As Christmas approaches, followers of Jesus should be ready and willing to confess the love of God in Christ. We should be like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. When asked if anyone knew what Christmas was all about, Linus confesses that he does and gives a witness to those gathered by telling them the story of Jesus’ birth. The third Sunday advent gospel reading looks at John the Baptist in John 1:6-8, 19-28. By looking at this story, Christians can see how we should be confessors of our belief that Jesus is Lord.
Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts.
The first thing we find in the life of John is our mission as a confessor. In verse 6, we are told that John was a man sent (apostellō) from God. Apostellō is the verb form of the Greek noun we often transliterate into English as Apostle. For John to be “apostellō-ed” meant that he had a mission to fulfill. He had authority from God to speak on his behalf, but he also had a responsibility to represent God well to those he encountered. Later in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus prays to the Father, “As you sent [apostellō] me into the world, I have sent [apostellō] them into the world” (17:18). Just as the first disciples were sent as Apostles, ones sent with Jesus’ authority on a mission to proclaim and confess the good news, so are we who follow him today have that same mission. We are to confess Christ to the world, and we are responsible for how we represent him.
The second thing we learn from John is our role as a confessor. John is described with two Greek words in his role as a confessor. John “confessed” (v. 20), which translates the Greek word homologeō (literally, “one word”). We are to have the same word about Jesus, to speak with one voice the he has become king and reigns over us, sitting at the right hand of the Father. This “one voice” doesn’t mean we collude our stories or that we are intolerant to differences of perspective or opinion. What it means is that our primary concern should be this one testimony that Jesus is Lord. Homologeō was also used as a “concession” of the reality of defeat or loss of an argument. It was even used to admit guilt to the charges brought against you in a trial. In the latter part of our reading, John is on trial and he confessed openly and freely who he was not and who Jesus is.
The other word used for John was “witness” (martyria) or “to testify” in its verb form (martyreō). The noun or verb appears four times in the verses we are considering and seven total times in John 1. The concept of “witness” was significant in the Gospel of John (appearing over seventy times), and the character of John the Baptist is the first individual in the text to demonstrate this concept. To witness is to give testimony before a judge or to affirm that which you have seen, heard, and experienced (which sounds very much like the opening to the letter of 1 John). In the Fourth Gospel, John is not really John “the Baptist” as he is in the other three gospels. The focus is not on his activity as a baptizer or his leader of a Kingdom of God movement. Instead, John is presented as John “the Witness.” John is the one who testifies to Jesus almost every time he opens his mouth. Even the focus of his baptism is not for repentance but merely a method to reveal the coming Messiah (1:31).
Unlike John, the priests and Levites are not witnesses nor confessors. They appear in the story as judges. They are inquisitors coming to investigate what is happening out in the wilderness. “Who are you? Why do you baptize?” Their goal was to figure out which box to check in regard to John. What type of person was he? How can we label and define him so that we can objectify and categorize him? They did not want to truly interact with John as a person or understand the complexities of his life situation. They had preconceived ideas about the Davidic Messiah, the returning Elijah, and the Mosaic Prophet. These were well developed eschatological categories in their day that they thought they understood well. Their goal was to collect information for their superiors, evaluating whether John did or did not fit the box he claimed for himself.
In the passage, John the Witness speaks of the Messiah even as he is interrogated by the priests and Levites. “Among you stands one you do not know” (v. 26). Perhaps Jesus was there that day. What if the priests and Levites were so focused on their questioning of John that they weren’t able to recognize the Messiah standing there in their midst? We are certainly told that Jesus was in the area, for he is present the two days following (vv. 29, 36). If so, John spoke in a veiled witness, but he was a witness nonetheless. It reminds me of a saying by Wallace Davis, former president of Wayland Baptist University: “Always tell the truth, but don’t always be telling it!” Part of the role of a confessor is to use wisdom and discretion about our audience and to speak as the situation demands.
We must make a conscious decision. Will we be investigators or proclaimers? Our mission is not to judge but to testify. We are called not to evaluate against our preconceived checklists. We are to confess what we have heard and seen and experienced. Throughout, we have an Advocate who gives us the wisdom and power to fulfill our role as confessor. The Spirit of truth will testify about Jesus even as we testify (Jn 15:26-27) and will empower us to be witnesses throughout the earth (Acts 1:8). Are you a witness in your portion of the earth?
