Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
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.’ ”
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28).
The prelude complete, John’s gospel now moves into narrative mode. The prophet Malachi (4:5-6) created the expectation that Elijah– whether resurrected or a ‘type’– would come as a heralding prophet immediately prior to the Messiah’s arrival. The ministry of baptising and preaching repentance would be seen as “turning the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents”. So the delegation from Jerusalem are asking reasonable questions of John.
Verse 24 employs a narrative technique used frequently throughout John’s gospel. A further detail is introduced into the story that heightens the drama. Only now do we find out that the delegation from Jerusalem also included a group of Pharisees (imagine some foreboding music now added to the soundtrack). The Pharisees were the ultra-orthodox religious party– ‘different’ to the priests and Levites previously introduced in verse 19. Their scrutiny ups the ante on John. He’d better know his bible and he better be careful what he says.
John’s series of denials—all of which could be true in one sense or another— serve to give increased attention to the quote from Isaiah. The reason for John’s denials is unclear. Perhaps he refers only to his own perception of his calling. His later queries addressed to Jesus suggest he knew little detail of God’s plan in progress. But what is clear is that he believes he is announcing the arrival of the LORD coming to his temple (Isaiah 40:1-5). “The time for exile is complete. Get ready because God is coming. His glory is about to be revealed and everyone will see it together– not just the high priest in the temple.”
This interaction between John and the Pharisees feels a bit like two boxers testing each other out at the beginning of round 1– a jab here, a poke there. In verse 26, John’s answer to the Pharisees’ interrogation sounds incomplete. “I baptise with water…” Yet he does not continue, “but the one to come will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” Instead, enigmatically, John simply affirms that he is indeed baptising with water, and then he redirects to his purpose of revealing the coming One, whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. Instead of John, the Pharisees need to pay attention to the One who is to soon be revealed. He is already among the people of Israel, so they must be alert; be ready.
I’m moved to ponder my own response to the coming of Jesus– his second coming. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, God’s word tells me he’s coming. I have a rough idea of what to expect. The prophets continue to speak. I’m curious about any signs or hints of his impending arrival. But is my heart ready to receive his revelation for all that it will be?
Lord, prepare my heart to receive you when you come. Thank you for all who have come before me, all who have sought to prepare the way for your coming. Grant that I might be ready: no excuses, no regrets. Amen.