John: Single-minded Focus

| John 1:24-37; 3:25-30

Week of November 12, 2017

The Point:  Christ-centered living chooses to exalt Christ, not self.

John’s Witness:  John 1:24-37.

[24] (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) [25] They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” [26] John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, [27] even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” [28] These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. [29] The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! [30] This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ [31] I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” [32] And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. [33] I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ [34] And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” [35] The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, [36] and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” [37] The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  [ESV]

“John questioned by the Jewish leaders [1:24-28]. [24-25]  The Pharisees send a group of priests and Levites to question John concerning his message and activity. They were particularly concerned about the connection proposed by the Baptist between baptism, repentance, and the final judgment. Various forms of baptism and ritual purification were practiced in the first century, most notably proselyte baptism, which marked a Gentile’s conversion to Judaism. Gentiles were thought to be unclean and thus in need of the ceremonial cleansing pictured in baptism. Yet John was baptizing not Gentiles, but fellow Jews. For John to propose that everyone, including Israelites, must be baptized was offensive to the Jewish mind, as it ignored their special standing as God’s chosen people. So the Jews sent by the Pharisees asked John: Why are you baptizing. They want to know on whose authority John is doing this baptizing. Their question reflects their view that one who offered baptism as a means of escaping the final judgment must be an end-time figure of the stature of the Prophet, Christ, or Elijah (all of whom John the Baptist denied being). [26-27]  Overall, John’s ministry may be compared to that of the Old Testament prophets who beckoned a righteous remnant to come out of the people of Israel. But, rather than dwell on his own ministry, John immediately shifts the focus to one whom his interrogators do not know, he who comes after me. In his own estimation, John is not even worthy to untie the straps of Jesus’ sandals. This is a telling statement of how great the Baptist considered Jesus to be. [28]  The reference to the physical setting of this event serves as a structural link indicating the end of the paragraph. It also helps transition to the climax of John’s testimony in the ensuing verses. John takes care to distinguish this Bethany across the Jordan from the Bethany near Jerusalem where Lazarus was raised from the dead [11:1,18].

John’s Witness concerning Jesus [1:29-37].  [29]  This is now the second part of John’s witness. After testifying to the Jewish delegation, John provides direct testimony concerning Jesus. John says that Jesus is the, not just “a”, Lamb of God: He is the lamb par excellence. And He is God’s Lamb, that is, the Lamb especially provided by God for the sins of the world. This Lamb takes away the sin of the world, presumably by means of a sacrificial, substitutionary death. According to the pattern set by the Old Testament sacrificial system, the shed blood of the substitute covered the sins of others and appeased the divine wrath by way of atonement. As the Book of Hebrews makes clear, however, the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was merely provisional until the coming of Christ. Moreover, as God’s lamb, Jesus takes upon Himself the sin not merely of Israel, but of the entire world. The idea that the Messiah would suffer for the sins of the world, rather than merely for Israel, was foreign to Jewish first-century ears; but John makes clear that Jesus came to save the entire world, not merely Israel. [30-31]  For the third time in short order the Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ priority over the Baptist and his ministry. Once again, the statement affirms Jesus’ preexistence and thus His preeminence, following up on the assertion made in 1:29. John’s testimony that he himself did not know Jesus seems puzzling at first. It is hardly credible that John, a relative of Jesus would literally not have known Jesus. More likely, John here acknowledges that he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until he saw the sign mentioned in 1:32-33. Despite the Baptist’ self-deprecating comments, it was no mean task to introduce the Messiah to Israel. [32]  Importantly, the Baptist testifies that the Spirit did not merely descend on Jesus, but remained on Him, a sign of Jesus’ divine anointing. For although in Old Testament times the Holy Spirit came upon certain individuals for the purpose of temporary enablement for a particular task, it was prophesied that the messianic age would involve the renewal of Israel through the power of God’s Spirit, and that the Messiah would be full of the Spirit at all times. [33-34]  The expression he who sent me in John’s Gospel is a shorthand for God the Father. The divine revelation received by John the Baptist distinguishes him from Jesus’ followers later in the chapter, since all other disciples needed human witnesses to become aware of Jesus’ messiahship. Later Jesus refers to John as the first of a chain of witnesses to His identity [5:33-35]. Unlike John, who baptizes with water only, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. He will be the “bearer” and the “dispenser” of the Spirit, effecting the reality to which John with his water baptism only pointed. The perfect tenses, have seen and have borne witness, point to the abiding effect of John’s witness to Jesus as the Son of God. [35-37]  These verses establish the Baptist not only as a crucial witness to Jesus, but also as the initial source from which Jesus drew His followers, further linking their ministries. The present shift in allegiance from the Baptist to Jesus illustrates John’s humility and submission to the divine will. It is the mark of a truly great man that he can gently, but firmly, detach his followers so that they may go after a greater person. What is more, these early followers of Jesus show that with the appearance of Jesus the Messiah, those identified with old-style Judaism – even if part of a renewal movement such as the Baptist’s – must leave their old religious system and associations behind for the sake of following the Messiah, Jesus. This is as relevant today as it was when the Gospel was first written and read. The term follow is used in all four Gospels with reference to Jesus’ disciples. Disciples in that day literally followed or walked behind the one they had chosen as their teacher. In John’s Gospel, however, the term gradually moves from this literal to a more figurative sense to denote a “following” of Jesus’ teaching [8:12; 10:4-5,27; 12:26; 21:19,20,22].”  [Kostenberger, pp. 63-73].

