The Witness of John the Baptist
John 1:19-37
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on March 2, 2008

I. Introduction

Good morning. Please turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. During my last sermon, we finished our discussion of the first eighteen verses of this chapter, verses which we refer to as John's prologue. These verses served as both an introduction and a summary of this book. The prologue is so doctrinally rich that it seemed necessary to go through it just a few verses at a time. However, from verse nineteen forward, the text takes more of a story format, so from this point forward, we will be looking at larger sections of text. Today we will be looking at the testimony of John the Baptist, which in this book occurs primarily in John 1:19-37.

But first there are some introductory matters. To avoid confusion, please note that John the Baptist and John the disciple are two different people. The author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and the book of Revelation is John the disciple. John the Baptist, on the other hand, did not write any known books. Also, please note that the word Baptist in this context is not a denomination but a practice. Thus, the baptizer is called John the Baptist, because he baptized people.

There is another introductory matter. Last time we talked about the biblical understanding of the word truth. We looked at how the Bible uses that word:

Today, we also note that the truth theme is logically connected to the idea of witness. When a witness testifies, are the words of the witness factual, is the witness fully the person he claims to be, and has the witness shown himself to be ethically faithful? When a witness speaks, we want to know whether or not the witness is telling the truth. When a witness is called to testify in court, people will seek to credit or discredit that witness based on his background, his reputation, and his testimony. The character and reliability of the witness are very important. People are less likely to believe the words of a witness who has been known to lie, and people are less likely to trust the testimony of a witness who has shown himself to be unreliable.

For these reasons, the testimony of John the Baptist is especially important. When John the Disciple uses the testimony of John the Baptist, he appeals to the words of a man who was both well-known and highly respected. When John the Baptist spoke, his words carried great weight. So when John the Baptist affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, people noticed. People took it to heart. His testimony increased their confidence that Jesus really is the Son of God.

Just as the testimony of John the Baptist strengthened their faith, it should also strengthen ours. For there is such a thing as weak faith and strong faith. And although even a weak faith is sufficient for laying hold of Christ and experiencing His saving grace, and although God is delighted to water and nourish whatever faith He has planted in our hearts, a strong faith will keep us from many errors, will sustain us with an attitude of thankfulness, will nourish our hope, and will equip us to triumph, for the glory of God, over every kind of adversity. Therefore it is my prayer that as we consider the testimony of John the Baptist this morning, our faith will be strengthened. To this end, we will now consider this witness, John the Baptist, with respect to his background, his reputation, and his testimony.

But first, let's turn to John 1:19 and read our primary text:

And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." They said then to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said." Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" John answered them saying, "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." These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.' And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water." And John bore witness saying, "I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

II. John the Baptist's Background.

A. His prediction in the Old Testament.

What is the background of John the Baptist? That John the Baptist would come was prophesied in Isaiah 40:3-5 where we read:

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."

Like many of the prophecies in Isaiah, this prophecy has a three-fold fulfillment. We look forward to a third fulfillment of this prophecy when Jesus returns to the earth. Meanwhile, it's first fulfillment was the return of Judah from exile in Babylon. It's second fulfillment was the work of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, even as John claims in John 1:23.

Another prophecy pertaining to John the Baptist was Malachi 4:5-6, "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse ." We know from John 1:21 that John the Baptist did not think he was Elijah, but Jesus clarified that it did pertain to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 when He said, "John himself is Elijah who was to come." We reconcile these passages by saying that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, which is how this was described by the angel in Luke 1:17. This is how John the Baptist was predicted in the Old Testament.

B. His parents.

Next we turn to his parents, and we learn about them in Luke 1:5-25:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.

So far, we see that John the Baptist had good parents, people who were highly commended for their righteous and blameless walk. The story continues at Luke 1:8:

Now it happened that while he [Zacharias] was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.

