what your strengths and weaknesses are, and knows where you are of best use – because He made you. And if you do things His way and you’ll be a lot better off.
If He wants to make you into a fancy vase that sits on a shelf meant to hold and feed and water some pretty flowers for all to see, but are changed out often, then be content in that. If He wants to make you into a coffee cup that gets filled up and emptied every single day, loved and useful but certainly not fancy or special, then be content in that. If God has designed you to be a cookie jar, full of good and helpful things that you never get to keep but are always meant to be for others, then be content in that. If he wants to make you into a cooking dish that has to face the heat of the flames over and over and over so others can be fed, then be content in that.
Why? Because when you are doing what God has called you to do, using the strength God gives you and returning the glory to Him, He will be there with you and you will know peace and an abundant life. Yes, it may come with difficulty, but you’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be, and you’ll see God’s hand in your life.
But, if you try to be something you’re not, you’ll be very discontent. If the flower vase gets bored of feeding the flowers and sitting on the shelf and tries to become the coffee mug, it’s going to wonder why it can’t do the job and keeps getting hurt. If the cookie jar gets tired of being generous and decides to try being a cooking dish, it’s going to break and won’t be good to anyone. I hope you see what I mean.
John the Baptist knew the secret to contentedness, peace, fruitfulness, and staying humble before God. He knew who He was and who Jesus is and gave all the glory away. John was the herald, Jesus is the king. John was a mirror, Jesus was the light. John was a voice, Jesus is the message. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John called people to prepare themselves by repentance from sin, Jesus is the one who conquered sin and death.
John never forgot who he was.
Who is Jesus?
Turn briefly to John 21:1–14. The question, “Who are you?”, which we see twice in our passage today, is asked all over the Gospel of John. In John 5, the Jewish leaders see a man who had been an invalid for 38 years get up and walk, and they ask who would dare perform a miracle on the Sabbath. In chapter 8, after Jesus declares Himself to be “the light of the world” the Jewish authorities ask twice more. In John 9 a group of Pharisees argue about who Jesus is with a man who was healed from blindness. In John 11, after Jesus says He’s “the resurrection and the life”, right before He raises Lazarus from the dead, he asks Martha if she believes Him. In John 18, as Jesus is on trial everyone keeps asking who He is, then Peter denies who he is to Jesus, then Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Everyone, through the whole book, is asking, “Who are you?”
In John 21:1–14, at the very end of the Gospel during the epilogue we read this,
“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.”
They had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard His message, saw Him die, met Him as the risen Lord, and saw one more miracle before Jesus serve them breakfast. Finally, at the end of the book they stop asking, “Who are you?” They’ve figured it out.
Conclusion: Who is Jesus? Who Are You? Why do you exist?
My questions to you are simply this: Do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? (and consequently, who you are not?) Do you know why you are here?
Everything hinges on those questions. Who is Jesus? Who are you? Why do you exist? These are questions you must answer.
John the Baptist knows. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the “lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Who is John? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…” (1:23) Who is John not? Moses, Elijah, Jesus, or a false prophet. Why did John exist? “…For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31)
I know this. Who is Jesus? My Saviour and my God. Who am I? I am a child and servant of God. Why do I exist? To be a godly husband and father, and as a gift to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-16) through preaching, teaching, counselling, and creativity. It’s taken many years, and certainly there have been times of difficulty and doubt, but I can say this: I know Jesus, I who I am, I know who I am not, and I know my purpose.
But I ask you today, do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? And do you know why you exist? If not, you have some soul work to do. And we are here to help you in that journey.
I think it’s appropriate that we start off the Christmas season with the very beginning of the Gospel of John today. We’ve been working on “context and structure” for about a month now and I feel like we could keep talking about it for another few weeks. The structure of John is absolutely fascinating! But we need to get into it and we’ll hit some of those interesting structural points along the way.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” ( John 1:1-18)
If you have a study bible there’s a good chance that there are a LOT of notes about this first set of verses, because John packs a LOT of stuff in there. In fact, this section is like a summary of the whole rest of the book.
When Jesus God Speaks
John begins by calling Jesus “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God.” He was there before “the beginning” and was the one who made everything. We’ve already discussed the Trinitarian aspects of this – how this affirms that Jesus is the same God who created the universe – but I want you to notice something else. John here is setting up one of the major themes of the book which is that when Jesus speaks God is speaking.
Over and over Jesus says things like, to the Jewish authorities in chapter 5,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).
Or to the crowds and Pharisees in chapter 8,
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
or to His disciples in
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10).
