1:19-28 This is the witness of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem to ask him: "Who are you?" He quite definitely affirmed and stated: "I am not the Messiah." So they asked him: "What then are we to think? Are you Elijah?" He said: "I am not ... .. Are you the promised prophet?" He answered: "No." So they said to him: "Who are you? Tell us, so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What claim do you make for yourself." He said: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make the Lord's road straight,' as Isaiah the prophet said." Now they had been sent by the Pharisees. So they asked him and said to him: "If you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the promised prophet, why then do you baptize?" John answered: "I baptize with water. But there is one standing among you, whom you do not know, I mean the one who is coming after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose." These things happened at Bethany, on the far side of Jordan, where John was baptizing.
With this passage John begins the narrative part of his gospel. In the prologue he has shown what he intends to do; he is writing his gospel to demonstrate that Jesus is the Mind, the Reason, the Word of God come into this world in the form of a human person. Having set down his central thought, he now begins the story of the life of Jesus.
No one is so careful of details of time as John is. Starting from this passage and going on to John 2:11 he tells step by step the story of the first momentous week in the public life of Jesus. The events of the first day are in John 1:19-28 ; the story of the second day is John 1:29-34 ; the third day is unfolded in John 1:35-39 . The three verses John 1:40-42 tell the story of the fourth day. The events of the fifth day are told in John 1:43-51 . The sixth day is left a blank. And the events of the last day of the week are told in John 2:1-11 .
In this same section from John 1:19 to John 2:11 the Fourth Gospel gives us three different kinds of witness to the greatness and the uniqueness of Jesus. (i) There is the witness of John the Baptist ( John 1:19-34 ). (ii) There is the witness of those who accepted Jesus as their Master, and who became his disciples ( John 1:41-51 ). (iii) There is the witness of Jesus' own wonderful powers ( John 2:1-11 ). John is setting Jesus before us in three different contexts, and in each showing us his supreme wonder.
We have already seen that the Fourth Gospel had to take account of a situation in which John the Baptist was given a position far higher than he himself had claimed. As late as A.D. 250 the Clementine Recognitions tell us that "there were some of John's disciples who preached about him as if their master was the Messiah." In this passage we see that that was a view that John the Baptist himself would have definitely repudiated.
Let us now turn to the passage itself. Right at the beginning we come upon a characteristic of the Fourth Gospel. It is emissaries of the Jews who come to cross-examine John. The word Jews (Ioudaioi, Greek #2453 ) occurs in this gospel no fewer than seventy times; and always the Jews are the opposition. They are the people who have set themselves against Jesus. The mention of the Jews brings the opposition thus early upon the stage. The Fourth Gospel is two things. First, as we have seen, it is the exhibition of God in Jesus Christ. But, second, it is equally the story of the rejection of Jesus Christ by the Jews, the story of God's offer and man's refusal, the story of God's love and man's sin, the story of Jesus Christ's invitation and man's rejection. The Fourth Gospel is the gospel in which love and warning are uniquely and vividly combined.
The deputation which came to interview John was composed of two kinds of people. First, there were the priests and the Levites. Their interest was very natural, for John was the son of Zacharias, and Zacharias was a priest ( Luke 1:5 ). In Judaism the only qualification for the priesthood was descent. If a man was not a descendant of Aaron nothing could make him a priest; if he was a descendant of Aaron nothing could stop him being one. Therefore, in the eyes of the authorities John the Baptist was in fact a priest and it was very natural that the priests should come to find out why he was behaving in such an unusual way. Second, there were emissaries of the Pharisees. It may well be that behind them was the Sanhedrin. One of the functions of the Sanhedrin was to deal with any man who was suspected of being a false prophet. John was a preacher to whom the people were flocking in hordes. The Sanhedrin may well have felt it their duty to check up on this man in case he was a false prophet.
The whole thing shows how suspicious orthodoxy was of anything unusual. John did not conform to the normal idea of a priest; and he did not conform to the normal idea of a preacher; therefore the ecclesiastical authorities of the day looked upon him askance. The church always runs the danger of condemning a new way just because it is new. In one sense there is hardly any institution in the world which resents change so much as the church does. It has often rejected a great teacher and often refused some great adventure simply because it suspected all things new.
The emissaries of the orthodox could think of three things that John might claim to be.
