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.

“How Do You Know Me?”: Nathanael and real knowledge

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. (John 1:48a)

NathanaelThe most astonished and revealing question of the first chapter of John’s gospel comes here from Nathanael’s lips. His encounter with Jesus reveals Christ’s knowledge of each person: their background, their identity, their desires, their habits and practices.

Philip finds Nathanael near Bethsaida and tells him about his encounter with Jesus, exclaiming, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). Nathanael scoffs at this, derisively mocking Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Philip sustains his wonder, inviting Nathanael to “Come and see” (1:46b).

When Nathanael follows Philip to where Jesus is found, something powerful happens. Jesus names Nathanael and describes him with such great depth and accuracy that Nathanael is shocked and overwhelmed. He responds with such a dramatic shift from his earlier comments that we know a deep chord has been struck within his life: “Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel'” (1:49). Jesus promises that the shock Nathanael has experienced in this initial encounter will be surpassed by what he will see in the future.

Nathanael is shocked by Jesus’ knowledge of him into a shocking knowledge of who Jesus is. These two perspectives go together. It is not that our self-knowledge arises merely through pursuit of ourselves – knowing our personality, proclivities, temperament, past, or desires. It is that Jesus the Christ brings us true knowledge of ourselves while concurrently leading us into that which we need more urgently than self-knowledge: knowledge of God in Christ.

May we be like Nathanael today as we allow Jesus to meet with us, speak to us, and reveal both who He is and who we are more clearly.

The Flesh of Our Savior: the importance of the body in Jesus’ redemption

Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald.jpg

The entire life of faith begins with God reaching out to us first. In response to humanity’s fall from grace and sin’s impact upon this world, God sent Jesus, fully God and fully man, to live, die and be resurrected to bring us and all creation back to God through relational restoration. This is how Paul describes it:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, through for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

In the face of humanity’s sin-soaked efforts to stand at the center and push God to the periphery, in the face of humanity’s guilt and shame, God steps in to demonstrate His love by sending Jesus into our midst.

And through that demonstration of love in Jesus, sin’s disordering power in our lives and choices is broken by God’s grace.  Here is Paul again, just a few verses later:

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:17-21)

Let me summarize Paul’s flow of thought like this:

Adam’s sinful action Christ’s righteous action
Death comes to humanity Grace and life to humanity
Condemnation to humanity Justification and life to humanity
Humanity becomes sinful Humanity becomes righteous
The Law highlights sin’s victory in wrong and death Grace highlights Jesus’ victory in eternal life

Death reigned through Adam’s sin, but those receiving the grace of Christ will reign in life. Condemnation came down through Adam’s one sinful act to all humanity, but Jesus’ one righteous act eradicates judgment and opens the way to life. Adam’s disobedience made all humans sinners, but Jesus’ obedience makes many righteous. The law of God highlights the victory of sin in which human beings are trapped to the point of death.  But the grace of God in Christ has victory over sin, bringing us into eternal life.

The background of Genesis 1-3 is important here because Jesus is, in a sense, the second Adam, bringing redemption to humanity from the power of the Fall.  This is a re-introduction to the way things were supposed to be in the original creation, and the doorway into that renewal is Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus gives grace, life, and freedom from guilt and shame. We don’t have to be afraid of God or ashamed of God because of Jesus and what He has done. The access point for us to this is new life and grace is faith. We reach back to the God who first reached out to us.

The Importance of Jesus’ Redemption in the Body
Now, we all know this is really important in terms of salvation, but we may wonder what any of this has to do with our love, sexuality, and body life. 

It is important to remember that Jesus came in a body to do this work of salvation. That incarnation – that physicality – is not tangential but vital to the redeeming work of Christ. The Apostle John writes:

“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.” (John 1:14)

Jesus came in a body because we live in bodies. His saving work – His redeeming work – had to be physical to bring God’s power to bear upon the created world. It may seem outlandish that God would draw near in a human body, but this is the way salvation works and, in a sense, must work. This is the fleshed-out reality of the title “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

Without Jesus’ body, there would be no redemption or salvation. John the Apostle knew this and so a major theme of his letters is counteracting the proto-Gnosticism so prevalent and popular in his day. 

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 John 4:1-3)

The fleshy-ness of Jesus is vital to the truth of what God is doing. Why? John goes on a bit later in that same chapter:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

Paul told us earlier that Jesus’ death demonstrated God’s love for us (Roman 5:8), and now John echoes that, saying God’s love is shown in Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Sin ruptures relationship with God. That rupture happened through human bodies and human activity in the garden. The physicality of sin had far-reaching spiritual impact:  humanity trying to be at the center of the universe, including self-will, the condemnation of guilt, and the hiding of shame.

In like manner, Jesus dealt with sin’s impact through a human body and through human activity. The physicality of Jesus’ sacrifice had far-reaching spiritual impact: restoration of relationship with God, new life, acceptance, and freedom from condemnation.

[This post is excerpted from the message, “Redemption and Embodied Sexuality,” delivered at Eastbrook Church on November 16/17, 2019.]

Word of God [Name Above All Names]

NAAN-Series-GFX_App-Wide.pngIn continuing our series, “Name Above All Names,” this past weekend at Eastbrook Church, I looked at one of Jesus’ most unique titles in all of Scripture: Word of God. The word logos in Greek has deep roots in Hellenistic philosophical thought, but the majority of scholars agree that the most likely background here is in Jewish thought on God speaking, the Word of God coming to the prophets, and the personification of wisdom in such texts as Proverbs 8. Still, the idea of the word becoming flesh is entirely new and one of the most beautiful portions of Scripture in the entire New Testament.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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