This was, and currently is, a major point of contention in regards to Jesus. Some people claim that Jesus never claimed to be God and that Christians came up with that idea later. Other religions claim that Jesus was merely a prophet sent by God but not God Himself. Some non-religious people hold Jesus up as a great moral teacher but refuse to believe in His divinity. This is absolutely wrong. Jesus absolutely presented Himself as God in the flesh.
Turn over to John 10:22-33,
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’”
When Jesus was crucified, this was the charge against Him: Because He claimed to be God. Pilate knew this and knew it wasn’t a good enough reason to sentence Jesus to the cross, which is why he declared him innocent and tried to free him. Jesus wasn’t killed for any other reason than claiming to be God. This incensed the Jews and they used all the political pressure they could, even claiming to support their Roman oppressors and threatening Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar, in order to have Jesus punished in the worst way possible.
Jesus didn’t just claim to be a prophet who was told what to say by God. He wasn’t just reporting what God says – He was saying that when He spoke, God spoke. No one else claimed that. Every other prophet said, “Ok, most of the time I’m just sinful, old, me – but sometimes God speaks His word to me and I tell it to you.” That’s not what Jesus claimed. There was nothing He said, no judgement He made, no miracle He performed, no woe he pronounced, no action He performed or word he spoke that didn’t carry the weight and authority and perfection of God.
So, that’s the first thing that John wants you to know, right upfront and throughout the whole book: Jesus is God and when He speaks, God speaks. Jesus is the Word of God.
And it’s also the first thing we are confronted by and are forced to reckon with. When we think of Jesus and by extension the scriptures which contain His words – and not just the Gospels, but every other word spoken in every other book – are we giving them the proper weight and authority in our lives? Do we take what Jesus says, or what the Bible says, as one opinion of many that we weigh against a bunch of others – or do we listen and obey as though God Himself has spoken to us? Because that’s exactly what is happening.
Jesus is the Source of Light and Life
The second big theme that we see throughout the gospel of John that is introduced here is that Jesus is the source of light and life.
Jesus was the one who said, “Let there be light” and “Let there be life” in Genesis 1. He spoke into the darkness and created the light. But, after sin entered the world in Genesis 3 there was a problem: darkness came back and death entered the world. Then, even in Genesis 3, right after the Fall of Man, God said that someone would be coming to fix the problem. The whole of the Old Testament points to the one who would come and do that. Then Jesus, the source of all light and all life, came. Darkness tried to reclaim the world for itself, but because of Jesus, it couldn’t.
We talked about this one a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it, but as you read John, look for that theme too. And as you look, consider that not only are you being asked to see Jesus as the source of all light and life, the one who came to bring light to the darkness and to make a way through death into life, but you are being asked if you come to Him that way. That was what John was saying to his first readers too. Persecution and martyrdom and death were rampant among believers… and the political drama and insanity of the Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero bringing death and famine by their own whims made everything very dark for almost everyone else… so where should people turn? John’s answer was, to Jesus, the source of light and life – in short, hope.
When you face dark things – sin, rebellion, temptation, unrighteous anger, bitterness, strife, lack, storms, struggles, sickness, and death – is your first instinct to come to the source of life and light or to go somewhere else? Because where you go first is probably the thing that you hold above Jesus as your functional saviour and source of hope.
Something difficult happens, darkness invades. You get sick, you feel pain, someone betrays you, fear and uncertainty starts to creep into your heart – what do you do? Where do you turn first? You want direction, comfort, freedom, an anchor for your soul. You are looking for a light in the darkness, so where do you turn first? Alcohol? Chemicals? Pornography? Sleep? Social Media Post to get some attention? Search the Internet for an answer? Lash out and hurt someone?
Or, do you come to Jesus and say, “Things are dark and I need some light. You are the light of the world. I feel death encroaching and need some hope. You are the source of life and hope.” And then wait on Him to provide you with what you need?
John the Baptist: Herald of Jesus
The third big theme of John, found in verses 6-8, and then again in 15, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. If you’ve heard the Christmas story at all, then you’ll know that things were getting darker in the world – for the Jews and Gentiles alike. The Gentiles knew nothing of the One, True God because paganism had utterly taken over their land, and the Jewish religious system was almost totally corrupted, totally divorced from the religion that God set up to draw people to Him, so even the people of God were far from Him. Things were dark.
But when things were at their darkest, a voice was heard, the voice of John the Baptist, the herald of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, a man chosen before he was born to prepare the way for Jesus, starts preaching a few years before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and he has a simple, three part message. The Messiah is coming soon, repent from your sins and get ready for it, and live out that repentance by a changed life.
