“Who am I?” That’s a question that every person at one time, no, many times during our lives, asks of ourselves. “Who am I?” It’s a question that people from all walks of life ask themselves. Earlier this month, Selena Gomez, who was the star of the Disney Channel’s, Wizards of Waverly Place, and has gone on to become an actress in movies as well as a singer, turned 21. When asked about turning 21, Selena told, Life & Style Magazine, “I feel like sometimes I am 15 in my heart. Sometimes I just go in waves of being a child and being an adult. It’s awkward. I am growing up. I am just trying to figure out who I am.” You would think that if anyone knew who they were and what they were doing that it would be Selena. She’s a star! She is adored by people all over the world. The question, “Who am I?” goes much deeper than simply being known and having success.
Another well-known celebrity, Taylor Swift, when she was just 16 years old recorded her very first album, Taylor Swift. She wrote a song for the album called, A Place in This World, in which she confesses.
I don’t know what I want. So don’t ask me ’cause I’m still trying to figure it out. Don’t know what’s down this road. I’m just walking, trying to see through the rain coming down. Even though I’m not the only one who feels the way I do. I’m alone, on my own, and that’s all I know. I’ll be strong, I’ll be wrong. Oh, but life goes on. Oh, I’m just a girl trying to find a place in this world. (Taylor Swift. A Place in This World.)
During this past week I’ve read the notes, questions, and confessions of lots of folks on different websites who are trying to find the answer to the question, “Who am I?” Teenagers who are so young and impressionable, one man who is 55 years old and a successful lawyer, a stay-at-home mom who is overwhelmed, and the list goes on and on. “Who am I?” All of us are trying to figure that out.
In our Scripture for today, John the Baptist isn’t trying to figure out who he is, but it seems like everyone around him wants to know, “Who are you?” Let’s read our Scripture for today found in John 1:19-28.
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28 NIV)
We can learn so much about John the Baptist if we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, in his Gospel, gives us very little information about the person of John the Baptist, but by the time we get to the end of our study I’m certain that you will be convinced that is exactly the way that John the Baptist would’ve had it.
In verse 19 we learn that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to question John the Baptist. The Jewish leaders who sent a committee to interview John were probably members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme ruling body in Israel who served under the Romans. They sent “priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” The priests were the link between God and humanity, they represented the people before God, and they led all of the religious worship of the Israelites. The priests were the spiritual leaders for the people of Israel. When they were not serving at the temple, each priest served a two week period during the year, they lived throughout Israel serving as shepherds of God’s people and teaching them from God’s Word. Levites belonged to the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. In Jesus’ day they assisted the priests in their work at the temple, by serving primarily as musicians and temple police.
John the Baptist was a Levite and his father, Zechariah, was a priest who served in the temple. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were childless. One day, while Zechariah the priest was serving at the temple, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him. Turn with me to Luke 1:8-13 and let’s read together.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. (Luke 1:8-13 NIV)
Those who came to quiz John were concerned. He didn’t fit into what they were accustomed to. He was a priest’s son, but he was going about preaching and baptizing folks, not serving at the temple. So they asked him, “Who are you?” John emphatically confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” The Jews were looking for the Messiah, anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah to right the wrongs that the Romans had foisted upon the Jews. Some Jews were expecting a Messiah who would be a great leader, like David, to free the Jews from the bondage of the Romans while others, like the folks in Qumran, expected a priestly Messiah, more of spiritual leader. John made it clear that he was not the One they were looking for.
The priests and the Levites pressed John for an answer, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” We need to understand where the religious leaders came up with that question because it makes no sense to us who are so far removed from the life and expectations of the Jews who lived in Jesus’ day.
The last book of the Hebrew Bible is Malachi. The last words from the prophet Malachi are a promise from God. Turn to Malachi 4:5-6 with me and I will show you what I’m talking about. Let’s read it together.
