When I was about 8 years old, a Sunday School teacher challenged the class to memorize John chapter 1. I took him up on the challenge. As a result, this is one of the chapters of the Bible that’s most cemented in my mind. There’s just something about the things you memorize as a kid. They don’t leave.
Even though John 1 has long felt like a familiar friend, somewhere around age 30, it struck me in a brand new way. Maybe it was the fact that I’d spent so much time over the previous decade trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” And one day, reading through John 1, I realized that it has a LOT to say about John the Baptist’s identity — and his understanding of his identity, which are sometimes two uncomfortably different things. I was amazed by how much practical help I found in John’s story for getting a handle on who I am.
John Knew Who He Wasn’t
As the story begins, John is gaining popularity as a prophet, preacher and baptizer. Naturally, the Jewish leaders want to know who he thinks he is. So they send priests and Levites to ask him. Does he think he’s the Messiah or something?
No, he doesn’t. And he tells them so.
John’s answer to the Jewish leaders can be a freeing model for us. Our generation has grown up being told we can be anything we want to be. As a friend once said, “The possibilities are endless, but (*wince*) … the possibilities are endless.” There comes a point when having unlimited options no longer feels helpful. And at that point, it can be very freeing to discover a few things you’re not made to be or do, even if the discovery comes through pain and failure. Knowing who we’re not helps us focus better on who we are and what we are called to.
John Knows Who He is in Relation to Jesus
John has known Jesus, his cousin, his whole life. But their relationship brings a profound level of meaning to John’s own identity when he comes to know Jesus as his Messiah. Suddenly, he is able to say, with power, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” There is a deep sense of fulfillment in John’s words at the end of this section: “I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Later, John is able to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As the adage goes, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.” Understanding our identity in relationship to Christ will always produce a true — and peaceful, I think — humility, rather than self deprecation. This is a crucial part of feeling settled in our own skins.
John Knows Who He is in Relation to Scripture
John seems very confident and resolute in this chapter, in spite of the fact that there is still a great deal of mystery in his story. Perhaps his confidence can be attributed to the fact that he knows very well the one thing he’s supposed to do: Prepare the way for Jesus. Because he’s immersed himself in the prophets, he understands his assignment, and he carries it out.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to point to a verse in the Old Testament and saying, “This is my life’s mission,” but the Scriptures give clear and simple action steps to all of us. And it’s in completing these assignments that we, like John, end up working out a lot about who we are and what we’re called to do.
Read John 1 for yourself. What encouragement do you gain from John’s strong sense of identity and purpose?