19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
Why is the testimony of John so important? There are several
- He is the direct fulfillment of prophecy from Luke 1:15-17 – he is to be the forerunner of the Messiah. The angel Gabriel said he would be “great before the Lord,” and “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
- Gabriel interpreted Malachi 4:5-6, the last two verses of the Old Testament, to say that John will do what is promised by turning people back to the Lord. He will restore obedience and wisdom so that they will be ready for the Lord. These are the same things needed in our world today.
- Zechariah’s prophecy about his son is in Luke 1:68-79. It starts off with the prediction of Israel’s freedom from their enemies. It adds that John will be a prophet of God to prepare for the Messiah. He will bring the knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of sins.
- Remember that most often, when they thought of salvation, it was from enemies and not eternal life.
- Historically, there was a huge awareness in Israel that the Messiah was about to come. Apocryphal literature abounded with predictions and had many people expecting the Messiah. The prophecies about John fed these and were probably known to the priests and Levites since Zechariah was a priest. John’s appearance would have brought all this to a fever pitch. It isn’t much different from today. People look at Israel and the conflict in the Middle East; they believe Jesus must come back soon.
- So the priest and Levites were probably expecting John to make a statement about the coming Messiah. They were sent by the Pharisees who were vitally interested in anyone who would exhibit any kind of authority as it would necessarily oppose their own.
20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ."
Not the Christ. Well, we knew that, but they didn’t. There must have been some relief because the Messiah would change everything. There were also a lot of false messiahs running around in those times (Acts 21:38) trying to end the Roman occupation. There is a lot of false prophets running around today. They make predictions about Jesus’ return. True believers know they are false because no one knows the time of Jesus return (Matt 24:36). But those who are not true believers sigh in relief when the predictions prove false.
21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."
Why ask if he is Elijah? Again, that is a clear indication that the Messiah is coming. They could get prepared for the Messiah –not to welcome him but to keep their power. But he answers that he is not Elijah. Later, Jesus says he is Elijah (Matt 11:14, 17:10-13).
The Prophet is described in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. God told Israel that he would raise up a prophet like Moses. He would have the same authority as Moses. In actuality, every prophet God sent had the authority of God behind his words as is clear in other parts of the Bible. However, the Messiah was to also fulfill this prophecy. It wasn’t clear to the priests and scribes. They thought the Prophet and the Messiah were two different people.
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."
John’s testimony is from Isaiah 40:3. This would have been something less than the expectation of the Messiah as Isaiah 40 speaks of bringing peace to Jerusalem and a level highway, a symbol of smooth travel or righteousness in a sinful world. It tells of the weakness of man but the greatness of God. It would not have been as threatening to the establishment.
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?"
There is an issue of baptizing with the Jews. Baptism was a ritual cleansing for those who were converting from Gentile religions to Judaism. John’s baptism was a new command for Israel. As an Old Testament prophet, John established a new regulation that hadn’t been done before. He was preaching that Jews had to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). This was an affront to the legalistic Jews who pictured themselves not only holier than Gentiles but also the people who were coming to John for baptism. The Jews were questioning his authority to establish new regulations. In their opinion, only the rabbis had this right to do this unless John was either the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet. Now we are at one of the heart problems they had with John. He was establishing authority that wasn’t in their power circle. This is a problem with each of us; we rebel against change whether it is in the church or in secular power structures. We especially rebel against change when our sins are exposed and our desires clash with the holy life God wants us to live.
Many people wonder why Jesus had to be baptized because he is sinless. Jesus gave his answer to John saying that it was to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15). So Jesus was baptized to fulfill all the requirements of the Law and through John the requirement for baptism was added (Matt 5:17).
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’s answer about baptism was based not on who he was but on who was coming after him. A true prophet was pretty high up there in the chain of command but to say he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal elevates Jesus to the max. At this point, they had no concept of who Jesus was, just as John pointed out, he came to his own but they didn’t receive him (John 1:11). Unfortunately, there are billions of people who don’t know who Jesus is. It is up to us to let them know.