We now begin the large central section of the Gospel, what some have called “The Book of Signs”: John’s account of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world that is going to take us to the end of chapter 12. And it begins with the witness borne to him by John the Baptist.
v.19 We have already been told, twice, in the Prologue that John testified concerning “the light that had come into the world.” Now we are told in greater detail exactly what testimony John gave. John will give us some information about John’s early ministry and his witness to Christ that we are not given in the other gospels, though all the gospels include John’s witness to Christ at the outset of their account. The verb “to bear or give testimony” and the noun “testimony” or “witness” are very important terms in John. John uses the word group far more often than the other gospel writers or any other NT writer.
This is the first instance of the use of the term “the Jews” which is a commonplace in John. Some have argued that it is evidence of early Christian anti-Semitism, but it is important to remember that John himself was a Jew. Further, often the term is used neutrally, for example explaining a custom of the Jews that his Gentile readers would not understand (2:6). Sometimes the term is used positively, as when Jesus himself is identified as a Jew (4:9) or when reference is made to Jews who believe in Christ (11:45). But often, as here, it refers to the religious leadership of the Jews, usually as those who reject Jesus and become his enemies. Not all of the leadership, of course, refused to believe. We will read of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both members of the Sanhedrin. In any case, the use of the term “the Jews” reflects the historical fact that John has already reported in the Prologue: He came to his own but his own did not receive him.
In any case, the first testimony that John gave to be recorded in the gospel is in response to a committee of inquiry sent by the religious leadership to the vastly popular Baptist.
v.20 First century Judaism was rife with messianic expectations and perhaps it was natural that it should be wondered whether a man who appeared on the scene so mysteriously and was commanding the attention of such enormous crowds (the gospels say “all Jerusalem” was coming out to hear him) might be the Messiah. So they put the question directly to him and he answered just as directly, “No!”
v.21 Well, if he isn’t the Messiah, perhaps he is one of the other figures associated with OT prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Elijah? John the Baptist, we know from the other gospels, dressed in a way that recalled Elijah. In Deuteronomy 18 we read the promise of a prophet like Moses who would come. Is John this prophet? In each case John is just as emphatic in his denial. It is true that John was the “Elijah” prophesied by Malachi who would prepare the way for the Lord, but he is not Elijah himself, Elijah come back from heaven which was what the Jews were asking.
v.22 Well, if John isn’t any of these figures, who is he? They have to have something to carry back to their bosses in Jerusalem.
v.23 John’s reply, taken from Isaiah 40, is that he himself is no one of great importance; he is but a voice. And what he has to say is to make ready for the coming of the Lord is near.
v.24 The meaning of the phrase is probably “some Pharisees who were in the delegation asked him…” The question they ask would be particularly interesting and important to the Pharisees. What is the theological justification for his baptism? Baptism was not uncommon in the Judaism of that day, but ordinarily it was self-administered. What is more, baptism was often used as a rite of admission of converts to Judaism from other religions; but John was baptizing Jews, as if he were saying that they too were defiled and needed cleansing.
v.27 John replies by saying, in effect, that his baptism is a witness to another – a point he will make explicit in v. 33. There is a rabbinical saying that goes as follows: “Every service which a slave performs for his master a disciple shall do for his teacher except untying his sandals.” John is saying, then, that I am unworthy to do for this One even those tasks that the rabbis think are too menial for a disciple to perform. Whatever stature John has, he is saying, it is nothing compared to this One to whom he has come to reveal.
v.28 We pay closer attention now to little notes like this in the gospel narrative. This is not the Bethany where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived, which was right by Jerusalem. This is another Bethany, across the Jordan. But it is probably important to John to point out that the Lord’s public ministry begins in a Bethany and ends there, or nearly so, with the last of his great signs, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
v.29 You have perhaps heard the anecdote told of Charles Spurgeon, the great Victorian preacher, that when the great church built for his enormous congregation, the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, was almost finished, he tried out the acoustics, stepped to the place where the pulpit would be and cried out in his largest preaching voice, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A workman, high in the ceiling heard the words, was arrested by them and eventually brought to faith in Christ. True? It is fair to say that John himself probably did not understand all that he was saying, or how it would be that Christ would prove himself the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb. By the way, it seems pretty certain to me that John mentions Bethany, as he did in v. 28, to frame his account of the disclosure, the revelation of Christ, the Son of God, as the Lamb of God who would die for the sins of his people. Here, at the one Bethany, a great statement is made by the Baptist about Christ taking away the sins of the world. And near the end of chapter 11, at the climax of the ministry in the other Bethany, Caiaphas, the high priest, prophesies – with words he himself did not understand – that Jesus would die for the people. At the beginning, in one Bethany, at the end in another, Christ is proclaimed by someone else as the one who would die for the sins of his people.