John the Baptist was a powerful preacher, used by God to call many people to a baptism of repentance, but John knew He wasn’t the Messiah. He didn’t know who He was heralding for most of His life, but He knew that the Messiah was imminent – and that that the Messiah wouldn’t just get people wet and tell them to change their behaviour – He would change them from the inside out by freeing them from the curse of sin altogether and coming to live inside them through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In John 1:29-33 (turn there), after He has baptized Jesus and right before he hands off the baton to Jesus, even sending his own disciples off to follow Jesus, John says to them,
“‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’” (Matthew 3:11–12)
You’ll see John the Baptist come up a lot in the first half of the book as Jesus is compared to him. Everyone seemed to know John the Baptist and he had some serious street cred. We learn in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4 that people throughout the whole world had experienced “John’s Baptism” and so a lot of people reading this Gospel would have already known how important John’s ministry and prophecy was. And, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of Him, the Apostle John makes absolutely clear that as important as John the Baptist was, he was only the herald, the forerunner, the announcer, of Jesus Christ. John wasn’t the light – he was only the voice who was crying out in the darkness saying, “The Light of the World is coming – be ready for it!”
But I think the Apostle John’s question for all those who read is this: Do you know that it is not enough that you feel bad about your sin. It is not even enough that you have repented from your sin by saying you want to stop. The end of repentance is not merely the change of behaviour – it is faith in Jesus. The question is, has your sorrow over your sin lead you to seek salvation and cleansing from Jesus, who can free you from the curse and grant you the gift of the Holy Spirit – or have you stopped at merely thinking you just need to change your behaviour? Because the testimony of the whole of scripture is that your problem isn’t that you are mostly good and just need a little “help from above” or that you have one or two big problems and that once God fixes those you’re ok.
The testimony of Jesus is that repentance isn’t enough – you must be “born again”. You must be utterly changed, from the inside out, by giving all your sin, all your self, your entire being, past, present and future, to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to offer the baptism of repentance. He doesn’t come to offer a little encouragement to assuage your guilt. He comes to offer the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life, a re-birth, to everyone who will believe.
I think of 2 Corinthians 7:10 which says,
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
There’s a big difference between feeling bad about your sin because you were caught, or because it blew up in your face, or caused problems for you and others – and realizing that you are a complete sinner, that your sin infects every part of your life, that your sin has caused spiritual death, and that you need a complete renewal, a complete (what theologians used to call) revivification, to be reborn as a new person who died and rose again because of the work of Jesus. That’s a huge difference. Think of the difference between Judas and Peter. Judas had worldly sorrow leading to death – Peter felt just as bad, but was restored by Jesus to new life. Worldly sorrow, or even the mere baptism of repentance, still leads to death. It is Godly sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.
Saying a prayer one time and then getting wet in a baptismal ceremony does not save you. Sorrow for your sin, leading to hatred of sin and a desire to be free from it, which leads to you the foot of the cross where you confess your sin and need, asking Jesus to take the punishment for it and to give you new life – and then living out that faith through trust and obedience to Jesus is what saves.
The Response to Jesus
There are more introductions to big themes here in John’s prologue, but let’s only do one more: How people responded to Jesus.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (vs 9-13)
Throughout the whole book, you’re going to see Jesus do miracles, make claims about Himself, and then see people’s reactions. Jesus talks to every kind of person in the Gospel of John. Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, men and women, pious religious people and social rejects, beggars and nobleman, crowds and individuals, rich and poor. And we get to see their reactions. Sometimes it is faith, but most often it is rejection – even from those who first believed.
For a variety of reasons – whether it was because Jesus didn’t give them what they wanted, because Jesus said things they didn’t like, because Jesus claimed authority over them, because they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or because Jesus refused to do things their way, Jesus’ teachings, claims, and miracles were often accepted at first but then rejected. This happens over and over and over until we see finally Him at the end of His life, almost totally abandoned – only a handful of people willing to admit they even know Him. The cost and risk of believing in Jesus, following Jesus, admitting to being Jesus’ disciple was too high.
And so the question, implied here and asked throughout the gospel is this: Where do you stand? After hearing what Jesus has said and done, have you turned from darkness to the light, believed in Jesus for your salvation, and become a child of God who will obey Jesus in all things – or, after hearing all this, do you still refuse to believe and obey? Will you surrender everything to Jesus as your Saviour, Lord and God, and be born again as a child of light – or do will you continue to live in the darkness? There are only two roads. Only two teams to play for. Those who follow Jesus to eternal life and those who will suffer eternal damnation.
