If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 19 through 34. It says:
This is John’s testimony when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He did not refuse to answer, but he declared: “I am not the Messiah.”
21 “What then?” they asked him. “Are you Elijah?”
“I am not,” he said.
“Are you the Prophet?”
“No,” he answered.
22 “Who are you, then?” they asked. “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What can you tell us about yourself?”
23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord—just as Isaiah the prophet said.”
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 So they asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John answered them. “Someone stands among you, but you don’t know Him. 27 He is the One coming after me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to untie.”
28 All this happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ 31 I didn’t know Him, but I came baptizing with water so He might be revealed to Israel.”
32 And John testified, “I watched the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He rested on Him. 33 I didn’t know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One you see the Spirit descending and resting on—He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God!”
This is the word of the Lord.
Today’s passage is much longer than last week’s, but I think it’s actually much more manageable, at least in the sense that it’s not nearly as likely to give you whiplash. Instead of having a thousand points, like John’s opening passage, this week I have two.
Because there’s really two major things that John is pointing us towards in today’s passage. There’s two major questions that he answers. The first is that he tells us very straightforwardly what God’s mission looks like. The second is that he shows us our own.
So if you’ve ever said, “What is God’s plan?” “What is God doing?” “Why are we still here?” “What is God’s mission in the world?” “Why is anything happening?” John answers that question in our passage today.
And then, if you say, “What’s my role in God’s mission?” “What’s my mission?” “What is our mission as a church?” John answers that question, too, and he answers them “1, 2” back-to-back.
And so let’s take a look together.
Looking at verse 20, we see the priests and Levites asking John the Baptist to tell them plainly, “Are you the Messiah?” And John gives them exactly what they’re asking for. It says, “He did not refuse to answer, but he declared: “I am not the Messiah.”
Now, if you’d never read the Bible before, and you were completely unfamiliar with the Christian faith, you’d have a handful of questions right about now. And the most obvious question to ask would be what is a “Messiah,” and why were the priests and Levites asking John about it? That’s a great question, and I’m glad you asked.
The short answer is that the Messiah is the thing the whole Bible points to. Throughout ancient history, the Israelites looked forward to a day when God would decisively overcome the brokenness of the world and undo all the destruction we brought about when we rebelled in the garden. The Messiah is the name that they used to refer to the person that God would use to bring all of this about.
That’s the short answer. I’m also gonna give you the long answer. Because to fully understand how significant this exchange between John the Baptist and the priests and Levites is, you need to understand what would’ve been rattling around in their brains while they debated out in the wilderness.
When John said, “I am not the Messiah,” here’s what he was talking about. If you’ll turn in your Bibles to Genesis 3:15, you’ll find God making a very strange statement. Adam and Eve have just plunged all of creation into sin and darkness – you know the story, with the talking snake, and the forbidden fruit.
We use this story, a lot of times, to explain to children why God would ever be mad at us, why he would punish us if he’s so loving, and so on and so forth, and that’s exactly right. But that’s not actually the main point of the Garden of Eden story.
It is absolutely true that God punishes sin. It is absolutely true that apart from Jesus Christ we are under the just wrath of a righteous God. But as you read through the Adam and Eve story, what you’ll notice is that the story itself is primarily about how we broke the world.
God is not a petulant child. The issue here is not that we ate a fruit and it upset God. The issue here is that we rebelled against God’s Godness, and rebelling against the God of the universe broke the universe.
I doubt I have to convince you of that. The world is broken. It doesn’t work properly. The universe doesn’t have a flat tire. It has a carbon monoxide leak, right? And the result is that everything is more miserable than it ought to be.
Work is hard rather than joyous. Childbirth is painful rather than life-giving. People are predatory. Even nature is trying to kill us. If you get nothing else from the Adam and Eve story, you should walk away understanding that the world, as it is, does not work the way God designed it to work.
And into the middle of all of this, God turns to the serpent – the creature who talked Adam and Eve into breaking the world by rebelling against the Lord – and he says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman’s seed, you will strike his heel and he will crush your head.”
Now, there’s a lot of debate over exactly how we should interpret that, but throughout the last 2000 years there’s been at least one point of agreement across the whole world and by all Christians, and that is that this is the first “Messianic prophecy.”
God is promising that one day, a descendent of Eve will come to crush the serpent and everything it stands for.
In the Ancient Near East, the image of a “serpent” was often a stand in for all the forces of chaos and darkness and evil. To be a serpent was to be a predator. To be a serpent was to devour the innocent. But God promises that one day, he will send someone who will crush the serpent once and for all. A “Messiah” will come who will crush the forces of darkness that we let in when we rebelled. The Messiah will come and un-break the world.
