Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887
John the Baptist as a Man and a Witness.
John 1; John 3:28-31.
We have been considering John the Baptist's greatness as a prophet, according to the Lord's words in Matthew 11: 9. A second word in this same chapter presents to us rather his greatness as a man — "Verily," said the Lord, "among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist" (v. 11.)1 In the first chapter of John's gospel he is great in three ways personally, as a witness, and morally.
Let us first consider his PERSON. From the opening of the gospel, after having brought before us, to borrow another's words, "that which the Lord is divinely in Himself" (vv. 1-5), the Holy Spirit solemnly introduces a man upon the scene who was distinguished by his mission from all other men — "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." (v. 6.) Then (v. 8) he characterizes him by a negative sign — "He was not that Light." What must have been the personal worth of this man, for the Holy Spirit to declare that he was not that which God Himself is in His essence! The Lord proclaims in John 5 what he actually was — "He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" (v. 35.) As a lamp, his brightness was so great, that when he appeared he brought with him nearly as much joy as the daystar brings. When the Jews send priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask who he is, John replies, "I am not the Christ" nor "that prophet" (announced in Deut. 18:15-18). Such was his worth in the eyes of men, that he must needs announce that he is not the most noted person in Israel. Except Christ, never was there in this world a greater than he.
Let us now examine his TESTIMONY. It was well-nigh unbounded as connected with Christ's divine character in this gospel. It was manifold, even though referring to an only and unique object.
First, "he came to bear witness of the light" — a mission unprecedented in the history of man. Morally the world was a desolate place, buried in perpetual night. John the Baptist comes upon the scene, announcing the appearance of a Luminary which would dissipate the darkness, and bring health and joy and life to the miserable. Such is the earliest testimony of this man. Alas! its results ought to have been in proportion to its importance, for John came "that all men through him might believe" (v. 7); but the predicted Light was neither comprehended by the darkness, known by the world, nor received by His own (Israel). These last were very willing to rejoice for a season in the light, but they would not come to the Son to have life. (John 5:35, 40.)
Secondly, John the Baptist bears witness to the Word made flesh (v. 15), to God become man, come down to change our state and to reveal to us the Father. What a testimony was that in contrast with what God had revealed in past ages! The law was given by Moses, but that which in grace could meet man's state while also revealing it had till now been unknown. Israel had been able to know God as Jehovah. The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, has brought us into relationship with the Father. Moreover, the testimony of John admits of this revelation.
A third testimony is found in verse 19; a negative testimony you may say, for John tells us here what he is not. It is this to which the Lord apparently alludes when He says, "Ye have sent unto John" (comp. John 1:19), "and he bare witness unto the truth." (John 5:33.) Now this record sets John the Baptist aside entirely. The truth was that he was nothing, and that the Christ - the Prophet whom he had not yet seen — was everything. This testimony is of exceeding beauty. John the Baptist sets himself aside for the triumph of the truth. Later on, the Christ announced by John, after having made nothing of himself, appears before Pilate, witnesses to the fact that He is a King, and sets no value on His life in order to maintain the truth. John the Baptist had said, "I am not;" Jesus said, — "I am." On this occasion the Lord might have kept silence; but when it is a question of the truth He speaks, and His reply is like the signature to His condemnation.
We now come to a fourth testimony (v. 29) of particular importance in the career of this man of God. Until now John did not know the Lord personally. "He seeth Jesus coming unto him," and he utters a cry of joy. He does not say, "Behold the Light," or the Word made flesh, or the Christ; but, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." The value of the work and person of Christ are made known to him at one and the same time. In Jesus he recognizes the perfect victim and the Saviour. He beholds the work of the "Lamb of God" right on to the confines of eternity. He contemplates it in its results until the new heavens and the new earth are established, where righteousness dwells, where sin shall be for ever banished. He is still occupied with its results. When bearing record, he says, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him … The same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost." (vv. 32, 33.) By this baptism the believer is henceforth assured of the efficacy of this work in his favour. He is filled with the hope of soon being with Christ, and conformed to Him in heaven.