To our modern ears that sounds intolerant and closed-minded. We’re used to leaving room for differing opinions, allowing for individual expressions of belief, letting people make decisions about God for themselves. We’ve been taught that it’s not polite to talk about religion and that it’s a faux pas to say that there is only one answer about something so important or controversial.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us any wiggle room and He doesn’t allow us to make up our own beliefs about Him or God or ourselves or the way of salvation. Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh, our Creator who may claim the highest authority over us. Jesus claimed to be the light of the world and the source of life and that anyone who does not believe in Him will walk in darkness and death. And then He simply asked, “Will you believe what I say – and show that belief through faith and obedience to me? If not, you will remain in your sin and in darkness.”
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). John the Baptist. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1201). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Every now and again I have the wonderful privilege of speaking to a group of AWANA children. Here’s a talk I gave recently (based on this previous post).
Background is Important
Cartoons wouldn’t be the same without the background, would they? You’d see the characters doing things, but you wouldn’t know where they were. Why is that guy doing that? Where did that come from? Are they in outer space? Are they in a restaurant? Are they at someone’s house? It’s important to have the background so you can understand what’s happening in the story.
Have you ever thought of that? The importance of the background? We love looking at the main characters, but the background is pretty important, isn’t it? I would say that it is just as important as what’s happening in the story!
Camera’s that Face Us
Well, here’s the problem today – there are a lot of people who want to be the main character in the story, they want to be the superhero, the funny guy, the important person – but they don’t want to be the background. The Bible calls that pride. People who refuse to be in the background, and let other people be up front, are prideful.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. How many of you have a camera, or maybe an iPod with a camera? On a regular camera, the lens – the part that takes the picture – faces outward, away from you. But iPhone or iPod, has a camera that faces you! It’s a camera built for one job – so you can take pictures of yourself! Did you know there is such a thing as a Selfie Stick, so you can take a picture of yourself from far away? You don’t even need to have anyone else around! Now you don’t need to take pretty pictures of sunsets and cool cars and friends and nature and bugs and stuff – now you can take pictures of yourself and show everyone how cool you are.
That feeds our pride. We don’t just a picture of something. We don’t even want to be people in a picture anymore. We want to be the picture. It’s called a “selfie”, right? That’s pretty close to “selfish”, isn’t it?
And it’s all a way of saying, “I don’t want to be in the background. The background isn’t important. I want to be the main character. I want to be who everyone sees. The background Only losers are part of the background.”
But here’s something that you’re not going to hear from anyone other than a Christian teacher – everyone else will tell you to try to be the main character – only a Christian teacher will say this. Are you listening?
Life is better in the background. (Tweet this quote.)
It’s All About Jesus
That’s how God designed the world. There is one main character, Jesus Christ. He’s the whole story and everyone else is in the background. Even the people who take pictures of themselves and get a million hits on their YouTube video, who are rich and famous and everyone knows their name… they’re all background. And the more they try to be in the front, the more they try to take the place of Jesus, the more miserable they become, and the further they get from God, and who God created them to be.
Why? Because God designed people to worship Him, bring Him glory, sing to Jesus, talk about Jesus, and take care of each other in Jesus name. Jesus is the main character.
John the Baptist
The best example from the Bible I can think of – of a person who knew this and lived it – is John the Baptist. Have you heard of Him? He was a really cool guy. There’s two things you need to know about him. First, he ate bugs. And second, he had a special job. He was chosen to be God’s megaphone, He was the announcer to Jesus, the person whose job it was to tell everyone that Jesus was coming!
He was chosen before he was born to do this. An angel told his father that “many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” And though his life was going to be special, he knew that he was never meant to be the main character.
I Must Become Less and Less
I want to read you a story from the life of John the Baptist found in the Gospel of John 4:26-30 which shows that John lived in the background so Jesus could be the main character.
“…John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.’”
Do you see what happened there? A bunch of John the Baptist’s followers were worried because more people were following Jesus than John! People were talking about Jesus more than John. “Oh no John! Jesus is more popular than you! More people are going to see Him! People like Him more!”.
In other words, “Oh no John! You’re in the background! What are you going to do? Jesus is more special than you! You need to do something to get back into everyone’s view! You don’t want to be in the background, do you?”
