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Three Questions that Identify a True Prophet
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I [am] the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? 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. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. 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 1:19-29)
No one can question the fact that John the Baptist was a true prophet. The Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, declared that he was the greatest prophet to be born of a woman. That is some commendation! He was the first Baptist to walk upon the earth, the very first Baptist preacher in the world. He was the first immerser of men in the name of Christ. That is what his title, “the Baptist,” means, the Immerser. Both Isaiah and Malachi foretold his coming and described the ministry he would have. — He was sent in the spirit and with the power of Elijah, “to prepare the way of the Lord.” He was filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in his mother’s womb. And when he was born, God sent an angel to speak of his birth.
Here, God the Holy Spirit holds this great prophet, John the Baptist, before us. He tells us that John was specifically asked three questions. John’s answers to those questions identify him as a true prophet and identify every preacher who follows as either true or false.
1. “Who art thou?” (v. 19)
2. “What sayest thou of thyself?” (v. 22)
3. “Why baptizest thou?” (v. 25)
“Who art thou?”
Just as Isaiah had prophesied, John appeared in the wilderness, preaching Christ, calling sinners to repentance, because the Messiah, the Christ had come, and the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Multitudes heard him and were moved to repentance by the Spirit of God, and being converted by the grace of God, John baptized them in the Jordan River. All of this caused no small stir among the people and no small disturbance among the religious elite in Jerusalem. So the priests and Levites were sent out from Jerusalem to ask John who he was.
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No” (vv. 19-21).
The Messiah’s forerunner stood before them, one who was clearly identified as the forerunner of the Christ. That fact was obvious to everyone, everyone except the spiritually ignorant leaders of the people, the priests and Levites!
When these men asked John, “Who art thou?” before they could utter another word, John cut them off and said, “I am not the Christ!” Because the people honored him, their religious leaders were ready to elevate John highly. — Self-serving preachers will do anything to promote themselves, even promote one whose message they despise, if in doing so, they can promote and advance themselves.
Remember, these men were the great Sanhedrim, the spiritual rulers of the Jews. They were the most influential, the most revered, and the most highly educated big wheels in the Jewish church. But they did not have a clue what was going on in the kingdom of God.
They professed to be waiting for the appearance of the Messiah. They took great pride in being the descendants of Abraham, and in their knowledge of the Scriptures. They lived by the Law of Moses, and rested in their imagined obedience to it. They professed to know God’s will and believe his promises. They were confident that they understood the prophets. They were confident leaders of the people. Yet, they were totally ignorant of all things spiritual. They stand before us as sad, glaring examples of the fact that unregenerate souls, no matter how well taught, no matter how well learned, no matter how devotedly religious, are utterly without knowledge spiritually. Spiritual knowledge comes only by divine revelation (Proverbs 2:6), only by the teaching of God the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Here is the proof of Paul’s doctrine in 1 Corinthians 2. — The Christ of God, the Messiah, was standing in their midst, as John declares in verse 26; yet they did not recognize him. They saw him, but never saw him. They knew much about him, but did not know him. They lived in his company, but knew him not!
And that which was true of these men is true of men today. It may be that some who read these lines are exactly as they were. The Lord Jesus Christ is set forth crucified among you, but you do not see him, hear his voice, or know him. Another person reading the same words does see him, does hear his voice, and does know him; but you do not? Why? You are not yet born of God. May God the Holy Spirit have mercy upon you and reveal the Lord Jesus to you, visiting you with grace, effectual, free, saving grace in Christ (Luke 19:44; Job 10:12; Isaiah 12:1-6; 25:9)
When these men asked John, “Who art thou?” before they could utter another word, John cut them off and said, “I am not the Christ!” They were willing to receive him as a reincarnation of Elijah, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets, or even as the Messiah (that Prophet of whom Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, if he would simply accept their praise and be identified with them. But John was a true prophet. He refused their honor and refused to take any honor to himself. Instead, he immediately turned attention away from himself to Christ. Nineteen times, he used a double affirmation to turn attention away from himself, to make certain that he was not misunderstood.
Like John the Baptist, God’s servants will not align themselves with God’s enemies. They cannot be bribed with money, power, or recognition. And they do not seek the praise, or even the approval of men. God’s servants desire no honor, but the honor of Christ. They studiously turn the light away from themselves to him.
“What sayest thou of thyself?”
Look at the next question. When they could get no satisfaction, they pressed on. — “Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?” (v. 22) John might have answered, “I am the son of Zachariah the priest. I am filled with the Spirit from my mother’s womb. I am a remarkable man raised up by God and sent to prepare the way before the Christ in the spirit and power of Elijah, as Malachi prophesied.” But instead “He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias” (v. 23).