That is God’s mission. That is the mission of God. And when the Priests and Levites ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, they’re talking about this.
But there’s more. Because from Genesis 3:15 onward, the Messianic prophecies just keep rolling in. Between that last sentence and this one, I hacked about 15 minutes worth of me just listing out major Messianic prophecies, because I’m not supposed to preach 90 minute sermons, so, you’re welcome, and please turn with me to the book of Isaiah, where God starts turning the heat up with each new prophecy:
We all probably remember that one very famous prophecy from Isaiah, where God says that a day will come when “A virgin shall conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel” – that’s Isaiah 7:14. So far, so familiar, right?
But God turns the heat up even more just two chapters later in Isaiah 9 and says:
“A child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.”
That is God’s mission. That is the mission of God. And when the Priests and Levites ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, they’re talking about this.
But that creates a bit of a problem. If all you had were those passage I just read, it’d be incredibly easy to get the wrong idea about just what kind of Messiah to look forward to. So in case you get the wrong idea from chapter 9, Isaiah goes on in chapters 52 and 53. He says, in Isaiah 52 and 53, that the Messiah, who will reign forever, whose kingdom will see no end, is also a “Suffering servant.”
Isaiah says that the Messiah who is to come will not simply conquer the darkness of the world with his strong hand, he will also bear our griefs. He will carry our sorrows. He will be wounded for our transgressions. He will be bruised for our iniquities. He will be chastised for our peace. He will heal us by his stripes. He will be oppressed and afflicted. He will be struck for our transgressions./
Those are not things you would expect God to say about the Messiah, are they? But it gets worse.
Isaiah goes on to say that the promised-one will be bruised by the Lord. The Messiah will be punished by the Lord. That doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Because the Messiah is supposed to purge the world of the darkness we created. If there is anybody on planet earth God wouldn’t punish, it’s this guy. Right? But Isaiah says that the Messiah will be “bruised by the Lord.”
He tells us in the second line of that verse: God will punish the promised-one, because the promised-one is a “sin offering,” that’s Isaiah 53:10. The Messiah will be given as a “sin-offering.” If you don’t remember from the Old Testament, a “sin offering” exactly what it sounds like: It’s a sacrificial animal that you bring to the priest. The priest kills the animal as an offering to the Lord for your sin.
And Isaiah says that the Messiah, who’s supposed to come and purge the world of darkness and fix all of our brokenness, will be a “sin-offering” for us. Why is God punishing the Messiah? Because he’s punishing him instead of us.
Whether they fully understood it or not, when the Priests and Levites ask John the Baptist if he’s the Messiah, they’re talking about this.
And John the Baptist says, “No.” John the Baptist is not the Messiah. But he says, “Somebody in the crowd with you is.” It says in verse 29 that, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In other words, “If you’re looking for the Messiah, I can tell you exactly where he is.” If you go looking for the Messiah in the Wilderness, the prophet in the wilderness is gonna point you to Jesus.
But that creates a different question. Looking at verses 22-23, the Priests and Levites ask, “Who are you, then? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What can you tell us about yourself?” And John says “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord—just as Isaiah the prophet said.” In other words, “I am not the Messiah, but I’m here to point you towards him.”
It’s hard to imagine John the Baptist being any clearer than that: God’s mission is to rescue us from our “fallenness.” To reconcile us to himself. And to un-break the world we wrecked. And towards that end Jesus is “the Lamb of God” – the sacrificial “Lamb of God” – who “takes away the sins of the world,” as our “sin offering.”
That’s God’s mission.
And our mission is to point people towards him.
That’s the whole thing. We have roughly the same job as John the Baptist. We are “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” calling people to “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
That’s why, after God raises Jesus from the dead, Matthew’s gospel shows us interesting scene, in chapter 28. He says:
“The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is what we call the “Great Commission.” Jesus commissions us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He commissions us to “Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And he commissions us to “Teach them to observe everything that Christ has commanded us.”
That is very much God’s “game plan” for the rest of our lives. We personally make disciples. We personally baptize them. We personally make it our business to teach them to obey everything that Christ has commanded us.
I’m gonna restate those sentences one last time, but this time with slightly different wording just to make absolutely sure it sinks in: Your “Great Commission” – God’s Great Commission for you, is that you would “make disciples of all nations,” that you would ‘Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and that you would “teach them to obey everything Christ has commanded us.”
If you’ve been prayerfully seeking out God’s will for your life, Matthew 28 just answered it. God’s will for your life is that you will take up the Great Commission in your community.
