In John 1:19-28, the apostle John says this:
“And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent unto him from Jerusalem priests and Levites to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; and he confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elijah? And he saith, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No. They said therefore unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said Isaiah the prophet. And they had been sent from the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why then baptizest thou, if thou art not the Christ, neither Elijah, neither the prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
In this passage, the apostle John gives us an account of the first most important eyewitness testimony about the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ — that He is the Christ, or Anointed One, the Son of God. This testimony, of course, comes from John the Baptist.
This passage can be divided into 10 sections:
- The Content
- The Questioners
- The Question
- The Confession
- The Questions
- The Crier
- The Commissioners
- The Queerness
- The Cause
- The Context
First, in the beginning of the first sentence, John gives us the content of this passage: “This is the witness of John . . .”
What is a witness? A witness is another word for a “testimony”, which means a presentation of evidence in support of a claim from an eyewitness of the claim. In this case, the claim is the claim that John is proving in this gospel: “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name . . .” (Jn. 20:31)
John is about to present the witness of the baptizer, when the Jews send to him from Jerusalem priests and Levites, who are the questioners.
So, who are these questioners? First, we see the indirect questioners, who send the ones who actually question John: the Jews. When John uses the term, “the Jews”, in this gospel, he’s referring to the religious Jews who lived in Israel at that time. They were the Jews that practiced a form of Judaism that involved synagogues and rabbis, much like conservative Judaism today.
Not only were the questioners sent by religious Jews, but they were also sent from Jerusalem. This is important because Jerusalem was the religious and political capital of the nation of Israel, so what John is implying by saying this is that the Jews who sent the questioners were the religious and political elites of Israel. In other words, the most powerful Jews of Israel had taken notice of John, and had sent people to question him.
So, who exactly were the questioners? John tells us that they were “priests and Levites”. First, then, they were priests. These men were those appointed by the religious system of Israel to serve in the temple, offering sacrifices continually in an attempted observance of the law of Moses, found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This was important to the Jews because it was their attempt to please God, as the people who had been chosen by God for His special possession through making a covenant with them — the law of Moses.
These priests were also Levites, meaning they were descendants of the patriarch of the tribe of Levi, which was the priestly tribe of Israel. They were to be totally devoted to God’s service. The fact that the Jews sent Levites to John shows that they took what he was doing very seriously, and wanted to gather their information from some of the most important religious workers of their nation.
Next, John tells us what question the Levites asked John: “who art thou?”
This shows us that they weren’t sure who he was, and thought that it was possible that he could be the person they were expecting to impact Israel the way that John was — the Messiah of the Old Testament. If he was the Messiah, then they wanted to know, so they could acknowledge him as their king and their redeemer from Roman rule, the rule under which they were living.
John’s answer to their question is his confession, or acknowledgement, of the fact that he wasn’t the Messiah: “And he confessed, and denied not; and he confessed, I am not the Christ”.
The reason John says that, not only did the baptizer confess that he wasn’t the Messiah, but that he didn’t deny the truth, was to make certain that the original audience understood that the baptizer gave no indication whatsoever that he was the Messiah. He was important, yes, but he was not the Messiah.
After the baptizer answers their first question, they then ask a series of other questions to determine what his identity is, if he’s not the Christ: “And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elijah? And he saith, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No. They said therefore unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?”
First, they ask him if he’s Elijah. Who was Elijah? He was one of the most important prophets in the Old Testament, who was prophesied to come to Israel again, and preach, as John was doing. This is prophesied of in Malachi 4:5-6:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Jehovah come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
Evidently, the Jews who questioned John recognized that John was a prophet, since he was authoritatively preaching a message that seemed to be from God, and crowds of people were going to him, and heeding his message. However, John again denies that he is Elijah.
Second, the Levites ask John if he’s “the prophet”. Who was he? He was the Person prophesied of in Deuteronomy 18:15-19:
“Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me [Moses]; unto him ye shall hearken; according to all that thou desiredst of Jehovah thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of Jehovah my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And Jehovah said unto me, They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.”
Again, the Levites recognized that John was a Jewish prophet, and was being listened to by many people. However, John again denies that he’s that prophet.
Finally, the Levites again ask John an open-ended question, since they are determined to find out who he is: “Who art thou? that we may give answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?”
In reply, John says that he’s the crier prophesied of in the book of Isaiah: “He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said Isaiah the prophet.”
Although he says that he wasn’t the Elijah, or “the prophet”, prophesied of in the Old Testament, he does say that he’s “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, who was prophesied of by Isaiah.
