(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved. Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)
Having set the stage with his prologue, the Apostle John now introduces the actors through a series of “the next day” stories. John recounts the baptism of Jesus from a unique perspective – that of the Baptist himself. We are allowed the glorious opportunity of seeing a prophet of God witness about the fulfillment of what he has been proclaiming. We also have insight into the earliest roots of Jesus’ public ministry on earth – calling His first disciples, and demonstrating who He is to them and to all who will see: He is the Son of God. Verses 19-28 comprise the “first day” of the series, and we see John the Baptist being interrogated about his identity and authority.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
(v. 19-21) – When reading John’s Gospel, it is necessary to keep historical context in mind. When John uses the Greek word “Ioudaios” (lit., “the Jews”) to describe those who question and persecute Jesus and His followers, he is not condemning an entire race. He has in mind a specific group of Jews…the political and religious leaders of the Sanhedrin, represented by two main sects – the Pharisees, who taught in the synagogues, monitored adherence to the Law, and controlled public opinion; and the Sadducees, who oversaw worship, commerce, and the courts from within the Temple. John clarifies here when he says. “the priests and Levites”, referring to both those who studied Mosaic Law, and who by tradition served in the Temple.
So why would the Temple officers be questioning some guy who spends all his time standing in the river, yelling about repentance and the Messiah? Well, for one thing, John the Baptist is already a minor celebrity in Jerusalem – his father was a priest, troubled by disbelief; his mother gave birth at an advanced age; and he was vowed a Nazarite at birth, a vow which he kept his entire life. (Luke 1) His ministry of baptism in repentance, in preparation of the coming Messiah, had been received very well, and rather a large group of followers had formed, and word was spreading. Also, what John preached did not make sense from a Jewish perspective: While it was necessary for a convert to Judaism to be baptized to “purify” them from Gentile uncleanliness, there should be no reason to baptize a Jew – being Jewish was enough! They were “born ready” for the return of the King…or so they thought.
They accost the Baptist, demanding he identify himself, by suggesting a series of historical figures, each having a return foretold in the Scriptures: first, the Messiah, literally “the Appointed One”, promised to save God’s people from death and despair; next, Elijah, the OT prophet predicted to return just before “the day of the Lord” (Mal 4); last, the Prophet, a unique individual expected to appear in fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses to raise up a prophet “like him” to lead the people in repentance and freedom. (See also this reaction to Jesus.) The Baptist rightly declares he is none of these.
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ” Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands One you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
(v. 22-28) – The priests, having run out of people for the Baptist to be, and getting desperate to get the answers they were sent to get, finally ask the plain question, “Who are you?”, and wait for an answer. The Baptist obliges them with an answer that carefully establishes his reliability as a witness in Jewish courts of law. We will see later why this is important to the structure of his testimony.
He first explains his mission and his particular role in it, by quoting Isaiah 40:3, claiming to be nothing more that a voice – with no recognition of self, not even his name. The Baptist views his role in terms of how it serves God’s larger plan of salvation, not how it serves the Baptist (an implied contrast to the familiar self-promoting nature of many contemporary “prophets”). Implicitly accepting that explanation, and his previous denials, the priests then question the authority by which he baptizes. John replies by pointing indirectly at Jesus as his authority, further declaring that He is already among them, they just do not know it yet. (The Apostle makes a frequent refrain of this theme that Jesus is present in but not received or recognized by the world, and it is only by and through God’s power that He is revealed.) The Baptist then uses a familiar image from daily life to illustrate the magnitude of glory revealed in Jesus – the lowly task of removing sandals. He is making a contrast between the apparent status that he is held in (as evidenced by the crowd of followers, and by the interest in him shown by the priests) and his actual status, relative to Jesus. Since the Jews have seen the Baptist and know him, they have a reference point to apprehend how much greater than he Jesus really is. Here again, cultural context is critical to understanding the whole text. All the prominent cultures of the New Testament – Jewish, Greek, and Roman – contained the idea of levels of social status, extending even to the servants and slaves of the time. The worst jobs went to those of the lowest status, and one of the very worst jobs involved cleaning the feet and footwear, and as such only the very lowliest slave would be subjected to such humiliation. It is this abject subjugation, John says, that his own worldly status falls short of, when seen relative to Christ, God”s Anointed One. John the Baptist, here as always, preachs that he would be surpassed by the One to come, as it should be.
Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 29-34, as John the Baptist, having established his credibility, continues his testimony the next day.