But, I want to keep pressing, here. I want to be even more painfully specific:
Our mission is not to grow up, go to college, get a good job, start a family, move into a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, and then live happily ever after – even though all of those things are good. I’m not knocking that lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
My point is not that you shouldn’t go to college, get a good job, start a family, move into a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, and live happily ever after. My point is that that is not your mission. Listen to me: Our mission is to make disciples, and the rest of the choices that we make about our lifestyle flow out of that mission.
Now, let me be extremely clear about what I do not mean when I say that.
I do not mean that you need to drop out of school, or quit your job, sign up for classes at southeastern, and pursue a calling in professional ministry. That is not for everybody. Not everybody is obligated to do that. You do not need to sell your house and go move to Khazakhstan and live as a foreign missionary. You don’t need to pull a Rich Young Ruler and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, although you’re certainly welcome to do that.
We were talking just this past Tuesday at our Tuesday morning Bible study about the way that the culture of the United States has really kind of skewed our understanding of God’s will for our lives over the last couple hundred years.
For a very long time, American Christians have, kind of, idolized pastoral ministry. Can I say that? Is that okay? We’ve made it into something that it really isn’t. To put it very plainly, we have overhyped preaching. We have overhyped preachers. Me have overhyped mass evangelists, think Billy Graham. I’m not trashin’ Billy Graham. Billy Graham agrees with me.
It seems very much that most of the people walking around today think that there’s really two “classes” of people. Most people seem to think that there’s “professional ministers”/“professional evangelists”/“professional missionaries” on the one hand, and then there’s “normal folks” on the other. And people think that the “professionals” are responsible for winning people to Christ, making disciples, changing the culture of our communities by finding lost sheep and bringing them back into the fold but that the only real job that all the regular, everyday, normal Christians have is funding it. Right? They think “It’s the pastor’s job to make disciples, it’s our job to shut up and tithe.” You know I’m talking about?
My grandma told me a story one time where she was at her friend’s church, back when she was a kid, and the pastor literally said, “You don’t read the Bible. I read the Bible. And I’ll tell you what it says.” Literally. That’s a very extreme case, right? You don’t see a whole lot of that, most of the time, thank God. But that is very much just an extension of the way people already kind of see this. They think “The professional Christians are responsible for making disciples. Our responsibility is funding it.” “They spread the gospel, we shut up and tithe.”
But that’s the opposite of what the Bible tells us. Looking back at our text, we see John the Baptist addressing the crowd, saying “I watched the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He rested on Jesus.” And that’s when he knew that he was looking at the Messiah.
But then John the Baptist throws us a curveball. He says that while he watched the Spirit descending on Jesus, God spoke to him, saying, “The One you see the Spirit descending and resting on—He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’.”
The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and then moves Jesus to begin his ministry, but Jesus does not carry out his ministry alone. John says, “He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Remember, in the book of Matthew, we saw John saying, “I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What does that mean?
It means that when Jesus calls us to come follow him, he also gives us that same Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus descends on us.
Because Jesus has invited us to come along and make disciples with him.
I’m gonna restate that just to make sure this sinks in. Jesus has invited you to come along and make disciples with him. Like John the Baptist, we are not the Messiah, but we point people towards him.
And I’m gonna restate this yet again, one more time,just to make absolutely sure we’re tracking: The ministry we see Jesus carrying out in Galilee in the Gospels never actually ended.
The ministry of Jesus in the world never actually ended. It’s still going. The ministry of Jesus is still happening all throughout the world. That’s why the book of Acts comes directly after the four gospels. Because the book of Acts is not a book about the great things the disciples did after Jesus left. It’s about the continuing ministry of Jesus, as Jesus ministers in the world through his people. The ministry of Jesus is still happening all throughout the world. The only difference is that today, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father in heaven, ministering here through you.
Because you’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and Jesus continues carrying out his mission in the world through you. And so Jesus said:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That’s God’s “Great Commission” to you.
So over the next few minutes, I’m going to stand at the front. If you’ve felt God calling you to make disciples in your community for years but you’ve always ignored the call, you’re welcome to come up to the front, we can pray together, or you can pray privately on the steps.
Or, maybe you’re on the other end of this. Maybe you’ve been in church for years, or you’re fairly new to this, and you’ve always thought of yourself as religious but it’s never really occurred to you that you need to be forgiven of your sins. You’ve always thought of Jesus as somebody you admired, but it’s never really occurred to you that you need to submit to him as your King. If that’s you, I would love to pray with you and walk you through the process of throwing yourself at his mercy for the forgiveness of your sins.