I had the opportunity to preach today at the morning church service. The assigned passage was John 1:19-28, so the topic was John the Baptist. I started with a note from N.T. Wright on the subject (see below) and then built the rest of it around that.
Now, remember the retelling of creation that John the apostle does at the beginning of his gospel? “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, etc.” Well later in the chapter, Jesus shows up in person and the story follows him. In between those two things though, we have this passage on John the Baptist, so we’ll be talking a bit more about him today and his significance. This is to help us understand Jesus and how he fits into God’s larger story of redemption, which is still going on and which we are a part of. First, let’s read the passage:
The Passage (John 1:19-28): The Testimony of John the Baptist
Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”
He said: “I am
‘ The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“ Make straight the way of the LORD,”’
as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”
These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Here we find John the Baptist down by the river Jordan, preaching to people and baptizing them with water in the river. Now, there is a strong consensus amongst Bible scholars what John the Baptist looked like and this is a careful artist’s rendition here:
Actually, this is from the Jesus Storybook Bible, which is a really great children’s bible. It’s so good because it brings Jesus into every single story. Even ones where you think he might not be there – he’s there. It constantly ties everything back into the big picture. We’re going to do that today as well.
We know that John is a Prophet, the last of the Old Testament Prophets, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 11.
For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John [the Baptist]. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Yet, he is doing something completely different then what Jeremiah, Elijah, or Isaiah ever did.
Listen to how they are the same:
Prophet 1: Repent! Or bad things will happen.
Zephaniah 2:2-3 (NLT)
Gather while there is still time, before judgment begins and your opportunity is blown away like chaff. Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins. Beg the Lord to save you –all you who are humble, all you who uphold justice. Walk humbly and do what is right. Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.
John: Repent! Or bad things will happen.
Here is a sample of John’s preaching to the crowds that came for baptism: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming judgment? Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
Prophet 2: Bad stuff is coming real soon! Better repent.
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And right before that, what was one of the reasons given for the coming destruction? Failing to bring offerings to the temple.
“In what way have we robbed you?” In tithes and offerings. You are curses with a curse, for you have robbed me.
John: Bad stuff is coming real soon! Better repent.
Turn from your sins and turn to God, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
What were the old prophets calling people to do though? To stop worshiping Baal, that is, get rid of the pagan altars in their homes and up on the hillside. Stop worshiping Ashera, cut down her silly poles and abandon that cult. Return to proper worship in the Temple, carefully offering sacrifices as detailed in the Law of Moses, which came straight from God himself.
And sometimes, the people did repent and listen to the prophet!
2 Chronicles 34
(How King Josiah found the book of the law, he gathered all the people together and read it. He collected a bunch of money and had the temple fixed up. He made sure to celebrate Passover that year and do all the sacrifices right. And God blessed him and nothing bad happened to Israel during his reign.)
So that is the pattern. God is a jealous God. He wants his people, his “bride”, to use the marriage analogy used more often in the New Testament, to be faithful to her husband. He doesn’t want her sleeping with other men. He loves her and wants her for himself. So when the prophets are sent to warn her, Israel, the proper response is to turn back to God. This isn’t just something they do in their hearts. It starts there, but it must proceed to real outside action, with your own hands. That action is to faithfully participate in the temple cult. Bring sacrifices to the Lord. The blood of animals will atone for your sin. The burnt offerings on the altar are a pleasing aroma to God. Prayers offered to him in the temple are heard in heaven.
When I say the “temple cult”, I’m using the word in its more broad sense, which is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object”. The temple cult was a system of praise, sacrifices and offerings that were directed toward the one true God, who lived, in one sense, in the holy of holies in the temple, between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. I don’t mean “cult” as in a small unorthodox religious sect.
So when the Prophet came and said, “Repent!” what were you supposed to do? Get your rear in gear and get to Jerusalem to worship the one true God on the temple mount. But wait, what was John telling everyone to do? DON’T go to the temple! You’re wasting your time! Come down here to the Jordan River and be covered with water. Turn your hearts to the Lord.
