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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Make straight the Lord's way!
Text:John 1:19-28 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Mission Work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 63

Psalm 38:1,2,7,8 (after the law)

Hymn 15

Psalm 45:1-3

Hymn 8

Scripture reading:  Deuteronomy 18:15-22

Text:  John 1:19-28

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Saviour Jesus,

Perhaps you’ve heard of the American Secret Service.  One of the main jobs of the Secret Service is to keep the American president safe.  They’re the men in suits who typically surround the President wherever he goes.  If the president makes a trip overseas, the Secret Service is heavily involved beforehand.  People from the Secret Service make an advance trip to the place to be visited.  They fly ahead a few days beforehand to make sure that everything is in place so that the visit goes safely and smoothly.  For example, when the President makes his way from the airport into the city, the Secret Service has made sure ahead of time that all the roads that the motorcade travels on will be clear.

John the Baptist served a similar role for our Saviour Jesus.  He was his forerunner, he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus.  No, it wasn’t about keeping him safe, but it was about making sure that people were ready for Jesus and his ministry.  We know that this was what John was sent for – we know it because we have a complete Bible that’s told us.  But when the events in our text took place, it wasn’t so clear.  People heard about John and what he was doing and they were confused.  Who is this man?  Why is he doing what he’s doing?  What’s this all about? 

This morning, we’ll see how John cleared that up, but most importantly how he pointed to Jesus Christ.  Along the way, of course we’ll also look at what we can take away from this today.  So I preach to you God’s Word from John 1:19-28,

Make straight the Lord’s way!

We’ll see that John’s testimony spoke of:

  1. Who John was not
  2. Who John was
  3. Who Jesus was

The first 18 verses of the Gospel of John are an introduction.  The author has introduced us to Jesus Christ, telling us some of the most important things we need to know about him – he is the eternal Son of God, sent for our salvation.  But he’s also mentioned John the Baptist.  He’s already told us that John came as a witness to Jesus.  We’re not supposed to confuse the two, as some did in the early years during and after Christ’s time on earth. 

Now the prologue or intro is over and now we begin the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  It begins with John the Baptist.  He was baptizing at the Jordan River.  That detail is found in verse 28 – we’ll start with this, because it helps give the background to everything else in our text.  The Holy Spirit says in verse 28 that these things took place in “Bethany across the Jordan.”  If you have a map in the back of your Bible and you try to locate this Bethany across the Jordan, you’re going to come up empty.  The fact is that nobody is quite sure where this place is.  It’s possible that this Bethany was not really a town or village, but an area somewhere in the north-east across the Jordan River. 

But that’s not a very important detail here.  More important is what John was doing:  he was baptizing.  The Christian church has been baptizing believers and their children since the time of Jesus.  Through baptism, God is publically claiming us for his own – it’s his statement that we belong to him.  It would be easy to think that baptism is something that just appeared out of the blue in the New Testament.  We read about it here with John the Baptist in our text – of course, there are parallels in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  You might think that since the Old Testament never mentions baptism, that people must have been surprised or intrigued that John was baptizing, that this was a totally new thing.  It wasn’t.

It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament, but by the time of John the Baptist, there are sources outside of the Bible which tell us that at least some Jewish people knew of a practice of baptizing converts to Judaism.  We call these converts Jewish proselytes, and their baptism is called Jewish proselyte baptism.  For a Gentile to become Jewish, he had to undergo circumcision, be baptized, and offer sacrifices at the temple.  The baptism was connected with the idea of being unclean and needing washing.  It was saying, “You’re a Gentile, you’re dirty and you need to be washed in order to be part of God’s holy people.” 

So John was not introducing something new when he started baptizing at the Jordan.  What was new was who he said needed to be baptized.  John said that the Jews needed to be baptized – and that was astounding.  John was saying that the Jews were just as unclean as the Gentiles.  By being baptized, Jews would humble themselves and recognize their sinfulness and their need for a Saviour.  A baptism like that was something totally new.

It’s no wonder then that the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem catch wind of this and feel the need to investigate.  Who is this upstart and what’s he doing?  The Jewish religious leaders needed to get on top of this and if John was doing something wrong, they needed to stop him, or at least warn people about him.  That’s why they send a delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem.  Verse 24 adds that they had been sent from the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were an influential group of religious leaders.  They felt responsible for maintaining rigorous religious purity.  Apparently these priests and Levites were sent at the initiative of the Pharisees.  They have to check John out and report back so a proper judgment can be made.

