What Made John Great?
I’m going to invite you to the book of John, is where we are going to be today. So the book of John, we’re going to pick up in verse 19. We’re in a new series together called Light the Dark, and we’re looking in the Gospel of John. It’s called Light the Dark because the Gospel of John emphasizes the idea of Jesus’s light stepping into our darkness and it transforms things. It transforms our lives, for one, the most important thing I think, in the way that we perceive this world and how we live, and how that impacts things around us.
We’re looking at Light the Dark in the Gospel of John. As we go through it together, what we’re going to find is different stories about Jesus intersecting the lives of others and how it transformed them. As you see God transforming the lives of people, you learn about the Lord himself through all of it, his characteristics, his nature, his purpose, and really you find your purpose in that. And so the Gospel of John is an important book of the Bible.
We’ve shared this together, that Martin Luther has even said that if you destroy the Bible but save the book of Romans, and the book of John, that Christianity will be okay because those books are so powerful in their teaching, that still gives us the idea of how we are to live the Christian life and what the meaning of life is and how God rescues us, saves us, and has a redemptive plan shared with us. And so the Gospel of John is an important book. But to start this off, I’ve got a question for you. Apart from Jesus, because Jesus is just the easy answer to this, but who is the greatest person to ever live? You ever thought about that? Who is the greatest person to ever live?
You might have already been thinking, “I already know. It was Muhammad Ali.” Ali said so. Or Alexander the Great. I mean, it’s pretty hard to beat when your title has the word great in it. Or maybe you go with someone a little more modern, at least for America, Abraham Lincoln. Or maybe you might go with a Nelson Mandela, or even a Mother Teresa, or maybe you want to get all biblical on me and toss out some Moses or Abraham. But interesting, Jesus said that John the Baptist, in Matthew 11:11, he said, “John the Baptist was the greatest person to ever live.” And so when you think in terms of who is the greatest, well, Jesus has an answer for that, and he told us it was John, which is a pretty wild response if you know anything about John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is different than the apostle John. The apostle John writes the Gospel of John. John the Baptist was the one that gave the declaration to the arrival of Jesus. He was the forerunner to Christ. But when you study the life of John, Matthew 3, when it starts off, very first four or five verses, tells you about John. It says that he lived out in the wilderness, and he yelled at people, and he wore camel’s hair, and ate bugs. That was John. And you think when Jesus said this guy is the greatest… I grew up a little bit in a few different states, but most of my life lived in West Virginia. And I can tell you there are places that you can go in West Virginia where people like John, I think still live. But you don’t want to go there because if you’re there, you’re not going to live very long to be around there. And John is considered the greatest.
How in the world is John the greatest? That’s what we’re going to answer today is what made John so great? How is John the greatest? Why would Jesus say that about him? In fact, when you look at John 1:19, you find the Jewish leaders asking the same question. I mean, you would probably think the same thing. You run across a guy running around the woods, yelling at people, wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs. Like, this guy needs help, right? And Jesus calls him the greatest.
In verse 19, listen to this, it says in this passage that John is getting so much attention that a group shows up to interrogate him. And this is where they say, this is the testimony of John, “When the Jews sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem and ask, ‘Who are you?'” The question is, “What makes you so important? Who is you? Who do you think you are?” John’s answer to this question is a powerful response because it teaches us something about this idea of greatness that Jesus sees in him. But let me you, how would you answer that question? When someone comes up, just on the cuff asks you, “Who are you?” Because how you answer that question is a little revealing to where you, as a person might derive your worth or significance. That’s where they come in asking John this question, “Who are you? What makes you so important? Why should people come all the way out here to the wilderness to listen to your voice? So far out of the way and you look nuts, John.”
Then in verse 20, well, what we find is John didn’t carry the credentials of the day that would warrant a crowd. He says, verse 20, “And he confessed and did not deny.” And this is what he confessed, “I’m not the Christ, so if you’re thinking I’m the Messiah and that makes me important, that’s not me.” And so they asked, “Well, what then are you? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I’m not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” And they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us, what do you say about yourself?” So the Jews being familiar with the word of God, they knew that prophecy had said a Messiah’s coming. And John is saying, “Look, I’m not taking credit as a Messiah. I’m not a Messiah.” And they knew that that scripture had said that Elijah would come as a forerunner to the Messiah. And John saying, “I’m not even that guy.”
Scripturally, we know that John did fulfill that prophecy, but John didn’t even see himself in terms of the title as the forerunner to the Messiah. And they thought, “Well, maybe he’s the prophet,” because in Deuteronomy 18 it says there’s going to be a prophet, and they believed that that passage was talking a prophet that would declare the Messiah as well. And John say’s, “No. I’m not even that guy.” “So then John, who are you? What makes you so great?” And then verse 23, John gives his response. He says, “I am the voice of one calling out in the wilderness, make the way of the Lord straight as Isaiah the prophet has said.”
