And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28)
As advent draws to an end, and the coming of Jesus Christ is nigh, we not only need to think about the great gift God has given us, but we need to think about how we will face Christ on the last day. John shows us true humility in this passage, humility that we must have on that last day. This humility consists of three elements: denial of self, exaltation of Christ, and discernment of spirits.
The first, denial of self, is easier said than done. John does say it. To the three questions posed to him, he answers "I am not the Christ", "I am not", and "no." These are self-denying expressions that don't seem like much until you realize that the ways of the world are all about affirmation of the self. "I am" followed by an adjective makes up most of our language nowadays. Joel Osteen has even come out with a book called, The Power of "I Am", and he's not talking about the proper name of God. He's taking about himself, ourselves, the world. He's affirming the great sin of pride, which caused Satan to fall and is the foundation of all the other sins we possess. First we topple God from his throne and put ourselves in his place, then as kings of our own universes we can do whatever we want without consequences. That is, until we discover the truth, hopefully on this side of death.
Are you the Christ? Are you God? John says he is not, but our world belts a resounding YES! The second question: are you Elijah? In our day and age it would be, are you someone important in the church? Do we want to be someone important in the church? With a name? Someone who can be followed and marketed? Of course we do! It would help us to promote Christ if we were charismatic church leaders! Vision casters! But John says NO, he is not someone important. He says later in the Gospel of John that he MUST decrease so that Christ can increase. You cannot promote God and self at the same time.
Last question: are you THAT Prophet, mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15 & 18, which is Christ again. John says no, of course. Also, remember how the question is framed. We read that the ones who were sent to ask him these questions were sent by the Pharisees. That means one thing: they were trying to trick him and trap him into saying something that will get him in trouble. Indeed they do get him in trouble later, but this line of questioning is answered by resounding NOs. John will not take their bait. How would this question be framed today? How are you revealing Christ's kingdom in the world today? How are you representing Christ on earth? We hear preachers preach themselves all the time today, under the guise of proclaiming Christ, but what they are really saying is, "this is how I am doing it, and this is how I'm showing the POWER of the Holy Spirit." Do you have the power? Does your ministry reveal Christ's kingdom in supernatural power? No? And we end up feeling that we are missing something. We don't have that edge. We are not connected with our heavenly father. Are we even saved?
John says no, I am not that prophet. This is the ultimate minimizing of self in order to grow Christ. But John doesn't deny that he is A prophet. He claims he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "make straight the way of the Lord." Preaching is prophecy. Remember, Elijah was a miracle prophet. The bulk of miracles in the Old Testament are attributed to him. To say that you are him, or even LIKE him, is to push the POWER of your ministry. John's ministry is quite the opposite. He proclaims Christ and at the same time minimizes himself.
Which leads us to the second part of humility: exalting Christ. It's not enough to shrink yourself. Many worldly people do that, usually to get attention. It's one thing to speak lowly of yourself so that others will notice you, but John's is a diversion of attention away from himself and onto the Lord Jesus Christ. Negative attention is still attention, but John's is a positive attention directed toward his Lord and Savior. He first says he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, but then he pulls us away from the picture of a lone man standing against the world and onto Jesus by saying, "Make straight the way of the Lord." Now we have a picture of the world lining up, getting out of the way, so that Jesus can be seen. John is nowhere in the picture.
Here's another way John exalts Christ. The questioners ask him why he baptizes, if he is not the Christ nor Elijah nor the Prophet? Once again John marginalizes himself by claiming to be the distributor of the MEANS of grace but not the grace itself. The grace itself is given by God alone. Once again, God is edified. The priest's job is to baptize, distribute the Lord's supper, and to proclaim his word--all three of those are MEANS of grace. Only God gives the grace itself. My job is to stand out of the way in the shadows and draw no attnetion to myself, but I must continually push Christ into the light, into the open, for all to see.
Finally, there is the discerning of spirits. This can be seen in the four words "you do not know." When John is describing Christ, he tells them that there is one standing among them, whom they know not. The humble person has not only an accurate view of themselves and an accurate view of Christ, but also an accurate view of the world, specifically who are God's children and who are not. Granted, we are not to condemn others, for that is God's job only. But John tells us in his first letter that we are to discern the spirits, for false teaching is rampant in the world, and we need to know, for our sake and the sake of other believers, if a spirit comes from God or not. This is what John is doing when he tells them to their faces that they know Christ not. He knows who the Pharisees are and what they teach. John has the Holy Spirit--he had it since in utero--and he can which of the spirits are from God and which are from the evil one. Notice this disernment is also peppered with humility. John degrades himself again and exalts Christ AGAIN: he tells them that he is unworthy to even unlatch Jesus' sandals.
Now, how close are we to being like John? Do we humble ouselves as he? Do we deny ourselves, exalt Christ like we ought, and do we discern the spirits when we listen to today's teachings on Christ and His Church? No, we certainly do not. We preach ourselves all the time, when we should be sharing the gospel. We keep the reality of Christ and his saving grace from others, because we are too scared about what they would think of us. Finally, we accept all kinds of false teaching--unbiblical things--because we just want to be accepted. We just want people to like us. We want to belong to a community. We want friends. See how all these things are related to humility or the lack thereof? We care so much about ourselves, our comfort, our relationships, our status, that we neglect Christ.
Thankfully, Christ died for this very sin, too. When Peter denied Christ three times, Christ responded by doing the one thing Peter could not do: he restored the relationship and "undid" the denials. Likewise, for us, weak-willed sinner-saints who exalt ourselvs and leave Christ in the shadows, Jesus did all the things that we were supposed to do.
He denied himself and became a man, became a servant, became nothing, even to the point of death on a cross for us. From his throne on high to a feeding trough down low. As it says in Philippians 2: as a result of his humbling himself, the Father highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name. Christ's spirit is the perfect spirit of discernment. When we are in Christ and in his word, being able to discern false teaching and truth becomes easy. Although every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, many will confess in embarrassment and horror. Others will confess with joy and awe. Two different spirits reacting to the same event on the last day in the same way but with different motivations.
Repentance and faith puts us in Christ, so that our failures are washed away. He provides the humility that we lack. When we have faith in Christ alone, his humility becomes ours. His denial of self becomes ours. His discernment becomes ours. We can proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, because his Spirit working in us proclaims him. As Christmas approaches remember that even though we haven't the humility we ought, Christ has more than enough for us all. His perfect gift of himself on Christmas supersedes our weak gifts of pride and selfishness. All you need is faith.