The Testimony of John the Baptist
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 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?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. – John 1:19-28 ESV
This section of John is common and many of us have read about the pseudo-crazy man baptizing people in the Jordan and then meeting Jesus face-to-face. I never really understood the whole situation and it all seemed pretty bizarre to me and I just tended to skim forward to get to the “good stuff”. This time through as preparation was done for our study much was revealed and will be shared in this study. The intentions are not to drag out the story, but to expound on the situation. We have to understand that the events recorded in the Bible are not just fluff and filler, but are intentional, with meaning. Sometimes the foundation behind the stories is not evident to us, so we don’t connect with them, but if we take the time to understand, and be willing to learn, the Bible comes alive in more ways than we can imagine.
Atmosphere and setting
This section starts out with John the baptizer being questioned by the church leaders. Seems like a strange way to transition from Jesus credentials to His introduction. John the baptist was declaring that the people of Israel needed to be cleansed and be ready for the coming of the messiah. He called them to repent of their sins and submit to the ritual of cleansing – a baptism.
To us, this just seems like a great act of conversion and a wonderful way to celebrate one’s new religion. But that was not the case in this point in history.
It is important to understand that the ritual of proselyte baptism had arisen among the Jews during the intertestamental period (time between the old testament and new testament), but it had been limited to Gentiles. It was not administered to Jews, only to non-Jews who converted to Judaism. Gentiles were considered unclean and therefore needed to go through a purification process in order to be welcomed and received into the covenant community of Israel. Another strange thing in this situation was that John was baptizing people. The typical proselyte baptism procedure was to have the convert baptize themselves. Converts were not baptized by Levites or priests, who performed all the other purification rites in Israel. So having a Jew baptize Jews was just strange.
Surprisingly, John’s ministry grew in popularity, as recounted in Matthew 3:5-6: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
We also see in Matthew chapter 3 that John was not bashful or inhibited by the church itself, in fact he spoke very boldly to the religious leaders of the day.
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. – Matthew 3:7-10 NASB
People of that day simply did not address leaders, religious or otherwise, in this manner for fear of punishment. But John’s faith made him fearless in the face of opposition
So now with a little more detail we get the situation laid out. John was calling out the people of Israel, the Jews to repent and be baptized, not by themselves, but letting him baptize them. Now as you can tell, all this commotion did not make much sense to the church leaders. There was a big following gathering and the church leaders sent some staff members to check out this man named John, the baptist.
Have you ever been aware of or heard of some strange things going on at various churches? What was your thoughts or actions?
Who are you?
As the religious authorities in Jerusalem heard what was going on, you can imagine how upset they were. They wanted to know what was going on down there by the Jordan River. So they sent a delegation out to investigate and get more information about John and his activities. Their exchange with John is very important for our understanding of the entire Gospel of John.
Many may be confused of who this man is, but within the church, he would have been known. Remember, he was the son of Zechariah, a temple priest, and Elizabeth the cousin of Mary, Jesus’ mother. We get enlightened that the directed officials from the church came to John and started out with the basics, ‘who are you?’. That is not so much a surprise as the response John immediately gives. He does not clarify who he is, but he declares he is not the messiah.
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” – John 1:19-20 ESV
What do you think would have made John think that they would even think he was the messiah?
When John responds with no, the interrogation continues, ‘what then, are you Elijah?’. To many of us, this seems like they are just pulling names out of a hat, who are you Elijah? Moses? Abraham? But there was a lot more meaning to the question when we begin to understand where the church mindset was at the time.
It has been a long time
It needs to be understood the time these people were living in, approximately 30AD and the Israelite church had been in a waiting period. As we are aware of through the Old Testament, there had been prophets and they would get messages from God and direct the church. The last canonical prophet in the Old Testament was Malachi, and the ending of the Old Testament brought 400 years of silence from God. The church was surviving, but the length of time of interaction with God directly was getting heavy.
5 “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. 6 His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.” – Malachi 4:5-6 NLT
So in summary, just before the four hundred years of divine silence commenced, God promised that the day of the Lord would come, but not until He first sent Elijah to announce it. That’s why the Jewish people were waiting for the return of Elijah. Given this prophecy and this expectation, it is not surprising that the Jewish leaders, seeing John the Baptist behaving like Elijah, would come to him and ask, “Are you Elijah”. Now we can see that the leaders of the church were hopeful that maybe, just maybe, it was Elijah down by the river making a way. We can only imagine that they would have loved to be blessed with the coming of Elijah and witness the coming of the Lord. Much like many of us would like to be in the end of times when Jesus returns.