What John is saying here is honestly guys, who I am doesn’t matter. It’s who he is that matters. You can see this the way that he’s addressing this passage, he’s quoting from Isaiah 40 here, but he’s saying, “Look, chapter 40 here, but he’s saying, “Look, who I am as the figurehead in the spotlight, doesn’t matter to me. I’m just a voice, who you should be looking at is the one that I’m declaring, which is the Lord.” And when he’s quoting from Isaiah 40 here, what he’s doing is he’s declaring that this one that’s coming is God, himself. What John is saying is, “You want to know what makes me great? Nothing. I’m just a voice. What is great is Him.” And so John points forward.
When I read this interaction between these religious leaders in John, there’s a piece of me sometimes that I think the Pharisees in some degree, deserve the criticism that they get. But I think it’s worth just pausing and just reflecting on who these people are that are coming to John. Because from this point on, as you go through the gospels, when you see Jesus interacting with the Pharisees, it’s often a very harsh interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees want to kill Jesus. Jesus calls them out and they’re a religious way of thinking. And the reason he does that is because they’re missing the whole point of scripture.
When we’re talking about these religious leaders, these people, according to Israel are considered the most elite, moral, well-thought of, do good people in all of Jesus’s day, yet, they’re the ones that miss the significance of Jesus. The reason I think that’s worth just recognizing as we go through this passage of scripture is I think Christians sometimes have that tendency to become that way, where they sort of become this religious elite, these armchair quarterbacks, where they just want to sit back and criticize, but they just can’t enjoy the goodness of Christ and the interaction of God’s community.
God’s community is not a perfect bunch, but yet God still wants to work there. When you read this passage of scripture, this is this contrast between John and the religious leaders and they know the Bible through and through, but they don’t know Jesus. That’s what John is wanting them to recognize, is, “Look, if you’re just looking at me and you’re asking this question of, “What makes me so great? What’s my title? What’s my credentials,’ you’re going to miss the whole point.”
They even go a little further in verse 24 and since John doesn’t have these titles, this credential of what would make him great, then start looking at tradition. In verse 24, “And the messenger had been sent from the Pharisees, and they asked him and said to him, why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? And John answered them saying, I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you do not know.”
In John’s day, there was a practice of baptism but Jews did not get baptized. It was not customary, common, or kosher, I guess we could say because they’re Jewish people. But in John’s day, the people that got baptized were Gentile. And as an interesting formality to their baptism, that if a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism, a part of that conversion included that they would go into water and they would self-baptize, meaning there was no one there to assist in the baptism. They would have to immerse themselves in the water and baptize themselves without any other person’s assistance. And the reason was is because they were considered unclean people, and the Jewish people were considered clean, so they couldn’t touch the unclean person. So they would just send that person in the water by themselves to baptize themselves, to show that they wanted to convert to Judaism.
Now John shows up and he’s breaking the traditions here. He’s saying, “Look, what’s about to happen with this Messiah, God’s about to make something new take place and because God’s about to make something new to take place, this isn’t just Gentile needs to be baptized, this is everyone needs to align with this kingdom.” That’s what John’s declaration was, “Make straight his path. The King is coming and his kingdom and everyone needs to abandon any system in this world that they think they belong to, and they need to embrace this King. And so the way you declare that is this whole new thing, is baptism.” And when you read in scripture, that’s what God’s demonstration of water has always been. When you see it in creation, it says that God created in the beginning, and there’s this water, that covers the deep. The earth is formless and void. And God says, “Let there be light,” and then God brings the land out of the water. Out of the chaos of the water, God brings forth life and purpose and meaning. And so God starts a new thing in the water.
When Israel was slaves in Egypt, when God brought them out, God brought them through the water in from a place of slavery, into a place of new life, a new home, a new beginning. And so water is symbolic of God doing something new. And now when John the Baptist comes, this declaration of this King, the Messiah, the promise one they have been waiting for, that John baptizes everyone to say, “Look, we all need to fall in line with this King, to show our allegiance to him.” What John is doing by declaring this baptism is he’s breaking from the tradition and the norm. The Jews are asking them the question then, “If you’re drawing this crowd, you’re giving this voice, you’re pointing in this direction, what makes you so important?” It’s not the titles. It’s not the tradition.