They go to him out at Bethany and ask him directly, “Who are you?”  Verse 20 tells us that John gave an emphatic answer.  We’re told twice that he confessed, and did not deny.  That’s a way of saying that John was unambiguous – he didn’t speak in riddles or use confusing language.  He said it as bluntly as he could that he was not the Christ.  He was not the Messiah, which is what Christ means.  “Christ” is the New Testament way of saying “Messiah.”  “Messiah” means the anointed one of God, of Yahweh.  Many Jews expected that the Messiah would come and deliver them from the Romans.  Could John be that Messiah?  He said, “I am not the Christ,” I am not the Messiah you’re looking for, I’m not the Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament. 

But the priests and Levites weren’t satisfied with that.  What about Elijah?  Did Elijah come back in the person of John the Baptist?  To understand that question, you have to go with me to the last page of the Old Testament.  Let’s go there for a second, to Malachi 4:5-6 [read].  On the very last page of the Old Testament, you find this prophecy of Elijah the prophet coming before the day of the Lord.  The priests and Levites know about this prophecy.  They know their Bibles.  But John knows who he is and he knows that he’s not Elijah who’s returned to the earth. 

Now if you know your Bible, you may remember what Jesus said about John the Baptist in Matthew 17.  Jesus quotes from the prophecy of Malachi and says that this prophecy did, in fact, speak of John the Baptist.  The disciples clearly understood that this is what Jesus was saying.  So we have John the Baptist saying here that he’s not Elijah, but Jesus in Matthew 17 saying that he is Elijah.  Isn’t the Bible contradicting itself?  Or at least don’t John and Jesus contradict each other?  No, there’s a good way to explain this.  You’ll have to listen carefully. 

John is speaking about a one-to-one identity between himself and Elijah.  John the Baptist is a different person to Elijah the prophet.  They have their own individual identities.  In Matthew 17, this becomes even clearer because Jesus says what he does right after he’s revealed his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Remember:  Moses and Elijah were both there with him.  Elijah is not John the Baptist – they’re two separate people.  Yet right after that Jesus speaks of John as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi.  Why?  Because John was an Elijah-type figure.  He came in the power and spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17).  We know from the other gospels, that John even dressed and acted like Elijah, with his camels-hair clothing and so on.  John was someone who evoked Elijah, he was like him in some key ways, but they’re not the same people.  So, there’s no contradiction at all.

Well, then if not the Christ, and if not Elijah, what about “the Prophet”?  Here again, you need biblical background to understand the question.  The question comes out of what we read earlier from Deuteronomy 18.  Moses prophesied that a far greater prophet was coming.  The Jews knew that they had not yet encountered this greater prophet.  Was John the Baptist the one spoken of by Moses?  And again, John denied it.  John made no claim to be the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18.

Loved ones, John the Baptist had a clear understanding of who he was not.  He knew his Bible and he knew himself.  He had no confusion or deluded ideas about his identity.  Part of his witness or testimony included being honest about himself to others.  If he hadn’t done that, think of the consequences.  If he’d claimed to be one of these figures the Jews had been expecting, that would have put him in competition with Jesus.  He was sent to make the way straight, not to get in the way by competing with the Messiah. 

Of course, we recognize that John had a unique place and role in the history of redemption.  He was living at the moment that Jesus was about to begin his public ministry on earth.  Our situation right now is quite different. We live a couple of thousand years later.  Yet in relation to Christ, John had a prophetic calling and so do we.  There’s a line that can be drawn there.  John was called to be honest about who he was not, and so are we.  Nobody is going to confuse us for figures prophesied in the Old Testament.  But once people figure out that you’re a Christian, you can face other types of confusion.  People will sometimes think that you must be self-righteous.  You must think that you’re better than them because you’re a Christian.  It’s our calling to always be clear what we’re not.  We’re not righteous in ourselves.  We’re not holy through and through.  In fact, we’re just beginning to be holy, and even our best efforts are stained with sin.  We’re sinners saved by grace.  Whenever we speak about the gospel, we shouldn’t be pointing to ourselves as the message, but to Someone else – to Jesus.  That’s what John was trying to do as he spoke not only about who he wasn’t, but also about who he was.

