The Witness of John

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

November 7, 1999

The Witness Of John

John 1:19-34

Have you ever wondered why references are so important? If you apply for a job, you have to list references on your application. If you want to rent an apartment, you have to give references. If you apply for a loan, you will have your credit history searched. If we lived in a perfect world our own statement about who we are and what we are like would be sufficient. But we do not live in a perfect world. By experience each of us knows that a person can claim anything they want, but it doesn’t mean it is true. We want to have something to verify that the claims are true. The person could be telling the truth, but then again, perhaps they are self-deceived or are lying.

The Apostle John wrote his account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ because he wanted us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we would have life in His name (John 20:31). The Scriptures themselves state that on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed (Dt. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; etc.). John will confirm the claims of Jesus Christ throughout the gospel account by many witnesses. This morning we look at the first detailed witness concerning Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Turn to John 1:19-34.


The first statement we find in our text for this morning is And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?'”


To understand what is occurring here I need to give you some historical background. It had been four centuries since the last prophet, Malachi (460-430 B.C.) had been on the scene. It had seemed that God had lost interest in His people. They were now in subjection to Rome and were chaffing to see the kingdom of Israel restored as the prophets of old had said. Suddenly, John the Baptist, who is the John referenced here in verse 19, bursts on the scene.

His parents are of the Levitical line. The announcement of his conception comes to his father, Zacharias, through the angel Gabriel while he was performing his priestly service of burning incense in the temple (Luke 1:8-17). Because of Zacharias’ unbelief he was made mute until all Gabriel had said came true. Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth became pregnant in her old age and for nine months Zacharias’ inability to speak and Elizabeth’s enlarging womb indicated to all that something supernatural had happened. After the birth of the baby (Luke 1:57) and on the eighth day when he was to be circumcised, the relatives all wanted to name the baby Zacharias after his father, but Elizabeth said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” Not accepting her word as final, they went to Zacharias and asked him what the child would be named. Verse 63, “and he asked for a tablet, and wrote as follows, ‘His name is John.’ And they were astonished.” But they were to be even more astonished, for verse 64 says, “And at once his [Zacharias] mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. And fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. And all who heard them kept them in mind, saying, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’ For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.'”

In the Summer of A.D. 26, when John was at least 30 years old, the proper age for a priest to begin public ministry, he bursts on the scene again by calling the nation to repentance and giving strong warning to them to prepare for the coming of the Lord. His manner of dress, what he ate and how he lived were like the prophets of old. He spoke with authority claiming it to be from God. He was baptizing Jews and not just Gentile proselytes for cleansing. There were rumors circulating that he might be the Messiah. No wonder the Jewish leaders were anxious to find out who John was supposed to be.


We find in verse 19 that the Priest and Levites have come down from Jerusalem to question John, “Who are you.” It was proper for the Priests and Levites to come and investigate John. They had the responsibility to watch out for and protect the people from false prophets and teachers. The Priests were those that performed the daily rituals of worship including the sacrifices, and the Levites were the rest of the tribe that served in various capacities in helping in the worship of God.

These Priest and Levites had come down from Jerusalem. This is where the temple was located and so was the center of Judaism. They had traveled from Jerusalem which on the ridge the mountains of Judah down into the Jordan Valley to Bethany which was at some point on the Eastern side of the Jordan river (vs. 28). This was no afternoon stroll, but a good hike of 20-30 miles while descending a couple of thousand feet into the valley. They would then have to go back again. They made the journey because the religious leaders where concerned about John, not just because of curiosity.

WHO ARE YOU? (19-23). They want to know who John is and so they ask him directly. “Who are you?”

I AM NOT CHRIST (20) The text would indicate that John anticipated their major concern. Was he the promised Messiah? That was a question that was in the people’s minds according to Luke 3:15. Could John be the promised deliverer? John’s answers the question very formally and very emphatically in verse 20, And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
John made it very clear that he was not the promised Messiah.