Something wonderful was about to happen, and it is important for us to note that it did not happen in the dark. There was a multitude of people outside who were praying, waiting to see if Zacharias' sacrifice would be accepted, waiting to see if Zacharias would emerge alive. The story continues at Luke 1:11:

And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

This news was so startling, so wonderful, that even Zacharias had trouble believing it, as the story continues at Luke 1:18:

Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." The angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time."

Thus the angel who would be very gentle with Mary when she asked, "How can these things be, since I am a virgin?" would not be so gentle with Zacharias, taking away his voice. But I believe that this was done for a broader purpose than the discipline of Zacharias. The people who were waiting outside needed to notice that something strange had happened, and they did notice, as the story continues at Luke 1:21:

The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, "This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men."

Now we take up the story at Luke 1:57 where John the Baptist is about to be born:

Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. But his mother answered and said, "No indeed; but he shall be called John." And they said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name." And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, "His name is John." And they were all astonished. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, "What then will this child turn out to be?" For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.

This is the background of John the Baptist. Not only was he born to Godly parents, but God used several miracles to convince the people that the hand of God was upon this child:

The effect of these miracles is clear. These events were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea as people looked forward to seeing the hand of God upon John the Baptist. For even from the man's birth, God had taken extraordinary measures to make the man believable.

C. His early life.

Luke 1:80 continues with this short note about John's early life, "And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel." This is the background of John the Baptist.

III. John the Baptist's Reputation

A. His reputation among people.

Next we turn to consider the reputation of John the Baptist. I believe that we find the most summarizing statement of his reputation among people in Matthew 21:23-27:

When He [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?" And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Then why did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet." And answering Jesus, they said, "We do not know." He [Jesus] also said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

Note what the chief priests and elders said about how other people perceived John the Baptist. They said, "We fear the people because they all regard John as a prophet." Apparently, there wasn't just a mere fringe group who thought highly of John. His reputation was pervasive. There was a consensus among most people that John was a prophet, a true prophet, a man whose words were true, a man who, indeed, had been sent by God. If the religious leaders had said that John's baptism originated with men instead of with God, they would have gone against what most people believed about John.

B. His reputation among the chief priests and elders.

Of course, there was a time when the religious leaders tried to get on John's good side. They wanted to add John's baptism as one more notch in their belt of self-generated righteousness, but John would not cooperate. When John saw the leaders coming in Matthew 3:7-10 he said, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Yes, John never got around to reading that book "How to Win Friends and Influence People." He never read any pamphlets about how to have seeker-friendly ministry. For although most people regarded him as a prophet, he did not win over the chief priests and elders.

C. His reputation before King Herod.

Nor were King Herod and his adulterous wife Herodias especially happy about his ministry. Herodias did not appreciate being called an adulterer. In Mark 6:19-20 we read, "Herodias had a grudge against him [John] and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he [Herod] heard him [John], he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.

Note what is being said about how Herod saw John:

You know the tragic story about how John lost his head. When Herodias' daughter danced for Herod, pleasing him so much that he promised to give her anything, up to half of the kingdom, who would have believed that she would have been persuaded to ask for the head of John the Baptist? But she did, and in Mark 6:26 we read that "Although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her." He knew who John was. He knew the danger of putting to death a righteous man. He had been exposed to the truth. But he cared more about how he was perceived by his wife, her daughter, and the royal community than how he was regarded by God.

D. His reputation in the works of Josephus.

There is also a secular work that attests to the reputation of John the Baptist. It is called the Works of Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish soldier and historian. His works are considered to be indispensable to those who are studying the history of the New Testament period and the preceeding intertestamental period. In his Antiquities, chapter 38, he describes how many people believed that God let Herod's army be destroyed because of what he did to John the Baptist. Josephus writes:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.

Thus, we see where even a secular historian records that the Jews regarded John the Baptist as a good man.

E. His reputation before Christ.

We appreciate the testimony to the character of John the Baptist that we find in the words of the people, a king, and a historian, but most of all, we appreciate the words that were said by Christ, Himself. In Luke 7:25-28, Jesus asks the people what they were looking for when they went out to see John the Baptist:

But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.' I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.

