John 1:6-8, 19-28
1. The Importance of Identify
There are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their political beliefs, and their religion. We can identify people by their jobs, by their social standing, by where they live, and by the kind of people with whom they surround themselves. And we can identify people by their social behaviour, by their interaction in society, and even by their criminal record.
Identifying people is important in our society. And being able to identify ourselves is very important too. For example if we want to obtain a driving licence, if we want to get married, if we want to claim some sort of government benefit, or if we want to do one of a number of things, one of the things we have to do is to prove who we are.
However, despite all the fuss we make about identifying others, and despite all the lengths we may go to prove our own identification, none of the things that I’ve mentioned may describe just who people are and what makes them tick.
And one of those people who prove this point is John the Baptist.
2. The Need to Identify John (19)
Now John’s situation was that he brought a lot of attention on himself. He had become a very popular figure. And his preaching was a talking point in many circles. As a consequence, the authorities—particularly the religious authorities—were more than curious to work out who John really was.
Of course, the background to their concern was something related to all new religious movements. For they knew from experience that new religious movements were trouble. They tended to result in disorder and often lead to trouble with the Romans authorities. Problems they would rather do without.
And as a consequence, they couldn’t ignore John, who had attracted such a following. They needed to know more about John—about who he was. And so they sent a delegation to him to find out.
Now they may well have found out in advance that John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They may well have found out his background and where he lived. They may well have found out that he was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth (although that would have meant very little at the time). But there was something more to John than all of that. John was a puzzle—he didn’t conform. And so they made it their concern to find out what John was all about. And so they sent a delegation to John to ask him, ‘Who are you?’
B. JOHN THE BAPTIST
1. John’s True Identity (20-23)
a). He Wasn’t the Messiah
Now no-one is reported to have asked him directly whether he was the Messiah. But John discerned the drift of their inquiry. Messianic talk was in the air, and so he framed his answer accordingly.
He was not the Messiah. John’s reply was serious. And he vigorously reputed any such idea that he might hold such a lofty position. On the contrary, he claimed, he had a much more subordinate role.
b). He Wasn’t Elijah
Then having eliminated the possibility of him claiming to be the Messiah, the delegation pressed on. They were determined to find out just who John said that he was.
Now it had been foretold by the prophet Malachi, that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God would send Elijah the prophet. In other words, it was understood that before the Messiah would come, Elijah would come again. So, accordingly when John had made it clear that he was not the Messiah, his interrogators asked him whether he was the prophet Elijah instead. And again John expressed a denial.
Now his denial has puzzled many over the years. Because Jesus himself explicitly asserted that John was ‘the Elijah, who was to come’ (Matthew 11:14). However, evidently, John was not aware of that. And he didn’t see himself in the role of Elijah at all.
c). He Wasn’t the Prophet
John’s denial, however, provoked a third question. If he wasn’t the Messiah, and he wasn’t Elijah, then was he ‘The Prophet?’
Now, the Jews expected all sorts of prophets to appear before the coming of the Messiah—and in particular ‘The Prophet’ that was described in the book of Deuteronomy (18:15-21). It was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to speak truly God’s words, and it was ‘The Prophet’ who was expected to show the people the way. But John denied that he was ‘The Prophet’ too.
d). He was a Nobody – But a Witness
Now up to this point, all John had done was to give a list of denials. The delegation had come to find out, not just about John’s pedigree, but who he was. But all they had found out, so far, was that he was not the Messiah, that he was not Elijah, and that he was not The Prophet. And with John still preaching, still drawing crowds into the wilderness, and still baptising, the delegation would have been very unhappy with their progress—and with their lack of anything substantial to put in their report.
At the same time, however, John’s answers to their questions had got shorter and shorter, reflecting the fact that he wasn’t happy about the situation either. And he certainly hadn’t appreciated being interrogated about his identification either.
So, instead of asking John, again, whether he was anyone specific, the delegation changed tack. And they asked him, ‘Who are you?’—but this time with the meaning, ‘Just who do you say that you are?’
To which John replied, by quoting the prophet Isaiah (40:3): ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’
In other words, what John was saying about himself was that he was no-one important. He wasn’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or The Prophet, or anyone like that. All he was, was a voice—and a voice with only one thing to say, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ John was a nobody, but a nobody just doing his duty to God. And his duty was to warn people of the coming Messiah—calling them to be ready. And part of that need to be ready, was the need to remove the obstacles that got in the people’s way to a full relationship with God.
As far as John was concerned, he wasn’t anyone special at all. But he was concerned about carrying out his duty to God, despite any risk to his own safety.
2. His Identity Revealed (24-27)
Now, John’s answer would not have pleased the delegation. After all, they, and the people they represented, were the very people who put obstacles in people’s ways. And traditions, laws, class structures, and other barriers were the very things they wanted to maintain. But the delegation was puzzled too. Because in their thinking, ‘If John was a nobody, then why did he baptise? What authority did he have to do such a thing?’
