Preached at Bergen Missionary Church by William Knelsen on September 28, 2014
Note: This is a manuscript, not a transcript. Therefore the text will be different than the audio recording.
We are continuing our series on the Gospel of John. We have learned that we need to be continually pointing to Jesus as the only true source of life, because Jesus is God, he is the Creator. The early Christians struggled with heresies coming into the church that caused confusion about what to believer about Jesus. So, John wanted to make sure that Christians were seeing Jesus as the true light. John is making sure we are all on the same page. Jesus is the one we should worship, not John the Baptist or anyone else.
Today, we will read about a conversation that happened between some messengers sent by the Pharisees, and John the Baptist. As we read, notice how peculiar this conversation is, and the way in which John, the author, recorded it.
There are a few different directions I could go with this sermon and a lot more I could say. But as I was studying and praying through this passage, I landed on this concept of being (un)Worthy of Jesus. We will go through the conversation John had with the Jewish leaders and focus on John’s statement about being unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus.
After reading the conversation between John the Baptist and the Jewish leaders, one initial question that arises for me is, why are the Jewish leaders to concerned about who John is? They keep pushing and pushing John for an answer. And what is really interesting is John’s initial response. They asked him who he was, and he responded, “I’m not the Christ, I am not Elijah and I am not the Prophet.” All negative responses. This is a very peculiar exchange to me.
Here is what I discovered. The nation of Israel has been waiting for the Messiah for hundreds of years. God has been silent and the Israelites are under the rule of a foreign nation. Along comes a man who looks, acts and preaches like one of God’s prophets, such as Elijah. If you know the story of Elijah, you will know that he was carried away by chariots of fire into heaven, so people thought that he was still alive and had now returned as John the Baptist. And Malachi 4:5-6 says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…”
Not only that, but he started a new religious ordinance—the baptism of repentance. The practice of different sorts of baptism existed before, and the call to repentance existed before, but the two had not previously been associated with one another. Therefore, the Jewish leaders took notice of John the Baptist because of how radical he was. You can see now why it was so important for the author John to make sure people knew that John the Baptist was not the Christ. It wasn’t hard for Jewish people in those days to try and make someone into the Messiah, for it was something they were hoping for. They wanted someone to speak on behalf of God and rescue them from Roman rule.
So, when the Jewish leaders went through their questioning, and John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” this was surprising to them. He was practising a new ordination, yet he claimed he was not the promised Messiah, nor was he Elijah, nor was he the Prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:15, which says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” John is merely the one who is to prepare the way for the Messiah. And ultimately, all three of these promised figures are fulfilled in Jesus.
This is where we get to John the Baptist’s most important statement. There is no doubt in verse 27 about John’s purpose and position as a forerunner to Jesus. He says this, “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.” He, of course, is talking about Jesus. And it is in this statement that we find one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. John says that he is unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus.
What he means by this is that he is not even worthy to be the slave of Jesus. Back then, it was only the slaves who would do the nasty work of taking off people’s sandals. But John said that he doesn’t even deserve to do that! He is nothing compared to Jesus.
This is a healthy view of Jesus, and I think John records this exchange in this way because, remember, John is showing who the real Christ is. John the Baptist is recorded as saying that he is not the Christ, and in fact, he is not even worthy to be the slave of the Christ.
There is a use for the word worthy that was used in the common language in first century Rome. People would talk about ‘bringing up the other beam of the scale.’ They meant that in order for something to be found worthy of another thing, they would need to be of equal value. If you had a piece of gold and you claimed that it weighed an ounce, you would put it on a scale with another piece of gold that weight an ounce. If your piece brought up the other end of the scale to an equal position, your gold was worth the same as the other piece.
Do you see why it is healthy to have the view of Jesus that John the Baptist had? He was saying that he could not bring up the other end of the scale on which Jesus stands. They are on a completely different level. John is worth nothing, Jesus is worth everything.
We see the same principle in Matthew 8. We read there about a Roman military commander who asked Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus said he would go to his house and heal the servant. But the commander responded and said that he is not worthy to have him in his own house. Do you know how Jesus responded? He said, “with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” According to this story, Jesus wants us to consider ourselves to be not worthy of him.
