The LambRev. Philip Miller | September 27, 2020
Selected highlights from this sermon
Why did Jesus take on flesh and come to Earth?
In this message, Pastor Philip looks at the ministry of John the Baptist, who called people to repent. And many repented and were baptized. But the baptism couldn’t change the problem. Their hearts needed to be washed cleaned, rid of sin, and no baptism can do that.
Only Jesus could do what needed to be done: a total renovation of our hearts. Jesus came to Earth for one reason: to take away the sin of the world by taking our place, giving us a new heart and a new Spirit. He gave His life for us because He loves us more than we know.
Well, welcome back to our second week of our series, “Loved by Jesus,” a study through the Gospel of John. And in this series, what we’re doing is we’re asking the Lord to teach us what it means to find our identity in being loved by Jesus, just as John has, because as Christians our deepest, richest, most solid and long-lasting identity is found not in who we are or what other people say we are, but in the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ.
But to know the love of Christ we must also know who He is. And so as we go through the book of John we are trying to catch a vision of Christ afresh through the eyes of our author, John. And last week we saw that John began with a bang, a huge explosion, a grand overture of theological brilliance that would have captured the audience of his first-century readers, the Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish culture. He announced the coming of the Logos, like a light shining in the darkness, ultimate cosmic reality, come to Earth, the agent of divine life now made flesh among us, the Son of God Himself come to be with us. And if last week focused primarily on who Jesus is, this week we’re going to focus in on why Jesus has come. And we will discover this through the ministry of a guy name John the Baptizer. We were introduced to him in passing last week when we read in verse 6, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light (That’s Jesus), that all might believe through Him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
And now what follows in chapter 1, verses 19 to 34, is John the Baptizer’s eye-witness accounts concerning Jesus. And so if you have your Bibles, please grab them and open up with me to John, chapter 1. We’re going to be looking at verses 19 to 34, but before we do that would you bow your heads and pray with me this morning.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for sending Jesus among us. And now as we turn our eyes upon the reason He came, convict our hearts, change us, renews us, refashion us, remake us we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.
In this passage this morning I want to kind of sort our thoughts under three headings here. We’re going to see the Baptizer first. Then we’re going to see the inquisitors. And then finally we’re going to see the purifier. Okay? The Baptizer, the inquisitors, and the Purifier. Let’s go.
First, the Baptizer here. Kirk just read this for us, but let me read it again. Verses 19 to 23: “And 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.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” as the prophet Isaiah said.’”
Now the Gospel of John here kind of assumes that we know who John the Baptizer is from the other Gospels. You’ll remember that the Gospel of John was written, the latest of all the four Gospels, and so it assumes certain knowledge in its readership base, so let me just summarize what we know from the other Gospels about John the Baptizer.
John was an only child, born to an aging priest, Zacharias, and his post-menopausal wife, Elizabeth. Yes, it was a miracle. And Elizabeth, we know, was related to Mary. That’s Jesus’ mom. How their relationship is in terms of technical, you know, how they’re related, we’re not quite sure. The word that’s used is often translated cousins, simply means distant relations, and so we’re not really sure, but John and Jesus are somehow related to one another. And from day one, John was set aside to be a Nazarite. This was a vow you could take in Numbers, chapter 6. It’s detailed there, but basically he wasn’t allowed to cut his hair. He couldn’t touch dead things. He was not allowed to have any alcohol (strong drink, wine, or anything like that).
John lived in the desert. He ate locusts with honey, probably to stick the wings down so he could eat them better. (chuckles) He dressed in camel’s hide clothing which he strapped on with a leather belt. He was an unkempt, unusual, and unfiltered man. He was an odd man, but he was God’s man. And he was sent to pave the way for Jesus.
Now, at some point, John began his ministry preaching in the wilderness. The people needed to do two things, repent and be baptized. Repent means to turn, and so he’s calling them to turn from their current way of living, to live in a different direction, to get right with God, and as a sign (a symbol) of this reorientation of life, they are to be baptized. Baptize is a word that means dip, or immerse, and so John was immersing them in the Jordan River as a sign of this turning about of their way of life.