Here we’re at verse 22.  The priests and Levites didn’t give up.  They had to go back to Jerusalem with an answer.  Not only about who John was not, but actually about who he was, positively speaking.  So they pushed him on it, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?”

John’s answer in verse 23 goes back to the Bible.  He’s not those other prophesied figures.  But there is a prophecy that does apply and it’s in Isaiah 40:3.  John is just a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  That prophecy puts John in the proper light. 

John is merely a voice.  Calling him a voice is meant to put the emphasis on his message, rather than his person.  Don’t get caught up in his personality, but listen to what he has to say. 

Isaiah said that he would be a voice crying out “in the wilderness.”  The wilderness was where Israel wandered before coming into the Promised Land.  In the days of our text, Israel was in the wilderness in a spiritual sense.  Many of them were wandering away from God.  The Pharisees who had sent the Levites and priests had distorted the Word of God with their many extra laws and legalism.  John was literally out in the wilderness, but he was also a messenger in a spiritual wilderness.  He had a message that pointed ahead to the one who could bring God’s people into the ultimate Promised Land.

And what was the message of the voice in the wilderness?  “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Get ready for the coming of the Lord by getting all the obstacles out of the way.  The idea behind the word “make straight” in the text of Isaiah is that the people have to level the hills that make travel difficult.  Just like Secret Service agents clear the way for the President’s motorcade, the people of Israel were supposed to get all the obstacles out of the way so that the Lord would have a clear path.  So what sort of obstacles are we supposed to envision here? 

Well, let’s get back to John’s baptism and what it represented.  Remember that this was telling the Jews that they were dirty, unclean, and sinful just like the Gentiles.  They needed washing with Christ’s blood just as much as anyone else.  Elsewhere in the other gospels, John’s baptism is said to be a “baptism of repentance.”  His message was one of repentance.  One of the things repentance means is changing your mind.  The Jews had to change their thinking about themselves.  They had to humble themselves before the Lord who was coming.  That’s how John was preparing the way, making the way straight.  He was doing it by making clear that everyone had to humbly recognize their sins and their need for washing.  That was a key element in his testimony.

Again, we have to reckon with the fact that John had a special role at that moment.  He was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus.  But the message he brought, calling people to repentance, that’s prophetic testimony that still needs to be brought today.  Later on, in the book of Acts, when the apostles preached, they always brought people the message that they needed to humbly turn from sin and turn to Jesus Christ.  They took sin seriously and their message reflected that.  On the day of Pentecost, when Peter preached, his message cut straight to the hearts of his listeners and they asked in Acts 2:37, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter’s answer:  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”  Repent was first.  That means:  change your thinking about who you are.  You’re not as holy and righteous as you think you are.  In fact, you’re not holy and righteous at all.  You need a Saviour.  John was a voice bringing that message first. 

Loved ones, we need to still be that voice today.  When we speak with unbelievers, we should never skirt around the matter of sin, never minimize it.  We have to always be clear about the real problem that all human beings face – what’s to be done with your sin?  Are you going to spend eternity trying to pay for it yourself?  Or are you going to humble yourself and turn to the Saviour so that you can spend eternity in a better way?  Let’s encourage people to level the hills of pride in their hearts and humbly turn to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s encourage others to do that, but also do that ourselves.  You know, we’re also inclined to pridefully think that we’re doing all right and that we don’t need a Saviour.  Brothers and sisters, the Word of God is reminding you again to humble yourself, acknowledge again your need for Christ, and continue looking to him alone in faith.  Level those hills of pride and take hold of Christ as your only hope.     

We’re now at verse 25 and here we see the priests and Levites continuing their interrogation of John the Baptist.  They just don’t give up!  Their final question leads John to point even more clearly to the identity of Jesus, the one whose way he’s preparing. 

Their question is about authority.  If John is not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the Prophet, if he’s only “a voice,” then why is he baptizing?  What gives him the right to do this?  To their minds, it’s inconceivable that someone could come along and start doing this out of nowhere.  Yes, John himself was a Levite, the son of a priest, but that didn’t give him the authority to start baptizing Jews like they were Gentiles.  In their eyes, he was acting provocatively.   It’s like the man on the street who stands at an intersection directing traffic.  The traffic lights are working.  He’s not a police officer.  But he decides to take it on himself to start directing traffic.  Who does he think he is?  What gives him the right?

