Tuesday, December 16, 2014
"Witness to the Light" Sermon: John 1:6-8; 19-28
“Witness to the Light”
[John 1:6-8; 19-28]
December 14, 2014 Second Reformed Church
We turn to John’s account of John that Baptist this morning – a similar account to the one we looked at from Mark last week, but with a different emphasis. John tells us that John the Baptist was a “witness to the light.”
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
John tells us that there was a man by the name of John who was sent by God. John establishes John the Baptist’s authority right from the beginning of the description of him and his ministry. John is not someone acting on his own authority – this is not someone who just one day felt like baptizing people and calling them to repentance and belief. No, John had been called by God to this work of being a pastor.
Why does it matter?
There are plenty of people today who have a disagreement with their pastor, find that they are able to imitate TV preachers – and these may be sincere, believing Christians, but they set up a church for themselves, based on their own authority – with no call from God to be a pastor.
James tells us: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, ESV).
The reformed preacher, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said that the piece of advice he would give anyone who wondered if he was called to the ministry was, if there is anything else he can do – do it. Don’t go into the ministry. And he said that because of the seriousness of the call to the ministry – no one should enter into it unless he is sure that he is called and it is the only thing he can possibly do, because God judges pastors more strictly – for pastors have been given a call to the preaching of God’s Word that not everyone has – and pastors must preach God’s Word Alone – not their preferences and opinions, but what God has said – period.
So, John was called by God to be John the Baptist – to do the work that God had ordained for him to do – to be a minister of the Gospel. This is going to be important as we go along.
And John was called to be a “witness to the light.”
What is a witness?
A witness is someone who has reliable, first-hand, ascertainable facts about something. A witness is someone who can say, “I was there. I have first-hand knowledge of this. I saw this happen.” – And so forth.
John was called by God to give reliable, first-hand, ascertainable facts about the Light. John was there, he knew the Light, he knew about the Light, and he knew what the Light was called to do, so he could be a witness to the Light.
For example – there has been much talk and speculation about and response to the events in Ferguson recently. We may have opinions about what happened and about what ought to have happened after these events. We may base our opinions on various things we have read and things we have seen on TV. But the only ones who are witnesses to those events are those who were actually there at the time and witnessed the events as they occurred.
If you weren’t there, if you don’t have first-hand knowledge of the facts – you are not a witness. You may have a good or a right opinion, but you are not a witness.
Do we get the difference? Do we understand that John the Baptist was called by God to be a witness to the Light?
In twenty-ninth verse of the first chapter of John – which we did not read this morning – for anyone who didn’t understand Who the Light is through the imagery of the preceding section of the text, it is made clear: Jesus is the Light.
So, John was called by God – authorized by God – to be a pastor – to be a witness to Jesus – and especially, Who He is and all He would do. And the reason he was called to be a witness was so people would hear his testimony about Jesus and believe that Jesus is the Promised Savior.
We are all called to be witnesses to Jesus and His Gospel, are we not? We are not all called to be pastors, but we are all called to be witnesses. We did not know Jesus when He was on earth two thousand years ago, but we have met Him through the Word and the Sacraments. We are witnesses to what God has said and convicted us to be the truth. We cannot say that we knew Jesus in Israel all those years ago, but we can say that we know Him now – that we have, truly, met Him in the Word and through the Sacraments. We know Who He is and why He came. And we are called to be witnesses – like John the Baptist – to Jesus and His Gospel so people would hear our witness about Jesus and, if God is pleased, they will believe that Jesus is the Promised Savior – the Only Way to salvation – the Only Way to be right with God.
As Christians we are called to be witnesses to Jesus and His Gospel – not, “look what Jesus did for me,” but, “see Who Jesus is and what He has done.” While our “personal testimony” might be interesting, our call is to witness – to give the facts – of Jesus – Who He is and what He has done that all who believe will be saved.
“And [Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16, ESV).
Again, Jesus said to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV).
We have been called by God to be witnesses to Jesus and His Gospel – to the One Way of salvation – as those who have met Jesus and know Who He is and what He has done to make all those who believe right with God.
And John the Baptist was called by God to be a witness to Jesus and His Gospel – to the One Way of salvation – as one who knew Jesus and knew Who He was and why He came and what He would do to make all those who believe right with God.
In the next section of text that we read, we see John the Baptist’s authority being questioned. He was the son of Zechariah the priest, but John was not serving in the Temple – he was living in the wilderness – dressed like a prophet – eating foods like a prophet – and now he was exercising rites that ought to have authority behind them. He was baptizing and calling Jews to repentance in a new and strange way – outside of the Temple, and a delegation was sent by the Pharisees to find out where he got his authority to do this.
Now, we tend to have a bad taste in our mouths when we talk about the Pharisees – and the word “Pharisee” has come into our language to mean a hypocrite. But that is not how all the Pharisees were – and that was not the intent of those who became Pharisees.
The word “Pharisee” means “set apart one.” The Pharisees originated out of the conviction of God’s call to holiness. So these men “set themselves apart” to study the Law of God and to commit their lives to living God’s Law as perfectly as possible – down to the most minor detail. But, some of the Pharisees became misled or corrupted – adding to God’s Law and creating loopholes for themselves. That is how those who persecuted Jesus came to be – through the corruption of the original intent to be holy as God has commanded.