Now let me read to you what John the Baptist said to them: “John replied, ‘No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”
If there is one line that John the Baptist lived by it was that one: “[Jesus] must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” John new what life is all about, and where he would be most happy – and that was when He was lifting up Jesus’ name, giving Jesus all the praise, and letting others see Jesus. He knew that life was better in the background, because Jesus is the main character.
Missing the Point
Let me ask you a question, but first let me tell you a story:
Imagine you took a friend to the movies. You pay for their ticket, get the popcorn, give them the 3D glasses, pick the seat, and get ready for the movie. So you’re sitting there – ready to go – and what comes on first? The movie trailers right? The little previews to show you what kind of movies are going to be coming soon.
Now imagine if your friend watches the movie trailer for three minutes, gets up, and leaves the theatre. You think he’s going to the bathroom, but as you wait you realize he’s not coming back. Now it’s half way through the movie – it’s been an hour and your friend isn’t coming back. So what do you do? Well, you eat all the popcorn, and you drink your drink – and then you drink their drink – and the movie is so good that you don’t leave until the movie is over. And you realize – your friend never came back!
So you rush down the stairs and into the foyer looking for your friend – they’re not there. So you rush outside and there’s your friend, sitting on the steps waiting for the car to come and get him.
What would you say? “Where were you?! Where did you go?!” And then your friend replies – “Well, I watched that little movie and I liked it, so I left. I thought that was why we came. That was such a good movie! It’s a shame it was only 3 minutes long. I’m just so glad we came today. And I’ve been sitting outside thinking about that little 3 minute movie for this whole time.”
What would you think? You’d think they were crazy, right?! You missed the movie! You missed the whole point of being here! You missed out on the real move, the whole experience, the whole reason for coming to the theatre! Why would you think the little trailer was the whole movie?! Why would you leave before the movie even starts?!”
It’s All About Jesus
Well you know what? That’s what we do when we forget that this life is all about Jesus! He’s the reason the whole universe exists. He’s the reason we exist. He designed you! He’s the greatest Saviour. He’s the one who makes everything work. He’s the highest authority – the biggest boss – the king of kings. He’s the one that loves people most. He’s the one who is worshipped and adored. He’s the one who knows everything and is perfectly wise. He’s the one that died on the cross to save everyone from their sin so they could be with Him forever.
And that’s why Christians make such a big deal of Jesus. We’re happy to live in the background because we know it’s all about Jesus. And when we try to take his place – and let our pride get out of hand, thinking that we’re the main character – we get frustrated, sad and lost.
It’s all about Jesus.
Jesus is the movie, we’re just the trailer.
Jesus is the hockey game,we’re just the pregame show.
Jesus is the message, we’re just the phone.
Jesus the letter, we’re just the envelope.
Jesus is the power, we’re just the bulb.
Jesus is the light, we’re just the mirror.
Jesus is the internet, we’re just the computer.
Jesus is the picture, we’re just the frame.
It’s all about Jesus.
Do you know what this is? It’s quite famous and has been around for over 100 years. Millions and millions of people have seen this, probably including yourself. Now can you identify it? Of course you can. Interesting isn’t it? When people go to the Louvre in Paris, not too many even see the frame, do they?
Brad Paisley has a song called “Mona Lisa” which is all about a man who knows that when him and his girl walk into a room, no one is looking at him – and he’s ok with that. In fact, he’s not just ok with it, he’s thankful. The chorus goes, “I feel like the frame that gets to hold the Mona Lisa and I don’t care if that’s all I ever do.”
John the Baptist could have written that. He’s willing to be the frame that few people remember, so that people can see Jesus. And in his life is a message for all of us.
We live in a world consumed with a lust for fame. We have “Reality TV” shows that turn regular people (not really that regular, actually) into celebrities. Almost everyone has a camera phone and can immediately upload any moment of their life so their “followers” can see and immediately comment on what they are doing or eating. People on YouTube are all looking for how they can become the next viral sensation by doing something funny or dangerous. We have dozens of magazines dedicated to following celebrities – what they wear, where they vacation, what their family is doing, who they are dating. We are a society of fame junkies willing to do almost anything – even lewd, offensive or idiotic things – trading pieces of their soul so they can get the attention of strangers for only moments. And when the fame starts to slip, they do even more lewd, even more offensive, more damaging and more idiotic things to keep it.
But living to pursue fame – wanting to be the Mona Lisa so much that you won’t accept being the frame – destroys people. It destroys relationships and lives.
Yes, You Have a Pride Problem Too
Some might be tuning out thinking that you don’t have “a desire to be famous”, but we all struggle with the root problem – which is pride.
