Grading the Path (from Sunday, 11/15/08)

(For those just joining us, every we I post the notes from our Sunday School lessons with the youth group. Click “youth studies” to view past entries or to catch up with the current series.

Keep in mind there are no youth studies on the first Sunday of each month.)

ere we see explosive ministry of John the Baptist. The odds are Jesus and John are now 29 or 30 years of age, based on the evidence of all the Gospel accounts. This makes sense, for Jewish tradition required a man to be at least 30 to begin ministry. Thus, while we don’t know how long John is baptizing and preaching before Jesus comes on the scene, it probably wasn’t long.

John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist were related (Luke 1:36), probably cousins themselves. John the Baptist is roughly six months older than Jesus, as Elizabeth was already in her sixth month of pregnancy before Mary conceived (Luke 1:26). You may remember hearing about a visit Mary paid Elizabeth—John leaped in his mother’s belly at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:44), and Mary recites a magnificent piece of praise and worship (Luke 1:46–55).

Now John is grown up, and he has a message that is not too popular with the Pharisees. Most people rightly associate Pharisees with something bad in religion. The something should not be theology or knowledge in itself. Sometimes teachers of the Word today are called Pharisees simply because these teachers have the audacity to believe and teach Scripture. This is not the problem: these Pharisees were proud, arrogant, and cared more about conduct and social behavior than about the heart. Here are warning signs of Pharisaical behavior:
  • The preacher who uses his pulpit to talk about politics rather than about the Bible
  • The Christian who spends several hours a month picketing
  • The Bible teacher who lectures on proper dress and appearance
  • The man who prays long prayers in public
  • The woman who will not accept criticism and demands her way
  • The church adorned with plagues, paintings, and statues of past and present saints
  • The congregation of members who are eerily similar
  • The pastor who puts down all other institutions, seminaries, books, or media other than his or his church’s
There is nothing wrong with any of these things in and of themselves. Sometimes, certain political issues can be addressed. Picketing can be useful. We need teaching on dress and appearance in the church. The Spirit sometimes demands long prayers of us. Some criticism is unwarranted. There are people who deserve our applause. Congregations should become more like Christ. And the good institutions, seminaries, books and other media that is solid and sound are decreasing in this world. So, none of these issues in themselves define modern-day Pharisees. However, Pharisees past and present have done these very things, most of which we will see in the attitudes and behaviors of the Pharisees we read about in the coming months.

The last thing you should do with this teaching is go out and be a Pharisee. If I find you in a church twenty years from now, and you are a Pharisee, I will deny that you ever attended my Sunday School class. :)

Back to John the Baptist. We don’t know how many scuffles he had with the Pharisees. But, it appears here that they are not too happy with him. On the flip side, it doesn’t seem like he is too keen on them.
Now that we have introduced both the actors and the scene last week and today, we are ready to proceed with the Act 1: Grading the Path.

My parents and grandparents live on a dirt road in Florida. Due to constant rains, the road will become potholed, grow trenches, and gain a washboard effect. Believe me—the posted speed limit is often too fast if you value the axle and tire balance of your vehicle. The only solution is to get a guy on a tractor early in the morning (as, traditionally in Florida, less Budweiser is consumed before noon than after) hauling a grader or a piece of chain-link fence. What this does is cut through the washboard and fill in the potholes and trenches.

It wasn’t that different in the first century (except for the modern technologies of automatic motors and chain-link). Roads frequently fell into disrepair. No time was this a more serious issue, however, then when an official herald would come into town announcing the coming of the king. The path must be made straight right away. What township would not send men and shovels in mass to prepare the road before the king arrived?

Keep that image in mind when you think of John the Baptist. Now, he did not come carrying a shovel, and he was not concerned about the tidying dirt and rocks or placating kings. There are three things John asks people to behold as he tries to make the road for Christ ready. First, He asks the Pharisees to behold someone other than himself. Second, he asks the people to behold their sin. Third, he asks them to behold Christ.

I.) Behold Another
As I stated, the Pharisees were not too keen on John. All they knew was that there was this dude in the wilderness dressed oddly and drawing Israel. John was shaking the status quo, and if there’s one thing a Pharisee doesn’t like, it is change. Some may have been motivated by care and concern (there were heretics). However, one thing Pharisees as a group could not consider was that this was a move of God. So, they sent out a delegation from among themselves (John 1:24), priests, Levites, fellow Pharisees, to find out who this John character was.

John’s no dummy. He knew they were not there because they wanted to worship God. In fact, John calls them a “brood of vipers,” sarcastically asking them “who warned you” and exhorting them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke3:7–8). Note John’s impatience with them here.

Q: Who are you?
A: I am not the Christ.

Q: What then? Are you Elijah?
A: I am not.

Q: Are you the Prophet?
A: No.