John’s Testimony:  John 3:25-30.

[25] Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. [26] And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” [27] John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. [28] You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.”  [ESV]

A Key Principle.  After His stay in Jerusalem, Jesus gathered His new disciples and went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing [3:22]. This scene witnesses the handoff between the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus, and also between the eras of the Old Testament and the New Testament. John would soon be arrested by King Herod, but at this point he was still baptizing in the Jordan River. When Jesus arrived, many of the people left John and went to where Jesus was baptizing, and this bothered some of those who were loyal to John [3:23-24]. Here we see one of the chief threats to our usefulness to the Lord: a desire for personal prominence that results in envy and a party spirit. Many able ministers and strong churches  have lost their gospel influence because they craved success and fame. Often, as was the case here, it is a leader’s entourage of close supporters who are most jealous for his prestige and most prone to criticize others who are enjoying the Lord’s blessing. Such followers pose a temptation to Christian leaders, but John avoided this by holding fast to a key principle. He explained, A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven [3:27]. His point was that we must content ourselves with the place and provision that the sovereign God has given us, seeking only to be faithful to Him. It is the glory of John the Baptist that he recognized this key principle. He knew that he was not the Christ. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him’ [3:28]. John understood his place and role; all along he had been preparing and then directing people to follow Jesus, the true Lamb of God and Savior. So he rejoiced when they did. It did not bother him in the least that his star was declining with the rising light of Christ. God is sovereign, he knew. God apportions works to each of us and the gifts to accomplish them. What matters is that we faithfully fulfill our particular calling to the glory of God, seeking His approval instead of man’s praise.

A Joyful Attitude.  The second great thing we note in John the Baptist is a by-product of the first and is itself a key to our usefulness as Christians. John explained that, far from being frustrated by his waning prominence, he maintained a joyful attitude in his service to the Lord. John explained this in 3:29 with the illustration of the bridegroom and the best man. The best man does not want to be the center of attention: this belongs to the groom and his bride. Moreover, he rejoices in the privilege of performing his service, in the honor he shows to his friend, and in the sheer delight of bringing the bride and groom together. John the Baptist may be the greatest New Testament example of this joyful attitude in service. He looked to Jesus and saw the true King, the Savior-Lamb who takes away the sin of the world [1:29]. Far from resenting Jesus’ coming, John rejoiced at the salvation light shining into the world. He wanted only to point to that light, to hail Jesus as Savior, and to lead the bride into the arms of the bridegroom. What is the greatest reward of service to Jesus? The greatest reward of serving Jesus is simply the joy of serving Jesus. This will make us useful Christians – if we rejoice not merely when our ministry is blessed with success, not merely when others praise and approve us, but whenever we have the privilege of serving Jesus, simply because of our love for Him and how great He is. John was overwhelmed with the joy and privilege of doing anything for so great a Lord as Jesus Christ. So his joy was especially great when God used him to direct others to Jesus, and our joy in leading people to saving faith should be equally great.