(i) They asked him if he was the Messiah. The Jews were waiting, and are waiting to this day, for the Messiah. There was no one idea of the Messiah. Some people expected one who would bring peace over all the earth. Some expected one who would bring in the reign of righteousness. Most expected one who would be a great national champion to lead the armies of the Jews as conquerors over all the world. Some expected a supernatural figure straight from God. Still more expected a prince to rise from David's line. Frequently Messianic pretenders arose and caused rebellions. The time of Jesus was an excited age. It was natural to ask John if he claimed to be the Messiah. John completely rejected that claim; but he rejected it with a certain hint. In the Greek the word I is stressed by its position. It is as if John said: "I am not the Messiah, but, if you only knew, the Messiah is here."
(ii) They asked him if he was Elijah. It was the Jewish belief that, before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming and to prepare the world to receive him. Particularly, Elijah was to come to arrange all disputes. He would settle what things and what people were clean and unclean; he would settle who were Jews and who were not Jews; he would bring together again families which were estranged. So much did the Jews believe this that the traditional law said that money and property whose owners were disputed, or anything found whose owner was unknown, must wait "until Elijah comes." The belief that Elijah would come before the Messiah goes back to Malachi 4:5 . It was even believed that Elijah would anoint the Messiah to his kingly office, as all kings were anointed, and that he would raise the dead to share in the new kingdom; but John denied that any such honour was his.
(iii) They asked him if he was the expected and promised prophet. It was sometimes believed that Isaiah and, especially, Jeremiah would return at the coming of the Messiah. But this is really a reference to the assurance which Moses gave to the people in Deuteronomy 18:15 : "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren--him you shall heed." That was a promise that no Jew ever forgot. They waited and longed for the emergence of the prophet who would be the greatest of all prophets, the Prophet par excellence. But once again John denied that this honour was his.
So they asked him who he was; his answer was that he was nothing but a voice bidding men prepare the way for the king. The quotation is from Isaiah 40:3 . All the gospels cite it ( Mark 1:3 ; Matthew 3:3 ; Luke 3:4 ). The idea behind it is this. Eastern roads were not surfaced and metalled. They were mere tracks. When a king was about to visit a province, when a conqueror was about to travel through his domains, the roads were smoothed and straightened out and put in order. What John was saying was: "I am nobody; I am only a voice telling you to get ready for the coming of the king, for he is on the way."
John was what every true preacher and teacher ought to be--only a voice, a pointer to the king. The last thing that he wanted men to do was to look at him; he wanted them to forget him and see only the king.
But the Pharisees were puzzled about one thing--what right had John to baptize? If he had been the Messiah, or even Elijah or the prophet, he might have baptized. Isaiah had written: "So shall he sprinkle many nations" ( Isaiah 52:15 ). Ezekiel had said: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean" ( Ezekiel 36:25 ). Zechariah had said: "On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness" ( Zechariah 13:1 ). But why should John baptize?
What made the matter still more strange was this. Baptism at the hands of men was not for Israelites at all. It was proselytes, incomers from other faiths, who were baptized. An Israelite was never baptized; he was God's already and did not need to be washed. But Gentiles had to be washed in baptism. John was making Israelites do what only Gentiles had to do. He was suggesting that the chosen people had to be cleansed. That was indeed precisely what John believed. But he did not answer directly.
He said: "I am baptizing only with water; but there is One among you--you don't recognize him--and I am not worthy to untie the straps of his shoes." John could not have cited a more menial office. To untie the straps of sandals was slaves' work. There was a Rabbinic saying which said that a disciple might do for his master anything that a servant did, except only to untie his sandals. That was too menial a service for even a disciple to render. So John said: "One is coming whose slave I am not fit to be." We are to understand that by this time the baptism of Jesus had taken place at which John had recognized Jesus. So here John is saying again: "The king is coming. And, for his coming, you need to be cleansed as much as any Gentile. Prepare yourself for the entry into history of the king."
John's function was to be only the preparer of the way. Any greatness he had came from the greatness of the one whose coming he foretold. He is the great example of the man prepared to obliterate himself in order that Jesus Christ may be seen. He was only, as he saw it, a finger-post pointing to Christ. God give us grace to forget ourselves and to remember only Christ.