We ask ourselves the same question, what makes you so important? Our human tendency is to go towards this works-based or performance-based identity, and that’s what they’re doing with John. “John, what makes you so important? Show me where you have performed in such a way that warrants, that people need to be here,” and we do the same. What makes you so important? Sometimes we think it’s titles. You’ll elevate yourself and position above others because you feel like the place of a title gives you importance. Or some of us might say it’s because of our intelligence, and so you hope and pray no one discovers the lack of knowledge you might have in areas, and you want to put on this facade as the most intelligent person in the room. Or someone else might think it’s your looks. And so you post on Facebook like crazy, hoping you get more likes than everyone else.
Most of the time we see our value out of our ability to be better than someone else. If you don’t live up to your standards, you feel like a failure. And if you do live up to your standards, you fill yourself with pride, you surrender to what you think makes you matter most. What you bow to shows what you believe gives you worth, and what you believe will determine how you behave.
But what John does is interesting because John doesn’t seem to take pride in his title, his position, his traditions, but yet John has incredible confidence, and at the same time, he walks with humility. That’s a rare quality hold both of those positions in life, you’re confident yet humble. How does it John do that? Because when you look at the very next verse, verse 27, what John says is really powerful and interesting here, because these religious leaders, they come around John, they’re asking the question, “What makes you so great?” And they’re looking for him to build himself up and all the amazing things that he is.
Then in verse 27, rather than do that, it’s almost like he does the exact opposite. Look at this, verse 27, he says, “It is he who comes after me of whom I am not worthy even to untied the strap of his sandal.” Culturally, what John is saying here is a very powerful phrase because in the first century, you can imagine in Jesus’s day, the typical attire that you wore on your feet, if you had things to wear on your feet, was sandals. You strap those suckers up and you walk the streets. But when you walk the streets, the streets in Jerusalem are dusty. They’re not paved. And what else walks the streets with you? Animals. I mean, you don’t travel in cars in these days. If you had something to travel on other than with your feet, it was on the back of an animal. You might have a cart if you’re lucky, to pull you along.
But when you walk on those roads, if you’ve been around animals, I know when I first moved to Lehi, Lehi was 25,000 people at the time, and it seemed like you had to own three horses for every person that lived in this town. I remember when the roundup would happen, you would go to the roundup and if you had a horse, you got to be in the horse parade in Lehi. There was points where I felt like sometimes I was the only guy that didn’t own a horses in Lehi. But when they would say, “Okay, it’s time for the horse parade,” they would like blow the horn or something and everyone would go to be in the horse parade, horses would come out of everywhere and the streets would just be littered with the remains of horses, if you catch what I’m saying.
You can imagine in Jesus’s day, people own animals and they’re an agricultural society and those animals walked the streets with others. And if you had to take a mile walk that day down the dusty road to get to somewhere, the things that you would be stepping in. When you would get to someone’s house, if you’re like my wife, the rule is you get to the front door, you got to take off your shoes. In Jesus’s day, when you get to someone’s house and you’re going to go inside and enjoy things, no one wants to touch those sandals. You don’t even want to touch your sandals to take those things off. And so what they ended up doing in households, if they had slaves, this was during a time when there was slavery, the person that was considered the lowest slave in the house got the short straw and they had to take off the person’s shoes and wash their feet.
That’s what John is saying in this passage, “You want to think about my position, think about what we consider in our society the lowest position, and I’m beneath that position. I’m not even worthy to take off the shoes of the one who is coming.” And what John is teaching us without specifically saying it is this. Greatness isn’t in what you do. It’s in who you do it for. You want to answer the question what makes you great? Answer the question, where do you bow? And John is saying in this passage, the value of Jesus and this preeminence over his life.
When we talk about humility or the idea of being a servant, I think we often balk at it. Who wants to become a servant or present themselves as a servant? What John is saying is a very humbling statement. I don’t want to become a servant. I want to become great, yet John takes this lowly position. What makes humility such a great attribute? And you think about it, humility, we don’t often talk this way and we refer to God, but humility is even a characteristic of God himself. I would even say it’s very reflective of God’s nature to take on humility.
If you were to skip forward and to read to John 13, and that’s the chapter where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. It starts off in verse 4 and 5 John 13, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, the position of the lowest servant. But what’s incredible about that chapter is right before Jesus does that in verse four, in verse three, it says that the father has given him all authority. All power has been given to Jesus. Now, you can think, if I came to you today and I said, “Look, I’m giving you all power and authority in life,” what would be the very next act that you did? I’m going to guess it would be something that you would think would just be great, that just flexes that muscle before the world. Like, all authority and power is given to you. What should you do with this? Like you rubbed the little geni on the lamp and now it’s been granted and you get to make your first wish. What are you going to do? And you know what Jesus does? He washes feet. That’s incredible, isn’t it?
