Dr. Stephen Nichols begins his new book A Time for Confidence with the following illustration:
Henry Wanyoike was a Kenyan distance runner. Usually distance runners peak in their 30’s and some even continue to peak into their 40’s. Henry though, at 21 years old, was only 10 seconds off world record pace for the 5K and 10K. Before long it seemed the whole nation could see the bright future in front of him. But one night everything changed for Henry Wanyoike. In May 1995 he had a stroke and lost his sight. Having lost his eyesight he grew depressed and stopped running until he went to a school for the blind where he was encouraged to take it up again. At first he stumbled and fell even with people helping him, but eventually he found his bearings. In a few years time Henry had made waves again setting world records at the Paralympic Games and World Championships in the 5K and 10K. In 2005 he set another world record, this time in the London marathon, only to beat his own record again seven days later in Hamburg, Germany. Since these world records he has held political office in Kenya and has done much to raise awareness for the blind. Henry’s story of perseverance still inspires many Kenyans and many others around the world. He was recently interviewed by Runner’s World magazine and was asked the key to his success and he told them this, “Vision is more powerful than sight.”
“Vision is more powerful than sight.” You know, I read that this past week and thought ‘many people see Jesus and see nothing at all. I long for people to catch the vision of Him as He really is!’ Where are you this morning? Have you seen Jesus and seen little? Or have you been wrecked and reoriented by the vision of who He really is? In our text today we come face to face with a man who not only saw Jesus but had been gripped with the vision of who He really is and had come to proclaim it to all who would hear.
Follow along as I read our passage for this morning, John 1:19-34.
Up until this point in John chapter 1 we have only heard John the Apostle’s testimony about who Jesus is and what He came to do. Now beginning in v19 we hear the testimony of John the Baptist, and his testimony covers a two day span. On day one (v19-28) we see the Baptist interacting with the Jews. On day two (v29-34) we see the Baptist interacting with Jesus. We’ll use these two days as our two headings today.
Day One: John with the Jews (v19-28)
In our day not much is made of John the Baptist. We may wonder at his wild clothing of camel hair and even wilder diet of honey covered locusts, but beyond that we don’t pay much more attention to him than that. It was a different story in the first century. You see, going all the way back to Moses the nation of Israel had a long history of prophets. Men who functioned as the mouthpiece of God among the people of God. Well, the last man in this long line of prophets was a man named Malachi, and after Malachi’s ministry there had been silence from God for 400 years. Can you imagine what that would’ve been like? There was always a prophet of God, but then comes 400 years of nothing. As the Israelites in Egypt wondered if they’d ever know freedom again after 400 years of slavery, the later Israelites probably wondered if God would ever speak to them again after 400 years of silence. But then came a bizarre figure from the desert named John the Baptist who preached a bizarre message saying, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because He was before me” (John 1:15). Right before Jesus came onto the scene John’s ministry gained a massive following as he preached about the One greater than himself. Matthew chapter 3 tells us of this massive following when he says most of Jerusalem, Judea, and all around the region of the Jordan river came out to follow John. And John began baptizing them to prepare them for the Messiah to come, and the religious leaders of the day grew suspicious and inquisitive. They simply could not ignore him.
In v19 the Jews (who in v24 we find out to be the Pharisees) sent a group of religious leaders to John the Baptist and they asked “Who are you?” The phrase in v20 “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed” may sound strange to our modern ears but in the original Greek to begin and end a phrase with the same word is a way to convey a strong emphasis. So what did John want to strongly emphasize? “I am not the Christ.” Even though the Jewish leaders didn’t ask if he was the Christ or the Messiah, commentator Leon Morris says “John discerned the drift of the inquiry.” John knew the time in which he lived, that it was a time ripe with Messianic expectation, and so he answered the question they were really asking and confessed, “I am not the Christ.” These religious leaders were scholars in their own right, they knew Malachi 4:5 foretold that before the great and awesome day of the Lord God would send Elijah so they asked, “Are you Elijah?” John said, “I am not.” You should know that some think John is lying here. They think this because an angel told John’s father that his son would come in the power and spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17) and even Jesus said John represented Elijah (Matt. 11:14). Perplexing yes, lying? No. Think of it like this, the Jewish leaders believed God would physically send Elijah back before the Messiah came, and John isn’t Elijah. But his ministry carries with it an Elijah-esq tone because he is the forerunner to Jesus. So there truly is a sense in which John is Elijah and a sense in which he is not. Well, the leaders are clearly a bit frustrated at John’s responses so they ask again, “Are you the Prophet?” Notice they didn’t ask “Are you a prophet?” but “Are you THE Prophet?” They want to know if he’s the Messiah, the long awaited Prophet to come. John’s answer gets even shorter this time and he just says, “No.”
Angered by now, the leaders say what you’d expect them say, “Who are you? We have to give an answer to those who sent us.” John’s next answer is telling. In order to tell them who he is John quotes Isaiah 40:3, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” In it’s original context Isaiah 40:3 refers to the voice of one calling the people of Israel back home from their exile. John uses this passage to state that he is the ultimate fulfillment of this passage, that he is the long awaited voice who prepares the way for the long awaited Prophet who will bring God’s people back home from their greater exile through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. F.F. Bruce comments on this passage saying, “The redemption which Christ was to accomplish was now on the eve of its appearance, and it was John’s high honor to be the voice announcing its near approach.”
