If you’ve been following the news over recent weeks, you will know that various high-profile politicians and leading civil servants have been giving their testimony to the official Covid-19 enquiry.
Chris Witty, Patrick Vallance and others have been called as expert witnesses to what went on in the corridors of power during the pandemic. They were each in a unique position to know who said what when, and why decisions were made as they were. As a result, their testimony is valuable, their voice needs to be heard. Last week it was Matt Hancock’s turn to appear before the official enquiry, while in recent days it has been Boris Johnson’s turn to give his side of the story.
Another official enquiry surrounded John the Baptist 2000 years ago. Here was a strange man who lived in the desert, wore camels’ hair clothing and had a diet of wild honey and locusts. Yet rather than remaining in obscurity, John’s activities quickly drew a crowd. From his base beside the Jordan River he called people to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. And as a sign of their sincerity, he challenged people to submit to baptism in the waters of the Jordan.
John’s ministry clearly caused quite a stir, and in verse 19 of our passage this morning we learn that he had come to the attention of the nation’s religious hierarchy. Like barristers questioning a politician at the Covid enquiry, “priests and Levites” came to interview John and “ask him who he was.” The terms of reference for their official enquiry was to determine John’s true identity. Was he God’s promised Messiah, the Christ to come? Or was John the Old Testament prophet Elijah, back from heaven? Or was he the great prophet that Moses had predicted two millennia previously? Verses 20 and 21 tell us that John the Baptist’s reply to each of those questions was a resounding “No!” He wasn’t a messiah sent by God to throw the Roman army out of Israel. Nor (despite his similar attire) was he Elijah or any other Old Testament prophet back from the dead.
John’s mission – to be a witness
Exasperated, the religious inquisitors ask John in verse 22 “So who are you? What do you say about yourself?” His reply is that he has come as a ‘witness’ – not to a crime or to a Covid enquiry – but to testify to the coming of the Lord.
We usually associate the language of ‘testimony’ and ‘witness’ with the courtroom, don’t we? We’re most likely to use those two words when talking about legal proceedings, when witnesses are called by the prosecution or the defence to speak for or against the defendant. Witnesses play a key part in every ‘courtroom drama’, whether its in real life, a John Grisham novel or a blockbuster movie.
The word ‘witness’ is also very prominent in John’s Gospel. The word actually appears 47 times in this book as a whole. Other ‘witnesses’ to Jesus mentioned in this Gospel include his miraculous signs and the preaching of his apostles. But the word makes its first appearance in verse 7 of our reading today, where John the Baptist’s mission is described as being “a witness to testify concerning the light” – in other words, to be a witness to Christ, as the Word of God. And in verse 19 John’s ministry is similarly described as a work of ‘testimony’.
As we reflect on the facts, we should acknowledge that John was supremely well qualified to be a witness to Jesus Christ. Not only was John Jesus’ cousin, each of the four gospels also make clear that he was the divinely appointed spokesman to herald the arrival of the Messiah. John was truly a heaven-sent prophet, and not simply because he wore similar clothes to the great prophets of old. Far more importantly, John qualified as a prophet because he had been divinely commissioned to his work of witnessing – his testimony was guided by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, John’s ministry had been planned and publicised by God many, many decades before his mother Elizabeth gave birth. The Gospel writers draw our attention to two Old Testament prophecies in particular – one found in Malachi chapter 3 and the other in Isaiah chapter 40.
In Malachi 3, the Lord himself promises that ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.’ And in verse 23 of our passage today John himself quotes Isaiah 40, when he says: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord”.
John’s testimony – the Lord is coming!
So John is an expert witness to Jesus, a credible source about Christ. But what does he actually say about him? What does the Baptist tell us about Christ when he takes the stand?
Well, its notable that in his testimony about Jesus, John repeats many of the exalted claims about the Word of God that we saw in last week’s passage. For example, in verse 27 John affirms Jesus’s pre-eminence – “I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals” he says. Jesus is so holy that John doesn’t even deserve to touch his shoelaces!
And if we read on to verse 30, we see John also affirms Jesus’s pre-existence – “he who comes after me has surpassed me, because he was before me.” John the Baptist was born a few months before his cousin, but he wants us to know that the baby born in Bethlehem actually pre-dates him by billions of years. The Word of God existed before the Big Bang, he was the divine Son who threw the stars into space.
John’s character reference for Jesus comes to its climax in verse 34, when he says: “I have seen and I testify that he is God’s Chosen One”. Indeed, this Chosen One, this Messiah is God himself – “make straight the way for the Lord” says John (v.23). God incarnate, the Word made flesh, is on his way!
John’s purpose – for people to believe and be baptised
It won’t have escaped your notice that our church driveway was resurfaced this week. Holes have been filled and rough ground has been made smooth with fresh tarmac. When you add this to our recently refurbished steps and front door, our church exterior is now attractive, safe and welcoming for our visitors this Christmas season!
But the bigger question we all face, is how to welcome the Lord God into our world? Having heard the evidence, what verdict should we come to about Christ? What reaction did John the Baptist look for among those who first heard his message?
Well, the right response can be summed up in two words – belief and baptism. Belief, because verse 7 tells us that John’s ambition was that “through him all might believe” – so that through his testimony people might come to recognise Jesus as the heaven-sent Saviour, the eternal Son of God, the Word made flesh. John came so that people might clearly perceive Jesus for who he really is.
But secondly, as we see in our final verse this morning (v.28), John also summoned his hearers to baptism. Standing on the west bank of the river Jordan at Bethany, John invited his hearers to undergo a baptism of repentance:
• To repent is to turn around, change direction and reorientate our lives.
• It is to turn from selfishness live for Christ instead.
• To repent is to ‘change tack’ and let the Lord set the agenda for our lives from now on.
Submitting to John’s baptism was the way his hearers could demonstrate their sincere sorrow for their sins – and show their desire to live for God in future.
As I finish today, the same challenge confronts us as it did for John’s first hearers. Will we believe his witness statement? As read John the Baptist’s testimony, will we take it on board?
• Will we accept what he says about the identity of his cousin, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth?
• Will we renew our trust in Jesus as our Lord and King?
• Will we repent and receive the forgiveness of sin and spiritual rebirth that only Christ can give?
I hope so. And if you are convinced, then be a witness like John. Share your testimony to Jesus this Christmas season with family and friends who don’t yet know him. Speak of Christ in your homes, workplaces and community, just as John spoke of him beside the Jordan.
But perhaps you remain unsure about the identity of Christ? If so, then do keep reading John’s Gospel – and stick with us for the rest of this sermon series. Because this book (and the NT as a whole) contains ample testimony to the divine identity of Christ. You don’t need to trust John the Baptist’s testimony alone – we also have the evidence of Jesus’ many miracles and the eyewitness testimony of Christ’s other apostles – of men like Matthew, Peter, Paul and John the Evangelist himself. So why not spend some quality time in the New Testament scriptures this Advent season, acquainting yourself with the evidence for the Word made flesh?