Dear reader, what was the case with John ought to be the case with all of us. We only really appreciate the value of the work of Christ when we know Him as a Person. If John the Baptist had a profound knowledge of these things, it was because Jesus filled every place in his heart. The personal knowledge of Christ increases in our souls the knowledge of every thing, at the same time that it brings us to nothing in our own esteem and in that of the world, or rather in the way in which we seek its esteem. The apostle Paul, while looking at the unsearchable riches of Christ, said, "I, who am less than the least of all saints." But Christ is known only by faith. This is what men discover when with the intellect they seek to find out God — they think that John the Baptist is the Christ, and they say that Christ is John the Baptist. (Matt. 16:14.)
This testimony, be it remarked, is not strictly prophetic. John, instructed beforehand, understood these things, as we may understand them, in making the acquaintance of the Lamb of God. Also we find, in verse 34, a fifth testimony: "And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God." He can say, "Now I have seen, and borne witness to that which I have seen. This Man, to whom God Himself bears witness by the descent of the Holy Ghost, is the Son of God."
Such a witness as John the Baptist might have, without doubt, had a high opinion of himself. But what renders him MORALLY great (we have already touched on this point) is that he is less than nothing in his own eyes, not because he seeks to put himself out of sight, but because for him Christ fills heaven, earth, eternity, and his own heart, and that He is for him all that is contained in these precious names: Lord, Christ, Prophet, Lamb of God, Delight of Heaven, Son of God, Bridegroom. His whole heart is taken possession of by this Man, who comes after him, but who is before him. So when the emissaries of the Jews ask him, "What sayest thou of thyself?" he replies, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness." "I say nothing of myself; I am a voice." He might have said, "I am the mouthpiece of God;" but no, an instrument might even think itself something. "I am the voice of one crying" — that, so to speak, robs him of his personality; "crying in the wilderness" — a voice which awakens an echo, valueless in the hearing of men. "Why baptizest thou then?" they ask. "I baptize with water," he replies: "what is my baptism beside His?" Then, on the morrow, in company with his disciples, he stands there and looks; he looks upon the Son of God as He walks. His heart goes out to Him, "Behold the Lamb of God," he says. An eminent teacher likes to gather together disciples who listen to his instructions. Is this teacher sent from God? His satisfaction will be enhanced by the thought that he is communicating to them a divine teaching. Well, John incites his disciples to go to Jesus, and remains alone — not alone in the wilderness, he was accustomed to that, but alone amidst that which was about to become the family of God.
In John 3:26 his disciples have not the same self-abnegation. They come to him and say, "Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him." They make John the important man, and Christ the secondary person. "See," they say to John, "how He treats you." John reminds his disciples of his own testimony with regard to Christ. Then he adds, "He that hath the bride is the Bridegroom." (v. 29.) The bride is not John; he knows that. But the great prophet is content to have a secondary place; for he has Christ. He is the "friend of the Bridegroom." He listens to outpourings which are not addressed to him; but what matter? He hears the Bridegroom's voice, and his joy is fulfilled. Others will find their joy in more intimate relationships; but John the Baptist's joy is perfect in an inferior relationship; the Lord has given it to him. It is not the highest, but it is of Him, and that is enough for this man of God. His joy is fulfilled in Him who is the Bridegroom of another. Touching humility in the greatest among them that are born of women!
May it not be truly said that John the Baptist's joy in this inferior position was much greater than ours is generally who have the privilege of being the Bride of Christ? And are we not humbled at the thought of this? John appreciated our relationship, kept his own, and did not covet another. There was no more jealousy in him than among the angels, when at the birth of Christ they celebrated good-will toward man, and magnified a work of which they were not the objects, but which contemplated guilty and lost sinners. John stood by with his eyes fixed on the Bridegroom's face, and his ears strained to hear Him. He found his pleasure in self-forgetfulness, like Mary at the feet of Jesus, and allowed his heart, like an empty vessel, to be filled by the countless perfections of a Bridegroom who was not for him. "He must increase," he adds, "but I must decrease." Christ has increased; John has decreased into nothingness. This great witness, after having recorded his testimony, gathered his disciples around Jesus, and saw his testimony entirely replaced by Christ's. His glory consists in having brought into prominence the glory of the One who alone is worthy of glory. May it be so with us. We are not called to assume John the Baptist's prophetical and personal glory, but may it be ours, in self-forgetfulness, to be clothed with something of his moral greatness, and to have Christ filling our souls!
1) We do not forget that Luke 7:26 applies this same passage to the prophet John the Baptist.