Day #1 – The Challenge to the Religious – Turn to Him!
That is the first reason John wrote his Gospel. As he explains in John 20:31, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” There was one purpose and one purpose only why John wrote this and every other verse in this book—to convince you to believe in Jesus Christ–because it’s only by believing the right things about Jesus that you receive the eternal life He offers. So like a great attorney, John argues his case by calling witness after witness to testify to the Deity of Christ.
The first and greatest witness was John the Baptist. John 1:19 says of him, “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.’”
This was a time of great expectation in Israel. People were certain that the long-awaited Messiah was about to appear. So when John appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Mark 1:5 says, “All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.”
The popularity of John cannot be overstated. He was the spiritual superstar of his day! It had been 400 years since a prophet had arisen in Israel. But now God is speaking to His people again, and it is only natural for them to be drawn to him and for the religious authorities to test John. After all, that was their job—to protect the people from false messiahs who were arising and leading people astray. So verse 19, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Are you the Christ?’”
Don’t misunderstand! When John uses the word “Jew,” it isn’t a racist remark. After all, John himself is Jewish. What he refers to when he uses the word, and he does so over 70 times in this book, are the religious authorities from Judea who hated Jesus. That’s a better way of translating it (Judeans instead of Jews) for that’s who John is talking to—agents of the religious establishment in Jerusalem who were ruthless in their efforts to protect the people from false teachers, so ruthless they killed their Messiah.
Let me also say, while I’m on the topic of religion, be very careful that you aren’t more loyal to your church or religious organization than you are to Jesus, for even though their purpose may have been good in the beginning, the tendency of every organization over time is self-preservation rather than proclaiming Christ.
That was true of these authorities. What they cared about most was keeping their religious system intact, crucifying the Prince of Glory in the process. (1 Corinthians 2:8) First, they asked John, “Are you the Christ?” Which John strongly denies: “No, I am not!” “Then are you Elijah?” They asked him this because according to Malachi 4:5, God said Elijah would return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And they were right! Elijah will return, but that is before the second coming of Christ, not His first coming. Instead, what the angel of God said about John at his birth is that he would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” But he wouldn’t be a reincarnated Elijah. Still they press him, “Are you the Prophet?” referring to the great prophet Moses said would arise among God’s people one day. (Deuteronomy 18:18) But John denies this too.
Then who are you, John? Don’t you love his humility! Notice he doesn’t even refer to himself as a person. He says, “I’m just a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” In fact he says in verse 27 that compared to Jesus, the One who comes after him, he isn’t worthy to untie His sandal straps! In other words, “I’m not even qualified to be His servant!”
That is incredibly humble, especially when you remember who he was—the son of Zacharias the priest! That means that he too was a priest. His birth was also announced by an angel and miraculous in that his mother was past the age of childbearing when he was born. Furthermore, Luke says he was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and instead of being raised in the same religious system as the other priests, he lived a life of total separation and self-denial, growing up in the wilderness of Judea where he wore a coat of camel’s hair and fed on locusts and wild honey. The priests who questioned him knew this, but that made them even more suspicious, “If you’re from God, then why aren’t you a part of our group? After all, everyone knows that we’re the real men of God!”
John couldn’t have cared less. He had nothing to gain and nothing to prove. Fame, fortune, a following—he wasn’t interested in any of those things. There was only one thing he cared about—making Jesus known to the world. So when asked about himself, he immediately shifts the focus to Jesus, just as we should do. We’re to be witnesses of Jesus and make everything about him, not about us. Am I right? But does anyone really do that? John did, and here’s how. Verse 25: “They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ 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.’”
Notice he doesn’t bother answering their question. Instead, he again shifts the focus away from himself to Jesus. In fact, it’s amazing if you think about it! John is the first prophet to appear in Israel in over 400 years, and no one doubts it. But he wins them over without fighting one battle, performing one miracle, or making any prophetic statements except one: He is here! Christ has come!” Do you see that in verse 26? “I baptize with water but among you stands One you do not know.” In other words, “He’s here! Christ has come! But you need to look for Him and turn to Him! That’s why I baptize in water: to turn your hearts to Christ!”
What about baptism? It was only natural for the Jews to ask about that because baptism was normally reserved for Gentiles when they converted to Judaism. They immersed themselves in water as a sign that they were turning from their sin to the One True God. But notice! Here it is Jews, not Gentiles, John is baptizing, saying in effect, “Your Jewishness won’t help one iota when you stand before God. The only thing that will matter is if you’ve pursued the righteousness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14) So they not only came to hear him preach, but to be baptized as a sign that they were turning from their sins to Christ.
That was John’s challenge to the religious on day 1, and it’s his challenge to you today. Be done with your religion. Repent of your sins and put your faith in Jesus. Tomorrow we’ll continue with day 2 and John’s challenge to the repentant–glorify Christ. I hope you’ll join us for that study too.