(un)worthy chapter two: unworthy to be a slave

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.

John 1:26–27

The early Christians struggled with heresies that caused confusion about what (and what not) to believe about Jesus. John wanted to make sure that Christians were seeing Jesus as the true light. Jesus is the one we should worship, not John the Baptist or anyone else.

In John 1:19–34, we read a conversation that happened between some messengers sent by the Pharisees and John the Baptist. As you read, notice how peculiar this conversation is.

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.” 

John 1:19-27

These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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 have borne witness that this is the Son of God.

John 1:29-34

Why are the Jewish leaders so concerned about who John is? They keep pushing John for clarity. John’s response is surprising and does not provide a direct answer. 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. But there is a good reason for the way John responded.

The nation of Israel has been waiting for the Messiah for hundreds of years. God was silent and the Israelites were under the rule of a foreign nation. Along came a man who looked, acted, and preached like one of God’s prophets. If you know the story of Elijah, you will know that he was carried away by chariots of fire into heaven (2 Kings 2). Some people thought that he was still alive and had now returned as John the Baptist. 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…”

The religious leaders took notice of John the Baptist because of how radical he was. You can see why it was so important for the John (the author of the gospel of John) to make sure people knew that John the Baptist was not the Christ. It wasn’t difficult for Jewish people in those days to try to make someone into the Messiah. They wanted someone to speak on behalf of God and rescue them from Roman rule.

So, the Jewish leaders took notice when John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23, a reference to Isaiah 40:3). He preached with authority and was clearly a prophet. But, 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.

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 referring to Jesus. And it is in this statement that we find one of the great challenges of the Christian faith. John says that he is unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus.

John, one of the greatest prophets in history, is not even worthy to be the slave of Jesus. In the first century, it was only the slaves who would do the disgusting work of taking the sandals off another person. But John said that he didn’t even deserve to do that! He is nothing compared to Jesus. This is a healthy view of Jesus. John the Baptist was not the Christ, even though many people hoped we would be. He had every reason to think himself worthy. He had far more reason than most of us. Yet, he viewed himself as not even worthy to be the slave of the Christ.

There is a particular use for this word worthy in the common language used in first-century Rome. It was used to refer to “bringing up the other beam of the scales.” It meant that in order for a precious metal to be of particular worth, it would need to be of equal value to an already perfectly weighed portion according to weight. 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 was previously proved to weigh an ounce. If your gold 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. Jesus is perfect, and John could not measure up to his perfection.

This is the view of ourselves Jesus is seeking. He is searching for people who will recognize that when we step onto the scale with Jesus on the other end, we have no chance of making the scales equal. We have no chance of even making the scale budge. The risk here, of course, is false humility. It is easy enough to say, “I am nothing compared to Jesus.” It is entirely a different matter to shape our entire lives through this perspective.

To see ourselves as unworthy of Jesus is to see ourselves as completely unable to accomplish righteousness with our own effort. Jesus is the gold standard of righteousness, and we do not measure up to his standard. This produces true humility and will help to transform our rebellious and proud hearts into hearts that can be shaped by God.

But we cannot stop there. After humbly recognizing that we cannot measure up to Jesus, we also need to receive from God through Jesus that which we cannot accomplish ourselves: holiness. For that, we need mercy.

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