Monday, February 06, 2012

The Greatest Person Ever Born (John 1:19-28)


Who was the greatest boxer to ever take the ring? The man with the reputation of being the greatest of all time is Muhammad Ali. If you were to ask Muhammad Ali who was the greatest boxer of all time, he would undoubtedly tell you that Muhammad Ali was the greatest of all time. He famously made that claim about himself on several occasions. Let’s broaden the question beyond the realm of boxing. Who is the greatest person ever born? I imagine that this is a question that would evoke many responses in the world. We could think of a multitude of great leaders, famous figures, and noteworthy celebrities in history, but each one of us would merely be offering our own opinions. I imagine that if we were to ask that question here in the church, we would likely all agree that Jesus is the greatest person ever born. In fact, even outside the church, many would name Jesus as the greatest person ever born. But if Jesus had been asked, during the days of His earthly life and ministry who the greatest person ever born had been, we would be surprised at his answer. I don’t know that Jesus was ever asked that question, but He did state His answer to the question in no uncertain terms. And unlike Muhammad Ali, Jesus did not point to Himself. Jesus said in Matthew 11:11, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women (and that’s everyone who ever lived with the exception of Adam and Eve) there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” Would he have been in your top five? Top ten? Top one hundred? Maybe, if you’ve read that statement of Jesus before. But if you hadn’t, or if you had forgotten it, I doubt any of us would have said that John the Baptist was the greatest person ever born. What do we really know about him? The Bible tells us about the circumstances surrounding his birth, and then nothing for some nearly 30 years while he is out living in the desert. Then the Bible tells us a little bit about his ministry of preaching and baptizing, and very briefly about his death at the hands of Herod Antipas. So we know a little about the beginning, a little about the middle, and a little about the end of his life. Compare that to what we know about some other great men and women of history. For example, Carl Sandburg wrote six volumes on the life of Abraham Lincoln. Any given chapter in those volumes would be longer than the written data on the life of John the Baptist.

So, who is John the Baptist? We are not the first to ask that question. In the text of Scripture we have just read, we find that a group of priests and Levites had been sent by the Pharisees in Jerusalem to ask him the same question: “Who are you?” His answer is informative. It tells us a little about his unique greatness—his significance in the redemptive plan of God. It also tells us about One who is even greater than the greatest person ever born.    

I. Who is John?

Following the last of the prophets of the Old Testament, there were about 400 years of prophetic silence in Israel. There was no new message and no new messenger from God throughout that entire time. But all that changed when John the Baptist burst onto the scene. During Advent, we looked at the passage in Luke’s Gospel about his birth. His parents had been unable to bear children and were advanced in years. One day, while his father was on duty as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, an angel appeared to him and announced that a son would be born to them in their old age. It was nothing short of a divine miracle. The angel’s message had made it clear that this child would grow up to be significant in the plans and purposes of God. When the infant John was presented for dedication in the temple, the people were astounded. Luke tells us that the news was the stuff of gossip all over the hill country of Judea, and they kept saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” But then, so far as we know, John faded into oblivion. For nearly 30 years, he really didn’t do anything noteworthy. Perhaps people forgot about the fervor that had surrounded his birth, or maybe they thought it had all amounted to much ado about nothing. Luke 1:80 tells us that he went out to live in the deserts, “until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” And that day finally came. Luke 3 tells us that it was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. These were important people, doing important things. But little did they know that out in the desert, a more important man was about to do a much more important thing. While all these men were bedecked with all these great and honorific titles and bore tremendous responsibilities, Luke 3:2 says that “the word of God came to John … in the wilderness.” It was the first time in four centuries that God was speaking, and He was speaking through John.

John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2), and he was baptizing those who repented. Matthew tells us that large crowds from Jerusalem, and all Judea, all the district around the Jordan were going out to him, hearing him preach and being baptized. This caught the attention of the religious officials in Jerusalem, and so they promptly dispatched a team of priests and Levites to go and investigate. And the first thing they want to know is “Who are you?”

