Theme: John the Baptist’s Negative Witness
In this week’s lessons, we consider how John the Baptist served as a faithful witness to Jesus, and what that means in our witnessing as well.
Scripture: John 1:19-51
Now you have three points that concern John’s witness in verses 6-9 of chapter 1, and if you look at it carefully, I’m sure you can see what they are. The first is that John was aware that he himself was not the light. Second, John pointed to Jesus Christ who was the light. And the third point is the goal for which the witness was given, and that is that all men through him might believe. This is exactly the outline that you find in verses 6-9, which is then illustrated in the latter portion of the first chapter.
In verses 19 through 28 John says that he is not the light. Then in verses 29 through 34, John points to Jesus and says that Jesus is the light. And then finally in verses 35 through the end of the chapter, you have the result of it all, namely, that the first disciples begin to believe in Jesus Christ. It’s the evangelist’s way of saying, “This is what your witness and my witness should be.”
Now I’d like to look at each of those three points. First of all, John the Baptist confessed that he was not the light. He did it by three negative confessions: “I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah, and I am not the Prophet.” It’s not at all difficult to know why they were asking him those questions because those were the questions that were uppermost in any Jewish mind, as they looked forward to the coming of the promised Messiah. God had said to them in the Old Testament Scriptures that a Messiah would come. They were all looking for him, and therefore, whenever anybody stood out in any way above the common mass of people, this is the first question that people would want to ask of him. Is this perhaps the Messiah, or somebody extraordinary who will be connected with his coming? They thought that their promised leader would become a political king who would be strong enough to drive out the Romans and reestablish the throne of David, upon which the Messiah was going to reign.
So here was John the Baptist, a charismatic figure in the wilderness, a figure obviously of great strength of character. People in Jerusalem sent a delegation down to ask him if he really was the Messiah. We’re told that he confessed he was not. Well, then they have a follow-up question: “Well, if you’re not the Messiah, maybe you’re the forerunner of the Messiah.” That’s what they mean when they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” Now the reason they ask that is because at the very end of the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi, the fourth chapter, there is a prophecy of the fact that Elijah would come before that dreadful day of the Lord. The verses say, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” So if John the Baptist wasn’t the Messiah, maybe he was Elijah. And again we’re told he confessed, “I’m not Elijah, either.”
Well, they only had one more thing to ask, and that is because in the Book of Deuteronomy, in the eighteenth chapter, verses 15 through 18, God had promised Moses that in future days he would send one like Moses to be a prophet to the people. You see, when they asked the question, “Are you the Prophet?” that’s a different question than saying, “Are you a prophet?” If you had asked John the Baptist, “Are you a prophet?” he might well have said yes. But that’s not the question they were asking. They wanted to know if he was the Prophet, and by that they meant the prophet of Deuteronomy 18. And again, John the Baptist said no.
You see, in each case he was answering in the negative; and when they asked him who he was, since he did not claim to be any of the people they wondered about, he took the most negative form of self-identification he could. He said, “I’m only a voice. I’m a voice pointing to the one who is going to come, who is far greater than I am,” a message which he unfolds at greater length in the third chapter.
Now I want to point out how important that negative is. You see, in verse 30 we’re told that when they sent to ask him who he was, he did not fail to confess but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” That’s not the way you and I would normally talk, is it? When we use that word confession, we mean one of two things. Either we are confessing our sin, or we make confession of Christ by pointing others to him. You don’t confess negatively, do you? You don’t confess, “I am not.” That’s not normally the way we use the word, and yet that’s what John the Baptist did, and John calls attention to it by using the word twice. He did not fail to confess, but he confessed and he did it freely: “I am not the Christ.”
What we learn from this answer is that the negative is a very important part of the confession. In other words, you don’t really make positive confession of anything unless that positive confession is also accompanied by a negative. As a matter of fact, that is the case with any statement of truth if it’s to mean anything at all. John is very clear to do this throughout the Gospel.
Let me give you an example of this that is well known. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s a great positive statement. What follows immediately after that? “No man comes unto the Father but by me.” That’s the negative. Now what I want to suggest is that without the negative, the positive doesn’t mean anything at all. You can say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but if you don’t say, “and nobody else is the way, the truth and the life because you can’t come to the Father except by me,” then the statement “I’m the way, the truth, and the life” means nothing at all. Jesus is exclusively the way, the truth, and the life, and therefore no one else can be. Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, and there’s no way to get to heaven but by him. He alone is the Savior.
John the Baptist confessed freely, “I am not the Christ” because it was necessary to say this in order to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Lamb of God who alone can take away the sin of the world. Now that’s the kind of witness we need today. And I need to point out that if we give that kind of witness today, we’re not going to be liked for it. As long as you go around saying, as people want us to say, “Christianity is one of many options. After all, it’s a pluralistic society, and you can get to heaven in your way, and we’ll get to heaven in ours. You can become happy in your way; we’ll become happy in ours.” The world doesn’t have any trouble with that at all, because there are no negatives restricting what it wants to believe.
But as soon as you say, “Jesus Christ is the only way, the only ultimate truth, the only source of life,” then the world will hate you for it because that is a judgment upon their false profession, and they’ll hate you for it just the way they hated Jesus Christ. If they hated John the Baptist’s witness, they will hate our witness as well. And so I start by asking the question, since we are to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, are we faithful witnesses to him? Or are we calling attention to ourselves? You can’t do both. I’m going to come back to that later because I think it’s a great problem today.
From verses 6-9, what are the three points of John the Baptist’s witness to Christ?
How do verses 29-51 fit the outline provided in verses 6-9?
Why do people ask John the Baptist if he is Elijah?
What were people referring to when they inquired if John the Baptist was “the Prophet”?
What is the significance of John the Baptist’s negative confession that he is not the Christ?
Reflection: How do we see the secular culture rebelling against the idea that Jesus is the only way of salvation and peace with God?