John Was Not the Light, But a Witness to the Light

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By John Piper About Humility
Part of the series The Gospel of John

We return now to John 1:6–8 which we skipped last time. These verses are surprising because they seem to break into the flow of the text. They seem sudden and jarring. If you left them out, the text would flow nicely from verse 5 to verse 9. Verse 5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then verse 9 picks this up, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” That seems like a natural flow.

In between those two statements about Jesus, who is the light coming into the world, John inserts verses 6–8 about John the Baptist. But in this Gospel, he is never called John the Baptist but only John. If there were any label we would attach to John in this Gospel, it would be “John the Witness.”

John Interrupts the Flow

Look at verses 6–7: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” In fact, fourteen times in this Gospel the word witness (martureo, martus, martureia) is connected with John.[1]

Then the same thing happens in verse 15. John the author seems to interrupt the flow again to say something about John the Witness. The ESV feels the interruption so keenly that there are parentheses around verse 15. Verse 14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Verse 16 continues this thought smoothly, “And from his fullness [the fullness referred to in verse 14] we have all received, grace upon grace.” But verse 15 breaks in and says, “John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”

Do Unto Authors . . .

So verses 6–8 and verse 15 are pressed into the flow of this opening section in a way that almost everyone feels is jarring. So I assume John the author felt it that way too. And I assume that he knew what he was doing. And I assume he had his reasons. (You can call that the Golden Rule of Hermeneutics: Do unto authors as you would have them do unto you.)

Our job is not to improve John’s literary art by telling him he should have written more smoothly. Our job is to penetrate his literary purposes—and by doing that, to penetrate to his theological purposes and his spiritual purposes and his evangelistic purposes—and any other purposes he has by God’s inspiration, so that by hearing and understanding, we might believe on Jesus, the Son of God, and have life in his name. We are not playing literary games. Salvation and damnation hang on whether we hear what the inspired author really meant to say. “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Making Much of Christ and Little of Ourselves

What I have found in thinking about verses 6–8 and 15 and the wider context is amazingly relevant for today. I have found it very sobering for my own life and ministry, and I think you will find it so for yourself. It has to do with the way pastors and evangelists and religious leaders and TV preachers and conference speakers and Christian musicians—and any other public Christians who represent Christ—speak of Christ and the way they represent themselves. And it was the second of these that sobered me—the way we public witnesses represent ourselves.

If you have ever been bothered by the seemingly self-serving, self-excusing, self-protecting, self-exalting words of public Christian figures, you should be, and you will be all the more bothered by the time we are done. I hope that one of the effects of this message is that it will have a humbling effect on me first, and then on you and any others who hear it, so that we who are called to be witnesses for Christ (namely, all of us) will see that this not only means making much of Christ, but it also means making little of ourselves.

To help you remember what I am saying, I am going to hang all I say on two pegs. One is: “Our witness is a great necessity.” And the other is: “Our witness is a great not.” I know that’s not clear. But it will be. And the awkwardness of it just may help you remember it. Our witness is a great not as well as a great necessity.

1) Our Witness Is a Great Necessity

We will take necessity first and begin with verses 6–8. “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. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”

Notice several things: First, John was a man, that is, a human. This is important because up till now the Word, Jesus Christ, has been called God the Creator of all things. In him was life, and that light was the light of men. So it looks as if the way this Word and Life and Light are going to spread through the world is by its own sovereign power and brightness. But John knows that is not the case. This Word and Life and Light are going to spread through the witness of human beings—and no other way.

“These things are written that you might believe” (John 20:31). Who wrote them? A man sent from God also named John. And when Jesus prays for us in John 17:20, how does he foresee that we will come to faith and salvation? “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Humans who bear witness to Christ with words will be the means of everyone who comes to faith in the whole world.

Millions of Lights for the Light

That’s the plan. The Word and the Life and the Light are coming into the world. But they are not going to conquer this darkness the way a bolt of lightening brightens the night. They are going to conquer it by lighting millions of cold, dead human torches with the oxygen of the gospel and the mysteriously spontaneous combustion of the new birth. And that gospel will come through human witnesses.

Verse 6: “There was a man.” There was a person. There will always be a person. A person like you. John is pressing into his Gospel from the very beginning the truth that human witnesses to Christ are always necessary. Our witness is a great necessity. This is my first point. Our human witness is a great necessity.

