The witness - John 1:6-15
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Veiled in Flesh
Let me read to you one of my favourite limericks:
There was a young man from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
When asked why that was,
He replied "It's because
I always try to cram as many words into the last line as I possibly can."
In reading the beginning of John’s Gospel that is the kind of jarring effect you get when you come to verse 6- it seems so disruptive and out of place. Just think about it: John’s account of the life of Jesus has one of the greatest openings in the whole of literature: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ And John is on such a roll with the grandeur and glory of the one called ‘the Word’, that you expect him to continue in the same vain, like with what we read in verse 9, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.’ But he doesn’t. Instead, he breaks up the flow by talking about ‘a man’. But he has just been talking about God who from all eternity within his own being exists in a state of perfect love and completeness, whose very life flows out to form a universe which he fills with life and light. So why the crashing disruption by referring to a man, whom we later discover to be John the Baptiser? And exactly the same thing happens again in v 15- which the NIV feels so keenly that it has to put it parentheses around it: verse 14 says, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’. Verse 16 smoothly continues this thought, ‘Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.’ But verse 15 cuts in and says, ‘John bore witness concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” What’s going on? Well, let me tell you.
If we want to make a special point when writing something we have a number of ways of doing that. We can put an exclamation mark after a statement. We can underline a sentence or present it in italics. We can even highlight it in a colour. But another way you can draw attention to something, making it stand out, is by breaking up the literary flow. That is what is happening here. It just hits you in the face so you have to pay attention to it. But in so doing John is ensuring that the theological flow continues. You see what the apostle John has to say about the relationship between Jesus-the Word, and John the Baptiser, is very significant in fulfilling his primary purpose in writing his Gospel which we are told on chapter 20:31 is this, these things are written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ It’s all about getting people to believe in Jesus.
Here’s the question: how does John the Baptiser help people to believe and so receive eternal life? It has all to do with the business of witnessing, v7-8 ‘He came as a witness to witness concerning that light, so that through him [the light] all might believe [there we have the purpose of John’s Gospel] He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.’ In fact, fourteen times in this Gospel the word witness (martureo, martus, martureia) is connected with John the Baptiser. So what do we learn about John as witness and ourselves as witnesses which leads people to Christ who is the light of the world? Three things:
First, the necessity of witness
It is significant that we are told that this was a man, a person, who was a witness. We have seen that the Word is described as the light who was life, and just as he spreads his life, light and energy throughout the universe by creation- new babies, new plants, new animals, whilst also shaping new galaxies; but when it comes to salvation, he doesn’t work like that. The way he will bring men and women to himself will be much more subtle and nuanced. It will be more like being enchanting by some beautiful music rather than being blasted by a megaphone. There is a quiet drawing near to the human race by God by the word becoming a human being, ‘made flesh’. And similarly the way in which people are going to be drawn to him will also be rather quiet. He doesn’t send angelic beings throughout the world whose dazzling presence would grab peoples’ attention. No he does something else; he sends people around the world, people like John, and you and me.
But nonetheless it is God who does the sending- ‘sent by God’. Salvation- becoming rightly related to God- isn’t something we can get by reaching up to God. It is something he gives by reaching down to us. It is by God becoming a human humans are saved and it is by humans witnessing that people hear the Gospel so they can be saved. The witnessing to the light is ‘so that through him all might believe’. This is the means, and as far as I can see the only means, God has chosen to make himself known for people to be saved- by people speaking about Christ. No witnessing means no saving.
And so we come to the nature of witness
Let me ask: what is expected of a witness in a court of law? It is that they relate as clearly and as faithfully as they can what they know to be the case- perhaps what they have seen or something they have heard. They are to do this without any additions or subtractions. As we might say, they are to ‘tell it as it is.’ And you know what? That is what John the Baptiser was sent to do by God. He wasn’t sent to share his own personal experience or pet theories of God. He was to bear witness to Jesus- the light-who he is and what he came to do.
