Summary: 4th sermon in a John series

Examining the First Witness

John 1.19-34

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.

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.

Unlike the eternal Logos of the Prologue, a voice 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 leveling 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.

Being a proper witness involves recognizing 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.

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 baptizing?” Their interest lay in John’s authority. Who gives you the right to baptize?

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 baptize?

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 baptize. 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 does John tell us about Jesus in these verses?

1) We are told of Jesus’ greatness (26-28).

John informs these religious leaders that there is one who stands in their midst, who they do not know, whose sandals he is not worthy to unlace. There is an old rabbinic saying, “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.”

Loosing another’s sandal was the most menial of tasks. Only the lowest slaves would loosen sandals. Even disciples were not asked to loosen the sandals of their teachers, yet John says, “I am unworthy to do the single most humbling task—loosen His sandals.”

John stresses the one task that rabbinic Judaism taught was too menial for the disciple, and John emphasizes that he is unworthy to perform this humbling task. “I am unworthy to untie his sandals.” Why? B/c of his greatness.

* This great one is often “not known” by the world. John informs these religious leaders that Jesus is in their midst yet hidden from their eyes. The investigators, who made it their business to know these things, do not know Him. “He stands among You, yet you do not know Him.” The great One stands among us, yet so many do not know Him (cf. 1.10).

Those who do know Him are to be reminded that we are not even worthy to be his slaves. He is the one whose shoes we are unworthy to loose.

2) We are told of Jesus’ sacrifice (29).

John’s public testimony continues the following day. As the Baptizer ministers, he sees Jesus coming toward him and makes one of the great statements of the NT: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This motif has become so familiar to the modern Christian that it is difficult for us to imagine the uniqueness of what John is saying here.

The image of the sacrificial lamb is tied to the Passover of the OT. It is also evident in texts such as Isa. 53 (the Suffering Servant) and Gen. 22 (Abe’s statement regarding God’s provision of a lamb). Likewise, sacrificial language is linked with many of the sacrifices performed by the people of God for the purpose of atonement.

Although we cannot be certain of John’s specific intention or allusion, there is no doubt that for John Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all of the ancient sacrifices that foreshadowed his sacrificial death. The OT sacrifices prefigured the atoning sacrifice of God’s holy Lamb.

John states that the sacrifice of this Lamb “takes away” the sin of the world. The verb used here symbolizes more than just “covering” (to cover something means it is still there). When John says the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, it means that he gets rid of it. The sin is removed. It is pardoned.

* When we become a child of God, our sins are taken away. They are removed. They are pardoned.

Furthermore, this sacrifice is sufficient for the sin of the world. It is comprehensive in its nature. In other words, when Jesus died, his sacrifice was completely adequate for the needs of all people. It was sufficient for all. While it is efficient for those who respond in faith, it is sufficient for the sin of the world. No further sacrifice is required. Christ’s sacrifice was all that is needed. We are told of His sacrifice, a sacrifice that is substitutionary and sufficient.

* Story of the blood transfusion. Jesus was the Lamb who gave his life for us.

3) We are told of Jesus’ pre-existence (30).

John returns to a statement made earlier in the Prologue regarding the pre-existence of the Son of God. Jesus is greater than John b/c he has always existed. He is the eternal Logos.

4) We are told of Jesus’ anointing (31-33).

The Baptist refers back to that moment when it was revealed to him that Jesus was the chosen Messiah. John testifies that he did not recognize Jesus as the chosen One until it was revealed to him by God. Unlike the investigators who did not know the Christ who stood among them and probably would never know him, John came to know the Messiah (not thru his own innate knowledge but thru the revelation of God). John’s knowledge was a divine gift (the same knowledge given those who respond to God’s call in faith and repentance).

The purpose of Jesus’ baptism was that the Christ might be revealed to John and all the people. The baptism of Jesus testified of His anointing by God as the Messiah. Do you remember what happened at Jesus’ baptism? The Father testified from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove upon Jesus to confirm Him as the Messiah. God approved the ministry of Jesus.

Thus while John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. He is the Giver of the Spirit. Jesus came that people might be brought into contact with the Holy Spirit, and his baptism testifies of his anointing by God to fulfill this role. And John stands to testify of Jesus as the anointed Messiah.

5) We are told of Jesus’ Deity (34).

John speaks of eyewitness, firsthand testimony: “I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” John’s public testimony climaxes in his identification of Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus is the Son of God. He is divine. He is fully human and fully God. He is the chosen One, sent by God. He is the One who was with God and who was God. He is the Divine One.

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.


1) Recognize who Jesus is

- He is the Great One. Know him.

- He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

- He is the Pre-existent One.

- He is the Chosen One.

- He is the Son of God.

Understand who Jesus is so that you might believe on Him, and believing you might have life.

2) Recognize your role.

Who you are not – humility

Who you are – confidence

- You are a voice (a highway builder) – testify of him. Do not be ashamed.

- Your role is to point people to Jesus.

A father and his small son strolled down the street in Chicago past a place where a skyscraper was being constructed. Glancing up, they saw men at work on the high story 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.