Of all the people in the human race -- people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, David, Solomon, and Isaiah -- no human being was greater than John the Baptist. He exceeded them all. This is the reputation of John the Baptist.

IV. John the Baptist's Testimony

We have just discussed the background and reputation of John the Baptist. In doing this, I have referenced a lot of material that is external to the Gospel of John. I did this, because I believe that when people read our primary text, John 1:19-37, they already knew about John's background and reputation. Because they knew his background and reputation, they were ready to receive his testimony. So we now turn to considering the testimony of John the Baptist. We will consider this testimony from three angles:

  1. What John the disciple said about John the Baptist.
  2. What John the Baptist said about himself.
  3. What John the Baptist said about Christ.

A. What John the Disciple said about John the Baptist.

In John 1:6-8 the disciple writes, "There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light."

There are several things we should note from this short passage:

  1. John the Baptist came as one who was sent. He did not come on his own authority; he was sent by God.
  2. John the Baptist came as a witness. He came to testify about the Light. As you know from previous messages, in the Gospel of John, sometimes Light is another word for Christ. Christ is the Light of the World.
  3. John the Baptist came to convince. It was intended that people would hear John's testimony about Christ, believe John, and having believed John, turn to Christ for eternal life.
  4. John the Baptist came not to be the Light but to testify about the Light. John was clear about who he was and who Christ was.

Then, moving down to John 1:15, the disciple writes:

John [the Baptist] testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'"

It is as if the disciple were saying, "Don't just believe my report, John the Baptist confirms what I am saying."

B. What John the Baptist said about himself.

Are you the Christ?
Finally, starting in John 1:19, we consider what John the Baptist said about himself. Priests and Levites journeyed from Jerusalem to ask him questions. "Who are you?" they asked. "I am not the Christ," John responded. Since Christ is another word for Messiah, John was saying "I am not the Messiah."

Are you Elijah?
"Well, if you are not the Messiah, are you Elijah?" They were probably thinking of Malachi 4:5-6, already mentioned, where we read:

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.

John denied being the person Elijah. This does not contradict the rest of scripture. For remember, in Luke 1:17 the angel does not tell Zacharias that John will be a reincarnation of Elijah. No, the angel says that John will come in the spirit and power of Elijah. This is what Christ means in Matthew 11:14 when He says, "If you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come."

Are you the prophet?
"Okay, you are not the Messiah, and you are not Elijah. Oh, are you the prophet?" Now notice, they did not ask, "Are you a prophet?" they asked, "Are you the prophet?" What were they talking about? In Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses wrote, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him."

F. F. Bruce in his commentary on John writes, "These words of Moses were clearly understood to point to one particular prophet, a second Moses, who would exercise the full mediatorial function that Moses had exercised."

Jesus, Himself, claims to be this prophet in John 5:45-46 when He tells the people who were accusing Him, "Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me."

But John has no illusions about being this prophet. When asked if he is the prophet, he gives an answer that is short and to the point -- "No."

Who are you then?
The messengers continued to press John to identify himself. "People don't just show up out of nowhere and start baptizing people. Who do you claim to be?"

John refers them back to Isaiah 40:3-5 when he answers, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD.'"

John came not as the Messiah, not as Elijah, and not as the prophet that would take Moses' place. He came to prepare people for the coming of Christ. This is what John had to say about himself.

C. What John the Baptist said about Christ.

At this point, the messengers challenged John the Baptist to tell them where he received his authority to baptize. Rather than defend himself, John the Baptist used this challenge as an opportunity to tell the messengers about Christ. In John 1:26-27 he answered, "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."