Now, baptism was not an unfamiliar sign to the Jewish people. They were familiar with this practice in two primary ways. One was for proselytes. These were people who were non-Jewish people who were deciding they wanted to be become Jewish people, entering into the covenant relationship with God, and they would do so by bathing. And they would do this ritual bath to become Jewish. It symbolized washing off the old and stepping out in a clean start before God. They also did ceremonial washings, purification rites, to prepare for certain kinds of worship and moments in the temple. Now what was different though is that the Jewish rites of baptism or washings were always self-administered. In other words, you climbed in and you did the bathing yourself. It was always done under the supervision of priests and Levites.
But here John is baptizing other people. He’s performing the rite upon them in the Jordan River, which is nowhere near the temple in Jerusalem. And so apparently this causes enough of a stir that the priests and Levites come out to investigate what’s going on. The question here is, “Who are you? Who are you?” and at first they assume that he’s the Christ. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, messiah, which means anointed one. It comes from when the king was anointed. In the Old Testament they would anoint with olive oil and it would run down their head. The king was the anointed one. And, of course, all of Israel was waiting for the coming of the king because God had promised David, the greatest king Israel had ever known, that he would bring a king one day. This is from 2 Samuel 7:12 and 16. He says this, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom...And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”
And so, at first it looks like this is going to be Solomon who’s going to fulfill this great prophecy, but it turns out it’s not. And then the kingdom is divided, and then foreign powers come in. And so at the time of Jesus and John the Baptizer here everyone is awaiting the return of the king who will bring the glory of Israel back. And so they ask John, this baptizer guy, “Are you the long-awaited king?” In verse 20 he says, “I am not the Christ. I’m not Messiah. I’m not this awaited king.”
Verse 21: “What then? Are you Elijah?” Now this may seem like an odd follow-up question. “Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah?” What’s with that? Well, why do they bring up this ninth century B.C. prophet of Israel? Well, it’s interesting. Elijah actually never died. At the end of his life and ministry, he was swept up into glory in a fiery chariot that God sent for him. It’s a fascinating story in 2 Kings, chapter 2, and it’s where we get the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” if you know that song.
So a kind of lore grew up around Elijah. Like “Well, he didn’t die. Maybe he’ll come back.” Right? But then the prophet Malachi, at the end of the Old Testament, promised that Elijah would actually return. So in Malachi 4:5–6 we read this: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
So the Jews were awaiting a day when Elijah would return. It would be a sign that the Lord Himself was coming to bring justice to all the earth. And so they’re asking, “Are you this guy? Are you Elijah, the one who was prophesied to come again in the flesh?” And of course, their question makes even more sense when we realize that Elijah lived in the desert, wore camel skin clothing, and strapped it on with a leather belt. So the parallels are hard to miss here. And while John did come to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi (Jesus said so later), he is not Elijah himself come in the flesh. And so John answers, “I am not.”
Then the next question is, “Are you the prophet?” Not just “a” prophet, but “the” prophet (the capital “P” prophet), because Israel was waiting for the prophet, the one that Moses had foretold would come! This is from Deuteronomy 18:15, 17, and 18. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen...And the Lord said to me, ‘...I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”
And so even though many prophets had come and gone throughout Israel’s history, none of them had risen to the level of one like Moses, because Moses was more than just a prophet. He was the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He’s the one who journeyed with them through the Red Sea to freedom. It was Moses who stood face-to-face with the glory of God on the mountain. It was Moses who brought the commandments down, the Old Covenant regulations from God. He was the one who provided bread and water in the wilderness, and no one had come close to the scale or significance of what Moses had done in his prophetic ministry. And so they’re longing for a prophet like Moses who will come. “John, are you this prophet, like Moses, the one he foretold would come?” And he says, “No, no, I’m not.”
So they say to him (verse 22): “Who are you [then]?” (chuckles) “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” Right? You can sense their impatience here, right? Verse 23: “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said.”’”