All of this given unto him, all of the strength, all the power, all the authority to rule king of kings, lord of lords, and what’ your first act Jesus? To serve. To serve. Why? Don’t you want to tell people how great you are? Don’t you want to show people how amazing you are? Jesus didn’t need to. He already knew how great he was.
I think that’s the lesson that we’re learning here with John is the world comes and says, “Look, this is how in our world that you show people how amazing you are.” And John saying, “But I don’t get my value from this world.” The path to greatness, John teaches us, is paved with humility and service.
Three views. What makes John so great? There are three views that allowed John to be great. John, number one, had a high view of God. We could use all kinds of phrases here rather than just a high view, but I’m going to alliterate this with Hs. So John, number one, had a high view of God, meaning Christ was premier in his life, he saw the Lord as supreme in his life, God was sovereign in his life. Whatever you need to say to yourself to say, “Okay, where John bases his worth and value, what takes preeminent in his life is the Lord.”
This is important because we often think if I want to be great, I need to see myself as great. In order for me to become that great thing that I know that I should be, I need to know that I am great and see myself as great. That may be true. Maybe in life, you’re just thinking, “I’m depressed, I’m worthless.” Maybe you do need to see yourself as great or understand how valuable you are. But the problem that we run into is oftentimes in order to get there, we start in the wrong position. What I mean is in our society, if you want to think that you’re great, what we often tell you is look deeper within yourself to demonstrate how great you are. The problem with that is, you didn’t make yourself.
When we can’t find that within us, the next step that we often look to as other people, like, “What do other people say about me, or how do other people say I need to become great, and whatever hierarchy system they create, then I’ll follow that path to demonstrate how great I am.” But the problem with that is they didn’t make you either. John has discovered that is value and purpose in life isn’t found within him, isn’t found within others, but rather it’s found within the Lord.
I remember when I was a college student at Marshall University, in my apartment at night, staring, looking up at the ceiling and asking that question, “What in the world am I doing with my life?” I was just trying to figure out what major I was going to be in college, and what I was even going to do, and showing up for classes the next day, and not really have any clear direction of where this is all going, just taking general classes, because I knew I needed to at least have those. But still answering the question, “But why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?” Staying up at night, like, “How am I even going to decide what I’m going to become when I get older,” and just can’t figure it out. And then I just remember reasoning with myself, thinking, “But if there is a God, and God made me, then God would’ve made me for a reason. If I can just figure out who that God is, then I can find out my purpose, and then I could figure out my direction.”
This is where John’s at, right? How did John become great? Well, John had this high view of God. And what you see, you see this peppered throughout the scripture. Verse 23, remember he said this, “I am the voice of the one calling out in the wilderness. Make the way of the Lord straight, as Isaiah the prophet said.” What John is saying is, “Look, there’s the King of Kings who’s coming.” And he’s saying, “Look, let’s prepare the path so that when he walks into our lives, we can just receive him with open arms. He just has the clear road into our lives.” He’s given this declaration, “Make the path straight for the arrival of this King. Verse 27, “It’s he who comes after me of whom I’m not worthy, even to untie his strap.” It was just elevate. You need to elevate. You need to understand how great he is. This needs to take the preeminence in your life of where you find purpose, and value, and worth, and meaning.
Verse 29, The next day, he saw Jesus coming to him and he said, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And think of how powerful of a statement this is. If you’re doing our yearly Bible reading, we just read this chapter last yesterday, where Israel celebrates the Passover. And the Passover is a tradition from Egypt where God takes Israel as slaves under Moses, out of Egypt and gives them this identity in him, into the promised land. He delivers them into the promised land. On the night that he leads them out of Egypt into their promised land, he tells them to sacrifice the lamb. Every family needs to sacrifice a lamb, and apply the blood to the doorpost. They did that every year, every family responsible for sacrificing this lamb. It’s a pretty profound story.
You think about what exactly God did in Egypt, that he takes slaves and he gives them an identity in him. Now, you think, when Moses comes before Pharaoh and Moses says before Pharaoh, “God said let the people go,” Pharaoh’s thinking, “God doesn’t talk to the slaves.” But yet God takes what culture would consider the least of these, and gives them this identity, and purpose, and value, and meaning. And to symbolize the beauty of this, God that rescues them, they sacrifice the lamb and they apply the blood above the doorpost every year, to show an ultimate salvation that would come. When this ultimate salvation comes, it’s this King of Kings, Lord of Lords who identifies himself as the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
Now, when you think about this lamb, it’s no longer each family, every year, sacrifice a lamb and apply the blood. It’s one lamb for the whole world. One lamb, one time for the whole world. This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. What’s John saying here? Guys, it’s not about a performance-based identity, but rather it’s a grace-based identity. This lamb takes away the sins of the world and that includes me. That God would talk to me, that God would come for me, that God would see value in me, that God gave me purpose in this world when he designed me. I don’t want your system to tell me who I am. I want God to tell me who I am.