“World” is going to be another key term in John and it is introduced here without comment in an extraordinarily important statement of the purpose of Christ’s coming into the world.
v.30 In any case, John makes explicit his meaning: Jesus is the one he was talking about. We have already heard this from John, second hand, in v. 15, though the occasion when John said this is not reported. It is likely that Christ’s baptism by John, which John does not record, had already occurred by this time.
v.31 That is, up to that point, John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah. But the next verses tell us how he came to know that he was.
v.33 The Messianic age would be an age when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon God’s people and the nations. A number of OT prophets spoke of this “age of the Spirit.” Jesus will have authority to baptize with the Spirit and bring, by him, the world to new life.
Now, taking the Gospel in its natural order and, seeing the section we have read in its place at the very beginning of the argument of the gospel, we find that we have before us the first in a series of testimonies to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Remember what John said his purpose in writing the Gospel was: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, by believing, you may have life in his name.”
He is out to prove to you that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and to persuade you to believe in him, to entrust yourself and your salvation to him. And, his method will be “witness-bearing.” He is going to call a succession of witnesses to give their testimony that Jesus is the Son of God and that they can prove him to be the Christ.
That is clearly the point of this section we read. That much is indicated by the inclusio that defines the subject of this section. The section begins in v. 19: “…this was John’s testimony”, and it ends in v. 34: “I have seen and I testify…” The section, in other words, is about John’s testimony about Jews. You have the same thought at the beginning of the concluding paragraph in v. 32: “John gave this testimony…”
In other words, after the Prologue, the introduction, the gospel begins, as it were, with the calling of the first witness. Think of a legal setting, a courtroom, where they are after the truth of a matter. “John the Baptist: what can you tell us about Jesus Christ: who is he?” And John enters the dock and says “He is the Son of God.” And the question is put: “That is an astonishing claim. Can you back it up with evidence? How do you know that he is the Son of God?” And John replies: I was there at his baptism! I saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove come down from heaven and remain on him!” Well, how does that prove that he is the Son of God? “I had previously been told that the man on whom I would see the Holy Spirit come down and remain, he would be the One to baptize with the Holy Spirit, i.e. he would be the Christ.” Are you sure of all of this? “Absolutely,” John continues, “this Jesus is the one whose way I have been sent to prepare, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the One who came after me but is before me.”
And all of this evidence, this testimony, this witness-bearing, comes from a man whose life and work were so extraordinary, whose preaching so bore the mark of divine authority that vast multitudes of Jews were flocking to hear him and were even submitting to his baptism – a significant thing for a Jew to do, a measure of their confidence in him as a man of God. Even the Jewish religious leadership that was not disposed to approve of John or his message, took him so seriously that they sent a delegation to find out if he was the Messiah. This is the man who is giving his testimony about Jesus being the Son of God!
As I said, giving “witness” and “testimony” is a key to the Gospel of John. The idea is introduced in the prologue a number of times and in different ways, and now, at the outset, we have the first witness. That was what was important about John the Baptist. No doubt there were many important things about his life and work, but compared to this they amounted to very little: he came to be a witness to Jesus as the Son of God. That is what the Bible chiefly preserves of the ministry of John the Baptist.
Leon Morris in his very fine commentary on the Gospel of John suggests that, in the course of the Gospel, we will find seven different witnesses brought to the bar, as it were, on Jesus’ behalf. That is not unlikely. After all, John will give us seven “signs” or miracles that Jesus performed. Seven is the number of completeness. If two witnesses are usually enough to prove a point at law, then seven will be more than enough, particularly these seven!
The three persons of the Godhead all bear their respective witness to Christ: The Father, Christ himself, and the Holy Spirit. The works, especially the miracles of the Lord are another witness, giving testimony that he is the Son of God. The Holy Scriptures are brought in to bear their witness to Jesus. John the Baptist, whose witness opens the argument, is the sixth. And the seventh is the assortment of human beings who were eye-witnesses of the Lord’s life and work and gave their testimony about him: the disciples bear their witness, beginning, as we will see, in the very next section of this first chapter. John himself, the author of the Gospel, has already told us in v. 14 that he saw with his own eyes the glory of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The woman whom the Lord will meet by the well in Samaria will bear witness about him to her neighbors, and so on. At the end of the Gospel, Thomas, another of the disciples, delivers his clinching testimony when he falls to his knees before the risen Christ and addresses him: “My Lord and my God.”
The Gospel is the accumulation of testimony on behalf of the proposition that Jesus is the Son of God. John wants to persuade you and so he brings his witnesses one after another, great and small, and has them give their testimony. It is an astonishing claim that John is making, but he believes that there is evidence enough, more than enough, to persuade you of the truth of what he has said about Jesus Christ. Witness and testimony establish the truth. They did then, they do now. The better the witnesses, the more of them, the greater variety among them, the clearer and more consistent their testimony, the surer we are that we have got the truth. The fact is, whether you realize this or not, most things you know, you know by testimony and are sure are true because of the weight of that testimony. There are a host of things, even very important things, that you take without reservation to be true, but which you never yourself investigated or found out or proved to be so or ever could. That is how we learn the truth, by and large; by the testimony of others. And that is true whether we are speaking about the career of Napoleon, the distance of the sun from the earth, or the date of our own birth.