A story is told about the son of one of England’s kings who grew tired of life in the palace. He used to sneak out and play in the streets with some of the poor children, those who were known as “street urchins” by the society of that day. Those boys never knew who he really was. On one occasion, their mischief landed them in some trouble with a police officer, and the officer said to the king’s son, “Who are you?” The boy said, “I’m the Prince of Wales.” The officer didn’t believe him, but the boy kept insisting, “I am the Prince of Wales.” Frustrated, the officer turned to little street urchin boy, and said, “What about you? Who are you?” The child looked up at the officer with his chest out proudly and said, “Oh, me? I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury!”[1] John the Baptist was not like that boy. He did not make false and grandiose claims about his identity. He began by insisting on who he was not.

When the priests and Levites asked, “Who are you?” verse 20 indicates that he was emphatic: he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Now that’s an odd thing for John to say. When people ask you, “Who are you?” you probably aren’t tempted to respond, “Well, I’m not the Archbishop of Canterbury, that’s for sure.” That would be a ridiculous thing to say because no one would have assumed that you were the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why would John answer this question by emphatically declaring, “I am not the Christ”? The only reason John’s statement makes any sense at all is that some people were beginning to think that John was the Christ, the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for throughout its entire history. Luke 3:15 tells us that the people were in a state of expectation, and all were wondering in their hearts about John as to whether he was the Christ. If there was someone out in the wilderness claiming to be the Christ, this would be a big deal to the leaders of Israel and to the Roman authorities. Though there was a widespread state of Messianic expectation, there were many divergent ideas about what kind of Messiah people were expecting. Some were expecting a military revolutionary who would come in and overthrow the oppressive power of Rome, and this kind of dangerous subversion would need to be nipped in the bud before it ever spread. But John makes it clear as he insists, “I am not the Christ.”

They asked him then, “Are you Elijah?” That might seem like a silly question to ask. Elijah lived some 800 years before John. But, according to the Old Testament, Elijah never died. He was whisked away to heaven in a chariot of fire, and the prophet Malachi had foretold that Elijah would return in the future to prepare for the coming Messiah and for the day of judgment. To this day, many Jews who do not believe that the Messiah has come will leave an empty chair at the Passover table, just in case Elijah pops in for the feast. But there was something about the ministry of John that evoked the thought in the minds of some that perhaps he was the return of Elijah that Malachi had prophesied. John had burst on the scene from relative obscurity, like Elijah had, and he even bore a physical resemblance to the biblical descriptions of Elijah. Their preaching was similar in tone, content, and urgency. But, when John was asked, “Are you Elijah?”, he responded, “I am not.”

Now this is very interesting, because later on Jesus will say that John was, in fact, this Elijah (Matt 17:10-13). So who is right, Jesus or John? Well, in a sense they both were. John was not the literal Elijah who had come back to earth from heaven. He was a different person. But John had come, as the angel had told his father, in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) as the forerunner of the Messiah. This is why Jesus said in Matthew 11:14, “If you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” It could very well be that John was not even aware of the Elijah-like significance of his ministry. Leon Morris makes an excellent comment on this as he says, “No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.”[2] So, yes, John is Elijah, but no he is not, at least not in the sense that the interrogators mean. He had come in the spirit and power of Elijah to perform the promised role of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah. Was this what Malachi had promised, or would the literal, historical Elijah yet return? Well, if Jesus said that John was the Elijah who was promised, then I want to side with Jesus on that. But, the actual, historical Elijah did, in fact, return, together with Moses to testify to the glory of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. In addition, there are many Christians who are convinced that Elijah will be one of the two unnamed wonder-working witnesses described in Revelation 11 who will come before the final judgment and the end of all things. They may be right, but this much is certain. We are not waiting for the return of Elijah that Malachi had promised. Jesus said John fulfilled that promise, and Elijah himself did appear at the Transfiguration. So, if you are keeping a tally of prophecies that have been fulfilled, you can put two check marks beside the promise of Malachi 4:5, and maybe leave room for a third check mark to be put there in the last days.

