We are studying the book of John and in this gospel John presents three themes or strands which he intertwines to create a single narrative.
- The first strand is the presentation of Jesus as the divine Son of God who has come in the flesh as Jesus Christ. John establishes this theme immediately in the first 18 verses of his gospel, called the prologue. He calls Jesus the "Word" and explains that Jesus, the divine Word, created the world and then entered His own creation as a man.
- The next strand is belief. John briefly mentions in his prologue that some believed that Jesus was God and their belief led them to life and truth.
- The third strand is disbelief. In the prologue John also mentions that even though Jesus provides proof/witnesses of His identity, His people and the majority of others do not believe.
As I mentioned previously, John takes these three ideas and weaves them together to show Jesus in various situations: teaching, performing miracles (as proof of His divinity) and the reactions of belief and disbelief from those who witness these things.
Once John has set forth the pattern for his gospel in chapter 1:1-18, he begins with the introduction of a major New Testament character, John the Baptist. John called him this because this is what Jesus called him in Matthew 11:11.
In the pattern of how the book is written, John serves as the first response of belief: John believes that Jesus is the Messiah and even begins to make a witness for it.
John the Baptist was the second cousin of Jesus (Mary was the cousin of Elizabeth, who was John's mother). Elizabeth and Zacharias (his father) were very old and childless when an angel appeared to Zacharias while he ministered at the temple (he was a priest). This angel announced that Elizabeth would conceive a child and he would be named John.
From an early age John the Baptist was set apart for a special ministry which, as he grew, was defined as one who prepared the way for the Lord. This was in accordance with what the angel said about him and what the Old Testament said would happen before the Messiah would come. According to the prophets (Malachi 3:1-3) God would send a messenger, a prophet in the spirit of or in the style of Elijah, to announce the imminent coming of God's Messiah. John and his ministry were the fulfillment of that prophecy and promise from God.
And so John (the gospel writer) puts John (the Baptist) as the first example of one who believed. Jesus had not taught or performed miracles before His baptism and so John's faith and belief in Jesus were based on a special sign that God would give him so he could know who the true Messiah was. In John 1:33, John the Baptist says that God revealed to him that the one over whose head a dove would appear after their baptism, this would be the one he was preparing a way for. This is one of the reasons Jesus had to be baptized, to witness to John so he could fulfill his mission. We know that this is exactly what happened when Jesus was baptized as a signal to John among others.
John believed this sign and began to point to Jesus as the Messiah, the one for whom he was preparing a way.
John the evangelist introduces John and his story as the first example of those who believed.
Reaction of a believer
So we pick up the witness of the first believer, John the Baptist in chapter 1, verse 19.
Vs. 19 – This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
The gospel writer introduces John the Baptist by telescoping directly to an encounter between him and the priests/Levites of the time concerning his true identity. The Baptist's parents and connection to Jesus' family is detailed by Luke in his gospel, so John skips all of that and goes directly to an event in his public ministry.
The "Jews" were the religious leaders (Pharisees). They were scribes who were zealous in keeping and enforcing the Law.
Priests and Levites were those who ministered at the temple.
John was drawing crowds, proclaiming the imminent coming of God's kingdom, God's Messiah and in doing so he was stirring up the people. The religious leaders, fearing the loss of their position or a backlash from the Roman authorities, sent a delegation to check out this preacher/prophet.
In response to their question John makes his witness and confession of belief in the One to come.
Vs. 20-21 – And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."
They ask him 3 questions:
- They ask if he thinks he is the Messiah (because there were many religious radicals that claimed this), and he answers no.
- Are you Elijah? This was a reference to Malachi 4:5 where the Old Testament prophet said that Elijah would return as a forerunner of the Messiah. Many Jews believed that Malachi meant that God would actually resurrect Elijah and send him to the people. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus explained that John the Baptist was the person Malachi spoke of, that John the Baptist was a prophet in the "spirit" of Elijah: powerful preacher; man of the desert; man of vision. And so John, knowing their confusion, answers no, he is not the resurrected Elijah (even though he is the fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy).
- Are you the prophet? In Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses said that one day God would raise up a prophet to lead the people just as he (Moses) had led the people. They wanted to know, did he think of himself as that prophet? John answers no, he is not that prophet. Actually Jesus is that prophet. He is the fulfillment of that prophecy and promise (Acts 3:22-23 – Peter).
Vs. 22 – Then they said to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?"
They have run out of questions and possibilities concerning his identity according to Scriptures. This was the key: who he was according to prophecy. If not Christ, Elijah or the prophet, then who? The Pharisees wanted to know (probably so they could plan an attack to discredit him).
Vs. 23 – He said, "I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said."
John answers that he is two things:
- A voice. The significance is that he is a proclaimer and messenger. In the wilderness refers that his is not a popular messenger and he is not part of the establishment.