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6 NIV)
And following these words the people of Israel didn’t hear from God again for 400 years. Malachi was the last of the prophets in Israel until John the Baptist stepped onto the scene. Make no mistake about it, God was still working, but the period between the close of the Hebrew Bible and the first shout of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” is called, “The silent years.” For generations the Jews had been awaiting the day that God would send Elijah. Elijah wore a hairy garment and a leather belt around his waist. We know this from reading about the time Ahaziah sent some of his men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if he would recover from an injury he had suffered. God told Elijah to go and meet those men and deliver a message to the King from the Lord. After Elijah had spoken to the men they returned to the King. Take a look at 2 Kings 1:7-8 with me.
7 The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?” 8 They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:7-8 NIV)
We learn from the prophet Zechariah that many false prophets had dressed like Elijah to try and deceive the people (Zechariah 13:4). When John the Baptist arrived on the scene he was wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist (Mark 1:6). Not only did John the Baptist dress like Elijah, but he sounded like the prophet calling for the people to repent of their sins. No wonder the priests and Levites asked the question, “Are you Elijah?” John the Baptist said, “I am not.”
The religious leaders kept pressing John the Baptist. “Are you the prophet?” Once again, we need to understand that the priests and Levites weren’t just making up questions to throw at John. They took their questions from things they had learned from the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses tells the people that God will raise up a prophet, who will be like Moses, and who will speak the Word of God to the people. Read along with me beginning in verse 15.
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” 17 The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18 NIV)
For generations the Jews believed that the prophet, who would come from God, would be a person who would usher in the end times. The Samaritans even believed that the prophet who would come from God would be the Messiah. Was John the One they had been longing for, waiting for, expecting for such a long time? John simply said, “No.”
I’ve been thinking about these questions posed to John the Baptist all week long. It was his big opportunity to seize the spotlight wasn’t it? All of the folks in the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem were heading out to the desert to see John the Baptist. We learn about this in Mark 1:4-5.
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Mark 1:4-5 NIV)
He had them in the palm of his hand. Now was the time to capture the limelight and make a name for himself. Isn’t that the aim of our existence? To be noticed. To become famous? Messiah? Elijah? The prophet? Those are three pretty good options for John and yet he said, “No, I’m not!” So the religious leaders asked him one more time,
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'” (John 122-23 NIV)
“What do you say about yourself?” That’s a great question for all of us. “What do you say about yourself? Who are you?” Are you making a name for yourself? Have you already made a name for yourself? Do you aspire to make a name for yourself? John didn’t stutter when asked the question, “What do you say about yourself?” but he answered in a way that few would answer. John said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” They wanted to know what significance John placed on his ministry. What’s your claim to fame? John simply said, “I’m not the Messiah, I’m not Elijah, and I’m not even the Prophet. I’m merely the voice of one calling in the wilderness.” They had been trying to figure out who John was based upon things they had learned from the Hebrew Bible and the lessons shared by their rabbis through the years. John answers them by taking them back to the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 40:3 we read a prophecy about the coming glory of God’s Kingdom and the preparation that must take place. Isaiah writes,
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3 NIV)
In the prophecy of Isaiah the people are called to level the way for the coming of the king. John saw himself as the voice calling people to prepare themselves because the King has come.
It’s interesting that John’s response to the religious leaders is reported in all four of the Gospels in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, and Luke 3:4. John the Baptist’s confession tells us much about what John thought about himself. Leon Morris writes,
The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatever. He is not an important person, like a prophet or the Messiah. He is no more than a voice (contrast the reference to Jesus as ‘the Word.’) He is a voice, moreover, with but one thing to say… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ is a call to be ready, for the coming of the Messiah is near.” (Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. pg. 137)
If John’s confession wasn’t enough to show you who John knew himself to be and what he was all about, then take a look at verse 27 with me as John shines the spotlight on Jesus. John says,
27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:27 NIV)
All of the great teachers had disciples, followers who desired nothing more than to glean from the teachings of their great rabbi. It was fully expected that these disciples would serve their rabbi. In 239 A.D., Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, wrote, “Every service which a slave performs for his master, a disciple will perform for his teacher, except to untie his sandal-strap.” The most demeaning work of a household slave was tending to the feet of his master. This work was reserved for the lowliest slave in the house. John the Baptist, instead of saying, “I would be willing to even clean my Master’s feet,” says, “I’m not even worthy to tend to my Master’s feet.”
