John 1:19-25 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 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.’”
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
When John the Baptist first started preaching in the wilderness east of the Jordan River, a wide-cross section of Jewish society poured out of Judea and Jerusalem to listen. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully and many were convicted of their sins, repented and were baptized as an outward sign of their repentance and God’s work.
This was shocking to Israel. Before John’s day, only Gentiles were baptized and that was to become a Jew. Many Jewish people didn’t think they needed cleansing; after all they were God’s people! But now listening to John they saw their sin and realized they DID need cleansing.
This began to stir up hope in the Messiah’s coming. And people began to ask John if HE were the Messiah. Finally the spiritual leaders couldn’t ignore what was happening and they came out and asked him too.
Now they had special interest in John because he was the son of a priest and he himself was a priest. And they took his call to repent deeply offensive. He seemed to be declaring the entire nation was unclean.
The Sanhedrin was made up of two Jewish sects, the Sadducees and Pharisees. The chief priests and other wealth men were Sadducees, who rejected belief in resurrection and judgment as well as most of the Old Testament. The Pharisees believed passionately in these points that the Sadducees rejected. They wanted to bring the nation to strict observance of God’s law, but according to their own burdensome traditions.
The men from Jerusalem asked five questions based on Old Testament prophecies and related traditions.
Who are you? Messiah?
Israel was expecting the Messiah. And there were two main lines of messianic hope:
Messiah would be King David’s descendant leading Jewish armies to victory and the Jewish nation to world dominion.
OR he would be an almost supernatural figure, bringing world peace and a reign of righteousness. Most thought He would reveal Himself in a miraculous way.
More than once in this period, messianic figures rose up and led rebellions.
The priests MAY have hoped John would also claim to be Messiah so they could denounce him. But he didn’t.
Next they asked if he was Elijah.
While the Bible firmly denies reincarnation, the prophet Elijah, didn’t experience death: he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. The prophet Malachi spoke of Elijah’s return to prepare God’s people for “the day of the Lord.” (The final day of judgment of the world.)
John said he wasn’t Elijah either.
And in case you are remembering later in the Bible when Jesus was asked about Malachi’s prophecy, He said that “Elijah has already come.” Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father had been given a prophecy that his son would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” – so while he was NOT Elijah, he came with the same spirit and power, so in a sense, Elijah came.
Are you a prophet?
The prophet may refer to Messiah whose coming Moses promised.
Deuteronomy 18:15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
Next they asked, “Who are you?”
John replied in words from Isaiah’s centuries-old prophecy, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord.”
Get ready! The Lord is coming!
Then they asked, Why do you baptize?
What they meant was, What right do you think you have to baptize? And again John points people away from himself – to –
John 1:25-28 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Rabbis said that untying someone’s sandals was too demeaning for anyone, but a slave. John was a priest and God’s appointed prophet, renowned among all people, yet grasped his own unworthiness compared to Jesus. He always kept his own personality out of the picture. His attitude to questions about himself was, “I am only a voice who points to the Messiah.” “I’m the one who draws back the curtains so Jesus occupies the center stage.”
Bold proclamation combined with deep personal humility when pointing to Christ is an essential combination.
In the end the delegation couldn’t find anything to fault John with. He wasn’t making false claims and no one could fault him with preparing people’s hearts for the coming Messiah. Apparently Jesus stood unrecognized in the middle of the crowd as John the Baptist answered these questions. They never thought to ask John to point out the worthy One! They traveled all the way from Jerusalem to confront John and left without asking the most important question!
John 1:29-30 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’
Jesus was 6 months younger than John, but John is saying that Jesus existed from eternity past. He is the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world, the true deliverer from sin who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and sacrifices.
The Lamb of God. Jesus alone can atone for sin and make us right with God. From the very moment sin entered the world God prepared humanity to grasp that we cannot save ourselves from the deadly effects of sin. The Jewish sacrifices pointed to the true meaning of the sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross. In Israel, someone who sinned brought a lamb to the temple, laid hands on the head of the lamb, confessed the specific sin against God and then killed the lamb.
The lamb was the innocent substitute that paid the price for a sinful person to be made right with God. The priests then sprinkled the blood of the lamb on God’s altar to show that death had accomplished the judgment of sin.
The prophet Isaiah applied the picture of the sacrificial lamb to the Messiah, saying “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed…and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Jesus died as the true Passover Lamb. He fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices that foreshadowed Jesus’ blood, “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”