Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sent to Be a Witness (John 1:6-8, 15)

In February of 1997, I embarked on my first international mission trip. I had taken the place of a dear friend on that team, who had to back out because of health reasons. As a young Bible college student, I could not afford to pay for a trip such as this, but my friend said, “I’m going to pay your way on one condition. There’s this pastor named Jonathan. He always wears a brown UPS shirt that someone gave him. I promised him that when I returned I would witness to his father. Since I can’t go back, you have to promise me that you will find Jonathan and witness to his father for me.” For several days I enquired amongst the Kenyans that we met to see if anyone knew Jonathan, and no one did. My taxi driver told me, “I don’t know this man, but I will find him for you.” After a week of witnessing in the villages, my scheduled day of much needed rest began with an early knock on my door. I opened it to find a tall, slender Kenyan in a brown UPS shirt, who said in surprisingly clear English, “Hello sir. My name is Jonathan. I heard you were looking for me.” Over his shoulder I could see my driver waving at me with a huge smile on his face. I explained to him how my friend had been unable to come, and had sent me in his place, and that we needed to go out and visit his father. Jonathan’s eyes lit up and we set out to the remote village where I found the aged man. After a long ritual of African greetings, I sat down with the man and said, “Sir, I have been sent here with a message for you,” and for the next several hours, I shared the good news of Jesus with him. It was my very reason for being on the continent of Africa. I had been sent as a witness. And that experience in Kenya opened my eyes to a reality of my life as a follower of Jesus. Not only in Kenya, but everywhere I happen to be in the world, at all times, I have been sent to be Christ’s witness. And the same is true for every Christian.

The final words of Jesus to His followers before He ascended into heaven after His resurrection are known as the Great Commission. Luke records it this way in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” This statement is both a command and a promise. It was given to the entire church of Jesus Christ, meaning that every believer in Christ is both an evangelist and a missionary, sent under the authority of Christ to testify of Him beginning where we are, and extending to the ends of the earth. It is a daunting task. When we consider that evangelical Christians comprise only 25% of the population of America, and a third of the global population, this means that there are at least 4.5 billion people in the world who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, 230 million of whom live within our own country. God could have chosen to use any means imaginable to reach them with the good news of Jesus, but He chose one way: to use the likes of us to spread the message.

In our text today, we meet a man who was sent by God to be a witness. His name was John. The other Gospels refer to him as John the Baptist in order to distinguish him from John the Apostle. However within this book, the Apostle John never refers to himself by name, so there is no need to distinguish himself from this John. While the other gospels describe John’s family and birth, his appearance, and his ministry of baptism, the Fourth Gospel mainly concentrates on John’s role as a witness to Christ. As we see him testifying to Jesus, he becomes a mentor to us in our task of being Christ’s witness.

I. Christ’s witnesses understand their commission (v6)

After the days of Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi, prophecy as we know it in the Old Testament came to an abrupt end. The Jewish Talmud states that they were the last of the prophets, and one Jewish writing from c.200 B.C. refers back to “the time prophets ceased to appear among the people.”[1] Thus for some 500 years, there had been no prophet sent from God to announce His Word to Israel. But all of that changed as “there came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v6). He did not come on his own accord. He came with a heavenly commission; he was “sent from God.” The Greek word for “sent” here emphasizes the authority of the sender, who in this case is God. John came with the authority of God to deliver a message from God. He was not to exercise license or creativity with the message, but to deliver it precisely as he had received it from God. Being sent from God, he was accountable to God for delivering the message with which he had been entrusted.

We might compare this idea of being commissioned to the role of an ambassador. An ambassador is sent to a foreign land under the authority of his home country’s leader (the King, the President, etc.), and is there on official business to represent the interests of those who sent him. John’s role as a witness was much like this. He was God’s ambassador to the world. And so are we. Like John, we have been sent from God into the world. Jesus said, in Matthew 28:18-19, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The command to “go” in the Great Commission is rooted in the authority of Christ. He says in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” We are sent under His divine authority as a commissioned people, accountable to Him for the faithful exercise of our task. If we are intimidated by the task of witnessing for Christ, we must remember that we are not witnesses on our own authority. We are sent from God, and we have His authority to make Christ known. If we are afraid of what the world might think of us or do to us, we must remember that we are accountable to God, and rather be more fearful of failing to fulfill our commission.