Now he’s quoting here from Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 3 through 5. Let me read the whole context here. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
Now, in the original setting the prophet is calling for the way of the Lord to be clear because the Lord is coming to bring salvation for His people, leading them home from their exile in foreign lands in a way that will reveal His glory for all the world to see. And John, in quoting from this passage is saying, “This is who I am. I am a voice and I am declaring that God is about to do all of this all over again. The Lord is coming. There is salvation coming for God’s people. He will lead them home from exile. He will reveal His glory for all to see. Make way for the Lord of Glory to come in.”
And so, friends, what we see here is that John is preparing hearts for the Lord’s work. John is preparing hearts for the Lord’s work.
Now, this is what’s fascinating to me. The metaphor John chooses from Isaiah is one of a highway being built through the desert, through the desert mountains and valleys. He’s saying, “Mountains have to be blasted out of the way. Valleys have to be overcome. Uneven places need to be leveled out. Rough terrain needs to be graded smooth.” He’s saying, “That’s what our hearts need. That’s what human hearts need to get ready for God. Mountains of pride need to be blasted away. Valleys of sin must be overcome. The uneven attitudes of our hearts must be leveled out. The rough terrain of our defensiveness must be graded smooth.”
John is issuing a wake-up call. This is a warm-up act. It’s a dance. Notice, “The Lord is on His way. You’d better get ready. Examine your hearts. Get right before God. You do not want to be caught off-guard when He shows up.” This is the baptizer. This is John’s ministry.
Next, let’s look at the inquisitors. Okay? I’m sure you’ve picked up on the tone from these interactions, but these questions from the Pharisees here, and the Levites, the priests, this delegation, they’re not just mere curiosity. This is an inquisition. They are here to put John on notice, like “Look, we know what you’re doing, we don’t like it, and you better stop.” That’s why they’re here. They’re auditing what’s happening.
It becomes even clearer in verse 24, “(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ [Hmm?] John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” And then John tells us, “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
So do you see their challenge? They’re saying, “Look, if you’re not the Christ, if you’re not Elijah, if you’re not the prophet, what business do you have doing all these baptisms like this? What right do you have? What authority do you have to be doing these religious practices out in the middle of the desert?” The implied answer is “None,” right? “You don’t have the authority.”
Now, why are they so concerned about his baptism? I mean, he’s just doing religious work. Well, there are three main reasons I think. Number one, because of the place. He’s baptizing in the Jordan, not in Jerusalem. It was supposed to take place in the temple, and most importantly, it was supposed to take place under the supervision of the priests and the Levites. And so he’s edging in on their territory, right? This is their domain. This is out of bounds. That’s what they’re saying.
Secondly, I think they’re concerned because of his procedure, the procedure that he’s using. Remember baptism was self-administered in the Jewish mind. You would baptize; it was a self-administered baptism. But John is the one doing the baptism. “What are you doing? You’re messing the whole thing up. It’s just not the way we do it. The whole imagery is that you are bathing and cleansing yourself before God. You’re washing away the dirt and you’re stepping out clean. You’re doing it all wrong, John. You’re messing the whole picture up.”
The third reason I think they’re concerned is because of his purpose. The Jews had two purposes for baptism, for ritual washings. First for proselytes who were turning away from being Gentiles and embracing Judaism, turning from paganism, becoming Jews. That was the first way they did it. That was the first purpose. The second one was ritual cleansing for worship and service in the temple. Now which of these two is John closest to doing here? Well, he’s calling for repentance, for turning away from an old way of life and embracing a new, so the closest thing here is proselyte baptism.
But the problem is he’s baptizing the wrong people. They’re supposed to be baptizing pagans, Gentiles, foreigners, Greeks, and Romans. They’re the ones who are far from God. They’re the scourge upon our land. They’re the ones who need to repent, but John is baptizing Jewish people, like they were actually proselytes. You see what he’s doing here. John is challenging the religious status quo. He’s saying, “Look, the way we are living as first-century Jewish people is nothing like the covenant people of God we’re supposed to be.” And see the Pharisees had concocted a long list of rules and regulations that the people of God had to keep religiously in order to receive the blessings of God. And these robust rules were so stringent and so outlandish that so many people were crushed and exhausted trying to keep up, and they were never good enough, and so they lived with shame and a sense of defeat.
