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Righteous and Self-Righteous

Reading

John 1:29-39

We may think we know what righteous means but what do we mean by self-righteous? It is someone who thinks that they are better than others and adopts an air of superiority over other people. Some of what this passage is about is contrasts; the contrast between the characters of John the Baptist and Jesus; and the contrast between true faith and what we might call simply ‘religiosity’.

We need to understand some background to the passage. It is not known precisely where in the Jordan river this all happened but a likely spot is around five miles north of the Dead Sea near to both the Judean desert and Jerusalem (less than 20 miles).

Immersion in water was a standard practice in Judaism and was designed to make (religiously and ceremonially) ‘clean’ what was ‘unclean’. It was not a ‘baptism’ to show repentance of sins. This was something new. John (the Baptist) had been visited by people sent by the religious elite who wanted to see what he was doing and to establish who he was. The religious elite were those who considered themselves ‘righteous’ as they carried out the duties laid down in the Jewish Law. All other (ordinary people who would not even have known all the requirements were described as ‘sinners’. These could have sins forgiven but could never be regarded as ‘righteous’ whatever their moral status was.

John (the Baptist) had no time for this religious elite. Matthew 3:7 states:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? ...”
John here is offering a baptism to repent of past sins and start a new life. This was not something offered by the religious establishment of the day.

That there would be someone to go ahead of the arrival of the Messiah is predicted in Isaiah 40:3:

A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God...”
and in Malachi 4: 5-6
‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents;...’

When John (the Baptist) refers to Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ he is making a reference to the sacrifice of lambs in the Temple which formed part of the system for atoning for sins. Jesus would later become the ultimate sacrifice to atone for every sin of all people hence in verse 29 John refers to Jesus as ‘taking away sin’. John (the Baptist) is allowing people to repent and then Jesus (as God) forgives sins. This is mirrored in our services where we confess our sins and then ask God to forgive them.

In verse 30 although John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus he refers to Jesus as ‘before me’ because as God Jesus existed from the beginning.

Verse 31 John would have known Jesus as his human cousin and Jesus may have been with John’s disciple group but he did not realise up to this point that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But here John realises that Jesus is “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (verses 29 and 36) and acknowledged by God as the Messiah - Verse 34:

I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.

In verse 37 two of John’s disciples decide on the basis of John’s words to follow Jesus. One is Andrew (verse 40) the other is possibly John the Gospel writer himself.

Contrasts

John the Baptist was a teetotal, blunt-speaking, rough-living evangelist, living alone or with a small band of followers in the desert and preaching repentance.
Jesus lived with ordinary people throughout Galilee and Judea and was a fully trained ‘Rabbi’ (verse 38 – ‘a trained teacher’). He gently spoke God’s love and mercy even to those leading far from perfect lives.
So there were two very different people here illustrating two parts of making a commitment to God which is still relevant today.

The ‘righteous’ or rather self-righteous religious elite would not be baptized. They considered they were already righteous so there was no need to repent – they were completely wrong! Later they did not generally recognise Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God and plotted to have him killed so they were doubly wrong.

Lessons for us.

We need to be honest with ourselves and God. We need to want to change our lives. Baptism in water (or often ‘confirmation’ in the Church of England) indicates to others our desire to change, to become different and better people than before. Repent means to change direction. We acknowledge Jesus as Messiah and that is not just to believe some religious ideas in our mind but to be prepared to let the Holy Spirit change us not instantly to perfect people which we shall never be, but to gradually work with us through our lives.
Jesus refers to this when talking to Nicodemus (a religious leader) in John 3:

Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
Here you see the reference to water baptism (‘born of water’) but also to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us (born of …and the Spirit).

Paul phrases it differently in 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!
Again the idea that repentance indicates a real change in the person concerned,

However much we are changed, we are never perfect and we are all still sinners in that we do things we should not and also do not do things we should so we need to continue to confess our wrongdoing and lack of right doing. If we are honest with God, His mercy and love enables our sins (of both types) to be forgiven.

Andrew and another disciple realised John’s message was good but only a start. They needed to go to the next step in Jesus and we need to learn from that. However good things may seem now, all of us need to be looking for our next steps following Jesus as his disciples. It is probably reasonable to assume that some of the disciples of John (the Baptist) may never have got beyond that initial water baptism or turned back to their old life. This is where we need the support of Christian friends to encourage us to go forward rather than back.

Verse 39 talks about Andrew and the other disciple:

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
We can note that having decided to follow Jesus they spent time with Jesus.

We do not have the opportunity to see Jesus in the same way as they did but we can still be with him in different ways by prayer, meditation, reading scripture learning from others and many other ways. There is no one right way and we can find ways that suit us. One thing that is certain is that it is an ongoing process, Andrew and the other disciples now start to spend three years close to Jesus on the earth and continued to be his disciples (which means followers) for the rest of their lives.

Summary
  1. Water Baptism (Confirmation) is not of itself some magical process but a statement to others of our desire to change (‘repent’) as with the baptisms done by John.
  2. ‘Baptised in the Spirit’ or to become ‘born again’ or ‘changed into a new creation’ requires that we accept the offer of the Holy Spirit and allow him to begin, and continue, to work with us to change us into better (but not perfect!) people.
  3. We still need to be honest with ourselves and God. We need to confess all the times when we do not do what God would want us to do (sins) either by doing wrong things or not doing the right things. We need to ask for forgiveness and try to continually improve. If we are honest in our confession, God forgives us.
  4. We should not stand still but build on what we have already done and go forward and we need especially to continually discern what God requires of our lives.
  5. We must always go forward in love and never assume a form of self-righteousness (like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time) believing we are better than others because we are Christians or for any other reason. Micah 6:8 tells us what God requires us to do:
    He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
    Note especially here ‘walk humbly with your God’
  6. If you lose sight of loving others, you have lost sight of loving God and lost the plot completely. This is from 1 John4:
    20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
So if you find yourself beginning to not love others - Go back to item 3!