10: A Portrait of Christian Service (John 1:19-34)
10: The Testimony of John: A Portrait of Christian Service
Whilst this chapter is written particularly to leaders and aspiring leaders in churches and ministries, it is also applicable to all Christians. As God’s children, we are all called of God to leadership, to rule and reign in and through Christ in our own spheres of influence. Whatever our functions and roles, however “high” or “low” in the eyes of the world, our heart should be the same.
The leaders in Israel are perplexed. They need to know who this John the Baptist is and what authority he has to do what he is doing. They are under pressure to get this figured out because it seems that the people love him and are drawn towards him and his preaching. But this is not happening within their sphere of influence. In fact they have no control over him, what he will say or do, at all. But he is preaching to their flock and their flock are responding to him in droves.
No wonder they feel threatened. In their righteous indignation they could argue that it is their responsibility to look after the teaching of the scriptures and all things God for this people. If someone comes who preaches and teaches apart from them, then they need to make a judgement about him so that the people are not led astray.
The people have already been led astray from their teachings, they have been led astray back to God.
Of course, beyond the “righteous” indignation, is control. The arm of the flesh. These are the religious rulers and for many of them (though not all) they have knowingly or unknowingly fallen into the trap (as many of us still do) of those who feel charged with the responsibility of looking after God’s people.
We forget that they are God’s people not ours and that our responsibility as church leaders is to point people towards obedience to Christ, not ourselves. If we get that wrong, as many of these religious leaders did, we are equally in danger of not only stopping God’s people from fully meeting and flourishing in Him, we also unwittingly resist Him in the process.
That is where many of these religious leaders ended up. Resisting God.
John the Baptist, of course, was exactly the opposite. His ministry was to point people to Jesus and when they began to connect to Jesus then John would happily withdraw from the process. A true “friend of the bridegroom”. Jesus is the bridegroom, His people are the bride. John, as a friend of the bridegroom, makes sure that the bride is ready to meet the groom. Once they have met, John is happy to withdraw and allow the bride and groom to grow in love for each other.
“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. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:29-30)
By contrast, many of these religious leaders would have said that they were true friends of the bride and groom (if the Christ is the bridegroom and His people are the bride). But in truth they would gather the bride to bring her to the groom but when the groom wanted to take her away, they would want to keep the bride for themselves.
So they want to know who John is. They want to know who they are dealing with so that they can put him into their convenient, conventional boxes that they understood and could control. God never works to such man made demands. He will always move beyond our boxes. He rarely does “convenient and conventional”.
“Who are you?” They ask.
But John doesn’t want to answer that question, because it is irrelevant to his purpose. The purpose is not for people to figure out who he is, but to be prepared for He who is coming next. However it does suit his purpose to tell them who he isn’t, just in case they start putting a label on him that could elevate him in their minds and thus diminish their interest in the One to follow.
The contrast between his ministry and theirs couldn’t be more clear.
• Many of them were strongly interested in the world knowing who they are, which suited their purpose. John was more interested in the world knowing who he wasn’t, which suited his purpose.
• They wanted to control the people under their authority, John wanted to release them into the arms and authority of Jesus.
• They wanted to look good. John couldn’t care less about how he looked, or about what people thought of him, other than how it reflected on the One he was serving.
• They thought that it in order to reflect God properly, everything had to be in order, which required them to rule and control, John understood that God reflected Himself primarily in His One and Only, which requires us to serve Him and His people in humility and the fear of the Lord.
So he tells them plainly: “I am not the Christ.” (John 1:20).
But they are not satisfied.
“Are you Elijah?”
“Are you the prophet?”
They had probably never met someone with so little self interest before.
Someone was coming after John who had even less.
Such is the way of the greatest ministries of God in this world. Little need for self grandisement. That only diminishes their ability to exalt Christ.
They are getting frustrated not only because John is not giving them a straight answer but because they will not look good in the eyes of those who sent them if they don’t get it.
“So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”” (John 1:22)
Their muddled thinking, hypocrisy and self-deception is highlighted throughout John’s gospel. They later tell Jesus that his testimony is not valid because He speaks on His own behalf (John 8:13), but here they want John to speak on his own behalf and testify about himself and they are frustrated that he doesn’t.
John doesn’t try to ease their frustrations. He finally identifies himself not by who he is, but by what he has been sent to do.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23)
He is “the voice”.
Jesus is the Word, John is just the voice. The “phone” in Greek. Simply the technology through which God has chosen to speak at this particular time and place.
The Word (Jesus) comes before the voice. And the Word speaks on His own behalf when He comes in the flesh. But when He is not in the flesh the Word requires a voice so that He may be clearly heard. Before the Word came in the flesh He had a voice as a herald to speak His words and prepare the way.
The Word still requires a voice, many voices, in order to be heard by the nations that need to hear. As Christians we share John’s call. We are a voice. Giving voice to the Word of God, not just by speaking about Him but by declaring what He wants to say to the world around us.
John the Baptist self identified as a voice.