And this is precisely what we see happening. Take a glance down at verse 29ff, ‘The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
In his Gospel the apostle John doesn’t describe Jesus’s baptism as do the other Gospel writers. Instead he focuses on the significance of the baptism, namely, that it identified Jesus as the Messiah, God’s chosen one. When John the Baptiser says of Jesus, ‘I did not know him’, he doesn’t mean he didn’t know him at all. They were cousins and probably had some family contact. Rather what he means is that he did not know him as the chosen one, that was only revealed to him when he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove as he came out of the baptismal waters, this was the sign of him being God’s anointed- anointed as God’s King by the Holy Spirit. And so John witnesses publically to this fact. But John not only witnesses to who Jesus is-‘The Lamb of God’, but what he came to do, ‘to take away the sin of the world.’ That is witnessing. I like the way the late Michael Green defines this, he says, ‘Witness in the New Testament is neither silent church going that passes for witness among many Christians, nor the sickening self-advertisement that often results when a believer ‘gives his testimony’; but simple factual reference to the historical Jesus, his death and resurrection; his gift of the Spirit, and his present availability and power.’
But why does the apostle John stress in verse 8 what we might think is pretty obvious, that John the Baptiser ‘was not the light, but came only as a witness to the light’? Well just think about it. Until the coming of John the Baptiser, the Jewish nation had not had a prophet for over 400 years, which is roughly the length of time between Queen Elizabeth the 1st and Queen Elizabeth the 2nd. If we were able to get into a time capsule like the Tardis and go back to Palestine early in AD 28 and tried to locate Jesus we would have a difficult time doing so. If we enquired of him in Tiberias one of the most important cities in Galilee it is doubtful anyone would have heard of him- the same in Capernaum. We would run into similar problems in Jerusalem. Most Jerusalemites had probably never even heard of Nazareth, let alone Jesus of Nazareth. And if by chance you came across someone who knew him and the family they would wonder why you wanted him, when there were plenty of other good carpenters around who could hang your doors. And if you said, he was a famous preacher; do you know who they would have thought you really wanted? John the Baptiser, because he was pulling in the crowds by his powerful preaching. In other words, in the minds of many, John the Baptiser would have been given the label, ‘the light’. Later in chapter 6:35, Jesus describes John as a ‘lamp that burned and gave light.’ Jesus is the light, the true revelation of God, the one who brings light into darkened souls and hope into a hopeless world. John is more like a lamp stand, a secondary light. And so to correct any misunderstanding about the identity and role of John the Baptiser the apostle makes it plain that he is a ‘witness’- pure and simple.
Which brings us to the negatives of witness
Here’s the thing: you cannot make much of Jesus if at the same time you are trying to make much of yourself (rpt). It simply can’t be done. When Jesus walks onto the stage of human history, all eyes are meant to be on him and all the other actors become minor players who only find their true roles in relation to the main character-Jesus, the centre point of history.
Did you notice in v6 that John is not described as ‘John the Baptist’ but simply as the ‘man John’? It is not because John was engaged in the ministry of baptism which defined him or made him important, it was in being a witness to Jesus the light. And if we are to turn people’s eyes to Jesus, we can’t have them fixing their gaze upon us, no matter how wonderful and indispensable to God’s kingdom we may think we are. And John the Baptiser models this for us especially in vv19ff where it is all about who John is not: I am not the Christ (verse 20). I am not Elijah (verse 21). I am not the prophet (verse 21). I am not worthy to untie his sandals (verse 27).
Don’t you detect a great humility here? I guess John could have said that he was a kind of Elijah, which is the way Jesus describes him. He could have claimed to be the prophet who prepares the way for the coming King as predicted by Malachi. But he is so concerned about witnessing to the light, that he distances himself as much as possible from any adulation or celebrity status just in case this distracts from Christ. Isn’t that something?