Those men who are sent of God seek no glory or acclaim for themselves. They look upon themselves, at best, as nothing but unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). When John referred to himself as “the voice,” he used the very term the Holy Spirit used of him 700 years earlier in Isaiah 40:3. John’s mission was to bear witness of Christ, not himself. A voice is heard and not seen. The Lord Jesus endures long after “the voice” is silent.
“The voice” cried in the wilderness, not in the temple or in the streets of Jerusalem. Why? Because the Lord was no longer in the temple. Judaism was nothing but an empty shell. The Jews were a nation of religious legalists, steeped in self-righteous formalism, ceremonies, and rituals. There was no place for John in the religion of his day; and he did not want a place in it.
He was a true prophet. He had nothing to say for himself, or about himself. He refused to promote himself, or even to defend himself. He had no cause, but Christ. He knew why God had raised him up and sent him, and he would not be turned aside from it (Isaiah 40:1-11).
John knew exactly who he was dealing with. He was dealing with “they which were sent were of the Pharisees” (v. 24). They were thoroughly orthodox heretics, self-serving religious politicians, pretentious hypocrites, cruel and persecuting self-righteous legalists, blind leaders of blind people!
“Why baptizest thou?”
These proud Pharisees kept pressing. Because God’s faithful servant, this true prophet, refused to accept their honor, and refused to take any honor to himself, because he made no pretentious claim of earthly religious authority, they challenged his right to perform any religious ordinance, let alone a new ordinance. He had not been to seminary. He had not been ordained by any earthly religious body. He had not come up through their ranks. John did not fit any mold. He could not be put in any religious box. He was not a Liberal Sadducee, or a Reformed Pharisee, or a Heretical Herodian. So these good preservers of the religious status quo said, “Why baptizest thou if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?” (v. 25)
That’s a question every preacher ought to be required to answer. You can determine whether he is God’s servant, or the servant of man, by his answer. I have baptized many; but why? The question is “Why?” not “How?” There can be no question about how baptism is performed. Baptism is immersion. Anything else (sprinkling, pouring, etc.) is not baptism. — “Why baptizest thou?” — “John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not” (v. 26).
The word “with” in our King James version is a very, very poor translation. The Greek word “en” is a preposition indicating position. John did not say, “I baptize with water.” He said, “I baptize in water.” There is a huge difference. Before I show you the answers given in the New Testament to this third question, “Why baptizest thou?” let’s look at verses 26-28. Again, John focuses our attention, not on the ordinance, but upon the Savior, because the ordinance is meaningless apart from the Savior. “Christ is all,” not baptism, not the church, not you, and not me. In all things, he must have the preeminence!
“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. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” (vv. 26-28).
John stood his ground; but he wanted all to know his true mission, which was to point sinners to Christ. These men were raising questions about church authority and baptism, just as multitudes do today, while they were utter strangers to Christ himself. Multitudes debate and argue about side issues and leave that which is vital undecided. — “What think ye of Christ?” That is the matter that is vital (1 Corinthians 1:17.)
“There standeth one among you, whom ye know not” (John 1:10-11). Standing in their midst was the Seed of woman, Abraham’s Seed, David’s Son, the fulfillment of all promises, prophecies, and pictures of the Messiah given by the prophets in the Holy Scriptures; yet, they knew him not.
Then the Baptist said, “He it is, who is coming after me (coming to be revealed after me) is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose!” John could not find words strong enough to express his insignificance or his Savior’s majesty, supremacy, and glory. In verse 20 he says, “Christ is preferred before me because he was before me!” He came to this earth at God’s appointed time, but he is the eternal God and the eternal Savior (John 8:58; Proverbs 8:24-30).
But why did John baptize people? Why do we baptize people? The Word of God gives three very specific answers to that question.
1. By baptism we show, in this symbolic ordinance, how all righteousness was fulfilled for us by the obedience of Christ, our Substitute, unto death (Matthew3:15).
2. In believer’s baptism the child of God shows, by vivid symbolism, how his sins were washed away by the sin-atoning death of Christ, that we might receive the Spirit of life (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Galatians 3:13-14).
3. By baptism the believer publicly identifies himself with Christ, his people, and his gospel, and publicly avows his commitment to his Lord (Romans 6:1-7).
Christ the Lamb
Like the first Baptist, this preacher would have you see and know, worship and adore, trust and rejoice in Christ alone, the Lamb of God. — “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (v. 29).
May God the Holy Spirit enable you to now behold and never cease to behold the Lamb of God. In this magnificent sentence John tells us four things about the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
1. He is the only Object of all true faith — “Behold the Lamb!” God our Savior says, — “Look unto me and be ye saved” (Isaiah 45:22).
2. Christ was ordained, given, and sent by God. He is “the Lamb of God.”
3. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the one Sacrifice for sin. — “The Lamb!” —God has provided “himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8).
4. This blessed Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the only Remover of sin. — “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”