And what is the voice crying out? He says that he is the one spoken of in Isaiah who shouts out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
It is worth reading this again in the full context of the quote from Isaiah 40 in order to understand the heart of what he is declaring.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
He has not merely come to be a hellfire preacher, as some have made him out to be. Certainly John exposed people’s sins and exhorted them to get right with God before the coming judgement.
But the voice, as spoken of by Isaiah, is a preacher of good news. Yes repentance from sins is an absolute requirement for receiving this good news. But the reason for repenting is that, when our valleys have been lifted up and our mountains been made low, when our uneven ground has been leveled and our rough places have been smoothed out, then our warfare has ended, our iniquity is pardoned and the glory of the Lord will be revealed to us and through us and all flesh around us will see it.
This will surely happen because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” and He has spoken using the voice of John the Baptist.
But here is the real issue:
“(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?””” (John 1:24-25)
They have not been sent to find out who John is. They have been sent to figure out a way of controlling and reining him in.
“If you aren’t one of the big guys, then what authority do you have for baptizing people? Who do you think you are?”
John doesn’t bother to answer their question. He is not really interested in them knowing who he is. He is just a voice telling people to sort themselves out before the real deal comes into town. He doesn’t even bother to answer the authority question. He doesn’t have to justify to them what he is doing. He doesn’t need the permission of the religious leaders who think they have the spiritual power and authority in the land. He answers to a much higher authority and that authority is on their doorstep and if they don’t repent along with all the other sinners, then they are going to have to deal with Him themselves. Which is, of course, what they eventually try (unsuccessfully) to do.
“You’re trying to figure out who I am and what right I have to be baptizing in water, but I’m just the warm up act and a very, very minor one compared to Who is coming and is already here. If you don’t think I have the right to be baptizing in water you wait till you meet the One coming after me who is so much more powerful, forceful and mighty than I, that I am not worthy to be the lowest form of His slave.”
“John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26-27)
In other words: “if you’re worried that I am working outside of your authority and desire for control, just wait till Jesus gets here.”
Notice the smallness of expectation and vision in the religious rulers and the people. They have an Old Testament full of amazing miracles and works of God, just take the lives of Elijah and Elisha for example. Then there is a long lean, dry spell and in that dry spell their expectation of who God is and what He is capable of seems to have dwindled away to very little.
John the Baptist comes, no words or miracles or wonders. He does look a little “prophetic” and he certainly speaks powerfully and prophetically in the Holy Spirit but he doesn’t heal the sick or raise the dead. He just speaks and baptises in water and suddenly people want to know if He is the Messiah.
The natural human condition tends towards the diminishing of God.
We want to reduce God to someone we can understand, manipulate and if necessary control. We certainly want to reduce Him to someone we can ignore if we want to with minimal, if any, consequences.
John the Baptist sets about trying to undo that spiritual blindness, “the One who is coming after me is in a completely different league to you or me or anything we can even imagine. He has more power and authority than anything the world can grasp.”
I wonder if, in the Church today, we still can tend towards a significantly reduced view of who God is.
Might that smallness of thinking affect the way we serve Him and shepherd His people?
John called Jesus “the greatest born of women.”
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11)
If the greatest born of women is not worthy to untie the strap of His sandal, to do the most menial task of service for Jesus, then who are we, of ourselves, to think we can?
No, it is the greatest privilege of life to serve Him and by His grace we can. But let us not get caught up in questions of our personal identity, or believe that we have to strengthen our personal authority as we serve His people.
If someone asked us today: “Who are you?” what would we say?
If someone asked us: “What authority to you have to do what you are doing and say what you are saying?” what would our response be?
John the Baptist was clear.
So was every identifiable New Testament Apostolic writer:
• Paul: “Paul and Timothy, servants (Greek “doulos”, the lowest form of slaves) of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1)
• James: “James, a servant (Greek “doulos”, the lowest form of slave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” (James 1:1)
• Peter: “Simeon Peter, a servant (Greek “doulos”, the lowest form of slave) and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2Peter 1:1)
• Jude: “Jude, a servant (Greek “doulos”, the lowest form of slave) of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1)
• John: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants (Greek “doulos” the lowest form of slaves) the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant (Greek “doulos” the lowest form of slave) John” (Revelation 1:1)
You get the picture?
Some of those church leaders also identified themselves elsewhere as “apostles” or “sent ones”. That is not them elevating themselves to a higher place among the people, that is still the position of a servant and they carried out those apostolic duties with a servant’s heart. Any authority they carried as apostles they carried as a direct result of their posture as the lowest form of a slave of Christ.
That was how John the Baptist saw himself. The doulos in the household could well be the one to tie the Master’s sandals. John didn’t see himself as worthy to even do that.
Of course, the lowest of Jesus’ slaves is still way higher in position and authority than the highest ranking person in the kingdoms of this world, or the devil himself. But let us not, as leaders in God’s house, seek to elevate ourselves as the devil did. The consequences will be the same. A fall from grace.
In modern language, Jesus is the big deal, the main man, the big noise in town. As part of His family, we are heirs with Him as children of God. As His church and ministry leaders, we are just the lowest form of His servants. There is no greater privilege or joy.Posted on: May 22, 2018Peter Todd