NOTE: leaving a place setting or extra cup of wine “for Elijah” is still a part of Jewish practice in observing Passover.
Again, in the past, I would just read this dialog and continue on, waiting to read about Jesus being baptized. What does John denying himself to be Elijah matter? Well, this is where we have a opportunity to learn the structure of the bible a bit more. So when someone brings up the difficult question, we can hopefully explain with truth, love and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit.
John’s reply that he was not Elijah creates a problem, because when Jesus spoke of John the Baptist in Matthew, chapter 11, “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come”. Jesus indicated that John was Elijah in a sense. That is, his ministry was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, even though John the Baptist personally was not Elijah. This is borne out by what the angel told John’s father; he said John would “go before [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). So while John was not Elijah reincarnated, his ministry was marked by a similar spirit and power. John was not lying when he said he was not Elijah.
John’s immediate denial of being Elijah is accepted, but the inquiries continue…
21 “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” – John 1:21 ESV
A key word in this question can easily be overlooked. Notice they don’t ask if he is a prophet. The ask are you “the Prophet”. To us it can be strange or just unknown what the delegates had in mind.
The book of Deuteronomy records that God told Moses: “I will raise up for [the Israelites] a Prophet like you and among their brethen, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deut. 18:18). Now as we continue to understand the thought process of the Jewish people, we can begin to comprehend that for centuries they had not only been waiting for Elijah, but for the arrival of this special prophet who would be like Moses.
But once again, John replies “No”
A prophetic connection with Jesus
We can almost sense the frustration the priests and Levites were feeling by this point when they continue on.
“Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” – John 1:22 NLT
John didn’t keep them in suspense; he answered them. They had looked for his identity in the Old Testament books of Malachi and Deuteronomy, but John took them to another book, that of the prophet Isaiah.
I find a new found respect and understanding of John the Baptist when I realize that his choice of texts was significant. If we recall after Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, He went to his hometown of Nazareth and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. While He was there, He was asked to read from the scroll for that day – which happened to be from Isaiah. He read:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 ESV
When Jesus followed up with “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21) He was announcing “I’m the One who has been anointed to be the Messiah”.
John the Baptist did much the same to reveal his identity. He quoted from Isaiah 40 when he responded:
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:23 ESV
Isaiah declared that before the Messiah would come into the world, he would send His messenger, and the messenger would proclaim to the people the coming of the Messiah. So by John quoting Isaiah, John was indicating “I am the one that was crying in the wilderness, and I have come to notify you that the Messiah is coming and that we need to get things in order.”
But what are you doing?
Now that the delegates had determined who John was, the next question had to come out, what do you think you are doing?
25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” – John 1:25-27 ESV
John makes this grand response about what he does but mainly about who Jesus is. He even uses the reference to not being worthy to even take his sandals off. We understand a little bit about servanthood, but we don’t fully grasp the statement he used, mainly because we don’t relate well to the multi-layers of society like they did back then.
There were rabbinical servants that we might classify as the disciples. They were the ones that served Jesus, like when He sent them on ahead of Him to Jerusalem to make sure that a room was reserved where He could celebrate the Passover. But there were others known as Bondservants, who would actually serve their master in ways that a disciple would never. An example of this is we never read of a time when a disciple touched or tended to another person’s shoes, sandals or feet. A slave could be reduced to that humiliating task, but not a disciple. Therefore, when John said, “I’m not even worthy to unstrap His sandals,” he was saying: Don’t look at me. I’m lower than a disciple. I’m even lower than a slave. I’m not even worthy to untie His shoes, to take off His sandals, to clean His feet. Don’t look at me. Look to Him!
<h3>An early precedence</h3>
There seems to be a lot of thought why John put this information about John the Baptist in the first chapter of this Gospel, right on the tails of declaring who Jesus was. John wanted to get the reader’s attention on the One whom his Gospel announces. John is saying through this story of John the Baptist, “It’s time to make straight the highway of our God”.
Those of us who believe and trust in Christ are His disciples. But like John, we need to see that we are not worthy in and of ourselves to unite His shoes, for we have sinned against God and despised His just rule. Despite that, Jesus gave Himself for us, to redeem us from our sin. May we never cease to give thanks for such a great salvation.
- R. C. Sproul. John (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary). Kindle Edition.
- Nicholas Thomas Wright. John for Everyone. Kindle Edition
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
- New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
- Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.