In John 3, we read about a time when John the Baptist’s followers were really upset because people who use to follow John were now following Jesus. John the Baptist said, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30 NIV)
This is such an important truth for all of us who are followers of Jesus. “He must become greater and we must become less.” Those who are not followers of Jesus hear that and think that it is absurd, that we must suffer from low self-esteem, or that those are just empty religious words that we say, but don’t really mean. After all, everyone wants to be recognized right?!
Do you remember when we ran into John the Baptist earlier in John’s Gospel? Go back to John 1:6-9 with me and let’s refresh our memory. Let’s read it together.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9 NIV)
Why did John come? He didn’t come to make a name for himself. He came to shine the spotlight on Jesus. In verse 7, John tells us, “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” The Greek word that is used for “witness” and “testify” is the same word except that one is in the noun form and the other is in the verb form. This word is also the same word used in John 1:19 where we read,
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. (John 1:19 NIV)
John the Baptist saw himself as a witness who was called by God to testify to the glorious truth of the coming of the Messiah. John, the writer of the Gospel we are studying, saw himself as a witness as well. When he wrote his first Epistle he testified concerning the Good News. Read along with me in 1 John 5:11.
11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 John 5:11 NIV)
That’s the Gospel boiled down to one sentence isn’t it? “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” It is so vitally important for you and me to recognize that the call to be a witness is not reserved for those people we read about in God’s Word or to those in our day who call themselves evangelists or preachers. Throughout history God has called His people, all of His people, to share what has been passed down to them, to share God’s saving work accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and to share how His one life has redeemed, reconciled, and restored them. Those early followers of Jesus were compelled to make their Lord and Savior known to the society in which they lived.
The problem that we face in America today is that we, the followers of Jesus, have concluded that witnessing, making Jesus known, is the job of professional preachers and teachers—it’s the job of the church staff to talk about Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let me ask you a question—“How did you come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life?” Was it at a Billy Graham Crusade, Women of Faith event, a Christian concert, at the Pastor’s invitation following a Sunday morning service, or was it a friend, co-worker, grandmother, parent, coach, teacher, or neighbor who led you to Christ? I would bet that for the vast majority of us we came to know Jesus because someone was burdened to testify to us, to share Jesus with us. The great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, once said, “If this world is going to be reached, I am convinced that it must be done by men and women of average talent.” That may not sound very impressive, but remember, our goal is not impress others with ourselves—our goal is to be a witness, for Jesus to increase.
Make Him known where you live, with your family. Make Him known where you work, with your co-workers. Make Him known where you go to school, with your classmates. Make Him known to your teammates. Make Him known to those you do business with, to those you go to church with, and with everyone the Lord brings across your path. This has been the call upon the lives of God’s people for all time. Tertullian, one of the great Church Fathers, wrote in 200 A.D.
We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temple of your gods. (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 37)
What Tertullian was stressing to his hearers was that the followers of Jesus were not an old, established movement, but they had invaded every corner of society except for the pagan temples. They were making Jesus known everywhere. It needs to be pointed out, the followers of Jesus oftentimes made Him known while paying a great price. What is holding us back from boldly sharing with others the Good News about Jesus and how He is transforming our lives? Are we concerned with our reputation? Are we concerned that we might get something wrong, that we don’t know enough to share? Tell your story. Are we concerned that others might reject us? That we might lose business, or clients, or friends? Whatever our concern is, if we are convinced that what we’ve been learning is true, that Jesus is God who has come to save us from our sins and reconcile us to Himself through His death on the cross, then nothing should prevent us from sharing this truth with others.
Before you can share the Good News you must first receive the Good News. Have you surrendered your life to the Lord? Have you confessed to Him that you know you are a sinner and that His grace alone can save you? Won’t you do that this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
June 23, 2013