John’s answer is in verses 26 and 27.  The Baptist says, “Sure, I baptize Jews with water, and that might get you agitated, but you haven’t seen anything yet.  Already among you is one who is far greater than me.  You don’t know him yet, you’re not acquainted with him.  But soon you will be.  He’s so much greater than me that I’m not even worthy of untying his sandals.”  By the way, untying sandals was the work of slaves.  John says that, compared to Christ, he is lower than a slave.  The One who is coming has infinitely more authority and power.  John the Baptist was pointing to him and who he was.  John was not about himself, but about Jesus. 

Interestingly, the Gospel According to John doesn’t describe the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  It’s mentioned as something that happened in the past later in verse 32.  But it appears that the baptism of Jesus took place before our text.  John has seen the Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove.  John has heard the voice from heaven declaring who Jesus is:  the beloved Son of God.  In the meantime, Jesus has been out in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  Soon he will begin his public ministry and the priests and Levites and everyone else will hear and see him.  But John is preparing the way, giving them a heads-up that they should be ready for one far greater than he is. 

It might appear as if John the Baptist didn’t answer their question.  They asked why he was baptizing.  What gave him the authority to do that?  In response, he pointed to Christ.  And the implication is that God sent him with the authority to make straight the way of the Lord, to prepare the way for Christ by baptizing and preaching repentance.  That’s implied in his quote from Isaiah 40.  John understood his mission and who was behind it.  Indeed, if you read Luke 1 and what the angel of the Lord said to Zechariah, you’ll know that God did indeed send John to do this.  Zechariah must surely have told his son about the message of the angel Gabriel.  John must have heard from his father how he’d been created by God to “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

So another essential part of John’s testimony was to speak of who Jesus is, namely that he’s far greater.  Because he’s far greater, he should be listened to, believer, and obeyed.  Loved ones, we’re also to speak of our Saviour Jesus and his greatness.  Our calling as prophets is to confess his Name to everyone we can.  He’s everything to us and we want to make much of him.  His greatness means that he is worth listening to.  John could encourage people to listen to Jesus in person.  We can encourage people to read the Bible.  Let’s say you get into a conversation with someone about your faith.  Ask them if they have a Bible.  If they don’t, offer to get them one -- and then do it if they’ll agree to read it.  If they do have a Bible already, encourage them to read it.  What should they read?  Encourage them to start reading a gospel like John or Mark, a simple and straightforward part of the Bible where they’ll encounter Jesus speaking directly.  Then follow up – ask them if they did and ask what they thought.  If the Holy Spirit seems to be making their heart soft, invite them to church to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the preaching too.  Our Saviour is a great Saviour and, like John, we should do everything we can to encourage people to hear his voice, listen to him, and believe in him. 

Brothers and sisters, John was instrumental in making straight the Lord’s way.  God worked through a weak and sinful human being to get things ready for Christ.  Did it have an effect on any of these priests and Levites?  It did – the Word of God never returns to him empty.  But what we’re really asking is did it have a positive effect, did it lead to salvation for any of them?  Maybe not right away.  But I’d remind you of what we read in Acts 6:7:  “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”  More than three years after John’s ministry, after the apostles have begun preaching, many of the priests in Jerusalem were converted and became Christians.  It didn’t happen right away, but in God’s providence it did happen eventually.  John prepared the way.  And today too, we don’t know how the Lord will work through our witnessing.  Perhaps quickly, perhaps slowly.  But always remember that he does work -- and he wants to work through you.  AMEN. 


Our heavenly Father,

We want to be witnesses for our Lord Jesus to this lost world.  We pray for the help of your Holy Spirit with that.  Please give courage and wisdom to reach out to lost people we know.  Please help us so that we always speak with humility about ourselves and also encourage humility in others.  Father, please help us to speak honestly about sin and point people to the only real solution in our Saviour Jesus.  We want to point to him and speak of him and his exceeding glory.  O God, use us as instruments in your hand to draw in more of your elect.  We pray it because we want to see your Name praised and glorified through the salvation of sinners.    


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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