I AM NOT ELIJAH (21). If he was not the Messiah, then who? Verse 21 – And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” Why ask him if he was Elijah? Turn to Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. Look now at Malachi 4:5,6. Behold I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” The Jews expected Elijah to return prior to the coming of the LORD according to these two prophecies. It was a reasonable question to ask John. Are you Elijah? John’s answer, “I am not.”

John’s answer of “no” can leave us with some confusion if we are not careful. In Luke 1:67 John’s father, Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied concerning him. In verse 76 he states, “and you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” That prophecy reflected what the angel Gabriel had said to Zacharias earlier, Luke 1:13 – “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition had been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

That presents us with some confusion because according to Zacharias’ prophecy and what the angel Gabriel said, in some way John was the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 & 4:6. But John himself said he was not Elijah. Our question is answered in Matthew 11:7-14 . . . Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare your way before you. Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was (is – present infinitive) to come.

Just as the coming of Messiah as a suffering servant was somewhat hidden in the Old Testament, so is the nature of his forerunner. John was not literally Elijah, which is what the Jews were asking him, but he came fulfilling the prophecies concerning him in relation to being the herald of Messiah. Even John the Baptist’s manner of life was patterned after the prophets and in specific Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 King Ahaziah recognizes Elijah when this prophet is described to him as “a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins.” John the Baptist dressed in the sane clothing as that prophet (Zech 13:4) – a rough garment, with a leather belt just like Elijah. Yet, John was not literally Elijah, so he had to answer,
“I am not.”

I AM NOT THE PROPHET (21). They then asked him, “Are you the Prophet?” To understand what this question is about turn to Deut. 18:15. “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [MOSES] from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. This is according to all that you asked of the LORD your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They have spoken well. I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.'” The Jews wanted to know if John was the fulfillment of this prophecy. The Lord had raised up many prophets through whom He had spoken to His people, but the prophet spoken of here was to be like Moses. This was not John the Baptist. This is a prophecy concerning Jesus, for of all the prophets, only Jesus was a prophet like unto Moses. John answered, “No.”

I AM THE VOICE (22-23). Now they were perplexed. Verse 22, They said then to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” John’s answer in verse 23, he said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” John paraphrases Isaiah 40:3. This is in agreement with what I said earlier. John is not Elijah, but he is the forerunner of the Messiah who is preparing the way.

John’s answer here has a two fold purpose. It not only answers their question so they can give a report to those that sent them, but it is also an earnest invitation for them to repent. This is an invitation that John knew would be repeated to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The analogy being used is of a king about to visit a city. The people would make sure the road to the city was in proper repair so that the king’s journey to the city would be without difficulty or obstruction. That was the point of John’s message to “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John was calling for the people to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Lord. This message was for the religious leaders as well as the common people.

John is also clear in his answer that he is not the Word, but only a voice. There could be no confusion between the reality, the Word, and the voice that was calling out to prepare for His coming. The voice only called out what the Word declared.

WHY DO YOU BAPTIZE? (24-28). The investigating commission was now even more confused. Verse 24 tells us

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees, so we know these Priest and Levites would be interested in the religious significance of what John was doing. If they had been from the Sadducees, who were indifferent to such things, there probably would not have been any further questions. So they ask, vs. 25, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

Baptism was based on purification rites and was used on gentiles that turned to the God of Israel as a demonstration of their repentance. But John was baptizing Jews. If John was not the Messiah or the forerunner they expected, then what was he doing? It is clear from the question asked that they did not understand John’s answer to them about being the voice crying in the wilderness to Make straight the way of the Lord. They could not comprehend the spiritual nature of John being the forerunner of Messiah.

I BAPTIZE WITH WATER (26). John’s answer in verse 26 once again makes a clear distinction between himself and the coming Messiah. John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, [but] among you stands One whom you do not know.” All John was doing was administering the sign of what was to come. The water of baptism was only a sign of purification. The reality of true purification was yet to come through someone greater than John that would baptize with the Holy Spirit (vs. 33) and cleanse the soul.