To say this group of religious leaders was unsatisfied with John’s answers is probably fitting. John’s answers weren’t what they were looking for, but who John was wasn’t the only thing that they were wondering about. They also wanted to know why he was baptizing. So in v25 they ask their next question, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Surely someone with this large of a following and someone baptizing others has to hold, or think he holds, some kind of authority. They were in effect asking, “Whose authority gives you the right to baptize?” The clarity of John’s answers stand out remarkably against the backdrop of the masked interrogations from the Jewish leaders. In v26-27 John begins to unfold his lowly position and the exalted position of the One who’s soon to come. He says “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.”
You ever heard or used the expression ‘don’t miss the forest for the trees?’ It’s a common expression meant to convey that sometimes we can get so caught up with the details of a thing that we miss the larger picture of what’s really happening. One who is missing the forest for the trees is someone who needs to take a step back and get a wider glimpse of things. That’s the argument John is making with these Jewish leaders. Their concerned with John and his doings when something and Someone infinitely greater than John is already here. But the more John tells them about this coming One they don’t know but ought to know, the more questions they ask about him and his baptizing. The illustration John uses is pointed. In the first century it was the slaves job to untie the straps of sandals. It was one of the lowliest of duties because of the all mess and junk people walked through in the streets. John says ‘the One who is coming is so great, so grand, and so lofty that I’m not even worthy to untie His sandals.’ Thus ends the events of day one.
Day Two: John with Jesus (v29-34)
I want to begin describing day two in v32-33 because there we learn something of what John the Baptist had been told by God concerning Jesus. In v32-33 John says, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” We learn here that John the Baptist was told by God to go and baptize with water, and that while he’s baptizing he was to be on the look out for the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Someone like a dove. That will be the Christ, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. So, when John commenced his baptizing he was eagerly awaiting this moment…and finally the day came. It was and some 40 days before this event in v29-34 but it would be a baptism John would never forget. A Man named Jesus had come to be baptized by John and as Jesus stood in the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, the Father’s voice sounded for all to hear, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17). John would never forget that day. Having experienced that moment with Jesus then is what leads to this event with Jesus here. Like I said some 40 days had passed since then and John is still baptizing. He then sees Jesus coming toward him and in v29 John proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
The idea of a Lamb was very familiar to many in this first century culture. Each year there were multiple events for those who were Jews, some daily, where a lamb was sacrificed on the altar within the temple for the sins of the people. And each year every Jewish family participated in the greatest of those celebrations, the Passover, when they remembered how God saved them out of slavery in Egypt by the death of a lamb who absorbed the wrath of God in their place as their substitute. By pointing to Jesus and calling Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” John takes this familiar lamb imagery and places it upon a Jesus Himself. So see here something often unnoticed. At the very beginning of His ministry do you see that Jesus’ death is already in view? He has just begun and even here we get a glimpse that this One will one day absorb God’s wrath on behalf of all who would one day place their faith in Him.
The testimony the Baptist gave earlier to the Jewish leaders about the soon to be Christ he now applies to the present Christ in v30, “This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because He was before me.” John even didn’t know Him once, but at His baptism and now here again before all those present the nature of Jesus and the scope of His work is revealed. So, naturally John the Baptist concludes his testimony in v34 saying, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Recall that we began today with the blind Kenyan runner who said, “Vision is more powerful than sight.” Such a statement rings true for Christians in our generation. We live in a time when the truth claims of Christianity are becoming unpopular and more and more politically incorrect. This can sometimes bring a pressure to be more of a surface level or cultural Christian than a kind of Christian who holds deep convictions and is gripped with a boldness like John the Baptist. Yet, in spite of such cultural pressure, we have a need for confidence. I want to end by making an appeal to you to gain a true and rich vision of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist knew who Jesus was, I want you to know too. Not just know Him as in knowing about Him, but knowing Him in the experience of your hearts.
The following words come from a man named J.C. Ryle in 1888. They are just as applicable today as they were then. Through them may God grant you to see who Jesus really is, or can be for you:
“I set before you Jesus Christ this day, as the treasury of your souls, and I invite you to begin by going to Him, if you would so run as to obtain. Let this be your first step – go to Christ. Do you want to consult friends? He is the best friend, ‘a friend that sticks closer than a brother’ (Prov. 18:24). Do you feel unworthy because of your sins? Fear not, His blood cleanses from all sin, ‘Though your sins be like scarlet, you shall white as snow; though they are like crimson, you shall become like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). Do you feel weak, and unable to follow Him? Fear not, He will give you power to become sons and daughters of God. He will give you the Holy Spirit to dwell in you, and seal you for His own. A new heart will He give you, and a new spirit He will put within you. Are you troubled or harassed with extraordinary difficulties? Fear not, there is no disease of soul that He cannot heal. Do you feel doubt? Cast it aside, ‘Come to Me’ He says (Matt. 11:28); ‘he who comes to Me I will by no means cast away’ (John 6:37). He knows your heart. He knows your trials and temptations, He knows your difficulties and foes. He was once much like yourself, He knows your experience, He was tempted in all ways you are. Surely, you are without excuse today if you turn from such a Savior and Friend as this. Hear the request I make of you this day, seek to be ever-acquainted with Jesus Christ.”
For hell bound sinners like you and I this is good news indeed! John the Baptist knew it, and proclaimed it for all to hear. May God grant that you know it and are just as eager to proclaim it too.
 Nichols, Stephen, A Time for Confidence, Reformation Trust 2016, page 1-3.
 R.C. Sproul, St. Andrews Expositional Commentary – John, Reformation Trust 2009, page 7-8
 Morris, Leon, John, NICOT, page 132-133.
 F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, page 49.
 J.C. Ryle, Thoughts For Young Men, page 40-42.