Good Man Isn’t God-Man
John wasn’t the only one who drew a lot of unwanted attention from the celebrity chasers at Ephesus. They still held John the Baptist in such high regard that when Paul‘s church-planting team arrived there in 53AD, they found the foremost Christian preacher in the city telling the Ephesians to be baptised into John the Baptist instead of into Jesus.1 The desert preacher who revived backslidden Israel in 27-28AD was still held in such high regard by the early Christians that an Arabian merchant named Muhammad would even list him as a prophet alongside Jesus over five centuries later in the Qur’an.
John had more reason than Matthew, Mark or Luke to give in to his readers’ desire to place John the Baptist on a pedestal. He is the unnamed disciple in verses 35-40, so he and his fishing partner Andrew had been some of John the Baptist’s earliest disciples. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he spends much of chapters 1 and 3 clarifying what his former teacher’s message was. He, more than anyone, knew that John the Baptist was a good man, but he is alive to the danger that our admiration for a good man may actually distract us from obeying his call to look and see the God-Man.
John has already told us in verses 6-8 that John the Baptist was simply a witness sent from God to prepare the Jewish nation for its Messiah.2 He called them to be baptised, which was not new in itself because Gentile converts to Judaism were baptised at the same time as they were circumcised as part of their entry into the People of God. What made John’s baptism new was that it was a baptism for Jews as an outward sign of their inner repentance and their confession that Jewishness was not enough to save anyone. When some Jews refused to be baptised, he warned that being descended from Abraham didn’t change the fact that they were the “offspring of vipers” until they surrendered to the Lord.3
Now, in verses 19-28, John clarifies his former teacher’s message further. He tells us that John the Baptist freely confessed that he was not the Messiah predicted by Moses when he talked about the coming of ‘the Prophet’ in Deuteronomy 18:15-19.4 Even though the three Synoptic gospel writers rightly link him to the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6 that a man like Elijah would lead Israel in revival before the Messiah came, he insists in verse 21 that he is not Elijah in the sense that most Israelites assumed. The prophet who had ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire without dying nine centuries earlier in 2 Kings 2 had not returned.5 John the Baptist was merely like Elijah in his calling to turn Israel away from false objects of worship in order to see the Living God.6 Those who truly honour John the Baptist as a good man are those who gaze beyond him to the God-Man whose shoelaces he was too unworthy to untie. “Look!” he pointed in verse 29, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”7
John knew that many of his readers were so in love with their human hero that their admiration stopped them from doing the very things he said. Therefore he does not tell the story of Jesus’ baptism like Matthew, Mark and Luke, but tells us in verses 30-34 what John the Baptist finally realised when Jesus came up out of the water. They were close relatives and had known one another from early childhood,8 but he hadn’t guessed that Jesus was the Son of God until he saw the Holy Spirit descend on him at his baptism and remain on him for ministry.9 At once, he recognised his own frail limitations and beat a hasty retreat out of the limelight so that Jesus could take centre-stage. The Bridegroom gets noticed and the groomsman gets forgotten, he insists in 3:29-30. “He must become greater; I must become less.” He refused to let a good man take the focus off the God-Man.
To help us, John tells us in verses 35-39 that he has already had to walk the road he is telling us to travel. He had once fixed his eyes on John the Baptist with all the eager devotion of a young disciple, but he had learned to honour his teacher by doing what he taught and shifting his gaze from the messenger and onto the Messiah. “Look, the Lamb of God!” John the Baptist had told him, and John had started following a new rabbi instead. Unlike the starstruck Ephesians, he had let nothing distract him from the one who could forgive him and change his life from the inside out by baptising him with the Holy Spirit.10
I recently spent time with a group of young church leaders who were concerned about what will happen when the ageing leader of their denomination retires. It brought home to me how easy it still is for us to let respect for a good man dilute our faith in the God-Man who has worked through that great leader and will continue to work through many fresh leaders when he has gone. That’s one of the reasons why the Lord has only granted each one of us a brief lifespan, because Church history has room for only one hero and it isn’t one of us. Retirements and deaths are God’s way of shifting his People’s gaze away from the unhealthy human hero worship which infected the church at Ephesus. As John prepared the believers for the day that he would die, as the last of Jesus’ twelve disciples, he warned them not to fix their eyes on any good man who might distract their focus from the God-Man.
Charles Wesley was inspired many centuries later to write a hymn from John the Baptist’s words, when he and his brother were at the height of their fame:
“His only righteousness I show, His saving grace proclaim;
‘Tis all my business here below to cry ‘Behold the Lamb!’
Happy if with my latest breath I may but gasp His Name,
Preach Him to all and cry in death, ‘Behold, behold the Lamb!”11
1 Acts 18:19-19:7.
2 He tells us John the Baptist is not the Light in 1:8, not the Messiah or Christ in 3:28, not the greatest witness in 5:36, and not a miracle-worker in 10:41.
3 John expects us to know this already from Luke 3:7-9.
4 Although John wrote his gospel in Greek, we can tell that he still thought like a Jew from the way he uses a Hebrew ‘synthetic parallelism’ to tell us in verse 20 that “he did not fail to confess, but confessed freely.” We can also tell it from 3:29 where he says “he rejoices with joy”, instead of using a Greek adverb.
5 The rumour he might actually be Elijah stemmed from their similar clothing (2 Kings 1:8 & Matthew 3:4) and the fact he ministered on the east side of the Jordan near the place where Elijah had ascended to heaven.
6 Luke 1:16-17, Mark 9:11-13 and Matthew 11:7-14 & 17:10-13. The quotation in verse 23 comes from Isaiah 40:3, which goes alongside those in Malachi 3:1 & 4:5-6 to teach that John the Baptist would straighten the path or clear the way for Jesus (the same phrase is used in 1 Thessalonians 3:11). John the Baptist was simply the warm-up act. Jesus was the headline superstar.
7 John deliberately uses an unusual Greek word for lamb in verses 29 & 36, because Isaiah 53:7 used this same word to prophesy that the Messiah would be God’s sacrificial lamb for sin.
8 Since their mothers were related, Luke 1:35-45 tells us they had a dramatic first encounter whilst both of them were still inside their mothers’ wombs.
9 John the Baptist confesses in 1:33 that, even though his mother recognised that Mary was “the mother of my Lord” as early as in Luke 1:43, he himself did not grasp this until much later.
10 Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16 & John 1:29. Focusing too much on John the Baptist stopped the Ephesian believers from receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 19, so John tells us to fix our eyes on the one on whom the Spirit both descended and remained. He is the one who will baptise us with that same Spirit.
11 From the hymn “Jesus! the Name high over all”, written by Charles Wesley in about 1750.