Keep going in verse 6: “There was a man sent from God.” The point of this is that the necessity of human witness does not mean God is dependent on the initiative of human will. God was involved not just in sending Jesus; he is involved in sending witnesses to Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 9:38, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” God sees to it that we pray. And he sees to it that he answers and sends. He said to his disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And he said to Paul in Acts 22:21, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” God makes human witnesses necessary, but he does not leave his mission to the initiative of man. He sends.

The God Who Saves—And Sends

We serve a saving and sending God. He provides the foundation of our salvation in Jesus Christ, and he provides the means of our salvation in those whom he sends. Let this have an enlivening effect on you. God is at work now—today—moving his witnesses through the world, making them the means of his saving work. I hope this makes you want to look Jesus square in the face and say with Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Look again at verse 7: “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” Now there is John’s main identity in this Gospel. He came as a witness. He is introduced here, so suddenly and so jarringly, as a witness. He’s a mere human. He is sent by God. And he his mission is to witness to the light.

Believing Comes Through a Witness

And now John makes explicit why this witness is so necessary. Verse 7: “. . . that all might believe through him.” Believing in the light happens through a witness to the light. There is no other way. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word” (Romans 10:17).

This is the first reference to believing in John’s Gospel. It will occur 97 more times. This is the great goal of John’s Gospel: “. . . that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). This believing comes through a human witness to the light. And this witness is a great necessity. That’s my first point: Our witness is a great necessity. Without a witness no one believes. Verse 7: “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” Through him. Through his witness. That’s how necessary it is. Believing only happens through a witness.

So our witness to Christ is a great necessity. That’s the first peg where I am hanging my thoughts.

2) Our Witness Is a Great Not

The second peg is: Our witness is a great not.

Verse 8: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Now that verse seems superfluous. What does it add to verse 7? “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light” You said that, John. You said that he’s a witness. Now you say again in verse 8, “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Why? Why say the obvious? Why say, “John was not the light”?

I might not have made anything of this, except that it occurs over and over and over—four more times at least. Look at verses 19–20: “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.’” Now these are the words of John himself. This is not being said about him the way it was in verse 8. “This is the testimony of John . . . ‘I am not the Christ.’” This is the great not of John’s witness. Not only is he not the Christ, but he says he is not the Christ. It is part of his witness. “This is the testimony of John . . . ‘I am not the Christ.’”

The Not of John’s Testimony

In fact, John the Gospel writer is so bent on making sure that we feel the not of John’s testimony that he piles on the negatives in verses 19–20: “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 . . .” Did not deny what? He did not deny, “I am not the Christ.” He affirmed I am not the Christ. And thus denied that he was the Christ. Do you see why I think we are onto something here? You only write like this when you are trying to make a point.

But he is not done making his point. Verse 21: “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’” Of course he was Elijah in one sense. He had come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), but he was not the actual physical Elijah who had gone into heaven in the chariot of fire without dying.

He is still not done. Verses 26–27: “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.”

“He Must Increase; I Must Decrease”

This is the great not of our witness to Christ. I am not the light (verse 8). I am not the Christ (verse 20). I am not Elijah (verse 21). I am not the prophet (verse 21). I am not worthy to untie his sandals (verse 27). And if you want a beautiful statement of this principle in our witness for Christ, listen to John 3:28–30:

You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

I am not the bridegroom. I am just a friend. And when the bride comes and joins the bridegroom, and everybody looks away from me to him, my joy will be complete. This is the great not of our witness: We will not begrudge it when all attention turns to Christ away from us.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love
and your faithfulness! (Psalms 115:1).

This is the great not of our witness. We must decrease; he must increase. We must make much of him; we must not make much of ourselves. So it was with Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So he who plants and he who waters are not anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7). “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

What Then Is John?

What then is John? He is John the Witness. The necessary witness who is not the Christ. How does he describe himself? Verses 22–23: “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.’” I am simply a voice.

A voice, a witness. And in his mouth are not self-exalting words, but Christ-exalting words. John 1:15: “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.” John 1:34: “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

The Lesson for Us

Here’s the lesson for us. We must be his witnesses. It is a great necessity. Faith comes by hearing a witness. But we must not make much of ourselves. Beware of the witness that needs attention for himself. Beware of the preacher who constantly angles to put himself in a good light and returns again and again to his ministry and his achievements. Beware of the preacher’s subtle preoccupation with himself even when he speaks of his own flaws. Beware of your own bent to love the praise of men.

Remember, therefore, that from the very beginning of John’s Gospel, there is a human witness to the light—our witness. Our witness is a great necessity. And our witness is a great not. He must increase; we must decrease. Amen.

  1. 1:7 (3x), 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:26; 5:32–35 (5x), 36.
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