Wednesday, September 18, 2013

John 1: Can I Get a Witness?

Last week, my husband's grandfather, the patriarch of our family and a beloved pastor, passed away suddenly. Though in the following hours and days our world would become a flurry of activity, making phone calls and arrangements to travel, comforting and visiting family and friends, taking care of business, there was a stolen moment before we snapped into action, a tender one, when I sat at the feet of my grieving husband and listened to him recount a lifetime of memories he shared with this very special man.

He told me about the many jobs he had held, even selling shoes to women, which he liked to report was the most challenging job he'd ever done. He taught Michael to cast a fishing rod in the driveway as a young boy, and they had shared many sweet memories on his boat, "Visitation." He had provided spiritual encouragement through the years, and had even performed our marriage ceremony. He had left his mark on our lives and in our hearts in a most profound way. Though the sad reality of life without this wonderful person loomed ahead, it was in looking back at his life that we found a great deal of joy, of comfort, and even of hope. Following the funeral, hundreds of people came to the family visitation to share how Grandaddy had touched their lives. What a comfort that witness was in our time of sadness. What great work he had done in his time on earth. He lived a very full, very meaningful life. He invested in people, he loved well, and as a believer and a pastor, he fought the good fight for God until the end. Those stories, those testimonies, solidified in our memory the kind of person he really was, and what a joy it was to know that he is now sitting in the presence of our Lord.

Interestingly, as I was preparing this lesson on John 1, I saw a beautiful theme of the description and value of the witness in Scripture. Often we see that a witness in the Bible as a person, but in John we see that one of the greatest testimonies of all are the prophecies YHWH has give to us throughout history. I read, to paraphrase, that prophecy’s greatest value is not in knowing the future, but rather in looking back at the faithfulness of God in fulfilling all that He promises. It builds faith, comfort and hope when we look back through the Old Testament scriptures to find that God does do what He says He will do. In a world that is so preoccupied with the future, the end, with death and what lies beyond, I think it is such a message of value that there is great comfort in looking back - not only in our own life history, but also back to the Old Testament Scriptures, to remember and rediscover the character of our God as perfect, appropriate, timely, faithful and true. Just like looking back to celebrate someone's life, we can look back and truly know and celebrate our God's great story; that while He's not yet finished and at times the end is unclear, He is most certainly moving and working out His great plan.

The Scriptures: Our Witness of God's Character

With that as a back drop, the story of the Gospel of John really begins in the Old Testament scriptures. The story of Israel is a tragic one. God redeemed a people out of Egyptian bondage. He brought them to a desert, isolated them to begin the process of their rebirth as His own people. He made an offer to enter into a vassal covenant with them - He taught them a new way of life, the way of holiness, His law, as the terms of that covenant. If they adhered to the terms, they would always have His protection and blessing. If they broke their covenant, there would be consequences, death, destruction, and even an eventual return to the bondage from which they had been saved. The people accepted this covenant and YHWH and the people of Israel became united.

God gave them time to prepare themselves to enter a new land, to adjust to the new way of life that would be expected in the promised land. They made mistakes as they learned to obey and to trust, but they grew. On the brink of their crossover, Moses, their great leader and mediator, made a prophecy: a day would come that they would abandon their covenant. Even before they entered the land, God knew what was in their hearts. But He loved them and gave them an opportunity to do what was right.

In the days that followed, they entered that land victoriously, and as they became comfortable, they quickly made compromises. They were intrigued by and loved the world’s way of living, let idolatry creep in, and forgot the commitment they had made to YHWH. This breaking of their covenant's terms broke God's heart. In His patience and mercy, He sent prophets to warn his people to repent, to return to obedience, to shed the idols they had let run rampant in the land. But they refused. So, in accordance with His covenant, the consequences came.

Over the course of many generations, they were destroyed by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, exiled, and later ruled by the Persian and Greek and Roman empires as they rose to power. They lost the promised land and their identity, they were separated from their families and their God. But even in the midst of their exile, He sent a message of hope: it’s not too late, Beloved. Return to me, return to your covenant, and I will restore you and gather you again to the land I gave to you. Further, He spoke of a new covenant through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, one where the Law he had given would be written on men’s hearts, where the spirit of God would dwell in men. But they had to repent and return first.

In the midst of the first conquest of Israel, the prophet Isaiah spoke these words:

A voice is calling, Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hills be made low; and let the rough ground become a pain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says,” Call out.” Then he answered, “What shall I call out?” ...“Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, Lift up your voice mightily, Oh Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, Here is your God!” (40:3-6, 9)

This passage speaks of a promised messenger to come, who would be called to proclaim repentance, to get the people ready to receive the Lord, and to ultimately identify to them their God.