Now, there was nothing new about baptism. Baptism was used in Judaism as a regular rite in the admission of converts from other religions. Baptism was used as a way of removing the ‘spiritual’ pollutants contracted in the Gentile world. And baptism is what was expected that the Messiah, Elijah or ‘The Prophet’ would do. But that hardly explained why John was calling people to be baptised in his own ministry.
Furthermore, all Jews were prepared to accept the view that Gentiles were defiled and needed cleansing. But John was baptising Jews as well. And, to put Jews in the same class as Gentiles, well that was too much. The Jews were God’s people already. So, it was all very perplexing. And consequently some in the delegation wanted to pursue the matter further.
So they changed tack, again: ‘If John was not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet, why did he baptise?’ To which John simply stated, ‘As a means to point people to the Messiah.” And of course, for John, that would have just as much relevance for the Jews as it was to the Gentiles.
As far as John was concerned, baptism with water was not an end in itself. It wouldn’t save or convert anyone. Rather, baptism was used, simply to point people to the Messiah. John’s interest was in the Messiah and in nothing less.
The Messiah would shortly make himself known. But in comparison, John, was a nobody. Indeed, John, would not be worthy to even take on the role of a slave, and loosen the Messiah’s sandals.
And at this point the interrogation of John the Baptist finished. The delegation had come to find out just who John was. But they weren’t interested in his parentage or his family history or anything like that. What they wanted to know was, who John really was and what it was that made him tick. And the only answer they got, was that John thought he was a nobody. But a nobody who was keen to do the will of God.
Others—his disciples and followers and even Jesus (later on)—may have thought he was more than that. But as far as John was concerned, he was no-one special. His only role in life was to point people to the Messiah. And he had to do that despite any personal risk to himself.
1. Who Are We? (1)
When we consider the story of John the Baptist, then. Yes, we have a story of an extraordinary man. But it’s a story of a man who was very humble, and whose only motivation was to point people to Jesus.
But that was John, what about us? If a delegation came to us, and asked us who we are, what would our reply be?
Of course we could describe our background in terms of our family background, where we live, the kind of work that we do or have done. We could talk about our economic and social status. We might be able to say that we are of English descent, or a dinky-di Aussie, or point to other roots. And we might even be able to bring out some identification, with various personal details on it. But when pressed by the delegation to get to the nub of who we are—and what makes us tick—who would we say that we are?
2. Who Was John? (2)
Now when John was asked who he was, firstly all he did was to dismiss the idea that he was anyone important—despite what he did, and despite his very public profile. As far as John was concerned, he was no-one very important at all. And then, having said that, he simply told and demonstrated that all he was someone doing his duty to God.
But is that the same description that we could use to describe ourselves too? Because you know it should be. Because despite the fact that Jesus (later) said some wonderful things about John, he could only do so, because of John’s attitude of humility, and only because of his dedication to his mission.
John the Baptist recognised that as far as the Messiah was concerned, he wasn’t good enough to even take on the role of a slave and loosen one of his thongs. And that says something of the humility that God expects to be the central focus of all of our lives today.
3. Who Are We (2)
Because, in this life there are two ways of looking at things. We can think that we are special and that we deserve respect and honour, we can insist that we deserve special treatment, and we can insist on respect that fits our position in life. Or we can ignore all of that and know our place, with God at the head and us being insignificant in comparison—and with us continuing to get on with doing God’s will anyway.
But even then, some people may think that we have special talents and abilities. Some people may think that we are special. (And it is nice when what we do is recognised). Nevertheless, it is our attitude to life that is important. The recognition of where we fit in, in the scheme of things. That we aren’t any more special than any other person. And that our sole purpose in life is to point others to Jesus.
Because that’s the way all Christian’s should be. We should all follow John’s example.
And if we all lived our lives that way, what a difference it would make to our own lives. And what a difference it would make to the church too.
Now, as I said at the beginning, there are a number of ways we can identify people today. We can identify people through their colour, their race, their religion. We can identify people through the work that they do. We can identify people through their social standing. And we can also identify people through their social behaviour.
And in addition to identifying others, identifying ourselves is also a very important part of our culture. Indeed, we need to identify who we are in regard to a range of goods and services that are available.
Unfortunately, even with all of that, none of those things really tells us who people really are and what makes them tick. And consequently, further investigation is required to work out just who people are and where they fit in.
John the Baptist was an enigma to the religious authorities. They just didn’t understand him at all. But then John was different. He didn’t think highly of himself. Indeed, he considered himself to be a nobody. But he was a nobody who was prepared to do his duty to God and point people to the coming Messiah.
That is who John was. But, what about us?
Because, yes, some people might think we are special. Others might appreciate any special talents and gifts we may have. But as far as we, as individuals, are concerned, all we should be concerned about is being nobodies. But nobodies who are doing their duty to God and pointing people to the Messiah too.
Posted: 20th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
John 1:6-8, 19-28