A Humble Resolution.  Third, John was especially made a useful believer by his humble resolution. Not only did John refuse to compete with Jesus or show envy toward Jesus, but John went further and declared, He must increase, but I must decrease [3:30]. He says that his ministry must give way to that of Christ. In the same way, Christians who are useful and make a difference in this world are resolved to make little of themselves so that Christ will be exalted, believed, and followed. This kind of humility is the most unnatural and therefore most difficult of resolutions. By nature, we always want to increase. Indeed, this self-exalting attitude is at the heart of all sin. John models the highest godliness when he says, I must decrease.

A Consuming Passion.  How can we be useful Christians? How can we be the kind of believers who make a difference for Christ in our time? John the Baptist models for us a key principle of contentment in God’s sovereign provision, a joyful attitude in serving the Lord, and a humble resolution to decrease so that Christ will increase. But there is one more characteristic that motivated John in all that he did, namely, a consuming passion for Christ so that we love Him and desire His glory in all things. When the Holy Spirit inspired John the Baptist to speak of the bride coming to the bridegroom, surely He wanted to remind us of the love between Jesus and His church. If we want to be useful to our Lord, then we will have the same passion for Him that a bride has for her groom. Just as a bride prepares herself for the groom, every Christian who wants to be useful to Christ must devote himself or herself to constant spiritual growth, plowing the field of his heart with God’s Word and seeking the Holy Spirit’s power by drawing near to the Lord in prayer.”  [Phillips, pp. 198-206].

“John: An Example For Today. John was a man with a specific mission to fulfill, and he carried it out faithfully. It was his great privilege to fulfill the Elijah role, if not the Elijah prophecy, and prepare his generation for the appearance of Jesus Christ. In John’s mission and in his attitude believers can find several important lessons for today. (1) John was called to a specific mission and dedicated his life to it. John clearly modeled the kind of commitment to ministry believers are to display, whatever our individual ministry may be. (2) John was equipped by God’s Spirit to carry out His mission. God never asks us to do anything for Him without providing the spiritual resources that will enable us to succeed. (3) John was bold in confronting sin, whether the corrupt were great or small. We may not have the same prophetic calling John had, but we need His boldness in sharing Christ with our generation. (4) John was ready to step aside when a greater than he arrived. From John, we need to learn the grace of humility; we need to be as willing as John to give center stage to another God may have called to a ministry more significant than ours. Rivalry or jealousy has no room in the church of Jesus Christ.”  [Richards, pp. 193-196].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why was John baptizing? What did his baptism signify? Why were the Jewish leaders concerned about what John was doing?
  2. What did John mean when he called Jesus the Lamb of God? What is the significance of the lamb in the Old Testament sacrificial system? What does the doctrine of “substitution” teach?
  3. What key principle for Christian service does God give us in 3:27? Ask God to show you the place and role He has for you in His service. Then ask Him to give you a joyful attitude serving Him in that role and place.
  4. How does John’s example help us answer the following questions: What is the greatest reward of service to Jesus? How can we be useful Christians? How can we be the kind of believers who make a difference for Christ in our time?

References:

John, Andreas Kostenberger, BENT, Baker.

John, vol. 1, Richard Phillips, REC, P & R Publishing.

Every Man in the Bible, Larry Richards, Thomas Nelson Publishers.