Knowing Who We Are and Who We’re Not: a lesson from John the Baptist

John the Baptist

One of the most gripping commendations Jesus ever offered was about John the Baptist when He said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). There was really no one quite like John, and Jesus recognized that.

Of course, the other part of that statement was this: “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John knew who he was and also knew who he wasn’t, and that shaped the way he lived.

At one point in his ministry, John said to a group of his disciples and gathered onlookers: “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him'” (John 3:28). John knows who he is and knows who he is not.

John the Apostle sets us up for this in the first chapter of his gospel when he says that John the Baptist is not “the Light”:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (1:6-8)

Later on, when John is questioned by religious leaders, he knows that he is not the Messiah,  Elijah or the long-awaited Prophet:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No.’

Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”‘ (John 1:19-21)

John clearly knew who he was and who he was not.

Not only that, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he, John, was not Jesus:

  • John was not the light, but, as we read in John 1:9 – “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” – Jesus is the light
  • John was not the privileged son, but, as we read in John 1:14, “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” – Jesus is the One and Only Son.
  • John was not the Messiah, but more than once he exclaimed to his followers when Jesus passed by, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)

John knew that he was not the awaited one, but that Jesus was the one the world was waiting for.

So, when John the Baptist’s followers come to him feeling out of sorts because Jesus’ ministry is increasing, John is not really bothered. In fact, he knows this is the way things are supposed to be. He knows that all of what he is doing is really about Jesus.

John the Baptist is a powerful example for all of us who follow Jesus. He reminds us that not any one of us is the Messiah, and we should live accordingly. I am not the Messiah. You are not the Messiah. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, be everywhere at once, or be the one to save the world. That was Jesus’ job. Believing this and live out of this belief  is a significant part of our discipleship.

We are not here to replace Jesus, but to display Jesus in our life on earth. The difference seems slight, but it is gargantuan in practice. In our lives we are not trying to be the Messiah, we are trying to direct people to the Messiah.

John the Baptist knew who he was and who he was not, and it set him free to minister as God would have him regardless of the outcome.

Sabbath: recovering identity through God’s rhythm for life

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When I used to hear the word Sabbath, I thought of something legalistic and rigid or just plain out of touch with my life. I would picture flowing robes and beards of Old Testament characters exhorting people to rigidly ‘keep the Sabbath day.’

But the more that I have thought about Sabbath, the more I have come to see it as perhaps one of the most important and most ignored aspects of our lives. Sabbath literally means to cease or stop. God ordained the Sabbath as a way for human beings to recover their identity by entering into God’s own rhythm for life: six days on and one day off. God Himself rested after the powerful work of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3). God has given us this rhythm of life so that we might recover our identity in Him, reflect His ways, and also be refreshed in life.

Sabbath as a day is often incredibly difficult for us. I struggle to absolutely be still or to set aside a day in which I will not check email or scan through the internet. But Sabbath is an all-important chance to both adore God and be refreshed. We neglect at our own peril. As Eugene Peterson says, it’s about praying and playing. We gather with brothers and sisters in Christ to worship in the morning and then we are renewed through playful enjoyment of life given by God throughout the day. Even though setting a day aside for a Sabbath is difficult, it is something that we both need for our own benefit and for our connection with God.

But Sabbath is more than a day. It is an attitude. We are no longer bound by legalistic obedience to God’s law, but we are set free by Christ – through His fulfillment of the law – to enjoy a life of Sabbath rest. The peace in life and trusting relationship with God that flows from the Sabbath day should rightly impact all of our minutes, hours, and days. We are set free to be at peace because of Christ. We can trust that God cares for us each moment. Our lives are different.

So, Sabbath is something very old, but so very important for our lives today. I hope we might all recover Sabbath, even in the midst of the chaos of the world, so that we regularly recover who we are in God.

Bibliography on Christian Identity for the “Who Am I?” series

books.jpgWhenever I study for a sermon series, I spend a lot of time far in advance of that sermon series doing research, reading books, thinking, reading articles, reflecting, reading more books, writing, and reading even more. I usually gather all of the resources I use together into a bibliography for each series. In the past I’ve shared those bibliographies here for those who are interested (access “Bibliography for the Theology of Suffering and the Life of Joseph” and “Bibliography on the Trinity”).

Here is the resource bibliography that accompanies our recent series, “Who Am I?”, on grasping our sense of identity with God through Christ. Although I utilized many commentaries for specific weekends of this series, I did not include those in this bibliography, limiting it to books specifically related to the topic of identity. The books I found particularly helpful are marked with an asterisk.

Christian Identity – Bibliography

Jerry Bridges. Who Am I?: Identity in Christ. Adelphi, MD: Cruciform Press, 2012.

Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Eric Geiger. Identity: Who You Are in Christ. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 2008.

Timothy Keller. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

*________. Making Sense of God. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

C. S. Lewis. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960.

Loyola McLean and Brian S. Rosner. “Theology and Human Flourishing: The Benefits of Being Known by God.” In Beyond Well-Being: Spiritual and Human Flourishing. Ed. Maureen Miner, Martin Dowson, and Stuart Devenish. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2012.Read More »

Who Am I?: a new series at Eastbrook Church

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, as we celebrated the resurrection, we launched a new series entitled “Who Am I?: Finding Identity in Christ.” My first message in that series, “He Is – I Am,” explored how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah leads us into the discovery of what it truly means to be human in relation to God and as our unique selves.

The remainder of the series addresses this pervasive question within our culture: who am I? We receive all sorts of advice in answering that question, from ‘following our noses’ to trying on different identities to reacting against the prevailing culture or our histories. But how do we discover our personal identity? Even more, is the concept of personal identity even something that is helpful to consider?
This series looks at what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for our personal identity with God in Christ.

Here are the titles of the series:

  • April 7/8: I am not stuck
  • April 14/15: I am known by faith
  • April 21/22: I am more than my image
  • April 28/29: I am made uniquely
  • May 5/6: I am unfinished
  • May 12/13: I am loved beyond measure
  • May 19/20: I am filled with God’s power

Join us throughout the next two months in person or online to gain a deeper grasp of our identity in Jesus Christ.