- There are some who have a messiah complex, wanting to help and fix everyone and everything around you, feeling guilty when you can’t help – and that’s a pride problem because your trying to do Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be known as the completely self-reliant, able to stand on your own, even able to dole out your riches to the less fortunate –you are the one who feeds people, you sustain the world by your own power and might – and that’s a pride problem because you’re trying to be God.
- Some want to be the Creator, the one who is so clever and smart and wonderful and creative. You want them to come to have your cooking, your art, your writing, your poetry, your garden, your lawn. You want people to look to you to as the fount beauty and joy. You want to be Jesus.
- Some want to be the final authority. You want to have control, know everything that’s going on, have a say on everything that happens, and it all must run through you. And when someone doesn’t ask what you want you get mad because you’re not getting your say. God help anyone who would disagree with you. You want authority over people, telling them what is best – and that’s Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be worshipped and adored, so you perform, and dress up, and put on your signature scent, place yourself at the centre of attention. You want what belongs to Jesus alone.
- Some want to be the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, above all in their intelligence and opinion. You know you’re smarter, more educated and wiser than anyone else, and so everyone should come to you with their questions. In other words, you want to be prayed to, and you want to answer those prayers with your own mind. You want to be Jesus.
And every one of those things are ways that we live life trying to be the Mona Lisa and not the frame. And we can learn a lot about that from John the Baptist about how important it is that we learn to accept life as the frame.
A Life Set Apart
John had known his role since birth. His father Zechariah had been told by an angel, while standing in the temple of God, that John would be set aside for a great work. The angel said,
“And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17)
For his entire life, by God’s decree, John was to be limited. From birth there would be things that he wasn’t allowed to do. His life would be different, and the way he lived it would reflect that. He wouldn’t be allowed to do the things that others could do. He wouldn’t live the way others lived. He would be powerfully used by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, great in word and deed, but only when he submitted himself to God. He committed himself to never drinking wine, and as an adult, went even further to committing himself to living as an Essene – a Jewish sect with strict rules about living simply and following God wholeheartedly. They lived in the deserts, made oaths of loyalty to God and one another, to hate wickedness and love truth, obey the elders, be honest with each other and be fiercely loyal to the exact words of scriptures. A new follower wasn’t even allowed to eat until he took the oaths.
They would sell what they had and give it to a common storehouse, spend their days working and studying the scriptures and other important books, and most didn’t have a family. If you broke with the laws, you were expelled from the group which usually meant you would starve to death in the desert.
John chose to live with this group not because he was an extremist or a fanatic, but so that he could concentrate on God and the mission God gave him. He gave up everything for the sake of the call.
Submitting To the Word of God
And it wasn’t just in His life that John the Baptist submitted himself to God. He also limited his message to only speaking what God wanted him to say. When he confronted Herod, it wasn’t by his own words, but by the words of God. He was a powerful, influential preacher, with a strong message, but the message wasn’t his – it was given to him.
He placed himself under the Word of God, and that gave him the strength and conviction to proclaim such a hard message to so many different groups. He knew the words of scripture, and knew God’s requirements of His people. And therefore, not in his own voice, and not by his own wisdom, and not in his own anger, but with God’s, he stood before the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious elite of his day – and call them a “brood of vipers” who needed to repent of their sin. He stood before the crowds and commanded them to give up their comfort to care for one another. He stood before the powerful tax collectors and commanded them to be honest in their work. He stood before armed Roman Soldiers and told them not to steal and lie, and to be content with their wages. Knowing his message was not his own, but was from God, was why he could stand before King Herod and say, “You were married to one woman, lusted after another man’s wife, divorced your own, and took his. That’s sin and you need to repent!”
They weren’t his words, but were the words of God. Not because he was a prophet, but simply because he had studied the scriptures and was willing to open his mouth against sin.
We are sorely lacking in both those categories today. We lack people who understand the scriptures well enough to actually know what they say, and we lack people with the courage and conviction to actually stand up and tell people what it says. We care too much for our own opinions and our own comfort. We worry too much about what people will think, and not enough about what God thinks. And so many believers, and many churches, are quiet, weak, afraid and defeated.
Let’s talk application. There are of similarities between how John the Baptist lived, and how we are meant to live. We talked about this last week, so I’m not going to rehash it, but let’s remember that we too have a high calling and are meant to live differently.
