The First Witness

Sermon on John the Baptist

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:6-7

John the Baptist was the first believer and receiver of the Gospel. He was sent by God to be the first one, the first to believe in Jesus and the first to bear witness about him. The word “witness” is a legal term, someone who gives testimony in court. Those who came to John expected him to give true witness of who he was and what he believed, and he did so with no hesitation.

In that day, there were a lot of prophecies flying around about people who had gone before and those who were to come. The Jewish people thought about these frequently, longing for a deliverer to come and rescue them from their oppression under the Romans. However, John gave no illusions – he was not the Messiah, but rather the one sent before him to prepare the way (John 1:19-23).

A witness is someone who speaks not about themselves, but rather someone else. Many classic depictions of John the Baptist are like the one below – he is pointing away from himself. John knew very well that ultimately, “It’s not about me.” He knew that he came to draw attention to someone other than himself.

St. John the Baptist (oil on canvas), Titian (1540) / Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Everything about John’s witness was true. He was a man of integrity. He was not afraid to say tough things to those who needed to hear them. He did a faithful job bearing witness and preparing those in the region to receive the coming Christ. Like the friend of the bridegroom – the best man, John says to the wedding party, “Here comes the groom!” (See John 3.)

John said that he pointed to the light. This is a powerful thing to ponder, even in our times today. We are discouraged and oppressed by all the darkness around us. We are full of sickness, grief, political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, and relational conflicts. Many people think that they have to leave this world to escape the darkness, that they won’t see the true light of God until they get to heaven. However, that is not the testimony of John. John said that the true light of God was coming into the world (1:9), coming to us rather than us having to go to him.

He encouraged those of us surrounded by darkness to focus not on the darkness, but rather to look to the light. The light of God can be found in this world, and he will show us the way.

He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:7

The word “might” in the verse above is significant, because some are not going to believe in the light, believe the testimony of John. Many approached him with skepticism, asking questions about his motives and authority. Those who are captivated by darkness do not want to receive the light or even believe in it.

However, the Greek word that is translated as “witness” in verse 7 is martyria, where we also get the word “martyr.” This kind of witness is someone who is so devoted to the truth that they will die for it, just like John did. In the same way, those of us who bear witness to Jesus Christ can also expect persecution. Although there are some who will reject and persecute our witness, there are also some who “might believe.”

John called people to repentance in order to prepare their hearts to receive the coming light. He said in effect, the one who is coming is awesome, and we must turn away from the darkness in order to be ready to receive him.

There is a mysterious nature about receiving and believing. A preacher and evangelist can do their best to spread the truth and bear witness about Jesus Christ, but there is something that has to happen within the individual that allows them to receive the Gospel. Fundamentally, people have a hard time receiving the grace of God. We either think we aren’t worthy or that we don’t need it. It literally takes a miraculous work of God to convert the hearts of people to receive him.

This miraculous gift is something that the Holy Spirit gives, and then we have to receive it. When we do, the life of Jesus fills us from the inside out and gives us the gift of faith. Jesus himself spoke of it as a mystery like wind, which you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:5-8).

May we open our hearts to receive the awesome gift of the true light of God, allowing him to fill us with all of his fullness.