Then they ask him, “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Again, his answer surprises us, because John was a prophet. But they did not ask if he was a prophet. They asked if he was the prophet. By “the prophet” they were referring to a very particular individual. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses had told the people that God would send forth “another prophet” like himself to speak God’s words to the people. Some believed that this prophet would come, like Elijah, to precede the Messiah. Others believed that the prophet would be the Messiah. In the unfolding revelation of God’s word, we will discover that the latter belief was correct. This promised prophet was indeed the Messiah, and the words of Deuteronomy 18 would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Thus John was able truthfully assert that he was not this prophet. Are you the prophet? “No.”  

You can imagine the growing frustration that the group of priests and Levites must have felt. They were sent to find out who John is, and so far, they have only found out who he is not. We learn in verse 24 that they had been sent by the Pharisees, and they are going to be in real trouble if they go back and report to the Pharisees, “Well, we asked John who he is, and all we know is that he is not the Christ, not Elijah, and not the prophet.” So, exasperated, they say again, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” In other words, “Stop telling us who you are not, and tell us who you are!” His answer is remarkable. And it brings us to the second emphasis. For in his response, not only do we find our who John was, we also find out what John did.

II. What did John do?

“I am a voice.” Do you think of yourself as “being” a voice? You have a voice, but would you define yourself as “a voice”? Probably not. We can almost sense a prompting on the part of the interrogators to interrupt John at this point and say, “Yes John, we all know you have a voice! We hear you speaking!” But John continues, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness.” There are two places called Bethany mentioned in the Gospels. One is near Jerusalem, but verse 28 tells us that John was baptizing at Bethany, beyond the Jordan. This was way up north, on the Western side of the Sea of Galilee, a long journey from Jerusalem. Again, the entourage may want to interject here, “Yes, John. We have travelled all the way out in this uninhabitable environment from our comfortable confines in Jerusalem. We get it! You are a voice crying out in the wilderness!” But as John continues, everyone becomes aware that he is not merely stating the obvious. He is making a profound statement of identification. “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Now at last, John has explicitly identified himself as the fulfillment of a specific biblical prophecy. All four Gospels refer to John as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. Here John makes the statement for himself.

Isaiah 40:3-5 says, “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 hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, 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.” The language suggests making the roads ready for the arrival of a distinguished visitor. In ancient times, a delegation would be sent ahead of a king to fill in the holes in the road, to make new roads where the old ones were impassable, so that the king could arrive at his destination without delay or danger. This kind of thing still happens. When President Obama visited Forsyth Tech back in 2010, Donia got stuck for hours in traffic because the interstate was completely closed off to prepare for his journey from the airport to the campus. A few years back, as I was traveling out to the little town of Bafata in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, some boys had created a makeshift drawbridge with a rope, and they told us that for a small contribution, they would fill in the massive pothole in the road so we could pass smoothly. While we were explaining to them that we didn’t mind the pothole, another vehicle approached, paid the fare, and the hole was filled with shovels-full of sand. Before we could pass, however, the boys raised the rope again and removed all the sand from the hole since we were unwilling to pay for the rough places to be made plain.

John is saying, “I am that voice that Isaiah spoke of. I am calling out to you, ‘Get ready, for the Lord Himself is coming! Make all the necessary preparations in the highways of your hearts, for His glory is about to be revealed, and you will see that glory with your own eyes!” So John is a voice in the wilderness, and he is preaching that the Messiah is on his way. But his ministry is not one of preaching only. He is also performing an action. He is baptizing.

