It is something incomprehensible to my students in France that I come from South Africa. I am not the first person to face surprised (though quickly suppressed) exclamations of, “But you’re not black!” They cannot believe that I enjoy celebrating Christmas in summer. In France, someone who looks like me must come from Spain, and I am often met in the school corridors with “hola” by the students trying out their limited Spanish. Yet, one Thursday, a shy student sidled up to me with English learned especially for the occasion and said: “Happy Thanksgiving.” It was very sweet, but I had never celebrated Thanksgiving in my life and had forgotten the date.
Similarly, our assumptions determine what we expect to see in the Bible and whether we recognize God. Whatever you believe, if you profess to know God you need to know Him. It is certainly more important not to assume with God than with the nationality of your English teacher. As with anyone else, if you want to know God, it’s important to know who He says He is.
Have a look with me at John 1:19-41.
Who they were expecting
The author John, a disciple of Jesus, uses John the Baptist’s ministry to set the scene for the arrival of Jesus Christ the promised Messiah (or Christ). The ministry of John the Baptist had been growing. He had reached many people, going “into all the country around the Jordon, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
Then we see the religious experts of the day, the welcoming party for the Messiah, if you will. If anyone would know the Messiah straight away, it should be the Pharisees: they were, after all, acknowledged to be the best informed of Scripture, and therefore the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Luke 3:15 tells us that the people were so expectant and yearning for a Messiah that they were hanging around to see if John might be the Christ. The Pharisees approached John, demanding to know who he claimed to be. But the Pharisees weren’t so much asking John about his claims to being the Christ as they were stepping in to offer a sound comeuppance to a cult leader.
The Pharisees give him three possible identities: Elijah (1:21), the Prophet (1:21), or the Christ Himself (1:24). Given their status, it is quite clear they weren’t genuinely asking. They prided themselves in their status as "children of Abraham" (Luke 3:8), their heritage as God’s chosen Israelites and the implied religious standing.
What this also shows us is exactly who the Pharisees were expecting. They were expecting three different people: an actually re-incarnated prophet from centuries before (Mal. 4:5); a Prophet with great powers (Deut. 18:15), a servant of the Lord; and the Messiah, or Christ (a Person who reappears in many Old Testament prophecies, like in the books of Joel, Malachi and Isaiah) who would redeem God’s people and establish His kingdom among His people. Put yourself in the shoes of the Pharisees for a moment. How would you know a man as one of these? Maybe they expected these powerful and important servants of God to come with bursts of heavenly glory, performing supernatural miracles so that no one could be in doubt (see Luke 2:9-14 and John 21:25). The Pharisees meant to show John just how far he fell short of these expectations. Yet, the Pharisees’ assumptions had conditioned them to expect the wrong thing, so when Jesus came they famously failed to recognize Him.
It makes us ask ourselves, what kind of Jesus we are looking for? An historic figure with good teaching but no more immediate presence in our lives than, say, Martin Luther or Nelson Mandela? Is He a figure who condones all behavior, in spite of the revealed character of God, up until His coming? Do we misunderstand His making us right with God as a reason to never concern ourselves with disciplining our character, growing our faith, heeding to His instructions, or continuing to learn about Him and pray to Him? Do we expect and seek Him to act visibly in our lives in powerful, heart-convicting moments? The tragedy of the Pharisees is that if you are only looking for the Savior you want, without humility or without any acknowledgement of Him as the Son of God or Word incarnate, you won’t find Him.
Who John prepared them for
John, however, only claimed to be a herald for the Messiah, the one who announced His coming (John 1:7-8). His ministry was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3) and confession (Matt. 3:6). It may require a little history to understand how important that description is. According to Old Testament law, the Jews had a strict system which required laborious rituals (of purification, of atonement, for guilt, for petitions)—not least of these was the practice of sacrifices. Hebrews 9:22 sums up that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness”: a life for a life.
Now here comes John, and in the midst of this, to preach a baptism (the practice of cleansing with water, Ezek. 36:25, being a gesture of spiritual cleansing and good relationship with God—see 1 Peter 3:21), and repentance. We might well be astonished to see a Jew treating Jews in those times as if they were sinful—as if the sacrificial system alone were not enough. It turns the religious Jewish practice on its head. Instead of being satisfied with merely abiding by the laws of Moses, John demonstrates that it’s not just about your heritage, or your knowledge, or rituals—which are all outward signs. Those all mean nothing without a heart for God, and a spirit of repentance for sins. This was huge, but they shouldn’t have been surprised. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God is already telling His people about a need for “a new heart” and “a new spirit” to make them His own.
1 Peter 3:21 talks of the baptism that not only symbolizes the removal of whatever is unclean but that is “the pledge of good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” By confessing and repenting of practices that distanced them from God, and being baptized by faith, into faith, the Jews were made aware of their enduring and continuous sin and need to trust Christ in order to be made right with God. They began to realize their need for Someone who would come for their hearts, giving them a new spirit, rather than a physical, human leader that could only liberate from physical oppression and establish a physical kingdom.
Just like any one of us today, they had to ask themselves whether their “religion” actually touched their hearts.
Who, therefore, they found
This message of John was so important because once the people knew their need, they were ready to know who was going to meet it.
Imagine you have heard this message of John and you have believed it. When someone comes then, an “ordinary” man from among them (John 1:26), but someone who John asserts is the Son of God (John 1:34), you’d follow Him!
And here is the most astonishing part of the story. They spend one day with Him (John 1:39), and one day is all it takes, for the very next thing we learn is that one of them, Andrew (who became one of Jesus’ twelve disciples), goes running off with this simple and powerful testimony: We have found the Messiah (John 1:41).
Here is the purpose and fulfilment of John’s ministry. He had been priming the people to expect a different kind of Christ to the incorrect expectation of the time, so that when Jesus Christ came they recognize Him! This passage preached such a sermon to me when I considered my expectations of Christ, and how my witness may affect the life of others. Like John, I cannot claim to be anything other than someone who points to Jesus. But the kind of Jesus I worship is the kind of Jesus I teach others to expect.
The Real Thing
So how can we find the real Jesus? We need to know the real Jesus. How do we know the real Jesus? By studying the Word of God. In his first chapter, John makes much of the imagery of Jesus as the “Word of God” (John 1:1). We know other people through communication, through words. And just as words give insight to a person, so Jesus (“the Word”) gives us insight into the character, the communication and the nature of God. Recognizing Jesus, knowing Jesus, is tantamount to recognizing and knowing God.
So let me encourage you, whether you are a long-time Christian, a believer who struggles with either doubts or indifference, or someone who is curious to know this Christ: there is nothing more important than meeting Him through God’s word, learning who God is and what He said, and spending time with Him. May we all with the conviction of John and the disciples affirm that we have found Christ.