A few weeks ago I was reading John 1 and a phrase I had never paid much attention to jumped off of the page (I love it when this happens!).
John the Baptist is describing when he baptized Jesus, the moment where John proclaims, “here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He says in verse 31, “I didn’t know him, but I came baptizing with water so he might be revealed to Israel”, and again in verses 33 and 34, “I didn’t know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The one you see the Spirit descending and resting on-he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.””
Twice, John the Baptist says, “I didn’t know him”. What are we to make of this? John the Baptist and Jesus were related we are told in Luke 1. In fact, their mothers were pregnant at the same time and when Mary enters the room John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb. You know John had to have been told this story over and over. These two were linked from the very beginning, their lives intertwined from before they were born. John, in at least one sense, had to know Jesus. Jesus was his relative. He had to know the story his mother would tell and retell of him jumping for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the presence of Jesus as a baby in Mary’s womb.
So, in what sense does John not know Jesus here in John 1?
Maybe, in the reality of life John knew Jesus, knew the stories his Mom told about the moment Mary came in the door to announce her pregnancy, but the familiarity of Jesus and the ordinary life of Jesus kept John from seeing the full truth of who Jesus was.
Surely, this relative can’t be the one who has been promised. I haven’t seen the Spirit descending on him, I have seen him working as a carpenter, seen him at the family reunion, I have grown up beside him. John was used to Jesus. Before this baptism there wasn’t an event, apparently, where the divinity of Jesus stood out. John couldn’t truly see Jesus. Have we become so familiar with Jesus that we can’t see His glory and work in the world around us?
We see this happen again later in the life of John. He is in prison for standing up to the immorality of the king and he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he truly is the messiah or if there is another he should look for.
Basically, this hasn’t turned out like John envisioned. He is on death row and has some doubts. Are you really who you say you are? I proclaimed your power and victory, salvation in your name and yet here I am in this prison facing death. John doesn’t see Jesus or the salvation found in him clearly. John, in a sense, doesn’t know Jesus in that moment. He wonders if Jesus is really the messiah. Are there times where our circumstances cause us to wonder if Jesus is truly who He says He is?
This is actually encouraging for us. Because, the truth is we sometimes doubt because of our situation and we sometimes grow too accustomed and familiar with the things we have heard and know about Jesus. We need to see Jesus clearly. We need Jesus because He is the one who sets the captives free, opens the eyes of the blind, and makes the lame to walk again as He sends John’s disciples back to proclaim to John in prison.
There is grace in our moment of doubt and the Spirit opens our eyes to see Jesus in His glory. Jesus says John is the greatest of all men. So, if he doubted and sometimes didn’t recognize the power of Jesus we will too. John says, “I didn’t know him”. John sends his disciples with his doubts. Be encouraged. You are not alone in your questions. Your doubts don’t disqualify you. The Spirit will open your eyes. Jesus will remind you who He is and what He has done. Trust Him.