Now up until that time, baptism had been a rather unusual practice in Israel. It was reserved primarily for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism as a symbol of them being purified from their ethnic uncleanness. Some Jews did practice a form of baptism, but in all cases of baptism (Jew and Gentile alike), it was a self-baptism—the dunking of oneself into water in a symbolic act of cleansing. John was the first to come baptizing others. That act indicated that he believed he had some official authority to do this. The delegation want to know, “If you aren’t Christ, and you aren’t Elijah, and you aren’t the Prophet, then why are you baptizing?” They want to know where his authority to perform this action comes from. Of course, we learned in the prologue, in verse 6 that John was “sent from God.” He will say on the day following this exchange with the interrogators that God had sent Him to baptize in water. The delegation is accountable to the Pharisees who sent them, and John is accountable to an even higher power: he is accountable to God who sent him. So he acknowledges here, “I baptize in water.” Yes, he says, I am doing that. But he says that this is a rather secondary matter and that there is something more important that they need to be concerned about. “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.” It’s as if John is saying, “You really don’t need to be concerned about my ministry and my authority, because the One who is coming after me is right here among you, and it is His ministry and His authority that matters the most.” So much greater than John is Jesus that John says, “I can’t even untie His shoes!” That was the task of slaves, a humbling and demeaning task, but John says, I’m not even worthy to do that!

So you see, the Pharisees had heard about John, and they wanted to find out more about John. He was an important person. If you were to ask Jesus, he would tell you that John was the greatest person ever born up to that point in history. But if you were to ask John, he would tell you that the only greatness about him was the significance of his task. He had been sent by God to preach and to baptize to prepare the way for an even greater One who would come after him. In the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, John was preparing the way for the Lord. And John says to this delegation of inquisitors, “He is coming. In fact He is right here among you. And you are overly concerned with who I am, but you need to be more concerned about the fact that you do not know who He is!” In Chapter 3, we will find him saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” His desire to decrease, while increasing the world’s awareness of the all surpassing greatness of Christ contributed to his greatness in the eyes of Jesus. John’s testimony could be boiled down to this: “It really isn’t important who I am and what I am doing. What is important is who Christ is, and what He is doing.” John was not the Christ; he hadn’t come to save anyone. He was merely a voice crying out in the wilderness that Christ the Lord was coming and that the world needed to be ready to receive Him.

Now, it is interesting that when Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!”, He immediately followed by saying, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In the eyes of Jesus, John was the greatest person who had ever born up until that time. But in the eyes of Jesus, even the least significant one of those who have turned to Him in repentance and faith to follow Him is greater than John. And that which made John great will be the mark of the greatness of the followers of Jesus. There may be a few, or many, who want to know who you are and what you are doing. But we learn from John the Baptist that the greatest thing we can do for the world is to testify to them that we are merely a voice crying out in the wilderness, and we are crying out to them to turn and trust in this Lord, Jesus the Christ. Like John, we have been sent by God for this purpose. Like the delegation that was sent to John, the world we are crying out to does not know this Jesus. It is our task to make Him known. He is the incarnation of God Himself, who has come to save humanity through His sinless life, His sacrificial death for our sins, and His glorious resurrection.

Do you feel unimportant and insignificant? Do you wonder if your life matters or has any value at all? Remember that statement: “No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.” John didn’t think he was anything great or significant. But Jesus considered Him to be greater and more significant than John was even aware. And Jesus said that if you belong to His kingdom, you are great, and greater even than John the Baptist, who was, in his time, the greatest person ever born. But your greatness is rooted in your God-given mission to testify to Jesus.  So go out and do something great today. This very week you have the opportunity to do something that is eternally significant and remarkably great. Let your voice be heard crying out to a dying world lost in the wilderness of sin, “Know this Jesus and turn to Him to be saved!” It may be that someone here today within the sound of my voice does not know Him. And we have done a number of important things in this hour of worship, but nothing greater than this: we invite you to turn to Jesus as so many of us have, and be saved from your sins through faith in Him. He died to bear the penalty of sin for you, and He has conquered sin and death for you through His glorious resurrection from the dead. When your life is over, it really won’t matter if you know who I am or who any of us are. What will matter is whether or not you knew Jesus, and whether or not you received Him as your Lord and Savior. I want to challenge you to consider responding to Him in repentance and faith today if you never have before. And if you have, then I want to close by challenging you to do the greatest thing any person could ever do – share the good news of Jesus with someone else!

[1] This story has been told numerous times in one form or another by different authors. One such telling can be found in Stuart Briscoe’s book, Time Bandits (Multnomah, 2005).
[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 135-136. 

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