Second Reformed Church

Sunday, February 01, 2015

"Who Are You?" Sermon: John 1:19-28

“Who Are You?”

[John 1:19-28]

February 1, 2015 (January 18, 2015) Second Reformed Church

            Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God – the Promised One Way of Salvation – the Revealing of God in the flesh to all who believe in Him.

            We turn to look at the forerunner of Jesus this morning – His cousin, John the Baptist.

            “And this is the testimony of John,”

            We will remember that John the Baptist was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the high priest.  Elizabeth and Zechariah were older people, and Elizabeth was known to be barren – she did not have any children and she could not bear children.  But God sent the angel, Gabriel, to announce that God was going to open the womb of Elizabeth for a special purpose.

            “And there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 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 1:11-17, ESV).

            God opened the womb of Elizabeth, and she bore John the Baptist.  And God said through Gabriel, that John the Baptist would be an important person who would bring joy.  He would be indwelt by God the Holy Spirit, even while he was in the womb – we will remember that when Mary went to visit Elizabeth, John jumped for joy in the womb since he was in the presence of the Savior, Who was in Mary’s womb.  John would minister in the “spirit and power of Elijah” – fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi – that Elijah would return before the Day of the Lord – and John would turn the people back to God and prepare them for the coming of God the Savior.

            John was around thirty at the time of our text, and he was baptizing Jews who were repentant of their sins.  Although there were washing ceremonies in Judaism, it was understood that only Gentiles – non-Jews – needed to be baptized as part of their conversion to Judaism.  Jews had Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the goats were sacrificed for the sins of Israel.

            John’s baptism was attracting hordes of Jews, and word got back to the Pharisees who wanted an explanation as to why he was baptizing Jews and as to where his authority was from.  The only explanation they could think of – which was almost right – was that he was someone from the past who had been resurrected, or that he was the Christ – the Promised Savior, or that he was entering the Levitical priesthood of his father, Zechariah.

            And so they sent a large delegation of priests and Levites to interrogate him.

            We see, first, this morning, that the delegation came with impure motives.

            “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”

            If the Pharisees wanted to know who John was and by what authority he was baptizing Jews, they could have sent a single person – or two or three – to interview him and report back – but they didn’t:  they sent a large delegation, from which we can infer that they did not believe that John was acting with proper authority.  He was taking people away from the Temple and the work of the Pharisees, Levites, and priests.  They came – not merely for an explanation – but to shut him down.

            This understanding is supported by the way that John reacted to their coming to the Jordan at all.  Matthew records:

            “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

            “’I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’” (Matthew 3:7-12, ESV).

            When John saw them, he was angry, and he exposed their impious motives in coming to him.  He warned them that they were teetering on divine condemnation and warned them of the work of the Savior.

            Still, they proceeded in asking him who he was – with the underlying question of, “Who gave you the authority to baptize Jews?”

            Second, the delegation came with wrong expectations.  They had in mind a very few possible reasons why what he was doing would be acceptable – they only missed the right one.

“He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’”

The delegation came to see a man of power, who was dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and honey.  He looked and acted like a prophet, but there hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for over four hundred years.  Their conclusion was that he must be the Christ – the Savior God promised to send.

But John denied that immediately and strongly.

We remember that in ancient Hebrew, they didn’t use words like “very” for emphasis, but repeated what they were saying to emphasize the point, and so John said, “No, absolutely not, I am not the Christ.”

 “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’”

They knew that the prophet Malachi had prophesied the return of Elijah before the coming of the Savior, but they thought this meant that he would rise from the dead.  That is why they asked him if he was Elijah – if he was the resurrected prophet.  And again, John said, “no.”

 “’Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’”

It’s not clear whether they had a specific prophet in mind, but they were again asking if he was some other prophet resurrected from the dead.  And again, John said, “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?’”

They were obviously aggravated by this point.  So they put it to him, “Who are you?  We have people to answer to, laws to uphold, and duties to perform.  Tell us who you are and by what authority you are baptizing, so we can tell those who sent us and decide how to deal with you.”

“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.’”

            “I am the voice of preparation that the prophet, Isaiah, prophesied would come.”

            Now, today, if we heard that, we might think that was an unfair answer – it doesn’t really say much, does it?  However, these were the experts in the Law of God – they knew God’s Word forwards and backwards, and they should have understood what he was saying.

            The prophet Isaiah was addressing the exiles in Babylon when he wrote:

            “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, ESV).

            Isaiah was relaying God’s hope to the people in exile – that the exile was going to end, and that God was sending “the voice” – who was John the Baptist – to call the people to repentance of their sin in preparation for the coming Savior Who would reveal God to them.

            Jesus later confirmed that this is who John the Baptist was:

            “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

            “’”Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”

            “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear’” (Matthew 11:7-15, ESV).

            The delegation should have understood that John was authorized by God to do what he was doing as the one God prophesied would come to prepare the people for the coming of the Savior – Jesus.  But they were blinded.