So John finds this grace-based identity, and I think what it does for his life is it gives him tunnel vision. I mean, I just want to look at his declaration over me. What does he say about me? So John has this high view of God. Wasn’t looking to the world to say something about him, to give him Facebook likes, to tell him that he’s important. Rather, what does God say about him? Verse 30, “This is he on behalf of whom I said after me is coming a man who has proved to be my superior because he has existed before me,” Meaning, this one who’s coming is eternal. The reason he is eternal is because he’s God.
God is coming for us. John had a high view of God and because of that, John then had a healthy view of himself. He didn’t start with what makes me so important by looking deeper within me, he started what makes me so important by looking to the Lord, and in the Lord, he finds meaning in himself. John had a healthy view of himself.
When you think about what John’s job was. John was given the job to introduce the world to the most important person to ever live. What an incredible calling in this world, to introduce the world to the most important person to ever live. Wow. I want to be like John. I mean, could you imagine if you had that job. But the truth is, you do. You have that same calling in this world because that’s your calling too, to declare the goodness of God through the way that you live in this world is this higher calling in Jesus, that he calls you his own and calls you into this world to be alive. It’s an incredible thing.
When you think about John’s calling and really, it’s the same calling that you have in your life. I’m not telling you, so therefore you need to go into the wilderness, and scream at people wearing fur, and eating bugs. Your position in life doesn’t necessarily change, but your purpose in life does. It’s not about the approval of a man, but rather it’s about living for the Lord. Maybe you’re a stay at home mom, which I think is the most important job in the world. You have direct influence to future generations. It’s not about looking at others to validate the significance of who you are, but the understanding of your role in the light of the Lord, to influence others for his kingdom and glory, to see the next generation live in light of God, and to make a difference in this world.
You don’t have to look to others for approval in that you look to your King and just ask the question, “God, what can I do to be that light to those around me?” Or maybe you’re a workaholic dad. You struggled with identity and you don’t like so much to go into the home because you know at your job, you have title. You have position, everyone respects you. And I say, who cares? They get paid to do that. Of course, they’re going to kiss up to you. They get things for that. They get paid to do that. They may not even really like you to your face. But you avoid home, but the most important role, is the place of influence and position. A job can be a place you do that too, but to understand is it’s not about title, but it’s about living for the one in his glory, to have a healthy view, a high view of God, a healthy view of self. Then John had, I would say, a helpful view of others. So you can remember those, a high view of God, a healthy view of himself, and then a helpful view of others.
If John carried the world’s system of value, he would have bowed down to the religious leaders. They would have said, “Shut up,” and said, “John, why are you so important? John, why are you baptizing people?” And he would have said, “You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I offended you. Let me please you in what I do.” But John didn’t, because John didn’t need their approval. John had the confident understanding of who he in light of who God was, and therefore, he had a healthy view of others, where he didn’t come before them saying, “Please, please show me my worth and value. Show me how important I am. Elevate me.”
Now, I know we all need encouragement. That’s important to encourage one another, uplift each other. But the value of who we are isn’t found in others. It’s found in Him and John already had the Lord’s calling on his life. To him, that position was the most important.
So how do you become great? I would say, that all depends on who you want to be grate for. What you bow to determines where you find your worth, or at least what you think gives you worth. For John, it was the Lord. If you ask the question, how do you become great, and you’re asking that question because you want other people to think you’re amazing, you’re going to spend the rest of your life as a slave to the opinions of people and never find your soul content. Who or what you bow to will determine where you find your greatness. Greatness is not found in what you do, but truly to whom you surrender.
In fact, if you went back to Matthew 11:11, where Jesus calls John the greatest, listen to this, he says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there not one risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” But then Jesus goes on and says this, “Yet, the one who is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I think that ultimately points to Jesus, who is the servant of servants. But what Jesus is saying is what makes you great is who you serve, and who better you could serve to demonstrate your greatness than the one who created you, because he understands your purpose better than anyone. Bow to Jesus, find meaning. Miss Jesus, and long for purpose the rest of your life.
That’s the contrasting of this story that you’ll see between the religious leaders and John the Baptist. Some of the most intelligent people in all of scripture, and yet they missed it because they wouldn’t bow the knee to their King.