Summary: 4th sermon in a John series
Examining the First Witness
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-colored 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 grasshoppers 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 for us in his Gospel the event. Read John 1.19.
John the Apostle has already introduced John the Baptist to us (6-8, 15). His primary role is that of a witness/testimony to the light. In today’s text, we find that role fleshed out in John’s witness. In these verses, John the Baptist illustrates 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 who sent a delegation to question this desert preacher. 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 him who he is not (emphatic reply in original: “and he confessed and he did not deny and he confessed”):
- “I am not the Christ”
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. Elijah did not die. Was this the great Elijah? “I am not,” replies John.
* While John did fulfill 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 fulfill 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. He recognized who he was not. He was not the Messiah. He was not Elijah. He was not the great Prophet.
If we are going to be a proper witness, we must recognize 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 a witness, we need to remember that we are not Jesus. We are not God. We are only witnesses. John knew who he was not, but that leads directly into our second point.