            Third, the delegation had a wrong understanding of sin and baptism.

            “(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 didn’t understand the seriousness of sin.  They didn’t understand that Yom Kippur was not enough to make the people sinless, much less holy.  They were forgiven in the moment, but they still bore their sin nature, and within a moment, they sinned again, and they were back under the condemnation of God.

            They thought they could be saved by their works.  They thought if they kept the Law meticulously – and they did – it would be enough to be eternally forgiven, but it is not – for any sin is too much sin to be received by the Holy God.  God cannot stand any sin in His Presence, but banishes it from Him eternally in the end.

            They knew they were better than most people, and they thought that was good enough.  Many people feel that way today – but to say that is either to not understand the depths of the evil of sin or to not understand the heights of the Holiness of God – or both.

            They thought baptism was a ritual to bring the Gentiles – the non-Jews – into Judaism – but, as John the Baptist shows and we understand from the whole of the Scripture – baptism exposes us as sinners and symbolically portrays the only way to become clean – to be forgiven – to be right in God’s Sight.

            How is baptism administered?  Someone other than the one being baptism pours water over the person seeking to be baptized.  No one baptizes himself.  This symbolizes that salvation can only come by Someone Else making us clean – forgiving us – making us right in the Eyes of God.  Baptism does not save a person; it shows that a person must be saved by Someone Else.

            In theological language, we would say that John’s baptism mortifies – it shows the way that sin is to be put to death – by Someone Other than the person being baptized.

            They didn’t get it.

            Fourth, the delegation had a wrong understanding of the Savior.

            “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 explained that his baptism was with water – it did not save anyone – but pointed to Someone Else Who would make those who believe right with God.

            John explained to them that there was Someone in their midst – Someone they had seen – Someone they knew – Someone they had seen in the market place and in the Temple – Someone they should have noticed! – the One Who comes after John to take up the work of baptizing – but He is greater than John – so much greater that he was not worthy to untie the filthy strap of His sandals.

            Remember – in those days, most people walked on the dirt roads, and the animals walked on the dirt roads, so people’s feet and sandals would have been covered with dirt and animal refuse.  And John said he was not worthy – it would be too high an honor for him – to untie the filthy sandal of the One Who comes after him.

            Something similar today would be to say that it would be too high an honor for you to clean someone’s toilet.  Get it?

            Earlier, we mentioned Matthew’s account of this event, and John said of Jesus – the One coming after him, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

            In theological language, we would say that Jesus’ baptism vivifies – Jesus’ baptism brings to life. 

            John’s baptism – which is one of the Sacraments – is for all people who confess that they are sinners and unable to make themselves right with God – and the Sacrament of Baptism is one of the visible signs of the Gospel approved by our God and Savior which shows that they only way to be right with God is for Someone Else to make a person right with God.

            Jesus’ baptism is received by all those who believe in Him savingly – by all those who believe the Gospel.  And His baptism has two parts – fire – it purifies a person – removing their sin from them – Jesus takes our sin and its punishment upon Himself, and the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit – Who leads us in becoming holy – in growing and perfecting faith and obedience to God – as Jesus’ perfect sinless and holy life is credited to us and we grow in it – to be fully received on the final day.

            Jesus’ baptism is a spiritual baptism in which Jesus forgives our sins through His suffering and death, and credits His Righteousness – His sinless and holy life to us – for He lived such a life and gives us its credit as our Substitute before God.

            The savior many of the Pharisees was looking for was one like themselves – a scholar-king who would keep separate from sinners and overthrow the Roman government, restoring the kingdom to Israel.

            But God’s plan was not that small.  God’s plan was to send His Son for all those who would believe in Him – to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil to provide the Enteral Kingdom for all those who believe.

            Why did you come to the worship service this morning?

            Did you come with impure motivations?

            What did you expect would happen?

            Did you come for bells and whistles and lightshows?

            Do you understand that you are a sinner and there is nothing you can do about it?

            Did you think your baptism saved you, so you can do whatever you want now?

            What savior do you believe in?

            Did you come thinking that Jesus would make you healthy and wealthy?

            Or did you come this morning to acknowledge that you have been an unprofitable servant, and there is nothing you can do to be made right with God?

            Did you come to ask God for forgiveness and to hear what He has to say in His Word, intending to receive it by faith and obey that your joy in Jesus would be full?

            Who do you think you are?

            Let us pray:

            Almighty God, we thank You for sending John to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, our God and Savior.  We thank You for the Sacrament of Baptism in which we confess our sins and acknowledge that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  We thank You for sending Jesus that He would be the Substitute of all those who would believe in Him and His Gospel that we would be forgiven for our sins, be made right in Your Eyes, and grow in holiness under the guidance and by the Power of God the Holy Spirit Who lives in us, until that final day when Jesus returns and glorifies us and brings us into the Kingdom of Life and Light.  Lord, help us not to lose sight of these things, and lead on, O King Eternal.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

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