Week 4

John 1:19-28

John the Baptist and the Jewish Leaders

1:19-23 This is John’s testimony, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’

He declared, and didn’t deny, but he declared, ‘I am not the Christ.’

They asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’

He said, ‘I am not.’

Are you the prophet?’

He answered, ‘No.’

They said therefore to him, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.’

In writing his introduction to the narrative of the Gospel, John had already mentioned John the Baptist on two occasions. Now he is featured in the full flow of his prophetic activity in the wilderness. The location was highly symbolic in connection with his prophetic calling, which was to summon Israel to repentance and to a restored relationship with their God, in preparation for the moment when the Messiah would be revealed. The wilderness was the place where significant leaders, and also the whole nation, had previously encountered God and had been transformed.

The Patriarchs and Moses had spent much of their lives in that same context. Israel had accepted a covenant with the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai and He had provided for them and protected and tested them there. David sought refuge in the wilderness, and it was there that he learned to trust in God and was prepared for his future reign.[1] On one occasion when God was calling Israel back to Himself, He reminded them of the time when, as a betrothed wife, she had gladly followed Him in the wilderness. He also promised her that one day He would bring her there again and betroth her to Himself forever.[2]

In response to a question from the priests and Levites, John the Baptist referred to a passage in Isaiah that begins in this way.(‘Comfort’ is not a good English translation; the meaning of the Hebrew word is ‘encourage’ or ‘strengthen’ in order to take action, in new circumstances).

‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.[3]

The following verse that John quoted takes the form in Hebrew of a single statement followed by two couplets:

The voice of one who calls out,

‘Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness!

Make a level highway in the desert for our God.’[4]

John was summoning people to come to the wilderness and meet with God who was coming to them in the person of His Son in order to challenge and bless them. John’s prophetic preaching and unconventional practice of baptising those who responded to his message were also beginning to sound alarm bells in Jerusalem. Among the crowds were a number of people who had been sent by ‘the Jews’ to investigate John’s unconventional activities. Of course, most of the population were Jews, but John is using the term in a particular way, with specific reference to the religious leaders of the nation, Sadducees (senior priests) and Pharisees. They should have been the first to recognise and submit to God’s authority as expressed through His prophet John. Sadly, this was not the case. Their encounter with John the Baptist was the opening scene in the drama that was about to unfold as a major theme in the Gospel: the conflict between light and darkness.

The first delegation from Jerusalem consisted of priests and Levites. Apart from Luke’s Gospel we would not know that John himself was in the priestly succession, his father Zechariah having had the honour of offering prayers on behalf of the nation, within the Holy Place in the Temple. This was the setting for the angel Gabriel’s announcement that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were, at last, to have the son for whom they had longed and yet had ceased to expect. In other circumstances John would have followed his father into the priestly office. God’s purpose for John was very different, for he was to be a prophet rather than a priest. This could have been a disappointment for Zechariah, but he responded with delight and prophetic understanding of the even greater significance of his son’s appointed role.[5] John never served in the Temple in Jerusalem but he served the One who was the true Temple, God in human flesh – Immanuel.[6] We too must remember that God’s plans for our children may not coincide with our dreams for them.

Sadducees did not believe in the supernatural world: they denied the existence of angels and the reality of the final resurrection. The chief priests were the ruling elite, with their powerbase at the Temple, and they were the experts in religious rituals. They thus held a monopoly on access to God through the sacrificial system and were uniquely placed to acquire great wealth, both from the sale of suitable animals and from currency exchange between secular and sacred coinage. The office of High Priest was at the discretion of the Roman authorities, who made it clear that continuance in the office was contingent on maintaining order among a population that was seething with anger over the occupation and crippling taxation.

The sudden appearance of a popular and charismatic prophet presented a threat to the status quo that had to be carefully managed if the delicate balance with the Romans was to be maintained. Within John’s lifetime there had been messianic pretenders who had aroused popular feeling, and the Romans had responded with brutal suppression. The ruling class had much to lose in this situation so they were anxious to prevent any disturbance to the status quo.[7] Their question to John the Baptist was both a challenge and a veiled threat: ‘Who are you?’ (‘Who do you think you are?’)

