“I knew him not.”
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34)
Most everyone I meet is assured that he knows Christ. They have been led down the Romans Road to salvation. They have been told that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died upon the cross for their sins, and that he rose from the dead the third day. Then, they were told that if they would repeat what someone called “the sinner’s prayer”, they would be saved. They did as they were told; and they are sure that they know the Christ of God.
Have I described you? Is that your experience? If so, you must be shocked every time you read the testimony of John the Baptist in this passage. Here is a man who knew the Lord Jesus intimately as a man, his first cousin, but declares twice, “I knew him not.” Remember, the one speaking here was John the Baptist, our Savior’s first cousin. Yet, he says, “I knew him not.” What are we to make of that?
We know that John the Baptist knew Christ. I repeat, he was John’s first cousin. Yet, twice he said, “I knew him not.” What do you suppose that means? What is the significance of that statement? That is the question I want to answer in this study. — What did John mean when he said, “I knew him not”?
In this passage the apostle John is giving us his inspired account of the ministry of John the Baptist. The Baptist’s message was the proclamation of God’s Christ. He was sent as Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord. The first thing John the apostle tells us about that great prophet is that he was “a man sent from God.” — “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6). The only man who can preach the gospel to us is that man who is sent of God with his message (Jeremiah 23:32; Romans 10:15).
What reason we have to bless God for his goodness in sending a man to tell us about our Savior, the Lord Jesus, proclaiming his great salvation (Isaiah 52:7). John the Baptist was sent “to bear witness of the Light” (v. 7). Being a prophet of God, he had only one purpose in life, one function, one work to do, and was useful for only that one thing. — He came “to bear witness of the Light,” to point sinners to Christ, who alone is the Light of the world. And he would not be turned aside from that one glorious work. It consumed his life. What a witness he bore of the Light! He declared Christ as the shining Light of the world (v. 5). John the Baptist proclaimed that all the fulness of grace is in Christ alone (v. 16). Then he asserted that all grace and truth come to men only in, by, and through the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 17). In verse 18 the apostle tells us that John the Baptist openly asserted that Christ, who is alone the Revelation of the triune God, is the eternal Word with God in heaven, even when he was here upon the earth. And the first Baptist preacher to walk the earth declared Christ’s pre-eminence and pre-existence as our eternal Savior (v. 30).
Now, look at verse 29. Here is John’s message. — “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
John the Baptist saw the Lord Jesus walking by. When he did, he called for all who heard his voice to behold him, trust him, and follow him who is the Lamb of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Scripture is filled with pictures, prophecies, and descriptions of Christ as the Lamb of God (Exodus 12; Leviticus 9:3; Isaiah 53:7; Revelation 5:6). He is the Lamb who is God and the Lamb of God’s own providing (Romans 3:25). God always gives what he requires, requires only what he gives, and always accepts what he gives.
John the Baptist declared that this Lamb, by the virtue of his sacrifice, “taketh away the sin of the world.” That is to say, he is taking away the sin of the world perpetually, now and forever, by an eternally perpetual and effectual act. As the sun shines and the spring runs without interruption, so Christ takes away the sins of his people scattered through all the world perpetually! Let that be the perpetual picture we have of him. As we multiply sins, he multiplies pardons (Zechariah 13:1; Isaiah 55:7).
All this John the Baptist preached “that all men through him might believe” (v. 7). Gospel preachers are men sent of God, preaching the grace and glory of God in Christ the Redeemer, as instruments by whom others believe. — “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” In verse 30 John again declares the supremacy and glory of Christ. All this was done and all these things were spoken, after he had baptized the Lord Jesus.
“Knew Him Not”
Then, in verse 31 he throws us this curve. — “And I knew him not.” He repeats the same words in verse 33. — “And I knew him not.”
“And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.”
This is John the Baptist’s recollection of meeting Christ in the flesh. When he said, “I knew him not,” he was not saying I had not yet met him in person. John the Baptist was not only God’s prophet, he was the Savior’s cousin. He had been brought up with him. His mother, Elizabeth, who called the Lord Jesus her Lord when she welcomed Mary into her home, had (we may be sure) often told John about him. Surely, she would have described the Savior’s wondrous birth many times, as she spoke to her son, whom she knew was to be his forerunner. Elizabeth must have often reminded John of how he leaped in her womb for joy when Mary came to her with her Lord and his Lord in her womb (Luke 1:39-45).
Though we have no record of it, it is likely that John and the Lord Jesus were often together as they grew up. There is no question that John knew who the Savior was, and that he was convinced that he was the Christ of God. When the Lord Jesus came to be baptized by him, “John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
After the Flesh
What, then, is the meaning of John’s twice repeated statement to the Pharisees — “I knew him not”? If you will look back at verses 26 and 27, you will get a hint.