In another prophetical book, a final warning through the prophet Malachi speaks of the end of days to the people:

Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.” (3:1)
For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts. Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (4:1-5)

Malachi spoke of the end of time and the judgement of the Lord. Here God pleads with His people to remember the covenant they made and to obey Him. He promises restoration and in His great mercy offers warning that before that day of judgement, He would send a messenger to prepare them, a prophet to warn them, a teacher to restore them, a sign prior to seeing the Lord in His temple.

So ultimately, it was expected that when the end was nigh, they would see this prophet Elijah, and that would appear right before the end of all things. The dispersed Israelites who heard that message never saw that day. 400 years passed, no more prophecies were given. God was silent, waiting for the fullness of time.

The Assyrian empire gave way to the Babylonian empire, which gave way the Persian and then the Greek empire, then there was the Roman empire. And then...suddenly things began to happen very quickly, prophecies began to be fulfilled – and that silence was broken:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesae – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
Luke 3:1-2

We read in the Gospels in Matthew 3, Mark 1 and Luke 3 the account of John (who we know as John the Baptist) receiving the call to act as that long awaited for messenger, and his ministry begins:  

And he came into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ..."
Luke 3:3, 15

John: Our Witness of the Messiah's Identity


Naturally, the Jewish authorities were curious about this man who would be instituting such cleansing outside of the temple. So they send a delegate to investigate the matter and to find out what was going on. He was, after all, attracting great crowds of people. Moving now to our text of focus, let's look at John 1:19:

This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
This 'confessed and did not deny but confessed' is emphatic. We might put it in all caps today, or italicize it. This is how the speakers of that day vehemently emphasized something. 

They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.”

Now you already know where that comes from, it is from Malachi. Why did he answer 'no' then? Particularly since later on Jesus would say that he was? (See Matthew 11) The answer is because he was not some reincarnated Elijah, he was telling the truth. Jesus explains that John came in the “power and spirit of Elijah,” that he fulfilled the ministry of Elijah. So, his answer was honest. He was not exactly Elijah, though he was the promised messenger.

“Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”

Now you must be wondering, what prophet? This one goes back to a time even before Elijah. Moses, in his final address to the people who had been ransomed from Egypt, actually prophesied that God would send a prophet like himself to them in the future. Deuteronomy 18 is where we find that prophecy:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him…I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

This prophecy was in actually reference to Christ, who, if we study, bears a striking (and not accidental) resemblance to Moses. Both were prophets, mediators between God and man, lawgivers, saviors and intercessors, teachers, anointed and selected by God to speak His words, and both offered to die for the sins of the people. I could go on, but we need to cover a lot more material! It is not a direct statement in the Bible, but a knowledge of the Word and a study of the lives of these two individuals will lead you to the conclusion that this prophet was Jesus, not John. And this is why he says no.

Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

Now no doubt exasperated, they are saying, well what do you have to say for yourself! Who in the world are you? His response, once again, you already know: it is a reference from Isaiah's prophecy. He is associating himself with that Scripture, telling them that he is the one who has been sent to preach repentance and to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, the one who would identify the Messiah and point Him out to the people.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
So now the authorities of the church demand to know why, if John is of no real authority, he has taken it upon himself to start baptizing people. Often we assume that rituals like baptism are only New Testament practices. But immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath of living water, or water from a natural running source) has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. This was an integral part of man's 'teshuvah' (repentance) process. We see it happen right before God appears to Israel in the wilderness at Sinai, for example, when God commands that they immerse themselves, consecrate themselves, in preparation for coming face to face with Him (Exodus 19:10-11). And upon the induction of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, they were also instructed to wash themselves (Numbers 8). In fact, any person who wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Lord in the days of the tabernacle and temples were greeted first with a lavar, which contained water, with which to wash themselves. They had to become purified, cleansed, before they could be atoned for by offering their sacrifice (Exodus 40).
The living water associated with the lavar and with baptism today are all a picture of the living Word, Christ. As believers in our Messiah, we must come willing to look into the reflection of that Word, measure ourselves against it, and remove the impurities and discrepancies we see in ourselves. We must come with hearts that recognize a need for a Savior, and must truly shed those things before we can hope to come into the presence of the Lord through a real relationship with Christ. In other words, John's purpose then for baptizing was the same as it is for us today - to give people an opportunity to show a physical, outward practice that signified the inward repentance on their hearts. He was indeed preparing them to see their Lord, their salvation.

Make no mistake, here friends. This is an important and intentional thing. John was ministering to Israel, those people who had been dispersed. He was calling them back. He was continuing the conversation that had started long ago. They knew the meaning of this baptism. It meant symbolically becoming repentant, shedding their evil deeds and the sin of the world, and readying themselves for the atonement that was about to come to make them holy, part of God’s new covenant. The message is clear: without repentance, there can be no atonement. And the Jews at that time were not ready for the Messiah. They needed to become purified, to prepare themselves for His coming, to wake up! Do we need to wake up too?