And then there were others who were so good at keeping the rules that they grew prideful and arrogant and judgmental in their self-righteousness, believing they were the favored ones before God. And so the Jewish religion had turned toxic. And then along the way comes John, and he says, “Repent. Turn away from this religious, self-righteous, hypocritical way of life. You’re never going to find God here. Be baptized. Start fresh with God, a clean slate, a heart ready to receive the Lord.”
And so friends, don’t you see the religious leaders are affronted by John’s ministry here? The religious leaders are affronted by John’s ministry. He’s calling into question everything they stand for. He’s undermining their authority and the religious establishment they presided over. The Pharisees believed the greatest problem for Israel was those stinkin’ Romans who were ruling in their land. And they said, “What we need is we need God to come and get rid of those Romans who are occupying our land. The problem’s out there, you see. It’s those people.” But John is saying that their greatest problem is actually the self-righteousness that is ruling in their hearts, that we need God to come get rid of our self-righteous, hypocritical religion that is occupying our hearts. The problem is not so much out there as it is in here. No wonder they’re irritated with him.
John says, “If you think I’m a problem, wait till you meet the next guy. I’m just baptizing with water, but among you stands someone you don’t even know, and He comes after me and I’m not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandal.” What’s that all about? Well, the disciples of rabbis were commanded to do everything a rabbi told them to do except untie their sandals. Did you know that? No rabbi should ever ask his students to come untie his shoes. That’s beneath human dignity. John says, “I’m not even worthy of that. That’s how great He is. If you’re offended by my water baptism, hang onto your hats, folks, because here comes the Purifier.” The Purifier.
Verse 29: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because He was before me.” I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” and I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”
So John sees Jesus walking toward him, and his voice cries out in the wilderness, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s a curious phrase. What does it mean? Let’s come back to that.
Verse 30, he says, “This is the One of whom I said, ‘After me (in terms of sequence) comes a man who ranks before me (in terms of prominence) because He was before me in terms of pre-existence.’” He says, “I didn’t even know who He was until I baptized Him.” I mean, John and Jesus knew each other but John didn’t really know who Jesus was, not like this. This is why John came, to baptize, to reveal Jesus to the world, to Israel. And then he retells the story of Jesus’ baptism, how the Holy Spirit came down from heaven like a dove and remained upon Jesus, exactly the way that God said it was going to happen. “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
Isaiah foretold this would happen for Messiah. In Isaiah 11:2–3, it says this: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” And again, in Isaiah 61, the very passage that Jesus quoted when He launched His ministry in Nazareth, and He said, “In your presence this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing today.” This is Isaiah 61:1–2. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And so not only does Jesus have the Spirit resting and remaining upon Him, Jesus is the one who will baptize now with the Holy Spirit. So John says, “You think my water baptism is controversial? (laughs) You ain’t seen nothing yet. Here is one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. I’m just washing the outside. He’s going to wash you on the inside. I’m calling you to turn from your self-righteous religion to the living God. He’s going to call you to turn from spiritual deadness into eternal life. I’m urging you to be faithful to the Old Covenant. He will usher you in with His faithfulness to the New Covenant because this coming of the Spirit, this baptism of the Spirit, is the dawn of the days of the New Covenant that is coming in Jesus Christ.”
Here’s a prophecy from Ezekiel 36:26–27. Listen to these words. “And I will give you a new heart (God promises), and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Friends, one day the prophecy says God would change our hearts, that He would remove a heart that is calloused and hard like stone, and in its place put one that is malleable flesh, sensitive to His leading. He will give us a new spirit, His Spirit indwelling us so that we might truly walk in His ways and obey all that He commands. And so God is promising one day that what we are unable to do under the Law in our own strength in the Old Covenant, His Spirit will come and empower us to do faithfully in the New Covenant.
See, Jesus came, friends, not to put some window dressing on your life, or a fresh coat of paint, or some curb appeal. He came to do a total renovation of our hearts. But how will this deep, inner transforming change take place? How do we get the spirit? How do we step into this New Covenant? Well, remember friends, on the night that Jesus was betrayed, He was celebrating the Passover meal with His disciples when He held up a cup and said, “This is the cup of the New Covenant in my blood.” Jesus is inaugurating with those words the New Covenant between God and man, the means by which we get a new heart, a new spirit, and Jesus inaugurates it on the eve of His sacrificial death. And all of a sudden we realize the significance of John’s words when he saw Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” because Jesus is God’s own Passover Lamb, friends.