But bearing witness does something more. It commits a man or woman. If I take the stand, enter the witness box and testify that I saw or heard such a thing, that such and such is the truth of the matter, I am no longer, I cannot be any longer neutral. [Morris, 90] What we find in John is a series of witnesses utterly committed to the truth they are telling, determined that you should believe what they know is true.
That is how the knowledge of Jesus Christ is conveyed to the world and how those who do not yet believe are brought to faith and trust in him. When the Lord was about to ascend to heaven, forty days after his resurrection, he told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. They would tell others what they themselves had heard and seen and learned of Jesus Christ. And so they did and they turned the world upside down!
And so it goes on still today. John’s witness is more fundamental. The Gospel reports the testimony of God himself and preserves for us the testimony of others who actually saw and heard the Lord Jesus, both before and after his resurrection from the dead. And that witness, that testimony John has written down in his Gospel still speaks with living power. Franz Junius, the early Reformed theologian, came to faith in Christ reading John 1. He had gone to a worship service as a young man, come home and had a conversation about his soul with his father, then took up his Bible in his room. His eye fell on chapter 1 of the Gospel of John, and, reading that testimony, he too believed in Jesus. But, there is still more testimony than John records. Christians have never stopped and must never stop giving their own testimony on behalf of the verdict that Jesus is the Son of God and the only Savior of sinners; that Christ alone has authority to send the Holy Spirit into dead hearts to make them live.
Ed Dunnington told us at the recent meeting of the Presbytery, of a young man in his Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Washington. A brand-new Christian. He happened to be on the staff of the University’s student newspaper. At an editorial meeting not so long ago, the student editor of the opinion page read a letter that had been sent attacking the paper, claiming that its opinion page was characterized by an anti-Christian bias, was frequently sacrilegious, and made no effort to be even-handed in its treatment of Christians. He thought it was funny and wondered aloud if they could get someone to write an article entitled, “Why I love Jesus.” Everybody laughed. That was funny.
But this young man didn’t laugh. And, eventually, he went to the student editor and offered to write just such an article, which appeared in the student newspaper a few weeks ago. And it was a wonderful article, a fine, obviously deeply felt, personal statement of faith. It was an account of his own sin and the forgiveness he found in Christ. He spoke of knowing the Lord himself, a personal relationship with God.
And then he concluded,
“This is Christianity in its only form. It is entirely based on the unconditional humbling love of our Lord and His desire to share His life with us. It is perfect, because He is perfect; beautiful, because He is beautiful; and all-powerful, because through Him even our salvation is possible. This is Christianity. This is what I mean when I say, ‘I am a Christian.’”
That young man stands in a very long and noble line of Christian “witnesses”: men and women who have given their own testimony that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of those who trust in him. This was the common note in the early church’s evangelism. They had first-hand knowledge of the truth and they didn’t hesitate to tell others of what they had learned.
Listen to this from Michael Green,’s grand book, Evangelism in the Early Church :
“Wherever one looks in the literature of these two centuries it is the same story. Doctrinal imprecision, even imbalance abounds: heresy is common; antinomianism an ever-present danger; but there is no denying the zeal and the sense of discovery which marked the witness of the early Church both in their public and their private testimony, both in their written and their spoken word. It was this utter assurance of the Christians that they were right about God and Christ and salvation, which in the end succeeded in convincing the pagan world that it was in error.”
It is in that spirit that John wrote his Gospel. He had himself seen the glory of Christ. He knew he was the Son of God. And, in love for God and man, he set out to do all he could to prove to everyone else that Jesus was the Christ. And what will work best to persuade? What always works best. A long line of witnesses who can tell us what they themselves know, what they have seen, what they have heard, what they have experienced themselves. John the Baptist is but the first of those witnesses. But what better witness to begin with?
Those witnesses still speak today through the pages of the Gospel and by the working of the Holy Spirit in and through his Word as people read it and listen to it. And, added to their witness, is a great chorus of new voices, all saying that they have learned the same thing, have seen and heard the same Christ, and know him to be the Son of God just as John the Baptist did. And, among all of those witnesses, giving their testimony, brothers and sisters, should be you and I. Just telling others what we know to be true and with the same conviction and the same commitment and the same sense of privilege in being asked to give our testimony that John so obviously had in giving his!
There were things that John the Baptist did not yet understand about Christ and his salvation when he gave his testimony to Christ. The Gospel writers very honestly tell us about his confusion on some points later on and how the Savior cleared that up. There are many things you may not be able to explain in satisfactory detail about Christ and salvation to someone you speak to. But, you can always tell anyone what you have yourself discovered about Jesus Christ and what he has done for you. A witness only has to speak about what he or she knows first hand. Nothing more.
And every Christian knows first-hand marvelous things and fabulously important things about Jesus Christ. Tell them what you know. Stand next to John the Baptist and say, I too can testify that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.