“John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”
John said to the Pharisees, “I was once in the same boat you are in. Though I knew much about the Son of God by the instructions of my parents, though I was, like you, looking for the Messiah, the Christ of God, of whom the prophets spoke, though I knew I knew him after the flesh, I did not know him.”
He was saying, “Until he was revealed to me by God the Holy Spirit, I had not beheld him, but now I do. I knew him not; but now I know him. He walks among you. He is the One with whom you have to do; but you know him not. You do not need to be concerned about who I am. You need to be concerned about who he is! I am nobody, just a voice, a noise in the wilderness; but he who walks among you is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Do not concern yourself with me and my baptism; concern yourself with him and his baptism.”
These things are “written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). May God the Holy Spirit, who caused them to be written, use them for that end.
There is no doubt that prior to his birth implanted in his mind and heart was the message of the Messiah. I would not attempt to explain this; but John the Baptist was a prophet from his mother’s womb; and he knew Christ by special revelation, even when he was in her womb, leaping for joy because of his incarnation (Luke 1:41, 44; Jeremiah 1:5).
John’s knowledge of Christ was a miracle of grace, which is basically the meaning of his name, John, “God has graced, or Jehovah is gracious.” Yet, when John says, “I knew him not,” he was in fact saying that it had not yet been revealed to him that this man, his cousin, was the Christ; but now he had been revealed to him as the Lamb of God and the Son of God.
How was the Lord Jesus revealed and made known to John the Baptist as the Christ, the Lamb of God and the Son of God? The fact that he emphatically declares, and declares twice, “I knew him not,” is of paramount importance, because John uses it as the background for the explanation he gives in verses 33-34 of how he came to recognize that this man from Nazareth is the Son of God, the Messiah, the One for whom he was sent to bear witness, and to prepare the way.
“And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”
John is saying, “Though I knew him not, I now know him by the Word of God, by the Spirit of God, and by the faith God has given me.” He recognized Christ for who He was based on the Word of God (vv. 31-34). He once knew Christ after the flesh, but no more. Now, he knew him after the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:16).
By the Word of God
First, John knew Christ by the Word of God. God himself had described the Lord Jesus with such clarity that there could be no mistake as to Who he was once he was revealed. He said, either by an articulate voice, or by a divine impulse on his mind, or by the revelation of the Spirit, “Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.” This is a plainly revealed fact: — Faith in Christ is conveyed to chosen, redeemed sinners by God the Holy Spirit through the Word of God (Romans 10:17; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23-25).
The Word of God, the gospel of Christ, is the power of God unto salvation, the catalyst God uses to give sinners life and faith in Christ. It is the power of God unto salvation in all who believe (Romans 1:16).
The Book of God repeatedly asserts that regeneration and faith in Christ, gifts of God the Holy Spirit and operations of his irresistible grace, are communicated to chosen, redeemed sinners through the instrumentality of gospel preaching. The Lord God plainly declares that it is his purpose and pleasure to save his elect through the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:15-17; 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Ephesians 1:13; 1 Timothy 4:12-16; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23-25).
Perhaps you think, “What if one of God’s elect is in a remote barbarian tribe in the jungles of New Guinea where no gospel preacher has ever been?” I can see how that would create a problem, except for one thing: — There are no problems with God! He knows exactly how to get his prophet to the people to whom he has purposed to show his mercy. Just ask Jonah!
We preach the gospel with a sense of urgency, knowing that sinners cannot believe on Christ until Christ is preached to them. Yet, we preach with confidence of success, knowing that our labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). God’s Word will not return to him void. It will accomplish his will and prosper in the thing it is sent to do (Isaiah 55:11). Every chosen, redeemed sinner must be regenerated and called by the Holy Spirit. And that work will be accomplished through the preaching of the gospel.
The Spirit of God
But, if we would know Christ, there must be more than the Word of God. We must have the Word made effectual to us by the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit. Look at the text at the head of this chapter again. Not only did John the Baptist have the testimony of God’s Word, he had God’s Word confirmed to him personally by the Holy Spirit. — He saw, as God said he would, “the Spirit descending and remaining on” the Lord Jesus. Is this not the work of God the Holy Spirit? Is this not exactly what he has done for us in the blessed operations of his saving grace upon us and in us? (See John 14:22-23; 15:26; 16:8-11, 13-15).
Faith in Christ
Then, as soon as Christ was revealed, he saw, he beheld Christ, he knew him by the gift of faith. This is what he tells us in verse 34. — “And I saw, and bare record (confessed) that this is the Son of God.” Read Zechariah 12:10. In the new birth, in the conversion of sinners, this is always the divinely ordained equation: the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and faith in Christ. All are the gifts of God’s grace. All are necessary. And all are made effectual to the saving of our souls by the grace of God.
