A Voice Crying Out In The Wilderness

December 16, 2007
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
John 1:19-28

1. In today's passage of scripture a character by the name of John comes on the scene. This John is called "John the Baptizer" in another gospel. He is a different person from the apostle John, of whom it is said that he wrote this gospel. The Gospel According To Mark, for example, has a description about him that goes as follows. "John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, and proclaimed the baptism of repentance in order to cause one to obtain the forgiveness of sin. The entire region of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem came to John, confessed their sin, and received baptism from him at the Jordan River. John wore a camel fur coat, fastened a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and honey from the fields," (Mark 1:4-6).

2. Granted that it is a fairly exaggerated statement, but because it says that the entire region of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem came to John, this [shows] a tremendous influence. He was definitely the greatest preacher and prophet who had dominated a generation. We can tell the immensity of his influence even from the fact that the disciples of John were in Ephesus still as many as twenty years later, (Acts 19:3). Even more than that in fact, the disciples of John were in existence even around the third century A.D. after two hundred years had passed, and they used to proclaim that this very same John the Baptizer was the true messiah.

3. At any rate, it seems various rumors have flown about over him, since he is such a figurehead. Some thought that he must have been the messiah. Since there were people like that even two hundred years later, many people probably did think that way. Then others thought that he was the prophet Elijah who was believed to be coming back at the end of the world. Or else [there were] others who thought that he was the special prophet who was expected to come, of whom Moses once spoke. In Deuteronomy chapter eighteen and verse fifteen the following is written about him. "The Lord, your God will establish a prophet like me from among you, from among your countrymen. You must listen to him." Thus, the people would call this promised character who was to come "that prophet," and they were waiting in expectation. In conclusion from there then, there were some [who said] that John indeed was "that prophet."

4. Well, under those circumstances, the priests and the Levites had come to John and inquired, "Who are you?" The answer John gave to that question is the scene that we read today. In this narrative I would like for us to take note of two points in particular.

I Am A Voice Crying In The Wilderness

5. The first point is that John gives the expression about himself that "I am a voice crying in the wilderness."

6. The center of Jewish religious society was the congress which was called the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. It was already the established system. But, separate from Jerusalem, a movement had begun to arise that started with John around the region of the Jordan River. There was also another group that was active and fundamentally separate from Jerusalem. These people were called the sect of the Essenes. There are some scholars who think that even John may have belonged to the Essenes. But, whatever the case may be, this other group, which made it a principle to practice the reclusive lifestyle away from the world, did not have as much influence as John. In that sense, John was special.

7. It looks like each of the congresses had an interest in John. Or it may also be that they felt him a threat. Either way, they did send an investigative party in order to check into this person. The sent members inquired of John, "Who are you?" He had currently been a talented person, greatly influencing a wide region. I think they even paid him respect for the time being. But, in their heart of hearts they probably did not have questions for him as polite as this. In essence, they were saying, "Where do you come from?" "Since you are separate from Jerusalem, by what authority do you think you are doing this stuff? It looks like the company around you is saying about you, that you're the messiah. But, are you really the messiah?" They questioned him in that way.

8. To that John answered, "I am not the messiah." Then they asked him "Are you Elijah? Or are you that prophet?" John denied these possibilities as well. He said, "No, it's not so." They lost their temper and said, "Then who in the world are you?" At which point, the answer John gave them is verse twenty-three. John said, "I am a voice crying in the wilderness." This is a quote from Isaiah chapter forty and verse three from the Old Testament. Using this, John describes himself as "a voice."

9. Please imagine the situation at that time. If speaking in a slightly exaggerated manner, the Jewish people are now beginning to move with John as their central focus. Judea is certainly in the process of changing. What's more it is in the process of changing a lot. Indeed, it is not just the Jewish people alone, but the Roman soldiers have even come to John, so Luke's Gospel tells us. This is astonishing. Yet, John says he is no more than "a voice crying in the wilderness." [He] is "a voice." [He] is not even "a person crying in the wilderness." It is "a voice." It is "a voice" that is telling a message and then it is to vanish away. That's all [he / it] is. Nor is [he / it] the very message itself.

10. Who would want to become something like "a voice" that is fleeting and vanishing away? But, John did know the difference between what he was and what he wasn't. He knew what he could be and what he couldn't be. And we might say that he was a person who could live totally one hundred percent in becoming and fulfilling his potential. John knew that he himself could not become the messiah or the savior. In chapter one and verse eight it is written that, "He is not the light, he came in order to give witness concerning the light." Since it uses that kind of language, it was John who had repeatedly admitted the fact that "I do not serve in the role of the light." Therefore, John abases himself and steadfastly points to the light. He who serves not in the role of the light refuses to be the light even if forced to. He gives witness to the light. John also says at this point, "I baptize with water, but there is One among you whom you do not know. He will come after me, and I am not worthy to loosen the laces of his footwear," (1:26-27).

