In 1948, a remarkable religious phenomenon occurred in the US. It began in a tent near Hollywood California, under the preaching of a young evangelist. The crowds were sparse at first but as the preaching continued, the crowds began to grow. Finally some rather prominent Hollywood celebrities attended the meetings and were converted. At first, the media totally ignored these gatherings. But when some of Hollywood’s well-known names became involved, the press began to take a special interest. Eventually reporters were sent to investigate and interview this rather strange young preacher, who dressed in pistachio-coloured suits, wore flaming red ties, spoke with a pronounced Southern accent, and yet had incredible appeal to the masses. It was evident God was doing something. That was the beginning of Billy Graham’s career. And as news of those meetings spread across the country, other cities invited him to come and preach and soon Billy Graham’s ministry blossomed into what it has become today.
As it was with Billy Graham in 1948, so it was with John the Baptist in the first century. He too was a young man (in his early 30s). He too dressed rather strangely for his day. He did not wear green suits but animal skins (and ate locusts and wild honey). He too preached a powerful message that seemed to have a great attraction to people. At first they came out by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands left their cities to hear this remarkable desert preacher. Finally the response was so great and this man so popular that even the religious establishment of Jerusalem became curious. They sent a delegation to investigate this strange man with a unique message. John records this event for us in his Gospel.
John introduces the Apostle John the Baptist to us in 1:6-8, 15. His primary role was that of a witness, a testimony to the light. In these verses, John the Baptist illustrates for us what it means to be a proper witness of the Light.
I. To be a proper witness, we must recognize who we are not (19-21).
Drawing such a large following, John the Baptist naturally attracted the attention of the religious leaders of Jerusalem. They could not ignore someone who attracted such a large gathering. John was an enigma. He did not conform, so they wanted to know more about him.
“Who are you?” they inquired diligently.
John responds by vigorously telling them who he is not
John’s day was one of great Messianic expectation. Everyone was looking for the promised Messiah, so naturally John’s actions and message created a lot of speculation as to who he was. Might he be the promised Messiah? John denounces any speculation regarding these messianic expectations. “I am not the Christ,” he asserts. Whatever John was, he was certainly not the Christ. There was a Christ, but he was not him.
– “Are you Elijah?” they question. The OT prophesies that Elijah would precede the Messiah (Mal. 4.5: “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord”). Perhaps John is the reincarnated Elijah. After all, his appearance is similar. His message is similar. And apparently, Elijah did not die. Was this the great Elijah? “I am not,” replies John.
Although he did fulfil the preliminary ministry of which the prophets spoke (in the form of Elijah, he was not the actual prophet himself).
– Are you the great Prophet?
Deut. 18.15-19 speaks of a great prophet like Moses who would come and restore Israel. This promise was taken to refer to a special end-times figure who would fulfil the role of the great Prophet. Surely John is the great prophet. Again with an emphatic, no, John denounces this title.
As a proper witness, John recognized who he was not. His three-fold denial makes his witness clear. The increasing curtness of John’s successive answers cannot be missed here. The Baptist seems to have a dislike for answering questions about himself. He had come to bear witness about another.
If we are going to be a proper witness, we must recognise who we are not. We are not the Messiah. We are not the great prophet. We are not Elijah. We cannot think of ourselves as more than what we are. It is not our glory we seek but His. As witnesses, we need to remember that we are not Jesus. We are not God. We are only witnesses to what Jesus has done in our lives and can do for others. John knew who he was not, but that leads directly into our second point.
II. To be a proper witness, we must know who we are (23-24).
This religious delegation was not content with John’s denials. They must have some response to take back to their leaders; so they question him further, “If you are not any of these people, then who are you?” What is your role? What do you have to say about yourself? Show us your resume. They turn the matter over to John.
Wow! What an opportunity. At this point, John could have said anything. He could have said, “I am the great forerunner.” I must be a prophet or a great preacher. Look at how many baptisms I have performed. Look at how many people I have attracted. Wow! I must be something. I must be awesome. I need to be leading church growth seminars or teaching preaching classes. I need to be invited to preach at the evangelism conferences.
But John did not flash his credentials. He did not flatter himself or build his own name. He did not attempt to make himself great. John knew who he was. Look at his reply (taken from Isa. 40.3): “I am a voice…” John knew that he was merely a voice. He is not an important person, like a prophet or the Messiah. He is merely a voice.
A voice, other than God’s, is temporary. A voice is fleeting. A voice is fading. And that is John’s view of himself. I am merely a fading voice that is crying in the wilderness.
John’s message is one of preparation: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John summons the people to be ready for the coming Messiah. He is the one preparing the way for the coming king (an important role in ancient times: involved levelling the land and clearing the road). He saw his role as the voice preparing the way.
Even so, we are called to be voices. We are the temporary voice chosen to prepare the way in our generation. Each generation has a voice, and we are the voice for this time and this place. Our role is temporary, but it is essential. Without the voice, the people will not hear. And the voices are becoming quieter in England; we, who believe in the message of the Gospel and know the eternal choices before us, must re-ignite our passion and speak up. We must be voices crying out in the wilderness
Being a proper witness, however, involves recognising who we are not and who we are. We are not Jesus. We are voices. We are to get people ready, to prepare them, to make the path straight. We are to prepare the way for the coming King. Christmas is a good time of year to exercise our voices to touch the hearts of those around us – oh, that they might hear!
III. To be a proper witness, we must point people to Jesus (25-34).
John’s examiners are still not satisfied with his responses, so they question him, “If you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet, why then are you baptising?” Their interest lay in John’s authority. Who gives you the right to baptise?
Baptism was not a new practice in Judaism. It was the regular rite for the admission of converts from other religions into Judaism. What upset these Jewish leaders was that John performed baptisms upon Jews and Gentiles alike. In their minds, the Jews were a part of God’s chosen people. They had no need for baptism. They were secure. What right does John have to baptise?
John’s response reveals clearly the role of the proper witness. What does John do? He points them to Jesus. In essence, John says, “This is not about me. It is not about the rite of baptism. It is not about by whose authority I baptise. It is all about Jesus.” John’s interest is in Christ and Christ alone. In accordance with the Gospel’s purpose, John the Baptist’s testimony tells us who Jesus is.
What a testimony! What a witness! What a voice! John points people to Jesus. He recognizes that it is not about him. He understands both who he is not (the Christ) and who he is (a voice). He understands his role: point people to Jesus.
As Christians this to is our role: to point people to Jesus.
So let us prepare ourselves and draw closer to God this Christmas and seek to be enthusiastic witnesses for Jesus to those we meet. Just like John the Baptist let us make ourselves of no account so that others see the light of Christ shining through us as we gaze on him.
A father and his small son strolled down the street in London passing by the Gherkin building. Glancing up, they saw men at work on the high up on the building. “What are those little boys doing up there?” asked the son. “Those are not boys, they are grown men,” replied the father. After a pause, the boy pondered, “I guess when they reach heaven there won’t be anything left of them.”
The nearer we come to Christ, the less others see of us and the more they see of Christ. Point them to Jesus.