John minimizes himself and points to the one who was to come by stating that he was already among them. He was already alive and ready to begin His work. They just did not know who He was yet. There is a sense here that John is pointing out the question they need to be asking. Instead of being so concerned about John, they should be concerned about the one John is preparing the way for.

John’s description of Messiah as already being among them does not mean that John saw Jesus in the crowd, otherwise John would have pointed Jesus out as in verse 29 and 36 which occur on the next two consecutive days. The reference here is to the fact that Jesus public ministry was already inaugurated some 40 days earlier when John baptized him. Jesus then went into the Judean wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan.

I PRECEDE THE WORTHY ONE (26,27). John emphasizes again in verse 27 that he is unimportant. It is the one that is coming that is important. John says, [it is] He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This is a statement of great humility. The reference here is to a slave that took the shoes off a person and then washed their feet. John considers himself unworthy of doing even this menial task for the coming Messiah. This is a character quality that all Christians should exhibit. We should minimize ourselves and maximize our Lord.


Verse 29 tells of the events of the next day when Jesus returns from the wilderness and John points Him out to everyone. The priests and Levites did not know who the Messiah was (vs. 26), but if they were still present, they would know now.

THE LAMB OF GOD (29) The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John’s response when He sees Jesus is to point Him out and declare Him to everyone. The word translated as “behold” here is an interjection. It is a statement to draw attention to something – Behold! Look! “There He is! And who is it? The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! What a title for Jesus.

The Lamb of God identifies the origin of Jesus. This is the one that God Himself has provided. Man cannot provide for Himself a means to deal with his sin problem. Every human is born dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1) and confirms their sin by their own actions in failing to keep God’s laws. We lie, we want what other people have (covet), we take things that are not ours (steal), we hate others (- which 1 John 3:15 says makes us guilty of murder), we worship things other than God, we love other things more than God. Each of us are sinners by nature and practice. The penalty for sin is death (Ezk 18:4; Rom. 3:23) and our efforts to do good before the Holy God are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). We could not provide for ourselves, and an animal sacrifice was not sufficient to take away our sin (Heb. 10:4). Only God could provide a perfect lamb that would be sufficient.

The second phrase describes the purpose of the Lamb – a sin offering. The millions of lambs that had died in the sacrificial system were only types of the real sacrifice. As already pointed out from Heb. 10:4, they could not take away our sins. The only sufficient sacrifice for sin one like us who was perfect. That could only be Jesus, the Lamb of God. The grammar here is more fully brought out by translating this as The Lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the world. Jesus’ work was in the process of being carried out as He lived a sinless life and fulfilled the Law, and His work the cross would be the payment for sins past, present and future. All of them would be nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14).

Are you still trying to somehow pay for your own sins? Do you still think that if you are good enough God will accept you? Our have you turned to Jesus, the Lamb of God and let His sacrifice take away your sins?

THE PREEMINENT ONE (30). In verse 30 John again stresses Jesus’ preeminence. John was Jesus’ relative and was six months older (Lk. 1:26) and he preceded Jesus in ministry. His fame was already wide-spread before Jesus began His public ministry. Jesus’ message of “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” was the same as John’s. All the normal indicators would say that Jesus was a follower of John’s and so John would be the more important of the two. But John knew the truth and so he declares it. “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’

John was born at least six months before Jesus, but Jesus existed from eternity past. John was finite while Jesus was infinite. Jesus was preeminent, not John. A good question to ask yourself is if your attitude is the same as John’s. Is Jesus the preeminent one in your life or do you still think yourself to be something important?

THE SPIRIT’S REVELATION (31-33). In verses 31-33 John tells us that it took a revelation from God for him to recognize the Messiah. He did not figure this out on his own. “And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” 32 And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ The reference here is to Jesus baptism by John which had taken place about 40 days earlier.

Matthew 3:16, 17 records that event as follows: And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, [and] coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

John states that he did not recognize Christ even though he was sent to prepare the way. It was by God’s gracious and supernatural revelation to John that He recognized that Jesus was the Messiah.

