Summary: Like John, we should lay aside our pride to serve Christ.
• The expression is used 71 times in John.
• Most commonly it refers to the Jewish leaders, especially those of Jerusalem and Judea (as here in 1:19), and usually they are cast as those who actively oppose Jesus, fail to understand Him, and who finally seek His death.
• Not all Jewish leaders, however, are presented negatively: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea fare much better (3:1ff.; 7:50; 19:38-42).
1. WHO JOHN THE BAPTIST WAS NOT
“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was” (v. 19).
a. He was not the CHRIST (v. 20).
“He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ.’”
“Christ” = the Lord’s ANOINTED, “MESSIAH”
With us “Christ” has become little more than a personal name for Jesus, but properly it is a title, “the Christ,” which means “the anointed” (as does “the Messiah”). In the OT various people were anointed, but notably priests and kings (for the latter, cf. the phrase, “the Lord’s anointed”). The ceremony was used to set men apart for special functions. When the expectation grew that one day God would sent into the world an exceptionally great Person, a mighty Deliverer, One who would represent Him in a very special sense, this coming great One was thought not of as “an anointed one,” but as “the anointed one,” “the Messiah.” So the title was applied by believers to Jesus, and it remains to remind us of this public and official aspect of His ministry.
b. He was not ELIJAH (v. 21a).
“They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’” “He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”
“Are you Elijah?”:
• It had been foretold by the prophet Malachi that before “that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes” God would send Elijah the prophet (Mal. 4:5). This was understood to mean that Elijah would precede the Messiah.
• The appearance of John and Elijah was similar. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:7-8).
“I am not”:
• John’s denial puzzles many, because Jesus clearly asserted that John was “the Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14; 17:12; Mark 9:13).
• The solution to the difficulty is probably that there was a sense in which John was Elijah and a sense in which he was not. He fulfilled all the preliminary ministry that Malachi had foretold “And he [John] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). In a very real sense Jesus could say that John was Elijah.
• But the Jews remembered that Elijah had left the earth in a chariot of fire without passing through death (2 Kings 2:11), and they expected that the identical person would reappear. John was not Elijah in this sense, and he had no option but to deny that he was.
c. He was not the PROPHET (v. 21b).
‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”
“Are you the Prophet?”:
• “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18).
• The Jews distinguished between “the Prophet” and “the Christ” (John 7:40-41).
• “The prophet” was Jesus (Acts 3:22).
2. WHO JOHN THE BAPTIST WAS
a. He was the one who was to get people READY for the Christ (vv. 22-23).
“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 desert, “Make straight the way for the Lord”’” (cf. Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4).
“I am the voice…”
• John’s reply is a quotation from Isaiah 40:3 (cf. Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).
• The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatever. He is no more than a voice. He is a voice, with but one thing to say.
• John’s real function was not to teach ethics, but to point people to Jesus. “Make straight the way for the Lord” is a call to be ready, for the coming of the Messiah is near.