Not the Christ
Series: The Gospel of John
We often get stuck looking to others for validation, but they are not the Christ, nor are we. Only Jesus is.
Throughout human history there have been two basic ways of finding an identity. The ancient way was to get it from your family or your tribe. So if you were a good son, a good daughter, a good mother, or a good warrior for your tribe, you felt like you were somebody. In a religious context, if the priest told you you were good, you felt like you were somebody. Today we like to think we’re free of all that. Our approach to identity is not to let anyone else tell you who you are: Not family, not priest, not tribe, but instead to look inside yourself and decide who you are, then tell everyone else. It hasn’t solved the problem though; in fact, it’s exacerbated it. Now, instead of needing our tribe, parents, or priest to tell us we’re ok, we need everyone to tell us we’re ok. In the days of Jesus, however, the ancient approach was still dominant, and one of the respected religious teachers to whom people looked was named John the Baptist. Yet when he was questioned about who he was, he wanted to make clear that he was not the one who could actually make you ok. His clear confession was I am not the Christ. Jesus is. The Christ is the one who can actually save you, so John the Baptist wants to make sure we know who he is. We’ll look first at his statement that he’s not the Christ, and then at the two things he tells us about Jesus to show that He is the Christ: He’s the Lamb of God, and the Son of God.
I am not the Christ
Verse 19 introduces us well to the section: This is the testimony of John. This Gospel was written by John, but the testimony is of a different John, John the Baptist, widely known to be a trustworthy voice at the time. Fill in a voice you trust to understand the impact this would have had on the original audience: Trevor Noah, Elon Musk, Ibram Kendi, maybe someone like C.S. Lewis or Augustine if you’re a Christian, people who would probably make you feel pretty good about yourself if they told you they loved and accepted you. And the first part of John the Baptist’s testimony concerns who he is not: His clear confession of verse 20 is, “I am not the Christ.” Not only that, he goes on to say that he’s not Elijah, one of Israel’s great prophets, nor is he the prophet. Finally they pin him down and he identifies himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. So Isaiah is the prophet, but John is one Isaiah prophesied of, who comes to make straight the way of the Lord.
When Isaiah made that prophecy, Israel was in exile, meaning they had been driven out of their land. But Isaiah predicted a day where the roads would need to be prepared, hence “make straight the way,” because the Lord was coming to bring His people back from exile. John the Baptist now says that’s about to happen in his time, and he is not the Lord, but he is the one who comes to declare the coming of the Lord, to return his people from another exile. So they ask him next why, if he’s not Elijah, or a prophet, he’s baptizing people.
Eventually, John does answer the question, but first he tries to shift the focus. He acknowledges that he baptizes with water, but then he says in verse 26,
among you stands one who you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unite.” He’s kinda saying, “Ok yeah sure I baptize, but why do you guys care so much about me? Why are you wasting your time trying to figure out who I am? There is one among you already who is so great, that I’m not worthy to so much as untie his sandals. And you don’t know Him! Please, here’s the most important thing I can tell you about myself: I am not the Christ. But the one who is is among you, and you don’t even know Him! Let’s talk about Him.”
I’m guessing not many of you struggle with setting your hopes on me as the one preaching, but just in case, let me also be clear: I am not the Christ. What is perhaps more common if you are exploring Christianity is to develop an inordinate fixation on “the church.” What about the crusades, what gives Christians the right to claim their way is the right way, why did white evangelicals overwhelmingly vote for Trump, why has the church mistreated gay people? Those are all totally fair questions that deserve an honest answer, and whoever brought you or I would be glad to walk through them patiently and honestly with you if you’re wrestling with them, but I also want to warn you: Christians aren’t the Christ. There is one among you far greater than Christians or the church, and you don’t know Him: Jesus is the Christ. There is a Bible in the pew-back in front of you that you can take with you. It’s about Him. He’s the great one; not us. Focus on Him; get to know Him. You shouldn’t be a Christian because Christians are great; you should be a Christian because Jesus is great.
And if you are a Christian, you should be able to say clearly with John, “I am not the Christ.” How often are we discouraged from bearing witness that Jesus is the Christ because we forget we are not? We look at ourselves and see how weak we are, how half-hearted our service to Christ is, how unimpressive our lives are, and we think nobody would ever listen to us. But all of that is part of our witness, not a hindrance to it. Part of what you want everyone to know loud and clear about you is, “I am not the Christ.” It’s ok if you aren’t perfect. You are not the Christ. It’s ok if everything in your life isn’t perfect. You are not the Christ. We talk a lot today about identity, about identifying who you are, but how freeing might it be for you to just confess, and not deny, but confess freely, who you are not? “I am not the Christ.” Confessing this should not only free you to witness to the one who is the Christ, it should also free you from feeling like you have to be everything to everyone. Some of you feel like you’re constantly failing because there’s so much you could be doing that you aren’t. As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, “That what God forbids, is at no time to be done; what he commands, is always our duty; and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.” In other words, don’t do what God forbids, and do what God requires, but you can’t do everything God requires at once. You are not the Christ. That’s not a failure on your part; it’s a fact. Don’t hesitate to confess it.
