Summary: What can the confession of John the Baptist teach us about our own confession?
I am NOT the Christ: An Exposition of John 1:19-28
In the previous passage we are introduced to the person of Jesus. He is described as the eternal Word who became flesh and tabernacled among us. The purpose of His coming to earth was to save everyone who believes. Those who believe on Him are born of God, and therefore, have eternal life. It also talks about people rejecting Him as well. Finally, John the Baptist’s testimony is thrust forward which places great emphasis on him. There are two themes in the prologue, the person of Jesus and the testimony of John. John the Baptist stands as the example of witness to the Word that we all should be.
In this passage, we are introduced further to the mission of John the Baptist. The prologue contains the big picture, and this passage the details of the Baptist’s testimony. It begins with a group of priests and Levites who came from Jerusalem to inquire further of John’s ministry. Luke records that the people were dialoging in their hearts whether John was the Christ (Messiah). These words came into the ears of the Temple authorities, so they sent the delegation. At this point, we cannot determine whether this was an honest inquiry or not, but the further actions of the priests and Levites indicate that this was a skeptical inquiry. They may have been afraid of their influence over the people.
They ask John emphatically: “Who are YOU.” This could be read as written, or the emphatic markup might be rendered cynically: “Who do you think you are?” The true witness to Jesus must give answers for the reason of their hope. So John answers just as emphatically.” I am NOT the Messiah!” which means John understood the thrust of the inquiry. All the gospels make abundantly clear that John’s message was one of witness and preparation for the Christ. One would think that this identification had to be emphatically recorded because there were many who actually thought John was the Messiah. There was a community of such Baptists in Ephesus that Paul had to enlighten.
The second inquiry is a little more puzzling. They then ask, “Who are you then, are you Elijah?” The prophet Malachi had prophesied the return of Elijah before the great and notable day of the LORD. John was dressed like Elijah. He seems to have fulfilled the role of the prophesied role of Elijah to return the children to the fathers. Finally Jesus told His followers that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come. So why does John simply say “I am not.” It is less emphatic than his denial of being the Messiah, but it seems that he should have affirmed rather than denied. He could deny that he was Elijah in person, but he was certainly one in spirit with him. Perhaps there is more than we can discern here. Their theology of this return of Elijah may have differed from what we read today. John may have been denying this expectation of Elijah.
The priests and Levites seem to have been exasperated by John’s answers. So they ask “Are you the Prophet then.” There was much speculation in those days, especially in the Dead Sea community that there would be two Messiah’s, one a descendant of David who would be a political deliverer and another who would be a suffering priestly Messiah. As John himself was of a priestly family, it was a reasonable connection, considering their theological frame of thought. Was John the promised prophet like Moses that the Book of Deuteronomy prophesied. John simply answers, “No.” We of course believe that Jesus is both views of the Christ. He is the promised prophet of Moses, and He is the Son of David the deliverer. Of course, even though the terms fit in name, His fulfillment of these two roles were far beyond what the Jews of that day thought.
The priests and Levites then asked John to make a positive declaration of who he was and allowed him to answer. He says that he is fulfilling the role described in Isaiah 40. He was a voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight. This identification of John the Baptist is consistent in all the Gospels. He was to get people ready to meet the LORD. What needs to be said here is that John the Baptist prepares the way of Jesus. But the text says the “way of Yahweh.” These statements can only both be true if Jesus is the Yahweh of the Old Testament. This is by no means the only time in the New Testament that Old Testament prophecies about Yahweh are said to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.