- One who makes straight. He challenges them. He goes against convention. He is here to prepare a new way (crooked was the old way).
His ministry is spoken of by Isaiah, as this is whom he is quoting.
Vs. 24 – Now they had been sent from the Pharisees."
John adds an editorial comment in order to put their questions and motives in context.
Vs. 25 – They asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"
Their question shows their reaction to John the Baptist and his witness: they disbelieve. See the third strand being woven in here?
They are stung by his message because if he had said he was Christ, they would accuse him of blasphemy or of being a lunatic or an imposter. If he had said he was Elijah they would have demanded proof through miracles, since Elijah did miracles. If he had said he was the prophet they would have denounced him as a troublemaker and reported him to the Romans.
Instead he claims that his source for ministry was the prophet Isaiah who wrote extensively about the coming of the Messiah and the circumstances surrounding this event.
At this point they become defensive. They do not respond with belief, instead they question his authority to baptize. If you are not Elijah or the prophet, they say, what gives you the right to baptize?
When we are challenged with the truth, there are only 3 ways to respond:
- Become defensive. Get mad, run away, reject, deny.
- Rationalize. Give yourself good reasons to disbelieve or disobey.
- Submit. Listen carefully, obey the truth, do the right thing.
The reaction of the priests and Levites and by extension, the Pharisees, was to become defensive and challenge John's right to baptize, which in essence was a challenge and rejection of his message: "Get ready (by baptism) because the Messiah is coming."
Vs. 26-28 – John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John responds to their attitude rather than to their question which was: "If you are not the Christ, Elijah or the prophet, what gives you the right to baptize? In essence he says:
Yes I am baptizing, even though you think I have no right to do so because you do not believe my message. This is just like you. But, there is one here among you today that people like you do not know. You are threatened by what I say and do, but the one of whom I speak is so great, I (who threaten you so much) am not even worthy to untie His sandal. What will you say and do when He comes?
His reference to the Jordan situates the place where this confrontation took place and where John did much of his work.
In verses 29 to 34 the gospel writer now describes John the Baptist's own witness about Jesus. This action takes place after Jesus' baptism that is described in detail in the other gospels.
His witness contains four elements:
1. The purpose of Christ's coming
Vs. 29 – The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Jesus did not come to start a movement, do miracles, begin a revolution or a new philosophy. He came to die for men's sins. Everything else serves this purpose or stems from it. John came to announce it; the Apostles reported it; we remember it. This is what faith is about: His death for us and what that means.
2. The character of the One to come
Vs. 30 – This is He on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'
John was conceived before Jesus was, he was 6 months older. By saying that Jesus was before him, he declares that Jesus has a divine nature, not simply a human one. We come into being when our bodies are conceived; Jesus existed before his body was conceived.
3. The nature of his ministry
Vs. 31 – I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.
His ministry was to baptize those who believed his preaching and wanted to prepare for the coming One. His ministry would be validated because the One to come would also come first through his ministry of baptism.
4. The source of his ministry
Vs. 32-34 – John testified saying, "I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God."
John was recognized as special from his birth, people wondered how God would use him. In this passage he claims the authority of a prophet based on what he has received from the Lord. It has been 400 years since the last legitimate prophet spoke in Israel (Malachi) so this is quite a challenge and excitement for the people. However, it is not something new: the Jews were familiar with the presence of inspired men speaking from God.
John says that God gave him his ministry and the sign to identify the One for whom he was preparing the way. He says that the sign was the Spirit descending and remaining on one individual, this would be the One.
In Matthew 3:16, Matthew describes the Spirit as a dove descending on Jesus and a voice from heaven declaring His Sonship. This was the fulfillment of the sign John looked for.
John was told that the one to whom this happened, this would be the one who baptized with the Holy Spirit. In some cases this meant to empower someone to do miraculous things. In all cases this meant the authority to send the Holy Spirit to dwell within a believer. John says that the fulfillment of this sign was the proof to him that Jesus was indeed the God/Man, the Messiah. And so John acknowledges that he had a sign from God to direct him to the true Messiah and that sign was given at the time of Jesus' baptism.
We have our first episode where John entwines all three of his themes.
- Jesus the God/Man. John explains the supernatural way John the Baptist was alerted to Jesus' coming.
- Disbelief. The first examples are the Pharisees, priests and Levites who challenge John's authority to baptize which indirectly disregarded his message (which required him to baptize).
- Belief. John the Baptist himself was the first true believer and we see him explaining the things (signs) that led him to belief.
And so in his description of John the Baptist's ministry, John sets forth yet another claim of Jesus' divine nature and provides two reactions to this claim (the challenge by the Jews) as well as the belief and witness of John the Baptist.