Jesus is exalted above all teachers.
John the Baptist exalted Jesus above all teachers. It is my understanding that in ancient times, disciples were almost like slaves. They could be asked to do any kind of menial service with one exception -- they were not required to do anything regarding their teacher's feet. The loosening of the thong on a sandal would not have been required of a disciple. But John, in exaltation of Christ and in humility of himself, claims to be unworthy of doing even those menial tasks that a disciple would not have been required to do.

Jesus is the lamb of God.
John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God. On the next day, after the messengers had gone home, John saw Jesus coming, and he said in John 1:36, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

This proclamation seems to look back to Isaiah 53:6-7 which, in speaking of the crucifixion of Christ says:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.

Not only did John's proclamation look back to Isaiah 53, but it also looked forward to the book of Revelation, where Jesus is described with even greater clarity as the Lamb of God, for example Revelation 5:11-12 where we read:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing."

John knew many things about Jesus. He knew that Jesus would one day judge the world. But He also knew that before Jesus judged the world, He would provide the means for saving it as the Lamb of God.

Jesus is eternal.
John the Baptist also believed Jesus to be eternal. For even though John was born before Jesus was born, John says in John 1:30, "This is He on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'" In order for Jesus to exist before John, He had to exist in a preincarnate state.

Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
John predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The abbreviated statement that we find in John 1:26-27 is stated more fully in Matthew 3:11 where we read, "As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Jesus' identity as Messiah was supernaturally revealed to John.
John the Baptist did not initially know that Jesus was the Messiah. Nevertheless, he did, most likely, know Jesus as a person, and he greatly appreciated Jesus' character. I believe that this is why John the Baptist said in Matthew 3:14, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" John considered Jesus' character to be superior to his own, even before he knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him. This was the sign John was supposed to look for, even as we read in John 1:33, "I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.'"

Jesus' identity was revealed by the Father and Holy Spirit.
Finally, Jesus' identity as the Son was revealed by the Father and the Holy Spirit. John 1:34 gives this very concise statement, "I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God." Matthew 3:16-17 gives more detail:

After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

To summarize, John the Baptist testifies to the following things about Jesus:

This is the testimony of John the Baptist.

V. How Should We Respond to John the Baptist's Testimony?

The testimony of John the Baptist is evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. How should we respond to this evidence?

For nonbelievers, here is evidence that demands a decision -- evidence that demands a verdict. The first twelve chapters of the Gospel of John were written primarily to get nonbelievers to believe the gospel. In the months ahead, as we read testimony upon testimony, this evidence should have a cumulative, overwhelming effect, eventually leading nonbelievers to believe, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Jesus is the Son of God. But beware! The nonbeliever will tend to ask for more evidence, even when the evidence he has is sufficient. For the nonbeliever does not have merely an evidential problem -- a need to be convinced. He also has a moral problem. He has by nature a powerful inclination to unrighteously suppress the evidence that he already has, as we find in Romans 1:18, where people are said to "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Therefore, I would encourage nonbelievers to humble themselves before God and to ask God to help them to believe the truth. Only by the grace of God can the unsaved person clearly see and understand the evidence that lies before him.

The testimony of John the Baptist should also benefit believers. Even believers sometimes need evidence. Yes, you already believe that the Bible is true. Yes, you have already trusted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Right now your faith is rock-solid. But trials and temptations are sure to come, and in the future there may be times when you will actually consider abandoning your faith. You might go through a season during which the loud scream of your emotions will drown out the soft inner witness of the Holy Spirit. If and when you are so tempted, remember that your faith is not a blind leap in the dark. No, your faith is grounded in evidence that is solid and irresistible to anyone who by the grace of God is able to see it clearly. Therefore, it is your duty to consider this evidence in order that your faith might be further strengthened against the day of adversity.

Let us pray:

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the testimony of John the Baptist and for all he did to point people towards Christ. I pray that as we consider the many testimonies -- the many witnesses -- that you have provided, that unbelievers will be convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. I would also pray for believers, that even though they believe already, that these testimonies will further strengthen their faith and equip them to stand firm during the hour of trial and testing.