John’s answers get shorter. Everyone was expecting the Messiah, and John simply cuts to the chase with their questions. He could have answered, “I’m John, I come here a lot,” engaging in a long conversation that would have ended with him saying these very words. He doesn’t have time for all of that.

They also ask him if he is Elijah. Nope, his name is John. The reason they ask him this is because Elijah was supposed to come back before the end (Mal 4:5). Now, there is a sense that he was Elijah (Matt 11:14), in that he was a forerunner to Christ, but we’ll discuss that at a later point.

Finally, they ask him if he is “the Prophet,” a reference to Deut 18:15–18. Acts 3:22–23 and 7:37 apply this title to Jesus, so we can understand why John said no.

He is nothing but a voice. But, a very key voice, for he applies an Old Testament prophesy to himself (Isa 40:3).

What does John the Baptist want? He wants to turn the hearts of Israel to the one who was to come after him. That he would apply Isaiah 40:3 to himself is not a point of pride, for it forces them to look beyond him to the one who is behind him. He even belittles himself, stating that his baptism is that of mere water (John 1:26; cf. Matt 3:11). He makes himself less than a servant, saying he is not even worthy to unlace Jesus’ dirty sandals (John 1:27). He upholds the coming Messiah as ranking before him (John 1:30). In fact, next week we will see John the Baptist all but disappear, reappearing only briefly in Chapter 3.

As we take the name of Christ to those who don’t know Him, we could take a cue from John. We need to get people’s eyes off us and onto Him. In fact, though we should also be bold, we must come in utter humility before Christ.

II.) Behold Sin
He came, as we saw last week in verse 7, to be a witness of the Light. So, when we find John, he is preaching and baptizing (John 1:28) his message of repentance (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:7–8).

There were Jews who believed that they were eternally safe on the basis of their descent from Abraham (John 8:39). Some taught that no circumcised Jew would go to Hell, no matter how sinful of a life he led; Abraham awaited all Jews at the gates of Hell to make certain no one of the circumcision passed. This is as much of a danger today as it was then—some people believe they are Christians on the basis that they come from a Christian nation, Christian family, etc. You will no more go to heaven on the basis of coming from a church family than the Jews are guaranteed heaven on the sole basis of their lineage.

John did not hold out this false hope to his fellow Jews. He wanted them to repent and symbolize their repentance in baptism. It is only repentance that would grade the road for the Messiah in the hearts of the children of Israel.

This is one reason why he was hard on the Pharisees. It was not because he hated them, but because he knew they had sin and needed to repent. Sometimes, the seemingly most religious of us can be the most unaware of personal sin. It is the Pharisaical condition that needs the same cure as the sins of everyone else.

Water baptism is very symbolic for John’s purposes. Zechariah 13:1 reads, “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” Obviously, physical water does not wash away the stain of soulish sins, but the symbol of baptism in the flowing water of the Jordan River served as a powerful image of one turning away from sin by plunging into the great Sin-Remover.

Do you see the road becoming smoother for the Messiah?

III.) Behold Christ
Verse 29 of John 1 marks the most important event of John’s life. Imagine if you were born to be an auto engineer, and you spend your childhood dreaming of the ultimate car. While others are interested in sports, you spend your time flipping through magazines and attending trade shows. You go to school to become an engineer, and you fantasize about this car no one else has ever dreamed up. Finally, you have the design perfected, and the day comes when you can unveil your life’s ambition before the world. Jesus is obviously worth more to us than a car, but the thought of unveiling the coming Messiah made John’s heart race.

To avoid confusion, we should note that John did not know who the Messiah was. He most likely knew Jesus while they grew up, but, as I said, Jesus did not have a halo or a mysterious light shining down upon Him. John says clearly, “I myself did not know him” (John 1:31). Yet, this new day was something John never forgot.

So, how did John figure out that Jesus was the Christ? He figured it out the same way the rest of us figure it out: God the Father told him. Jesus came to John to be baptized, and John witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove (like—the Holy Spirit is not literally a dove). The word here means the Holy Spirit remained with Christ, even after His baptism. John witnessed this so he would know, according to the Word of God, who the Messiah would be (John1:32–34).

Thus, since God revealed the Messiah to John, John gets excited in verse 29. “Behold,” proclaims John, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Interestingly, John even affirms the pre-existence of Christ—“After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me” (v. 30). John knew the Messiah was more than a mere man who was born in time.

One thing we have not discussed yet is the designation of Christ as “the lamb.” The Jews had experience with lambs in their rituals. Lamb’s blood protected them in Egypt from the angel of death (Exo 12:1–36), and it was used in the temple to atone for sin (Lev 14:12–21; cf. Heb 10:5–7). Yet, this lamb would not be part of a yearly ritual—it would remove sin, once and for all!

The coming Messiah was described as a lamb in prophesy (Isa 53:7), and that is just what John announces Jesus to be. He will say “Behold” one more time, and then we will leave John behind. That, however, is not until next week.

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