Here is where we find a paradox. Let me read a few passages to show you what I mean:
Matt. 10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Eph 4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
Phil 1:27 let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ
Col 1:9-10 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
1 Thess 2:12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
3 John 1:5-6 Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.
This is just a selection of similar passages. In most of Paul’s letters, we read something like these words, “walk in a manner worthy of God.” Yet, John the Baptist says he is unworthy of Jesus. And it is good to see ourselves as unworthy of Jesus. In fact, it’s not just a way we should view ourselves, it is the truth! The reality is, no one is worthy of Jesus. However, Scripture also teaches us to live in a way that is worthy of Jesus. We have Jesus approving of those who say they are unworthy, and we have instruction telling us to be worthy.
Now, for many of you, this may not be a problem. You already know that the word worthy is being used in different ways in Scripture. For the rest of us who need some help, let me quickly explain the two ways this word is being used.
John the Baptist is using it in the way I described already. He is saying that he is not of equal worth as Jesus. What he says is true, and we should all have the same view. But, the way the word worthy is being used in these other passages is a little different.
I will use one of Jesus’ statements as an example. Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Jesus is saying here that he requires us to consider him to be our greatest treasure and desire. We need to value him and our relationship with him more than any other person. If our relationship with others is more important to us than our relationship with Jesus, we are not worthy of Jesus.
Think about this for a minute. We’ve already established that we are not worthy of Jesus. But Jesus is saying here that if we love others more than him, we are not worthy of him. Jesus is saying that in order to be worthy of him, we need to love him more than anyone else. This to me is very interesting, but it took a while for me to completely appreciate the significance of it. So I’m going to assume the same for some of you. In order to walk in a manner worthy of God, we are expected to love Jesus and admire Jesus and desire Jesus and have our greatest affections directed toward Jesus.
Now, if we stop here, it might sound like we can earn the approval of God by our own merit. However, I do not believe this is the case. All throughout Scripture we read that no one is righteous or can become righteous enough to be found worthy of God. Due to our very nature as sinful humans, we cannot become worthy based on our own merit.
But wait, I just finished saying that in order to become worthy of Jesus we need to love him more than anyone or anything else. But, this does not mean that we will actually earn anything by loving him more than anyone else, because in order to be righteous, we need payment for our sins.
Here is how I think the word worthy should be understood. 1 Cor. 11:27 helps us out here: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.”
Underlying this statement is a high view of the Lord’s Supper. Communion is a precious sacrament, which is to be honoured and cherished, and should not be taken lightly. Therefore, we are expected to take part in Communion in a way that shows how valuable it is to us. Do you see the way Paul uses the word worthy in this passage?
Paul is saying that we should participate in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates the value of it. Now, let’s take another passage. Phil 1:27 says, “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This verse could also be interpreted by saying, live in a way that proves the value of the gospel of Christ. Do you see yet what worthy means?
To live a life worthy of the gospel, we need to live in a way that proves how valuable the gospel is! This has nothing to do with our own merit, or about earning anything. This has to do with how much we value Jesus. It is about cherishing what we were given freely, without merit.
Now, let’s go back to John 1. John the Baptist says that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. And by talking that way and living that way, he is actually walking in a manner worthy of Jesus. This is the strange paradox. To walk in a manner worthy of Jesus, we need to view ourselves as unworthy of Jesus. If we want to walk in a manner worthy of God, we cannot consider ourselves worthy of God. This is because by showing just how valuable Jesus is compared to anything else, including ourselves, we prove the worth of Jesus. If we live as though we have done something to earn the approval of God, we are minimizing the value of Jesus and his sacrifice.
To close, let’s look briefly at 29-34. John sees Jesus walking toward him, and shouts to all around him, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He then explains why he can be so confident that Jesus is the promised Lamb of God and the Messiah. Verse 33-34 says, “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John the Baptist was completely convinced that Jesus was the Christ because he saw the Sprit of God come upon him after his baptism. But notice that he said in verse 31 and 33, “I myself did not know him.”
It is likely that there are some here this morning who do not know Jesus. What I have said so far is brand new information. You may not know anything about treasuring Jesus more highly than anything else. In fact, you might even think it’s nonsense to say that in order to be accepted by God you have to consider yourself unworthy.
In order for any of this to make sense, we need to see Jesus. We need to experience the power and the display of the Holy Spirit. I will say that the Spirit of God can come mightily and powerfully. He can do some amazing things. However, He also comes in ways you don’t expect. You may not even know how much the Holy Spirit is working in your life right now. John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descend and rest on Jesus and it completely changed his life. Would you pray with me and ask for this same experience?
Let’s pray for a life-changing view of Jesus, and see just how unworthy we are of him and just how valuable and precious he is to us.