John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
He is saying, to paraphrase, “I’m baptizing in water to coincide with the message of repentance God has placed on my heart. I’m preparing the people to receive their atonement, their salvation." Again, humbly, he rejects the glory.

I learned something interesting about this sandal reference that I wanted to share. Disciples, in those days, did the bidding of the master, (prepared meals, made arrangements, served) but it was a bondservant dealt with the feet and shoes. This idiom or expression associates him as being even beneath a bondservant. It shows the extreme humility, and his understanding of his place with respect to the esteem and glory of the Lord. None of this is about me, he is saying. It’s about He who will come.

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

This is essentially the end of John’s ministry, the fulfillment of what he came to do, which was to proclaim, to warn, to bring a message of repentance, to usher in the Messiah. He has done it. From this point on, we will see John diminish in the story, replaced with a focus on Jesus.

Here is a question to ponder: What made him call Jesus the Lamb? John is the only one who calls Jesus the Lamb of God, and this is the first time this was spoken and associated with the Messiah directly. So what gives?

First of all, John was a prophet. It was part of his job to identify the Christ. And it was given to him as a prophet to have new, direct divine revelation. So that's one possibility. But also, I believe his word choice creates a connection for us between Christ and the Old Testament prophecies which contain shadows of that Messiah. For example:

• Abraham is instructed to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. At the moment right before the sacrifice takes place, God stops Abraham and provides a substitute - a ram (sheep).

• At Passover, it was a lamb that had to be sacrificed. This is the only sacrifice which God calls "My sacrifice." The blood covering on the doorposts of the homes of the Israelites created a covering and protection of death and ultimate deliverance. Paul identifies later that Christ is our Passover lamb, dying to make eternal life available to whomever will receive Him as Messiah.

• In one of the many prophecies about the Messiah, it is said "He was opposed and He was afflicted Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers So he did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7). This indicates that He would be a suffering servant.

So you can see now how those Jews who were exposed to these prophecies would now begin to connect the past with the present. This is who has been spoken of. Amazing!

This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.
Here John explains his call and mission – to reveal the Messiah. All that he did was in order to be obedient, that the Messiah might be revealed. How are we making Christ known to the world, what are we being obedient in, or can we be more obedient in? What task has God given you to do? John was to baptize, to proclaim, to serve as a witness. Guess what, Beloved? Yours is the same call. You are a witness, your role is to see Him (through exposure to the Word) and to testify to His people - your kids, coworkers, friends, etc. How are you doing?

John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Here John explains how he came to this conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah. Friends, we have been given all the tools we need to recognize Christ– the old testament scriptures and prophecies contain everything about how He would behave and love and come and what He would do. The New Testament describes the encounters of others who lived life alongside Him. But would be know Him if we saw Him? Would we invite Him over? Would He 'fit in' to our culture or our friend circles? I often wonder if we have been attentive to the direction that God has given us to know and recognize our Savior when He comes. Or if have we determined based on tradition and our own agendas how He will be, since that better accommodates us? Be so careful, friends, when drawing conclusions that are not in Scripture about what Christ is like. That is exactly why our Jewish friends didn't know Him when He came the first time.

Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means teacher), where are You staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

Notice, John proclaims Jesus with every opportunity. When he sees Him, he says it. Do we do that daily in our walk? Also take note that John was not possessive – he knew he was not the source or the draw in the grand scheme. It was a joy to pass his own followers into Christ’s possession, and it was his job. We are tempted every day to take credit for things that have been bestowed upon us by God. Let's be like John, constantly diverting and reflecting back on the Source of light and Giver of all good things.

Another very important aspect of this dialogue is that Christ demands change of direction and loyalty before He reveals things to us. See how He draws the two away, sparks their curiosity? It works this way in the study of the Word. We begin with a question, which leads to a hunger that requires that we pursue it actively in order to receive the answer. We must seek after Christ with the intent to OBEY what he reveals if we are to truly receive the revelation. He knows our hearts and our intents. That's when the journey begins, when we say yes. He is inviting us to reside where He resides, to be a part of it, not just to know about it but to experience it for ourselves. But we must make some direction changes in our lives before that's possible. Who or what are you following after today?


Am I a Witness?

The final parts of the chapter show the beautiful effect of a willing witness. There is exponential growth in the kingdom of God because of the obedience of John to see and to speak. If we want to be a real witness for Christ, we must remember what a witness does. We have to SEE our Messiah for who He really is by looking back into the Scriptures; we have to spend time investigating the Word, so that we can become acquainted and familiar, a credible witness. We must look back at His intervention in our own lives, developing our testimony. And from there, we must be willing to testify. We must proclaim and announce Him with every opportunity. When people see His light within us, we must point to Him as its source. We must be willing to give Him the glory and reserve no attention for ourselves. The effects are far reaching and life changing. Are we bringing Him fame and glory through the work and word in our lives? I pray, Beloved, that we are.


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