The words of John the apostle, explaining the experience of John the Baptist, were prophetic of every believer’s experience of grace. When John baptized the Lord Jesus and saw him owned by God the Father with a voice from heaven and the Spirit descending on him as a dove, he understood that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). He recognized this man from Galilee for who he was, based on the Word of God and by the revelation of God. And he saw in the baptism of our Lord the symbolic picture of righteousness fulfilled by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the sinners Substitute (Matthew 3:13-17).
As if to reiterate this truth, John tells us that those first men who were found of Christ, who found him by the faith he gave them when he made himself known to them, experienced the same thing (vv. 35-37, 40-41, 43-45, 49).
There is yet another distinction concerning the revelation of Christ by the Spirit, through the Word. In verse 26 John the Baptist said to the Pharisees, “I know him whom ye know not.” Looking at this entire chapter, and others like it, we see that Christ is revealed to those sinners he has chosen, redeemed, and called (Acts 2:39; 13:48; Galatians 1:15-16; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:16).
All true preaching is, for this reason, limited to the declaration of the Gospel. It is by the preaching of the Gospel that the Word of God is declared to men (1 Peter 1:25). The preaching of the Gospel, the preaching of the Word of God is the declaration of a Person, the declaration of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the sinner’s Savior. It is declaring the record that God has given concerning his Son (Romans 1:1-3).
· It is the declaration of a unique Person; a man who is like no other; a man who lived like no other, spoke like no other, and died like no other.
· It is the declaration of a man who is himself God.
· It is the declaration of the eternal Surety of a chosen people.
· It is the description of the God-man, who came into the world to seek and save that which was lost, who came into the world to save sinners.
· It is the description of Jehovah’s Servant, the Christ, who finished the work that he came to do.
· It is the declaration of Jesus the Savior, who saved all whom he came to save, who loses none who were given to him by the Father, but raises them up in the last day.
· It is the declaration of the man, that wonderful man who lived among sinners without sin, who was made sin for us and is made the righteousness of God unto us.
· It is the description of that man who was and is the Friend of sinners.
· It is the declaration of him who “shall not fail,” for whom failure is never a possibility.
· It is the description of him who died, and was buried, and rose again that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead.
· It is the description of him who is, at this moment, seated on the right hand of the majesty on high, ruling with absolute sway over everything that wriggles and writhes in the whole universe, ruling in calm repose (Numbers 23:9).
· It is the description of him whose very words are spirit and life.
· It is the description of him about whom every line, every word, every jot, and every tittle of the Bible is written.
· It is the description of him who, by the sacrifice of himself, has put away our sins and has “made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
· It is the description of him who satisfied the law and justice of God for his people so fully, so infinitely, that the Judge of the all the earth declares them never to have sinned, and accepts them fully as sons and daughters!
· It is the declaration, the description of him who is made of God unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.
· It is the description of him for whom heaven opens and the voice of God declares “this is my beloved son, hear ye him.”
We preach him, and preach him, and preach him so that when he comes to his chosen, his redeemed, his called, they will immediately recognize him for who he is, and cry with old Thomas, “my Lord and my God!” We preach that those who hear can say, “I knew him not, but I now know him, because the Word of God has described him so fully that none other will fit the description, because the Spirit of God has revealed him in me, and has given me faith to know and trust him!”
When he comes to his own, their testimony is that God has hung flesh on his Word and “we behold his glory, as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth!” We keep on preaching him so that every nook and cranny of the believer’s existence will be immersed in him (Romans 11:36). We preach him so that every turn of providence, every happenstance, circumstance, and every occurrence will be seen as his hand of love and tender care (Romans 8:28; Colossians 1:16-17).
I often hear people extolling preachers for being so “practical,” for teaching “practical truths” on how to live the Christian life. They tell how the preacher comforts them and makes their struggles easier. They talk about how their pastor preaches in an understandable manner, showing them what to do and what not do in order to be “real Christians.” But in all the preacher praise and promotion I hear, seldom do I hear a man praised because he preaches Christ fully and clearly in all his redeeming, saving glory.
The Bible may be used to show men and women what to do and what not to do. It is full of moral principles. Peoples’ lives will be radically changed, if they abide by the principles that are taught in the blessed Book. They will probably never be sent to the penitentiary. Moral teachings, however, focus on you. They fix the mind and the eye on self and looking at self. But they will never cause anyone to know Christ in grace or in providence. We preach Christ and him crucified so that sinners might see him and know him, “that all men through him might believe” and worship him whom we preach (1 Corinthians 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6).
Can you say, with John the Baptist, “I knew him not,” but now I know him (2 Corinthians 5:16-17; John 17:3), because the Spirit of God has opened and applied to me the Word of God, giving me faith in him who is the Christ of God”? Oh, may God the Holy Spirit grant you grace to know my Savior!
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