One of the great pitfalls in ministry or even having what some call a ‘powerful testimony’, is that it can make you and not Jesus the centre of attention. Can you think of anything more intoxicating to the ego than having people hang on your every word for 30 minutes or so in preaching? The Scottish pastor Eric Alexander illustrates this trap with the following incident: “It is said that Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh had preaching for him on one occasion a young man who was getting a bit of a reputation as a preacher. He had come to Free St George’s (as it then was), and he went up into the pulpit full of a sense of what they were all expecting from him, the young illuminary. Something went badly wrong, and he was shattered! He made a mess of the whole thing. He forgot what he was going to say, his mind went blank, and it was a disaster. He came down the pulpit steps, a broken-hearted man, and cried to Whyte, ‘What went wrong, Sir?’ Whyte said to him, ‘Well, laddie, if you had gone up the way you came down, you would have had more chance of coming down the way you went up.’ It was John Calvin who said, ‘The first step towards serving Christ is to lose sight of ourselves.” Isn’t that right? But it is so difficult isn’t it? But it is only difficult because we don’t think highly enough of Christ and only too highly of ourselves.
Let me ask you: what was it that made John the Baptiser great, greater than anyone who had ever lived up to this point in history according to Jesus in Mtt. 11:11? Was it that he was Jesus’ cousin? That he was skilled at dunking people under the water? That he drew the crowds with his oratory? No. It was none of these things. What made him great was that he was able to point to Jesus and say, ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ And according to Jesus what is it that makes us great? That we have a good education and know more than our parents? That we are able to say more things to more people than anyone else has been able to do in the history of the earth thanks to social media? Again the answer is, No. According to Jesus in Matthew 11, the ‘least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist.’ Maybe the ‘least’ Jesus is speaking of are like the little ones here- Abi Bernie, Luke McKenzie or Benjamin Mckay- how are they greater than John the Baptist, because that is the implication of what Jesus is saying? In the context of Matthew 11 it is all to do with witnessing to who Jesus is. You see, John the Baptist was the bridge between the Old Testament and the New. But now, this side of his cross and resurrection, we are in a better position to say with even greater clarity and conviction than John the Baptist exactly who Jesus is and what he came to do. John the Baptist only had part of the story at his point in history- he died before the cross. We have the whole story! In this sense it is as witnesses that we are ‘greater than John the Baptist’ who in his day was the greatest witness of all.
So what is a witness to Jesus like- is there a picture we can point to? John the Baptiser tells us in chapter 3:28 “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
The friend of the bridegroom, or as we would say, ‘the best man’, is not only satisfied but positively thrilled when on the wedding day, all the arrangements go to plan so that the groom and the bride can enjoy their day free from worry. It is not the ‘best man’ who is really ‘the best man’ at a wedding; it is the groom with his lovely bride-they are the centre of attention, rightly so. Just to see the couple radiating happiness, is more than enough of a reward for all the hard work the best man has put in, it is a joy. So it is in our witness to Jesus. It is to be all about him.
So let me tell you about Bill Armstrong. Bill was a big name in the American Senate. He was very much a mover and shaker. But where did he demonstrate true greatness? Not in the halls of power in Washington, but in a hospital ward when he visited his friend Jack Swigert who lay dying of cancer. This was the man who had piloted the ill-fated Apollo 13 capsule. This night Bill leant over to his friend and whispered, ‘Jack, God loves you. I love you. You are surrounded by friends who are praying for you.’ The only response was Jack’s tortured and uneven breathing. Bill pulled the chair closer to the bed, opened his Bible and began to read- psalms pointing to Jesus- Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Time passed. As Bill began reading psalm 150 his skin prickled. Jack’s ragged breath had stopped. He then called for help. Then as he watched the nurse examining Jack, he knew his friend was dead. Some of Bill’s colleagues would have considered such visits a waste of time, why bother, get on with your career, running government, shaping the nation. But Bill did what was absolutely right, he showed he was a Christian and what really mattered, holding his friends hand and witnessing to Jesus who is the light of the world.
 Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, pp 67-68
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