And we must keep this truth in mind about other people. I mentioned earlier that the way we tend to look for identity today is by looking within ourselves, but that the result of that is we need everyone to validate us. As a result, we tend to care a lot what others think of us. But if you find yourself being inordinately worried about what anyone else thinks of you, one of the more powerful weapons available to you against that is to be able to look at that person or group of people and just confess freely, “You are not the Christ.” You don’t have to demonize them; they may even be great people, but they are not the Christ. You have to do this even with religious leaders and teachers too. If they’ve testified to you about the Christ, they’ve done you a great service, but they are not the Christ. When you see their flaws, which you inevitably will, don’t forget that. If their counsel ever doesn’t align with Jesus’ Word, definitely don’t forget who the Christ is. When the Lord calls them or you to other things, don’t forget that. Even at their best, they can’t be omnipresent, they can’t give you perfect advice, they can’t tell you who you are ultimately, and they can’t take away your sins. Only Jesus can do that, and we see that next when John testifies to Him as the Lamb of God.
Jesus is the Lamb of God
So in verse 29, after John has made clear that he is not the Christ, and that there is one among them who is far greater than he, who they do not know, he points to that one and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This is the one I’ve been telling you about, he says in verse 30, and then in verse 31 he provides more clarity to the question the priests had asked him: He came baptizing in order that he might be revealed to Israel. So let’s put that together with what we already saw: John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, who was coming to bring His people back from exile. We now see that baptizing with water was the way he was preparing them, in order that they might recognize Jesus as the Lord, coming to bring them back from exile.
This shows us that the exile Jesus came to rescue us from is different from the exile into which the Israel of old was sent. The preparation for it was not road work; it was baptism with water. Why? Because baptism was a sign of new birth, of conversion, of the leaving behind of sin and the resolution to walk in all the ways of new obedience, and the exile Jesus came to bring us back from was not merely exile under a foreign government, like Israel’s exile under Babylon, but exile under sin: Life away from God. He came to bring us from our sins back to God. And so we read that He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, not the soldier of God, who delivers Israel from the political oppression of Rome, the earthly power under whose dominion they lived at that time. In fact, His saving work is not limited to Israel at all: He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
The lamb was a common sacrificial animal in the Bible. When God told Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, Abraham put his faith in God, that he would provide a lamb as a substitute for his son. When God took the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, those who sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood on their doorposts were spared from judgment by the blood of the lamb. In the sacrificial system of God’s law, lambs were offered as a sin offering, symbolically bearing the sins of the people and dying for them as a sacrifice on their behalf. The prophet Isaiah told of a servant of God who would die for the sins of the people like a lamb led to the slaughter, who would then emerge victorious on behalf of his people.
So throughout the Bible there is this lamb of God who dies for the sins of God’s people, emerges victorious, and executes perfect judgment on the enemies of God. John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “There he is.” This is the one who takes away the sins of the world first by bearing them on the cross and dying for them, and who will come again to take away the sins of the world by executing a just judgment on all who persisted in fighting against Him and His people. John the Baptist came to call Israel to repentance, so that they would recognize Him as the Lamb of God, and so trust Him to take their sins from them on the cross, rather than face His judgment when He comes again.
And these same options are now given to us. The Lamb of God has been slain for the sin of the world. He overcame when He rose from the grave and He will come again to judge the living and the dead. On that day He will eradicate the world of every last sin, and that means punishment for those who are still holding on to their sins in that day. But to all who believe in Him, their sins are taken away before that day by the sacrifice He offered on their behalf on the cross.
How else can your sins be taken away? We’ve tried all kinds of ways to take them away ourselves. We’ve tried to take them away by simply going away. So when we know we’re guilty of sin or engaged in sin, we’ll simply distance ourselves from our church or from anything that would remind us of our sins, including distancing ourselves from the Lord. I see this happen all the time especially with sexual sin, whether the sin is toward people of the same sex or opposite sex. When guys are struggling with pornography, for example, or even what I recall from when I was addicted to it, is that you’ll look at pornography, then feel ashamed, because sin is shameful. But then instead of drawing near to God through the Lamb who is willing and able to take away that sin, you’ll distance yourself from God to avoid having to face the shame. You try to escape the reality, rather than facing it, and you know what’s a great way to escape reality? Pornography. More sexual sin. So not only is the shame of the sin not genuinely taken away in this approach, but the sin itself is also not taken away. In fact, it gains more power of you the longer you stay away from the Lamb of God, who takes it away.