Why is he called the voice of one crying in the wilderness? To show that he’s acting as the voice of the Lord, who is the one crying out in the wilderness, or desert, of Israel. And what is he saying? “Make straight the way of the Lord”. In other words, he’s telling the Jews to make the way their living straight, or upright, by repenting of their disobedience to the Lord, so that He, meaning the Messiah, may come in grace to Israel, and bring in the kingdom of God, or heaven, that is prophesied of in the Old Testament. To put it another way, he’s telling them to prepare for the judgment of the Messiah, and his subsequent reign over Israel.
After the apostle records John’s identity for us, he then tells us who the commissioners of the Levites are: “And they had been sent from the Pharisees”.
Who were the Pharisees? They were the most respected religious Jews of Israel, who seemed to be the most devout, diligent, and hard-working at keeping the laws that they believed were from God. Many of those laws, however, were man-made. Nevertheless, they had tremendous political and religious influence in Israel, and many of them were members of the Jewish government, which was based in Jerusalem. Thus, we see here that it wasn’t just the Jews in general that sent the Levites to John, but the elite Pharisees.
After telling us who the commissioners of the Levites were, John then tells us what their question was about John’s queerness, or extraordinariness: “And they asked him, and said unto him, Why then baptizes thou, if thou art not the Christ, neither Elijah, neither the prophet?”
So, why did they ask this question? Because, as John implies, they had been sent from the Pharisees. The Pharisees were also known to baptize people, but they usually only baptized Gentile converts to Judaism. Now, here was a Jew, who wasn’t a Pharisee, and was baptizing people who already practiced Judaism. So, the question arose, why was he baptizing? If he wasn’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor “the prophet”, what reason could he possibly have of baptizing people who supposedly didn’t need to be baptized, and implying that there was something wrong with their religion that they needed to change?
John gives the cause for his baptism by answering the Levites like this: “I baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.”
First, John tells the Levites what kind of baptism he’s giving to people — water baptism. This ritual of dunking people under water symbolized cleansing from their sin through their repentance and confession of their sins, and God’s grace being bestowed upon them. However, John implies, it was only symbolic, and not the reality, since he says it was baptism in water.
Second, John tells the Levites what the reality is that the water baptism points to: “in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.” So, why was he baptizing? Because there was Someone standing among the Jews that they didn’t know, or recognize, and he was coming after John, and John wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of his sandal, a task that was reserved for slaves. Thus, John is implying that, whereas he was baptizing in water, one was coming who would baptize with something else — as he says elsewhere, such as Luke, “the Holy Spirit and fire” — and that this Person was so far above him, that he was lower than a slave in comparison.
That was why he was baptizing in water — to prepare people for the coming judgment and reign of the Lord Messiah, who would baptize the Jews with the Holy Spirit, and with the fire of judgment.
To conclude this passage, John gives us the context of this interview of the baptizer by the Levites: “These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
Little is known of where Bethany was, nor of what it was like, but we do know that what the apostle means by “beyond the Jordan” is on the eastern side of the Jordan, near the desert, where there were hardly any people, requiring the Levites to travel out of the normal confines of the Jordan River, near the desert. However, it wasn’t too far away, since John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, which allowed for many people to come to him from Israel, and allowed for him and his disciples to baptize many, many people.
So, do you believe the testimony of John, that Jesus is the One who came after him, and who is God the Son in the flesh, and is worthy of more service than menial service from a slave? Do you believe that God the Son came to earth to become the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and died on the cross to bear the punishment from God the Father that we deserve for our moral failures and imperfections, or sins? Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and now offers forgiveness from God to anyone who will change their minds about Him, their sins, and themselves, and will depend upon Him to save them from their sins, and to forgive them of their sins because of His death and resurrection? That’s the good news that the apostle John proves in his gospel, because, he says, “these things were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name”.
As the Anointed One, Jesus is the High Priest and King of His loyal subjects. He offered up His soul to atone for their sins through His bloody death on the cross, and rose again from the dead, so that He would be the King of the universe. His Father now commands all people everywhere to change the way they think, as the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through the Man He has appointed, having given proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
If you believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God, then are you testifying about those facts to people through your life and your speech?
Are you acknowledging that you’re no one special, like John did, and are you a voice of the Lord in the wilderness, telling people to make straight their way for the Lord?
Are you seeking to make disciples of Christ from any nation, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Do you see yourself as lower than a slave in comparison to Jesus, even though you are one of His slaves?