Listen to what Peter writes to the church in 1 Peter 2:9-12:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
He uses very specific language to describe who Christians are and how Christians should live. We are “chosen”, “royal”, and “holy”. That means we are like John the Baptist — set apart, different than the world. God picked us, you and me, to be His own people – a special group of His own choosing. Just like John the Baptist, before we were born, we were set apart to be His. (Rom 8:29)
The Apostle Peter then tells us why we have been set apart – “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you”. Same mission, same message, as John the Baptist. Not our words, His words. Our mission isn’t to promote ourselves and share our message, but to promote Jesus and share His message. We are not to “proclaim the excellencies” of our way of life, our church, or even our faith – but to proclaim the glory and excellencies of God.
- We are the medium, He is the message.
- We’re the envelope, He’s the letter.
- We’re the radio, He’s the signal.
- We’re the web-browser, He’s the internet.
- We’re the frame, He’s the Mona Lisa.
If people are seeing only us, then we’re not doing it right.
This hits home to me as I watch more and more ministry and secular leaders flame out around us. We all know about the people who are disqualifying themselves though sexual sin by having affairs, getting caught with porn, or doing foolish things like taking digital-pictures of themselves in compromising positions and hoping it never gets seen. And we know about the ones who are disqualifying themselves because of their love for money and they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. We’re seeing that in industry, government and in the church. But one sin that seems to fly under the radar, and is just as disqualifying as money or sex for the Christian minister….
Some of you know who Mark Driscoll is and others of you don’t. He is mega-church pastor from Seattle Washington who has had a very dramatic effect on my life. I’ve been listening to his sermons for my entire career, subscribe to his blog, follow him on facebook, listen to his conferences, have bought almost all his books, and listen to his podcasts. I’ve jokingly called him my “patron saint” because of the effect he’s had on my life and ministry.
He’s known for his strong, straightforward, biblical leadership and preaching style. He’s edgy, media savvy, incredibly intelligent, has a near-photographic memory and can recall large portions of books and scripture at will, is evangelistically minded, biblically driven, and totally sold out to Jesus. A sermon that would take me 20 hours to prepare only takes him 2 hours.
But in the past 2 months, I’ve watched as Driscoll’s ministry has latterly fallen apart in front of him and the rest of the world. He and his church were rebuked and then removed from the church network that he started. He had to cancel the conference he started. His books have been pulled from shelves. He’s been accused and brought up on official charges by dozens of pastors that he’s worked with in the past, and who currently work for him. And just in the past week, he’s been asked to step down as pastor of the church for an indefinite period of time.
Now, I’m not going to stand up here and claim that I know what’s going on in a church 4500 kilometers away. I only know the details that I’ve seen in the news and from statements released by Driscoll and the church. But what seems very clear is that his fall didn’t come because of sexual or financial sin, but because of pride.
The accusations that have been leveled at Driscoll are all about him getting too big in his own mind and then harming those around who challenged him.. I have no doubt that he places himself under the authority of Jesus, but what caused such huge controversy and destruction in his ministry, is his huge ego. He wasn’t held accountable enough by the people around him, his pride inflated, and he started to believe he was the whole show. He lashed out verbally against his elders, fellow pastors, and other people online. He used his amazing intellect and speaking ability to crush the spirits of people around him with insults. He plagiarized people’s work calling it his own, misappropriated church funds, and consolidated power so he couldn’t be questioned. His conduct has been called “ungodly and disqualifying” and “spiritually abusive” – but it wasn’t sex or money that got him – it was his prideful character. (Sources: 1 2 3 4)
Over and over and over God says in scripture that “pride goes before destruction.” (Prov 16:8; 16:5; Jeremiah 20:23; James 4:6). On the list in proverbs of things that God hates, number one is “haughty [prideful] eyes.” (Prov 16:16) And right now, because of his unchecked pride, Driscoll is sitting at home, his church in agony, his ministry crumbling, the people around him broken hearted, and his church, his followers, and people like me are bewildered and depressed.
Yes, I Have a Pride Problem Too
And this hits me extra hard because pride is a daily struggle for me too. I fear that one day I too will be disqualified – not because I’m going to cheat on my wife or steal from the offering plate, but because of my character. That list I gave you of ways that you can be prideful are all problems for me. I struggle with all of those.
I fight against accountability too much. I spend too much time thinking about what others think of me. I am drawn to puff myself up through social media. I like it far too much when people “like” and “share” the things that I post online. I think too much about who will hear me, how far my voice will carry, how cool and creative I’m being, and not nearly enough about what God thinks of what I’m saying and doing. I spend way too much time thinking about success and not even close to enough time considering whether I am being obedient in the moment.
