With verse 19 of Chapter 1, John returns to the ministry of John the Baptist. JB was a problem for the Jewish authorities. It’s important to note that Jewish civil authority was closely tied to the Jewish faith, Judaism. This authority was not just a civil authority but a religious authority. JB acted in an authority of his own, uniquely called by God to serve as the harbinger to the coming Messiah. He lived a radical life in the desert, calling people to repent of their sins and be ceremonially cleansed through a baptism that he would administer. This defied convention and essentially claimed that the Jewish religious authorities were bogus and in need of repentance themselves.
John the Apostle tells the story. “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’” (John 1:19). He responded first by telling them who he wasn’t. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). JB had no messianic complex. He was not the coming Messiah but was the messenger who trumpeted the coming of the Messiah. The priests and Levites continued to press. “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ 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?” (John 1:21-22).
Reading between the lines here, we have to consider the motivation behind these questions. The priests and Levites are not sincerely seeking to know the true identity of JB. Rather, they want him to claim to be the promised Messiah or the second coming of the prophet Elijah, because, if he were to make such a claim, he could be arrested for blasphemy or some similar violation. JB not only avoids their trap, but he sticks to the truth. He is not the Messiah and he is not Elijah.
Finally, JB reveals who he is by revealing his purpose. “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). This statement would have been a shocking sound to the ears of the priests and Levites who were examining JB. Fine, JB had denied that he was the promised Messiah, and that he was not the second coming of Elijah, also promised in the final two verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:5-6). But, I’m sure to their surprise, he does claim to be the coming of someone else promised in Scripture, a promise delivered through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3).
John 1:24 lets us know that these inquisitors had been sent by the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders. Their pressure on JB concerning his identity had not been fruitful, so they shifted to his practice of baptism, a ritual that was the domain of the priests. “They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’” (John 1:25). JB blew past their question, not explaining his practice, but pointing to the one who would come after him. “John answered them, ‘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 1:26-27). Our author then closes the scene with a historical reference, “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28).
The baptism of John the Baptist was a symbolic baptism, representing the confession of sin and the cleansing from that sin. The baptism of Jesus would be a spiritual reality that would erase the sins of the believing confessor and grant him, grant her, eternal life. JB was the voice that let the world know that Jesus was on the way.