There are many that think they can figure things out for themselves. They are smart enough to be the judges of truth and error, of right and wrong through rational thought processes. That mindset has led to the tragedy of theological liberalism which has rejecting the authority of Scripture for their own ability to decide what God has said and what He has not. They think themselves wise, but they have become fools (Rom. 1:22) for the foolishness of God is wiser than men (1 Cor. 1:25). They end up rejected what God has said because they do not understand it or it does not fit in their theological system. 1 Cor 2:14 states,
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

If you want to recognize Jesus, then you need to start by asking God to open up your mind to recognize the truth. John has declared it. Will you believe it? You need to ask God to have the Holy Spirit do His work in you of convicting you of sin, righteousness and judgement. For until a person is convicted of their sins they will not repent, and if they do not repent they will not cast themselves on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and if they do not do that, then they remain under God’s judgement.

THE ONE WHO BAPTIZES IN THE HOLY SPIRIT (33). At the end of verse 33 John gives a further description of Jesus as the one that will baptize in the Holy Spirit. John could only baptize with water, a mere symbol of the cleansing desired. Jesus Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit who would was the reality of the cleansing desired. Everyone who turns from their sins to Jesus and believes in Him is baptized in the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Spirit baptism is not a special annointing that occurs after salvation to select believers. It occurs to every believer at salvation when the Spirit regenerates the soul brings it to life.

THE SON OF GOD (34). The climax of John’s testimony on this day is verse 34. “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” The purpose of the ministry of John the Baptists ministry was to prepare the way for the Messiah. He was to announce His coming and call people to repentance in preparation for it. John did not shirk his calling. He was faithful to proclaim the truth regardless of how people treated him. Some heeded his call and loved him for it. Some thought he was a fanatic nut. The religious leaders rejected him and opposed him. Eventually King Herod killed him for telling the truth.

Suffering for the truth of righteousness is something we should expect if we are Christians. Jesus told us it would be that way.

Matt 5:10, 11 – “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when [men] cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are willing to suffer because of who Jesus is. He is the Son of God. He is the creator God in human flesh. If he were not we would suffer in vain for we would be followers of either a lunatic or a liar. His promises would not be true. But He is the Son of God. His promises – and His warning are true. Our future with him is sure.

The gospel of John is written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that believing we would have life in Him. The Apostle has presented his first witness to this truth. Much more evidence is to come. Do you believe already, then rejoice in Him. Do you still have doubts? Then consider the testimony and keep your mind open to the evidence to come. Jesus is the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the eternal one and so is preeminent. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit because He is the Son of God.

Sermon Study Sheets  KIDS CORNER

Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times the following terms are used, “witness,” “Messiah,” “Christ.” What different names are used to refer to Jesus?


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What is the historical background of John the Baptist? Why did the priests come to question him? Was this a curiosity visit or was this a serious matter? Why did they ask John if he was the Christ? Elijah? The Prophet? Why did Jesus say that John was Elijah (Mt. 11:14) if John said he was not? Who was “the Prophet” referred to? What does John mean by saying he is “the voice. . .” from Isaiah 40:3? Why did John baptize? What is the significance of John baptizing with water? What was the purpose of John’s ministry? What is the significance of the title, Lamb of God? How can a man take care of his sin problem? Jesus was preeminent to John – is He to you? How did John know that Jesus was the Messiah? What is your belief about Jesus? How do you know your belief is true? What is the significance of Jesus “baptizing with the Holy Spirit”? When/how is a person baptized with the Holy Spirit? What is the significance of the title, “Son of God.”


Sermon Notes – 11/7/1999 a.m.

The Witness of John the Baptist: John 1:19-34



Luke 1:8-25; 57-80


WHO ARE YOU? (19-23)



Malachi 3:1; 4:5,6

Luke 1:13-17

Matthew 11:7-14


Deuteronomy 18:15

I AM THE VOICE (22-23)

Isaiah 40:3








Matthew 3:16,17



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