It may seem curious that the priestly authorities had forgotten the startling events that surrounded the birth of Zechariah’s son about thirty years previously, the son who would have recently reached the qualifying age for entering the priesthood. The answer may be that John had spent many years in seclusion in wilderness places, in preparation for his unique prophetic ministry.[8]

John the Baptist had commenced his public ministry around CE 27–28, which was a Sabbatical Year (this calculation is based on Jesus’ statement about the progress of Temple construction).[9] Every seventh year the land was to remain uncultivated and debts were to be cancelled, recalling Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It was thus a favoured time to expect the Messiah to appear. John’s preaching and his baptising were attracting large crowds of people, which was deeply worrying. Being free of personal ambition and any hidden agenda, John replied to their question with simple and unambiguous words: ‘I am not the Christ [Messiah].’

John’s denial was welcome, but the issue of his identity remained unresolved. He was popular and his activities were potentially very destabilising. His unusual dress, lifestyle and uncompromising call for repentance resembled that of the prophet Elijah. An expectation that Elijah would reappear just before the Messiah was based on the final statement of the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi.[10] John might have the crazy notion that he was a reincarnation of Elijah, which would certainly be dangerous, and hence their next question: ‘Are you Elijah?’ John’s answer was even shorter and to the point: ‘I am not.’ Of course, John was correct in a literal sense, but Jesus subsequently affirmed that John had come ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’, and had thus fulfilled the Scriptures.[11]

Their next question, ‘Are you the prophet?’ connected with the belief that the Messiah would be a prophet like Moses, to whom God would speak in a direct and intimate way as foretold in the Torah.[12] John’s response was an emphatic denial, using a single word: ‘No.’ He neither desired nor intended to engage with these self-important men whom he regarded as ‘offspring of vipers’. He subsequently showed the same carelessness for ungodly human power and authority when he rebuked Herod for his adulterous relationship.[13]

John’s threefold denial left the problem unresolved. The facts on the ground indicated that John was a force to be reckoned with, and yet he claimed to be a nobody. If so, he was indeed a dangerous nobody! The delegation could not return to their masters empty-handed, hence their desperate appeal: ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ (‘You have told us who you are not; please tell us who you are!’) John’s reply, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’, did nothing to assuage their fears, for this statement had strong messianic associations.

We are left to imagine how the delegation was received when they returned to Jerusalem. Subsequent events would reveal the corrupt hearts of the chief priests who would play a key role in the process that led to the cross. On two occasions Jesus cleansed the Temple over which they claimed to hold supreme authority – ‘our place’ – and on both occasions they challenged His authority to behave in this way.[14] On the second occasion Jesus counter-challenged with a question: ‘The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men?’ The Sadducees were caught between foolishness and fear and did not answer, thus revealing their moral and spiritual bankruptcy.[15]

1:24-28 The ones who had been sent were from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then do you baptise, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

John answered them, ‘I baptise in water, but amongst you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.’

These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptising.

The second delegation came from the Pharisees, who shared the leadership of the ruling council with the Sadducees. They had heard about the Sadducees’ interrogation of John and about his enigmatic responses and his strong rebuke.[16] Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, did believe in the supernatural world and they enjoyed a considerable measure of popularity and respect among the people on account of their learning and outward piety. They placed strong emphasis on holiness and they engaged in detailed study of the Scriptures, together with commentaries by previous generations of scholars. The Pharisees had begun as a protest movement in the aftermath of attempts by Greeks to enforce paganism on the Jewish people. The movement had begun with the best of motives but, sadly, it had degenerated into a legalistic system with a multitude of detailed regulations that were impossible for ordinary people to follow. In consequence, the Pharisees had become a religious elite, with a tendency to self-righteousness and pride of position.[17]

Although the Pharisees and the Sadducees differed in many respects, their central question – the source of John’s authority – was identical. John’s practice of baptising people was of core concern to the Pharisees because they placed great emphasis on ritual washing as a way to maintain holiness. Ritual immersion was a common practice – for example, prior to marriage, or to deal with an acquired state of impurity or when preparing to present an offering.[18]

John’s baptism signalled a rival movement that posed a threat to their authority. John claimed that he was preparing the way for the coming of the Lord by preaching about repentance and then immersing in the Jordan River those who responded. A long time previously, the nation of Israel had entered into a new life in the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan, thus recapitulating deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.[19] These two seminal events in Israel’s history marked crucial stages in the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises to them. John’s baptism was no mere ritual, but was rather a powerful symbolic statement about a new phase in salvation history. John was bypassing the experts in holiness as he called people to a new relationship with God in heart and in behaviour, outwardly expressed in baptism. Subsequently, Jesus’ disciples baptised even more disciples than John, which would create additional problems for the Pharisees.