Alternatively, we may try to think our sins away, and rationalize to ourselves why they aren’t really sin, not that big of a deal, why we’re the exception, why we’re better than others with worse sins. We may try the religious way of performing them away: More prayer, more resolutions, more rules. And we may try the therapeutic way of looking to other people to take them away, looking to people who will simply affirm us and tell us we don’t have sins. None of it works. We really have sins, they won’t go away simply because you do, you can’t think them away, you can’t perform them away, and no other mere human can take them away. That’s why getting one person to affirm you doesn’t work, and why you keep feeling like no matter how many people do affirm you, you need more. None of them, not even all of them together, can take away your sins. There is only one Lamb of God who died to take away the sin of the world. He doesn’t just affirm you; He calls you a sinner, but then He takes away your sins. That’s what we need, and it’s what neither John the Baptist nor any other human can do. When you realize you’re a sinner, run to Him. I know it’s painful to admit your sins, but it’s also the only way for them to be truly taken away. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and finally, He’s the Son of God.
Jesus is the Son of God
The next part of John the Baptist’s witness begins in verse 32. Here he says that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Christ. And now he reveals in verse 33 that God sent him to baptize, so there’s the answer to their question about why he baptizes, and he says that God told him that he on whom he sees the Spirit descend is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. So John says this is in fact what he saw, and now bears witness that this one is the Son of God. Once again, earlier parts of the Bible help us understand what’s going on here, especially Isaiah. In Isaiah 11, a king was prophesied on whom the Spirit of the LORD would rest. And son of God was a common designation of the Israelite king.
But the Spirit of the LORD could also be removed from the king. So God removed His Spirit from Saul, the first king of Israel. When King David sinned against God, he prayed and asked God to take not his Spirit from him. But here we read in verse 32 that the Spirit remained on Jesus, so much so that not only did Jesus receive the Spirit, but He had the power to give the Spirit to others. John baptizes with water, which is cool and all, but God tells John that this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And so John sees that this is the true Son of God, the ultimate Son of God, who receives the Spirit permanently and gives Him to all who believe in Him. John had a certain authority from God, to baptize with water, but only Jesus has the authority to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is described in Isaiah’s prophecy as the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD. That’s the baptism we need, and it’s the baptism that only Jesus, the Son of God, can give. He takes away the sin of the world not only as the Lamb who bears the sin of the world on the cross and will come again to judge it. He takes away the sin of the world by baptizing people from throughout the world in the Holy Spirit, who gives them wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. He dies on our behalf so our disobedience might be forgiven, and He gives us His Spirit to enable us to obey.
That’s how you really bring people back from the exile of sin. It does a prisoner no good to be set free from the penalty of his crimes if he still thinks the crimes he committed were a good thing. It does him no good if he still thinks his prison cell was a palace. It’s why mere resolutionism and more moral effort can’t be ultimate in your life. It’s why mere affirmation, as comforting as it may feel, is ultimately superficial. We know there is something wrong with us, and we need someone who not only affirms who we already are, but pays for our failure to be who we ought to be, and changes us into who we were made to be. We need a sufficient sacrifice for our sins and a total transformation of ourselves, and Jesus is the way to both. You can’t change yourself, but you can change, because Jesus can change you. We have stories in this church even of men who were soliciting prostitutes who are now faithful to their wives, who now are free from even looking at pornography. We have stories of others who were actively engaged in homosexual sex or other forms of extramarital sex who are now walking in purity even as singles, using their body for the service of God and others. We have stories of others who were addicted to drugs who have walked in freedom from addiction for years. There are lying people becoming honest, selfish people becoming selfless, proud people becoming humble, discontent people becoming thankful, anxious people finding peace, angry people becoming gentle, and so forth. And these are the things you find in every true church throughout the world.
Why? Because we are the Christ? No. Why then? Because Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Because Jesus is the Son of God, who has baptized us with His Holy Spirit. And even now, He continues to do so. Don’t we all know how many sins remain in us? Just these past two weeks I’ve been reminded of how little I truly rejoice and delight in the Lord, how ungrateful I am, how harshly I can speak to my wife, how much I covet and envy the success of others. But where do we go with these things? Not to any mere human. They aren’t the Christ. We go to the lamb of God, who, present tense, takes away the sin of the world, who lives in heaven now as the Lamb who was slain, presenting there the sacrifice He offered once on our behalf, taking away our sins even as we commit new ones. He continues to fill us with His Spirit, to transform us from one degree of glory to another. So don’t look to people to tell you who you are. Don’t look to people to save you. Don’t look even to a pastor. There is a greater one among you; do you know Him? Look to the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Look to the Son of God, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Then go, and do not hesitate to confess to others, “I am not the Christ. Jesus is.”