11. Sinful humanity cannot become the true light. A person, who is in sin just like the people suffering in the world of sin, cannot save those people. A person bound by death just like the people bound by death cannot save those people. A pastor cannot be the light. Even if somebody we love has suffered, we cannot become the light. A parent cannot become the light of a child. As a matter of fact, why is that? Even if one is believed to be the light, it will not do any good. When a person treats a human being or some other thing, which may be lost, as the light, that person will end up being very bad off. Why does the church baptize people? It is because humans cannot ultimately save other humans. Thus, all we say is please live with God and with Jesus by receiving baptism, turning yourself over to God's bosom, and being joined to Christ. All we say is let's live by keep being connected to Christ, by keep receiving the Lord's Supper, by keep receiving the grace of God, by entrusting ourselves over to his grace.

12. Salvation must come from the outside, not from within this world which is filled with sin. God is the only one who can truly save people. Jesus Christ, God's only son whom He has sent, is [the only one who can truly save people]. We can never be the light itself, however, we can point to the light. We can give witness concerning the light. John said, "Isn't the one whom you do not know right among you!?" "The savior will very soon come beside you, be right among you." He keeps pointing to Him. Let's believe in Him, he said. That's what John did and it is also what we can do.

Make Straight The Path Of The Lord!

13. The second thing I would like for us to remember is that John was a voice which cried out, "Make straight the way [or path] of the Lord!"

14. John gave witness to the one who had come as the messiah. The savior has come. The true light has come into the world and shines forth to every person (verse nine). The messiah has come as the savior for every person. But, preparations must be made in order for salvation to be brought by the savior. That's what he is saying by to "make straight the way of the Lord." We must prepare the way of the Lord, who is the savior.

15. What does to "make straight the way of the Lord" really mean? The following statement is written beginning in verse twenty-four. "The sent men belonged to the sect of the Pharisees. They inquired of John and said, 'Even though you are neither the messiah, nor Elijah, nor that prophet, why do you baptize?'"

16. (I am speaking about a small detail here, it was not first held that the men who had come to John belonged to the sect of the Pharisees. They were priests and Levites, that is, men who served in the temple, and most of them belonged to "the sect of the Sadducees." Therefore, it may be better to translate this passage here as "they were sent from the men of the Pharisees." Either way though, "the Pharisees" are sure to lie behind this question of "Why do you baptize [people]?")

17. Why would the fact that John was baptizing have anything to do with the Pharisees? There is actually a reason behind it. John did not originally come up with the ceremony of baptism. It came before he did. When Gentiles converted to Judaism, they received baptism. It stood for the fact that when a Gentile was willing to live in obedience to the true God, he or she was being born anew by washing out the stains of his or her sins up to then. But, John did not perform this [baptism] on just Gentiles. Instead, he was performing them on Jews [as well]. And this was seen as a hard to accept act by the religious authority at Jerusalem, especially by the Pharisees because it meant that the baptism of John treated the Jews like Gentiles. Practically speaking, it was equivalent to his proclaiming that "Though they are Jews, there is hardly any difference between them and the Gentiles, as sinful persons in the sight of God." At the very least this was an unbearable humiliation upon the Pharisees, who were proud that they kept the law and practiced a pure way of living. That's why they asked like they did, "Why do you baptize like you do and by what authority do you do it?"

18. But, those very hearts [of theirs] were "the paths which must be made straight." While they judge others, look down on them, and decide their sins, they themselves refuse to admit their own sins and humble themselves before God. -- These arrogant hearts [of theirs] were truly "the paths which must be made straight."

19. The words from the book of Isaiah which are quoted here, "Make straight the way of the Lord!," were originally a prophecy of the forgiveness of sin. Therefore, to make straight the way of the Lord means the same thing as to prepare one's heart to receive the grace of the forgiveness of sin. "Make straight the way of the Lord" does not mean that one first becomes a fine person with everything in order in order to receive salvation. That's not what it means but rather that we are to admit our sin and humble ourselves before God, and that we are to admit that we ourselves are sinners in need of salvation. Having made that kind of preparation, then a person starts to share in the forgiveness of sin, and shares in salvation, and can began to live anew with God and with Christ.