John was a man, an ordinary man, the same as you and me. But what set him apart from the rest of the mass of humanity was that he was divinely commissioned; he was “sent from God.” And you are as well. One commentator has noted, “No one can be sent from God who has not first been with God.”[2] When the Lord Jesus called his apostles to Himself, it was so that “they would be with Him, and that He could send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). But He could not send them out, or rather He would not, until first they had been with Him. And the Lord Jesus said in His Commission to the Church, “Lo I am with you always!” (Matthew 28:20). We abide in His presence through prayer and the study of His Word, and our work as His witnesses begins to overflow from our time spent with Him. E. M. Bounds said that those who “gain mighty results for God” are those “who have prevailed in their pleadings with God before venturing to plead with men.”[3] So it is that we must spend time with Him, in prayer and in the Word, in order that we may be effective for Him as He sends us out. This is our commission.

II. Christ’s witnesses understand their identity (v7-8)

In the opening verses of this Gospel, the Apostle speaks of the Word, the Logos, who was with God in the beginning and who was God. He created all that exists, and in Him was life, and the life was “the Light of men” (v5). He shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend (or “overcome”) it (v6). In verse 9, the Apostle will say that “there was the True Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” So, in the verse before this passage about John, and in the verse after, the Apostle speaks of the magnificent Light. But here he is clear to point out concerning John, “He was not the Light.” It is clear as we get to know this man named John that he understood this about himself as well.

John understood that his mission was not to convince the world of the greatness of John. He spoke of another Person, saying in 1:27, “the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” He speaks of Him here in verse 15, saying “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.” The Person of whom John is speaking is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jesus came after John. John was born six months before Jesus, and he began his ministry before Jesus did, though we don’t know how long before. To many people, age and experience means preeminence. But John knows that this is not always so. Even though Jesus had been born six months after John, John says, “He existed before me.” Here he is referring to the fact that Jesus, being God, had existed from eternity past. And even though Jesus came onto the scene of public ministry later than John, John says of Him, “He has a higher rank than I.” Later in chapter 3, when John’s disciples report that Jesus is gaining more popularity among the people than John, John said, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I have said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ …. He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:28, 30). You see, John understood that he was not the Light. He knew that at the end of the day, it really wasn’t about him. Have we come to understand this about our own identity? It isn’t about us! We are not the Light!

Back in November, Brian Davis and I attended a pastors’ conference together and one of the first guys to preach got up and spent over twenty minutes of his allotted time talking about himself, his ministry, and his successes, before finally turning to a text of Scripture, which he proceeded to mutilate as he attempted to preach it. We have not been sent by God to make a name for ourselves. The debacle of the Tower of Babel ought to instruct us that attempting to make a name for ourselves will only end in disaster (Genesis 11:4)! Your mission in life, should you choose to accept it, is to decrease in order that Christ might increase.

He was not the Light, but he “came as a witness, to testify about the Light.”  A witness is someone who gives a true testimony. Witnesses are not to engage in interpretation or share their opinions or perspectives. They are to state the facts, truthfully and faithfully. That is what John came to do. He didn’t come to be the Light, but to testify about the Light. Jesus said concerning John the Baptist that “he was the lamp that was burning and was shining” (John 5:35). He was not the Light, but he was the lamp. The oil lamps of ancient times were lit by a fire from another source, and they could burn and shine for a long time as long as there was oil within them. So, John was a lamp that carried and bore the Light. And in that sense, we are also lamps. We do not shine forth with a light of our making, but we carry the Light of Christ into the dark world that they may see Him. The purpose is not to show the world how impressive the lamp is, but how bright the Light is.

Jesus says twice in this Gospel, “I am the Light of the World” (8:12; 9:5). But He says in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world.” You and I are only the light of the world in the sense that we reflect His light. We are like the moon, which produces no light of its own. It shines as it reflects the light of the sun. Our mission is not to show the world how great we are, but how great He is. We testify not of ourselves, but of Christ, who is the true Light “which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (v9). So, at the end of the day, we need not fear if the world rejects us because our witness is not about us. It is about Jesus. We testify to Him, not to ourselves. And this brings me to the final point …

III. Christ’s witnesses understand their purpose (v7b)

There is an old saying that goes, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” If you have no goal, no purpose in your work and in your life, then you mustn’t be surprised that you aren’t seeing any results. That is not to say that you will always see results when you have a goal; you may never reach your goal or attain your purpose. But you will never have results without a goal or purpose. So, John’s ministry was one that had a clear aim, a well-defined goal, and an explicitly stated purpose. He came to testify to Jesus with an explicit purpose. He testified “so that all might believe through him.”

