One Saturday this past May, I was driving home from church and I saw something that startled me. I saw an airplane contrail that appeared to be going straight down! I was afraid I was going to witness a terrible dream I have from time to time: seeing an airplane crash. By the time I got past the cluster of trees obscuring my view, I was relieved to see there was no smoke or anything to indicate a plane had crashed. But I had to figure out what I had just seen.
In the next four weeks we are going to be looking at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as described in the second half of John 1, which begins with John the Baptist giving his testimony about Jesus and ends with Jesus calling His first disciples. Today we look at the Jewish leaders searching and investigating what was happening. They had heard about John the Baptist and they needed to find out what he was all about. This gives John the opportunity to give a powerful testimony about who Jesus is and what He had come to do. Let’s read John 1:19-28.
I. Let’s look first at the Jewish leader’s questioning as seen in verses 19-22.
John’s preaching and activities had caused a lot of attention throughout Judea. Matthew says that many went out to him from all Judea and the entire region about the Jordan. It certainly makes sense that the religious authorities needed to make some inquiries about this new religious movement among their people. John says the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to inquire of John. This delegation likely came from the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders of the nation. They asked simply, “Who are you?” They don’t use the term “Messiah,” but there was a lot of people talking and asking if perhaps John the Baptist was the coming Messiah. John understands that this is the direction of their questions and answers accordingly.
Verse 20 says that John “did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” He is not denying that there was a Christ. Quite the contrary, he powerfully states that there is a Christ, but he is not him. So if John the Baptist was not the Christ, they wanted to know if he was then Elijah. It had been foretold by the prophet Malachi that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, God would send Elijah who would precede the Messiah. Since John denied that he is the Messiah, it made sense to the Jews that he was then Elijah. John denies this as well even though Jesus called him the “Elijah, that is to come” in Matthew 11:14. So while John did not view himself as Elijah, Jesus certainly confirmed the fact that John the Baptist was fulfilling what the second Elijah would be doing.
So then the investigators asked if John the Baptist was then the prophet who was to come. This goes back to something Moses had written in Deuteronomy 18:15ff. The Jews distinguished the Messiah from this prophet and so this is yet a third end times type of person. John clearly denies that he is the Prophet as well. Now the investigators are clearly in a tough position. All they had gotten thus far was a string of denials and they had nothing positive to report. Yet there was something about John that was special since crowds were thronging to him. They had to have some answer to take back to their superiors.
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 40:3, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” First notice that he gives no prominence to himself. He is no more than a voice as opposed to the Word which was described in John 1:1-14. His voice is to say but one thing: point people to Jesus and to help people be prepared. How are they to be prepared? They are to “make straight the way for the Lord.” In the ancient world, before a dignitary would arrive, a delegation would be sent on ahead to prepare the road. They would remove obstacles, clear the road of large stones so that the arriving dignitary would have a smooth ride in his chariot. Isaiah says this in the Old Testament so that the people would be prepared for the coming of the Lord to Jerusalem. This is an action taken to prepare for the arrival of the king! So John, in quoting this verse is saying two things. First, the Lord is finally now coming to Jerusalem; the king is coming! Second, the people had better be ready and prepared for his coming!
That is the question we must be asking ourselves as well: are we ready for the coming of Jesus? Have we cleared away the obstacles for Christ to be king in our lives now? Are there stones that we must repent of so that Christ can rule completely in our lives? Pastor Don Friesen related once that the night before the late humorist Lewis Grizzard was scheduled to have open-heart surgery, he was visited by his minister. Grizzard confessed to his minister that he had not exactly been a paragon of virtue and asked if there were still time to repent. The minister looked at his watch and said, “Yes, but I’d hurry if I were you.” Are there things in your life that you need to repent of now in preparation for Jesus’ coming?
III. Lets return to the questioning to look at the questions about John’s baptism in verses 24-26.
Now John introduces the Pharisees into the discussion. The Pharisees were ordinary men who had spent a huge amount of time studying the Law, but they tended to surround it with a mass of their own interpretations. The official questioning is going nowhere and so they decide to try to ask about John’s baptism. Baptism was not new at all with John the Baptist or in Judaism. Baptism was the regular rite of converts from other religions to Judaism. The act of baptism said that the Gentile person was dirty and needed to be thoroughly cleansed in order to be acceptable as part of God’s people. But John the Baptist expected Jews as well to be baptized, not just newly converted Gentiles. All Jews were prepared to accept that the Gentiles were defiled and needed cleansing. But to put Jews in the same class was horrifying. The Jews were God’s people already! Now some Old Testament passages had indicated that there would be baptizing when the Messianic age came, but John had denied being the Messiah. So if John is denying that he is the Messiah, why is he baptizing? It was all very perplexing and the Pharisees wanted to know more about it.
John’s answer is important for two reasons. First, John says that he baptizes with water. This lays the groundwork for what John will say later on about the Christ. The implication is that his baptism is less important than the one is preparing the way for. All John can do is administer the sign; Jesus will bestow the thing the sign points to which is the actual cleansing of the Holy Spirit. The second important thing to notice is that John points to Christ when he says, “Among you stands one you do not know.” John is saying that this Messiah has in fact already arrived. More than that, he is standing in their very midst; he is one of their own generation. John’s point is that they are all concerned about his actions and teaching but the real story is among them and they don’t even realize it! It’s right in front of them!
The question for us as well is, “Do we recognize the Christ among us?” Are we focusing on the minor things while we are missing the real point? Are we too busy playing church that we are missing the fact that Christ is indeed among us? Are we so concerned about the things of earth that we don’t realize that Jesus is here with us in the Holy Spirit each day? It is very easy to relegate Jesus to history. Jesus was born, was crucified and died on the cross, but that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose again and ascended to heaven, but that too is not the end of the story. The story has no ending because Jesus is alive and reigning today in heaven. The Holy Spirit whom he sent is living and dwelling among us now.
IV. Finally, John again highlights the greatness of Christ in verses 27-28.
John highlights, in a gripping way, how great the coming Messiah is by using a powerful image. The thongs were the straps used to tie on a sandal and losing the sandal was the job of a slave. In the ancient world, disciples were expected to serve their master in many ways. Teachers then were not paid, but in partial compensation, disciples would perform little services for their Rabbis instead. But they had to draw the line somewhere and the menial task of undoing the thong of the sandal was one of those tasks. In fact, there is a rabbinic saying from 250 AD which says, “Every service which a slaves performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.” John selects this task which the Rabbinic saying stresses as too menial as the task which he is unworthy to perform. He is nothing compared to the coming Messiah and he willingly submits to that. As time goes on, he fades more and more into the background as Jesus becomes more prominent. And ultimately, John is willing to die in his role as a servant; he is willing to give himself up for the Lord he is testifying for now.
But the real question for us is this: are we willing to be servants to our Lord? We are willing to say that Jesus is Lord and to say He is our Savior; we gladly do that. Are we willing to become smaller and smaller so that he can become greater in our lives? That is far more difficult, isn’t it? We want to say Jesus is Lord as long as we can be lord of our lives and our stuff. We will be happy as long as we don’t have to make too many sacrifices for Him.