The priests, that is, the people of the tribe of Levi, the Levites, are naturally not going to be very excited about John’s message. It’s their day job, after all, to take care of the temple and facilitate all the worship ceremonies that go on there. Their job is really important and they know it. Moses said so. All the old prophets said so too. What on earth is this crazy wilderness man John thinking?
Here is what the New Testament scholar Tom Wright has to say about this.
For Jesus, repentance, whether personal or national, did not involve going to the Temple and offering sacrifice. John’s baptism already carried this scandalous notion: one could ‘repent’, in the divinely appointed way, down by the Jordan instead of up in Jerusalem! In just the same way, Jesus offered membership in the renewed people of the covenant god on his own authority and by his own process.
– N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.257
The temple was for the sons of Abraham. But John lets the priests know that “God can raise up Children of Abraham from these stones lying around on the ground.”
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and no not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones.
What he is saying to them is that their special hereditary status will not save them. Offering up sacrifices at the temple isn’t going to save them any more. It did, for a while, but that chapter of history is coming to a close.
To those that study scripture, and surely to some of the Pharisees as well (as we’ll see later) this would not have been a complete surprise. God had been hinting all along that the temple rituals were not what he was really interested in.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth your praise. For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart – these, O God, you will not despise.
In addition, the old way of repenting corporately had passed away. In the example given earlier, like King Josiah reading the law to the people, there was one guy, an important powerful guy, the King, who spoke for the entire nation. He had the authority to go around destroying people’s idols, which was their valuable private property. The Tea Party wouldn’t have liked that! He was the government, he had the resources, piles of money, to restore the temple and enable the priests to do their job properly again.
But now, Israel had for years been under Roman occupation. They were a small province, subdued by an empire. They didn’t have a king to act as proxy for them anymore. Nor, if you remember, was this ever God’s plan in the first place, to have a proxy:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you and believe you forever.”
(Right after God gives the 10 commandments)
Now all the people witness the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
See how God had originally called ALL the people to the mountain to hear him? But they said, “No, no, God’s too scary. Moses, YOU go listen to God and then just come back and tell us what he said.”
The same thing happens later when the people ask to change the nation into a monarchy.
1 Samuel 8:4-8
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
But the thing displeases Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And they Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”
And then it goes on for a while and Samuel warns them of all the downsides of having a King.
Verses 19-22: Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles”. So the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed their voice, and make them a king.”
So John the Baptist was bringing things back to the way God had originally wanted to relate to his people. He was saying, “Hey, you, personally, come down here to the river and be baptized. Turn your hearts, your own individual hearts, toward the Lord. Repent of your sin. He is full of kindness and will forgive you. How is he going to do that exactly? I’m not sure, but I’m pointing the way. The guy who is going to take away the sin of the world is coming soon! Watch out for him. Any day now.“
To the Sadducees, the aristocracy whose day job it was to work in the temple, this was scandalous! To the Pharisees, who were sticklers of the law, this couldn’t possibly be a message from God. It wasn’t like anything he had said before! Oh, except it was. This is why some of the Pharisees, like Nicodemus and others were very interested in Jesus later and some even became his disciples. For starters though, they had John to point the way into the future. Times were changing. God was going to do away with the old rituals and even the old exclusive “chosen people”. He was bringing salvation to the gentiles, to the whole world.
This is really good since not any of us in this room are Jews are we? We’re not members of his special covenant family by birth, but rather by adoption.
In just a little over a week, my wife and I are traveling to Ethiopia, Africa, to formally adopt our little daughter there. There has been a lot of preparation and paperwork over the past year. In the same way, God sent John to be a special prophet to do some of the prep work before Jesus was revealed. He get’s the ball rolling on the people’s own adoption into the covenant family of God.