And, if left unchecked, if left unaccountable, if not brought under the Lordship of Jesus, if not held accountable by the elders, the church and my wife, and without God’s daily provision of grace, humility and self-control, I will one day lose my ministry. I will lose my voice. I will lose my testimony. I will be like so many of the kings in the bible who start out ok, but don’t finish well. I know that. And it scares me all the time.
But it’s not just ministers that run this risk, is it? It’s everybody. You’ve heard it before – “Character is king.” This is a mistake we all make – to care too much about what we are like on the outside, and not enough about who we are on the inside. This isn’t a new message, but it is an important one – character is king and pride kills our character.
He Must Increase But I Must Decrease
At one point John’s disciples came to him concerned that Jesus was making more disciples and baptizing more people than he was. This is when many people would panic. John’s ministry was shrinking! Someone else was getting the glory! John’s fame was decreasing! There’s a new guy down the street and everyone’s going to Him! John, John, what are we going to do? You’ll be out of a job!
“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’” (John 3:26-30)
If there is one line that summarizes the life and ministry of John the Baptist, that’s it: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And it was the reason that he was so mightily used. That’s why he could live simply and stay committed to God’s will.
He lived to bring glory to the Son of God. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He was sent to “prepare the way” for Jesus, and He lived that way. He knew he wasn’t the main show – he was the opening act. He wasn’t the movie he was the trailer. He wasn’t the meal, he was the appetizer.
The Gospels all introduce John as the forerunner, the one who “prepared the way”. He is there to gather a crowd, get them warmed up, introduce Jesus, kick off His full-time ministry, pass along some of His followers, and then get out of the way. His job wasn’t to be on stage – it was to prepare the stage for someone else. That’s what we’re here for too.
And when people started to think he was the Christ, he made absolutely sure they knew he wasn’t. In Luke 3:15-16 it says,
“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”
When people started to admire him for being such a great frame, he always pointed them back to the picture. “Don’t look at me – look at Him! If you’re looking at me, you’re going to miss everything!”
Imagine flying a friend to Paris, getting a cab to the Louvre, standing in line, fighting the huge crowd to get to front, finally getting to the viewing spot, and only being allowed your 15 second glance before you are shuffled off so others can see. – And then you go outside for some fresh air and ask your friend, “So, what did you think of the Mona Lisa?”. How hard would you smack them if their answer was, “Oh, I have no idea! I didn’t even see it. I was too busy looking at the pretty frame around it.”?
Now let’s get even more ridiculous. Imagine taking your friend, flying to Paris, getting your cab to the Louvre, fighting the crowd and getting to the front only to find that the curator has decided to take down the Mona Lisa and leave the frame. Would you be upset? Of course you would! No one comes to see the frame!
And here’s the unpopular message that you need to be told: Your life will be better if you realize that you are the frame and Jesus is the picture. If you get that confused, and try to live to be the Mona Lisa, you are going to be miserable.
There are too many people living today who refuse to be the frame – they want the glory that only God deserves. They want to be the Saviour, they want to be the Word, they want to be the Creator, they want to be the final authority, they want to be worshipped, they want to be the one that sustains the world with their own might, they want to be the fount of knowledge. They want to be Jesus. But living and trying to be Jesus is not only a miserable way to live – it’s foolish! You’ll never outshine God. He will always be the greatest! One day, the scriptures promise that every knee will bow – yours included! And worse, it’s demonic. It’s pride! It’s the path to destruction!
If you ever feel indispensable, remember John the Baptist. Our lives will be infinitely better if we figure out that it’s not about me, or you, or our church, or our plans – it’s about Jesus. We exist to follow Him, worship Him, obey Him, serve Him, and bring glory to Him. He’s the only one worthy of it. I’m not, you’re not, no one is.
And if that bugs you, then you have a pride problem. If it bugs you that you’re not the centre, you’re not getting your way, you’re not getting what you want, you’re not who everyone turns to, you’re not in charge, you’re not the focus – then you’ve got a pride problem – and it’s going to lead to your destruction.
In John 1:19-23 it says,
“…when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’”
That’s our answer too. John was content with his role. “No, don’t think I’m something special – I’m not Elijah. No, I’m not the Messiah. I’m not some great prophet. You know what I am? I’m just a voice yelling a message – Jesus is coming. That’s what I am. Don’t concentrate on me, you should be worried about Jesus.”
That’s what our lives should say too, in everything we do – whether that’s at work, or at home, at school, playing with our kids or grandkids, it should all point to Jesus. That’s why Paul can say in Colossians 3:7,
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”