You remember from Exodus, chapter 12, in the Old Testament, the story of Passover, how all the firstborn sons of Israel were delivered from death because of the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The blood was put on the doorpost and the lintels of all the homes, and when the destroyer passed through the families were protected. The sons were protected. The first-borns were kept safe because of the blood of the lamb.
I’m a first-born, and I’ve often thought if I had been there what it would have been like to wake up the next morning and realize as you see the lamb, “I’m only alive because of that lamb. That’s the only reason I’m here. That lamb died in my place and for my sin.” And friends, that is a picture, because we are all delivered from sin and death because of the blood of a sacrificial lamb. We are alive because of the blood of the Lamb who died in our place and for our sake. Friends, Jesus comes to purify our inner life through the substitution of His own life for us.
How does Jesus take away the sin of the world? He doesn’t kick out all the sinners, the Romans, the bad people. “Get rid of all the bad people!” Do you realize if God got rid of all the bad people, who would be standing? No one. We would all be gone. Jesus takes away the sin of the world, not by removing sinners from the world, but by removing sin from sinners. He treats the cancer and saves the patient. How does He do this? He gives us a new heart, a new spirit, a new life, and He accomplishes this by laying down His life for us on the cross, substituting Himself for us, His life in exchange for ours.
And so here’s the takeaway, friends. Jesus alone can do the deep, inner-transforming work we most desperately long for. Friends, do you realize from this passage we’re learning the terrain of our hearts needs massive reconfiguration. Mountains need to be torn down, valleys filled in, rough places leveled. We do not need a little bit of help. We need total reconfiguration on the inside. And our problems are not primarily out here. They’re actually in here. The greatest problem in my life is not anything out here. It is Philip Miller. I am my own biggest problem, and my self-righteous efforts at religion are actually part of the problem as well. Don’t you see this?
All of my efforts to try to make myself worthy before God only make the problem worse. I need a new heart, not more effort with the old heart. I need a new spirit, not more of my spirit. I need the Lord’s Spirit.
Listen, Jesus is my only hope, and your only hope as well. Only He can change us in the way we most desperately need. And now we realize why. John’s baptism and all the Christian baptisms that ever came after were not self-administered. They were done to you by someone else, because that’s the Gospel—that we are helpless. We can do nothing. We are dead in our transgressions and sin. There is nothing I can bring to the table. Grace must act upon me. I must die, immersed into the old things. I must die and be buried with Christ. My sin, my self-righteousness, it must all die if I am to be resurrected with Christ and have a righteousness and life and a new spirit, new heart from Him by grace through faith in Christ alone. It must be done to me. I must yield to it, but it must come upon me. This is how God’s life is exchanged for ours. It is through the blood of the Lamb of God.
And I want to invite you. If your life is a testimony to the resurrection power, the life-change of Jesus Christ, we’re going to celebrate baptisms in the middle of October in just a couple of weeks. We’re gonna have a new life celebration. We would love for you to have the courage in this weird time to just boldly proclaim, “I belong to Jesus. I am a trophy of His grace.” We’ll give you more information on how you can be baptized. It’s the first step of obedience in your new life in Christ. I want to invite you to do that.
And for those of us who have been following Jesus for a long time, friends, this is a reminder of the very essence of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s to rely on His grace, His life, His Spirit, and not our strength, not ourselves. Our righteousness is filthy rags before Him. The only thing that matters is Jesus, His blood, final, finished, fully enough before God, our life because of Him. He laid down His life for us. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Father, we need so much more done in us than we realize. We are so much more helpless, hopeless than we like to admit, but we want to prepare our hearts. We pray make way in our hearts for the Lord. We surrender. We yield. We ask that you would come, and in your mercy and grace do what we are incapable of doing. Tear out this heart of stone. Give us a heart of flesh. Fill us with your Spirit. Change us. Transform us. Renovate, remake, renew who we are. Tear us back to the studs and make us a whole new residence for you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.