A third lesson from John is our attitude as a confessor. First, let’s look at the attitude of the priests and Levites. They came to judge and evaluate John. Their attitude was that they occupied a lofty position. They looked down on John as well as those poor souls who came out to listen to him and to be baptized by him. They asked questions of John and expected–no, demanded–answers. They spoke from a position of power but were in a hurry to return to their own superiors looking down on them and awaiting their report. So they ask repeatedly, “Who are you?” Give us an answer! What authority do you have to baptize?” (vv. 22, 24)
John the Witness, however, had the attitude of a servant. His actions and words were from a position of humility. His attitude was one of stooping down to serve the people coming out to the wilderness. He looked up to God for his help and support. He considered himself beneath the Messiah in importance. We are told that he freely confessed and held nothing back, “I am not the Messiah!” Then they asked him, are you Elijah? Perhaps John paused, looked down at the camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist (clothing intentionally imitating Elijah). Maybe he was confused that they didn’t get the symbolism. “No . . . . ?” he may have tentatively responded (hoping they would catch the irony). More likely, he said no because he knew their intentions were to entrap him.
John’s humility and servant nature was reflected in his statement that he was not even worthy to loosen the Messiah’s sandals. In Rabbinic literature, rabbis were able to demand almost any action from their disciples. One area that was forbidden, however, were any acts that required the touching of feet. John, however, says he isn’t even worthy to voluntarily stoop down to touch the feet of the Messiah (v. 27). This is all the more significant for the reader when we later see Jesus stoop down to wash the feet of his disciples as one of his final acts, commanding them to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:3-17). True leadership is not about power but about service. John later talks about Jesus surpassing him (1:30) and we see him witness over and over about Jesus until eventually his disciples begin to leave him in order to follow Jesus instead (1:29-37).
One other lesson about our attitude as a confessor can be found in the opening verses (vv. 6-8). John was a witness to the light. We also are witnesses to the light. When the light comes, many will flee back to the darkness because the light reveals all. If we will be witnesses of Jesus, witnesses who stand in his light, we must be ready for our flaws to show, for our sins to be evident (Jn 3:19-21). For, as Paul learned, when we are weak then we are strong, for Jesus shines through the cracks created by our flaws (2 Cor 12:9-10).
The final thing we learn from John is our message as a confessor. John the Witness is not a fiery preacher in the Fourth Gospel. When he opens his mouth, one of two things tend to happen: 1) he quotes the Bible (v. 23) or 2) he talks about Jesus (vv. 26-27). John was not into self-aggrandizement or flashy words just to look impressive. No doubt the priests and Levites emphasized themselves as they interrogated him, probably wearing their fineries in order to be seen by all. John was from the priestly class himself. He could have easily chosen to live in Jerusalem with a nice lifestyle and the service (if not the respect) of many. Instead, he chose to live in the wilderness as an ascetic in service to God.
Whenever he talked about himself and Jesus, Jesus was always the superior. John, on confessing who he was, quoted Isaiah and said he was a voice in the wilderness (v. 23). Earlier, Jesus had been identified as the Word (1:1, 14). A voice is not the primary thing you focus on when someone speaks. You focus on the words that are communicated. The content, not the mode of delivery, is of primary importance. This Word is said to be the Light to which John bore witness (vv. 7-8). Later, Jesus called John “a lamp” (Jn 5:35). Lamps carry the light (or bear witness to the light) but they themselves are not the light itself. Even John’s free confession, “I am not the Messiah” is deemphasizing himself in respect to Jesus in this gospel. In Greek, John says, “egō ouk eimi” (“I am not,” v. 20). Nine or more times through the gospel, Jesus says, “I am,” which to a Jew was the equivalent of calling yourself God (Exod 3:14). (For instance, one time when Jesus says this, the Jews pick up stones to stone him, thinking he was equating himself with God, Jn 8:57-59.)
Three times to the priests and Levites, John denied himself (I am not, no). Three times in chapter 1, John testifies to Jesus as the Messiah (one among you, 1:26; Lamb of God, the one who surpasses me, he on whom the Spirit came down, God’s Chosen One, 1:29-34; Lamb of God, 1:36). By the third confession, some of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus (1:37). Still later, when John’s disciples complain that Jesus’ movement is getting bigger than John’s, John says, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:26, 30).
Ultimately, there are two types of people. Which one will you be? There are the confessors and witnesses, those who testify to what they have seen and heard and experienced about Jesus the Messiah. Then there are the inquisitors and investigators, those who promote themselves while judging others and placing them into boxes as a means of control. It is sort of like two characters from popular Christmas movies. Buddy the Elf is a confessor. He tells everyone that Walter is his father. He also testifies to what he has seen and experienced about Santa. He is selfless in his testimony about these others. Then there is Ralph from A Christmas Story. He is a self-promoter. He wants a Red Ryder more than anything for Christmas. He tells everyone about it. He judges their motives when they tell him he’ll shot his eye out. In the end, everything is all about Ralph.
During Christmas and throughout the year, let Christ shine through your life. Don’t allow your words and actions to obscure the light of Jesus through self-centeredness actions or discussion of things you care about but do not bring honor to Christ. Do not spend your time judging others from a position of superiority or preconceived ideas. Find out who they are and how you can help them better understand Jesus. As Christians, we are called to live out our mission to witness and confess Jesus the Messiah in a spirit of humility and service. Christmas is coming. We need to confess and be ready!
Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts.