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
Beginning with verse 19, John provides a more detailed introduction to the life and ministry of John the Baptist. He first alluded to this important character in 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. – John 1:6-8 ESV
As John continues to establish the unique identity of Jesus as the God-man, he will use John the Baptist as a point of contrast. Like Jesus, John the Baptist was a man sent from God. But unlike Jesus, John the Baptist was just a man. He had been commissioned by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, by testifying to the people of Israel about His imminent arrival. The one for whom they had long waited had arrived. But as the text makes clear, John the Baptist was not the light. And John will confirm the contrast between the light and the witness to the light by using the testimony of the witness himself.
Unlike the three synoptic gospels, John’s gospel provides few details concerning John the Baptist’s ministry. He seems much more interested in using the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus as proof of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and the son of man. Yet a bit of background into John the Baptist’s unique ministry and message can be helpful. So, Matthew provides some essential details concerning this rather strange character who had suddenly appeared on the scene in Judea.
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6 ESV
Luke records that the appearance of John the Baptist attracted large crowds of people who made their way to the Judean wilderness in order to be baptized by him. But there was tremendous speculation regarding his identity.
Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. – Luke 3:15 NLT
As John the Baptist proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven, the people couldn’t help but wonder if he was the Messiah. And John records that even the Jewish religious leaders were curious about this strange-looking individual who was proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom.
…the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” – John 1:19 ESV
Notice that John prefaces this exchange between John the Baptist and the religious leaders with the words: “And this is the testimony of John.” What follows is the clear testimony from John the Baptist that clarifies the identity of the Christ (Greek: Messiah). First and foremost, John the Baptist wanted to squelch any rumors about himself.
He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” – John 1:20 ESV
John the Baptist had come to witness, not be worshiped. He had no interest in passing himself off as the long-awaited Messiah. But if he was not the Christ, then who was he? And why had he suddenly appeared on the scene preaching about the coming kingdom? The religious leaders were perplexed and continued their questioning by asking if he was Elijah or the prophet.
Their first inquiry had to do with an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Malachi.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV
Based on this passage, the Jews expected the long-dead prophet, Elijah, to reappear and his arrival would signal the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But John the Baptist confession that he was not Elijah led the religious leaders to ask whether he was “the Prophet.”
As students of the Hebrew Scriptures, these men were well-versed in those passages that were associated with the coming Messiah. And they were familiar with the promise that God had made to the people of Israel during their days in the wilderness, prior to the arrival in the land of promise.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15-18 ESV
The Jews had long believed that the arrival of the Messiah would be accompanied by the return of Elijah and the appearance of the Prophet of God. And this threesome would usher in a period of great revival and renewal in Israel. They would lead the people of God and help reestablish the nation to its former glory. But John the Baptist denies being the Prophet.
John the Baptist’s inquisitors were perplexed and knew that they were going to have to give a report to their superiors back in Jerusalem. So, they simply asked John: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22 ESV). If he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, then who was he? And John the Baptist gives them the only answer he knows.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” – John 1:23 ESV
Knowing that these men were highly knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures, John the Baptist identifies himself by quoting from the writings of Isaiah. In doing so, he affirms that they were right in assuming that his arrival had something to do with the Messiah. He quotes from what the Jews considered to be Messianic passage and applies it to himself.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 40:1-5 ESV
John the Baptist was nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness. He was the witness, testifying to the arrival of the glory of the Lord. He was not the Word but was simply the voice. He was not the Messiah but was the one who had been chosen to announce His arrival. And that led the religious leaders to ask the next logical question.
“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” – John 1:25 ESV
This was a question regarding authority. If John the Baptist was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, he had no right or authority to baptize anyone. The Jews understood baptism to be reserved for ritual cleansing. So, why was this unknown and unqualified individual “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV)? The Jews, because they were God’s chosen people, believed they had no need for repentance. They viewed themselves as already in right standing with God by virtue of their status as descendants of Abraham and as heirs of the promise.
But Luke goes on to record that John the Baptist saw through the over-confident self-righteousness of his audience, and he delivered a stinging indictment against the religious leaders.
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:8-9 ESV
Their heritage was no guarantee of righteousness. And their identity as Jews was not going to preserve them from the coming wrath of God against all those who have sinned against Him. That is why John the Baptist had come on the scene preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).
John confesses that his authority to baptize came from a source far superior to himself or the religious leaders of the Jews. And this supreme source was about to make Himself known.
“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.” – John 1:2-27 ESV
John was just a man who baptized repentant people with physical water. But there was another one who would follow who had the authority to offer true cleansing from sin and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The messenger was proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.
“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
” – Matthew 3:11 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.