John challenged the Pharisees to repent and to receive his baptism, but they refused to do so as it would have placed them in the same category as the common people. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for having rejected John – ‘[They] rejected the counsel of God, not being baptised by him themselves’ – and attributed a demonic source to John’s ministry. John, a model of humility and deference, described himself in terms of the lowliest servant, unworthy even to attend to the Messiah’s feet. Jesus would later take a similar role in washing His own disciples’ feet.[20]

When, from prison, John sent a delegation to obtain confirmation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, Jesus answered by means of a series of powerful miracles combined with a warning to John not to stumble in unbelief.[21] He then made a very enigmatic statement about John and his prophetic ministry:

A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ For I tell you, amongst those who are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptiser, yet he who is least in God’s Kingdom is greater than he.”[22]

In some sense John was greater than all the prophets who preceded him – Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and many more – and yet less than the humblest disciple of Jesus in the Kingdom of God which He, the King, had come to inaugurate. John was the greatest of the line of ‘Old Testament prophets’ because he alone was physically present and had the unique privilege of introducing the Messiah to Israel. Nevertheless, Jesus did not call John to be an apostle and there is no record of any further interaction with him. John’s task was to complete the work of the previous prophets. He did not live to see the Kingdom come in power through Jesus’ death and resurrection and consequently, like those prophets, he did not have a full and clear understanding of the Gospel message. Those who saw and experienced the final events of Jesus’ life had a much fuller and clearer message to proclaim, much more than John was able to communicate during his lifetime.[23]

John the Baptist’s answer to the Pharisees’ question must have served to increase their concern. The Messiah, who was much more important than he, was already physically present! When John said, ‘whom you don’t know’, he was making a statement that was obviously true of them in a physical sense, as it was for himself.[24] When Jesus came into the world He made light available and possible for all, but the way divided when some chose darkness rather than light. John gladly embraced the light of revelation that he received concerning the identity of the Messiah. In contrast, the Pharisees subsequently joined forces with the disciples of Herod, the murderer of John the Baptist, in their quest to destroy Jesus and to extinguish the light that He brought.[25]

[1] Ps. 18:1-6, 16-19; 34:1-7; 42:1-11; 54:1-7; 1 Sam. 30:1-20.

[2] Luke 1:80; 3:2; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 2:14-20.

[3] Isa. 40:1-2.

[4] Isa. 40:3.

[5] Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 57-79.

[6] John 2:18-19; Matt. 12:3-6.

[7] Acts 5:36-37.

[8] Luke 1:80; 7:24-28.

[9] John 2:20.

[10] Matt. 3:1-12; 1 Kgs. 17:1; 18:17-40; 21:17-26; Mal. 4:5-6.

[11] Mark 9:11-13; Luke 1:17.

[12] Deut.18:15, 17-19; John 7:40-43.

[13] Matt. 3:7; Mark 6:18.

[14] John 11:48; 2:13-20; Luke 19:45–20:2.

[15] Luke 20:3-8.

[16] John 3:1, 10; 7:45-52; Matt. 3:7.

[17] Matt. 23:1-36.

[18] Matt. 15:1-2; 23:25-26; John 2:6; Acts 21:26.

[19] John 4:1-31; 1 Cor. 10:1-2.

[20] Luke 7:30-35; John 13:3-6.

[21] Luke 7:11-23.

[22] Luke 7:26-28.

[23] Luke 24:25-27, 44-49; Acts 1:1-3; Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 1:10-12.

[24] John 1:31.

[25] John 3:19-21; 9:40-41; Matt. 22:15-22.

Reflection: Carol Wimber said of her husband John ‘the secret of his life was that he lived before an audience of One’. It was also the secret of this other John; he was indifferent to the opinions of others, having a single purpose: to introduce the Messiah to the world. He had received his identity from God and was therefore free of pressure to create one for himself. Our lives would be less complicated and peaceful if we received this gift from the Lord.

Prayer: Lord. I often struggle for meaning and significance. I want to find my true identity in relationship with you, my Creator, Saviour, Lord and Father. I choose to prefer your opinion of me to those of other people. Please help me to know how much you love me and desire my undivided heart.

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