Because he understood his identity, that he was not the Light, he did not testify so that all would believe in him, but that all would believe in Christ through his testimony. Because he understood his commission, that he was sent from God with divine authority, he boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus to everyone he could: to common fishermen (John 1:40); to the religious leaders of Israel (Matthew 3:7); and even to the ruler of the region, Herod Antipas. And when he testified to these people, it was not merely with the intent of providing them with information. He testified toward the goal of their conversion, that they might believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. John didn’t just give a nice speech and then say, “I hope that makes you feel better today!” He would present the facts of Jesus, who had come into the world as the Messiah to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, and then say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). John’s testimony included an urgent appeal for sinners to turn to God in repentance and to recognize Jesus as the Savior who had come as the sacrifice for sin, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

We need to learn this from John. Our task as Christ’s witnesses is incomplete until we have made it clear to our hearers that a decision must be made. The good news of the Lord Jesus is not just something for a person to mull over and chew on. It demands a response: accept Him and be saved, or reject Him and perish, but indifference is not an option.

What is your aim in life? Do you want to be successful, and prosperous, and well0-thought of by others, and retire young and rich to enjoy unlimited leisure? That sounds nice, but that is not the aim of Christ’s witness. For Christ’s witness the aim and objective in life is nothing other than the salvation of the world! All other aims are subservient to that one. If you aim for success, let it be so that your success becomes a platform for the Gospel! If you aim for prosperity, let it be so that you can finance the spread of the Gospel through the whole world! If you aim for an early retirement, let it be so that the golden years of your life can be spent proclaiming the good news of Jesus to every person you can! Live in such a way, that should anyone even need to ask you what your goal in life is, you can say like John the Baptist, “to be a witness, to testify for Christ, so that all might believe.”

Now, we need to have a healthy dose of realism here. After all, the text does not say that all would believe, but that all might believe. Multitudes believed in Christ through the testimony of John, including probably the author of the present Gospel, the Apostle John. Many, however, did not. Herod didn’t. The Pharisees and Sadducees by and large didn’t. But the fault did not lie with John. His testimony was sufficient for all to believe. And so it will be with us. As we proclaim the good news of Jesus, some will likely believe, while others will likely not. But if we have been clear and thorough with the message, our testimony will be sufficient for all who hear it to believe, even if they do not.

After hours of witnessing to Jonathan’s father in that Kenyan village, I asked him, “Sir, do you understand what I have said to you about Jesus?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Do you believe that these things are true?” He said, “I certainly do!” I said, “Then sir, is there any reason why you would not want to give your life to Jesus today?” He said, “Yes, I am just not ready.” I went back over all the significant points of the Gospel with him and said, “Do you believe this?” He said yes. I said, “Sir, what will happen to you when you die?” He said, “I will go to hell.” I asked, “Do you want to go to hell?” He said, “No.” I said, “What do you need to do to go to heaven?” He said, “I need to believe in Jesus.” I said, “Are you ready to believe in Him?” He said, “No,” and rose to bid me farewell. I came back to my friend who had sent me to Kenya and shared this with him, and he said to me, “Russ, you did all you could do. You did what I sent you to do. Now, we have to keep praying for him.” That was fifteen years ago, and I do not know if the man ever came to faith in Jesus.

Contrast that with another encounter. It was a hot summer day in 1995, and I was riding along to make visits with Pastor Paul Riggs one day, and as we passed by the home of John Ogburn, he said, “Russ, I’m concerned for John’s soul. Let’s stop in and witness to him.” We went in and had a pleasant visit, and the older pastor said, “John, I came to talk to you about the Lord today.” And he proceeded to tell John how Jesus loved him and died for him, and John said, “I believe that!” And then and there, John prayed that the Lord would save him. For the last 16 years, John never missed a Sunday of being in church! A week ago today, he died at age 88, and last Wednesday I attended his funeral. The pastor said that he often spoke of that day when he met Jesus

The great English missionary C. T. Studd once wrote to his brothers from the field and said, “Oh! If you have never tasted the joy of leading one soul to Jesus, go and ask our Father to enable you to do so, and then you will know what true joy is.”[4] There is joy to be found in being Christ’s witnesses. It is who we are, and it is what we have been commissioned to do. As we seek to be effective and faithful witnesses, we won’t find a better example in all of Scripture than John the Baptist. He understood his commission; he understood his identity; and he understood his purpose, therefore he was an effective witness for Christ. With the same understandings, we will be also.

[1] Ben Witherington III, “John the Baptist,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Green, McKnight, and Marshall; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 386. The Jewish writing mentioned is the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, and the statement is found at 9:27.
[2] John Phillips, Exploring the Gospels: John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1989), 21.
[3] E. M. Bounds, Power through Prayer. http://www.revival-library.org/catalogues/miscellanies/prayer/ boundspower.html
[4] Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer (Fort Washington, Penn.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1972), 57.

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