We are called to be holy as God is holy. We are to strive towards keeping all of God’s Law and being pleasing in His Sight in every way. Although we are forgiven for all of our sins through Jesus’ Work that is not an excuse to say we do not have to strive for holiness. We are still called to be holy. And some today – like the Pharisees who went astray – have twisted that and added to God’s Word – burdening people with things God never commanded.
And so, today, we are to strive to be holy – to keep all of God’s Word and Law. We are not to say it doesn’t matter because Jesus has forgiven us. Yet, we are not to add things to God’s Law that God never said or commanded.
For example, God commands us not to steal. So we are not to take anything that doesn’t belong to us, and we are to work to support ourselves and honestly earn a living and work to provide for ourselves for when we cannot work. It does not mean that we must live lives of poverty. It does not mean that everybody has to have the same amount of stuff. And Jesus’ payment of the debt of our sins does not mean that it is alright for us to steal – to take things that don’t belong to us.
Now, the Pharisees sent a delegation to find out by what authority John the Baptist was calling Jews to repentance and baptizing them:
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed,”
Notice the repetition: John confessed, he did not deny, he confessed. Remember that emphasis in the Scripture in shown through repetition. Normal emphasis was saying something once. Strong emphasis was saying something twice. The ultimate emphasis was saying something three times. So, it is noted for us that John made his confession to those who were questioning him with the ultimate emphasis. He confessed, he did not deny, he confessed. Triple repetition.
“’I am not the Christ.’”
There had not been a prophet of God in four hundred years. The Christ – the Messiah – the Savior had not yet come. The nation was occupied by the Roman Empire. Some who heard about John and his prophet-like clothing and diet and strange rites at the Jordan wondered if he might be the Savior they were waiting for. But John told them without hesitation – “No, I am not the Christ.”
“And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’”
There was a misunderstanding about the prophecy of Malachi. Malachi said:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall 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 shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4, ESV).
Some had understand this to mean that Elijah was going to come back from the dead – that he was going to be resurrected – before the coming of the Savior. So, John answers their question, “No, I am not Elijah.”
Yet, we might have expected John to say, “Yes, I am Elijah.”
We may remember what the angel of the Lord told Zechariah about his son, John: “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared’” (Luke 1:13-17, ESV).
The angel of the Lord, on behalf of God, affirmed that John was the prophesied coming of Elijah – that was confirmed by Jesus, Himself, as well – as we saw last week.
John was the coming of Elijah in spirit and power, but he was not the resurrected Elijah, himself. So, that is why John told them “no.”
“Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
Was John one of the other great prophets raised from the dead? No.
“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?’”
By what authority was John doing these things? If he was not the Christ and he was not the resurrected Elijah – or any of the other prophets resurrected – who gave him the authority to do these things – to call Jews – the children of Abraham – to repent and be baptized in the Jordan River?
“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’”
What was John saying?
John was declaring to them: “I am the forerunner of the Christ that Isaiah prophesied about. My authority comes from God – I am the fulfillment of prophecy.”
And before we say, “Well, that wasn’t fair. Why didn’t he just give them a straight answer instead of quoting Scripture? How were they supposed to know what he meant?” Let us remember who was asking the question: priests and Levites on behalf of the Pharisees. These were men who spent their whole lives studying the Word of God – pouring over it, memorizing it, learning everything God had said – these were highly educated people in the Word of God and they should have understood.
But they didn’t get it:
“(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?’”
They missed it – the people of all people who should have understood what John was saying didn’t get it. They were still in blind unbelief – they didn’t see. So they asked him again – who gave you the authority to baptize like this if you are not the Christ, or the resurrected Elijah, or one of the other prophets resurrected?
“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.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
John points out the problem:
“I am the witness to the Light; I am the forerunner of the Christ. He is so much greater than I; I am not worthy to untie His filthy sandals. The Christ is here! He’s been around you. Some of you know Him from town and had seen Him in the Temple. But you are so blinded by your unbelief and false perceptions and corruptions to the Word of God that you don’t see Him! God has come to earth in the person of Jesus, Who is the Christ – but you are dead in your sin and you don’t recognize Him. The Christ is here!”
How heart-wrenching must it have been for John to witness to the Light – to Jesus the Christ – before the leaders of the Church in Israel and have them not understand at all?
Are our hearts broken when we tell people Who Jesus is and what He did to make all those who believe right with God – and they don’t get it? It should break our hearts. It should cause us to weep and cry out to God that He would open minds and hearts and eyes that they would believe!
We are witnesses to the Light – and the testimony of a true witness does not change – the Gospel message does not change. We do not need to find gimmicks to lure people in and trick them into belief. We don’t need to focus more on ourselves and on the “felt needs” of our neighbors. We need to tell people that they are at odds with God and the only way to be right with God is through believing that God came to earth in the person of Jesus, lived a perfect life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would every believe, physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne.
We are witnesses to the Light! All we who believe have met Jesus spiritually through the Word and the Sacraments. We know Who He is and what He has done. We believe that He Alone is the Only Way to Salvation. We repent of our sins and strive to grow in obedience to God and in our faith.
Do the people you know and love believe? Have you witnessed Who Jesus is and what He has done to them?
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for the witnesses in our lives that have pointed us to Jesus and His salvation. We thank You for causing us to believe and for calling us, now, to be witnesses to Jesus and His salvation. Fill us with the Power of the Holy Spirit to be faithful servants who tell others Who Jesus is and what He has done. Don’t let us rest or be satisfied until all the world knows that Jesus is the Christ. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.