Summary of passage: John the Baptist was questions by the Levites (Jewish priests) about his identity near Bethany. He says he is not the Christ repeatedly. He denies being Elijah and the Prophet. He’s the announcer and precursor to Christ, and he says he’s unworthy to untie Christ’s sandals.
1) “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” Answer: “I am not.”
2) “Are you the Prophet?” Answer: “No.”
3) “Who are you?” 4) “”What do you say about yourself?” Answer: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”.
5) “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Answer: “I baptize with water but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
4a) In Malachi 4:5-6, Elijah was predicted to return before the Day of the Lord (which we learned last year in Revelation is the Second Coming of Christ). In Deuteronomy 18:15-19, God promised another Prophet would come in due time. So the Levites here are trying to figure out if John the Baptist is this promised return of Elijah or the Prophet.
b) He says he’s the one sent to reveal the Christ and tell the people to prepare for his arrival that Isaiah predicted in his book. The one who shall make straight the highway path to God.
5) Personal Question. My answer: He’s humble and gives Christ all the credit. I can remember this for all the blessings in my life and take no credit for them. They are all HIS.
Conclusions: We gain insight into John the Baptist’s character here. He knows his purpose in life and in all humility he goes about his business singularly focused. A great example to us of a witness for Christ.
End Notes: This is John’s testimony for Jesus.
“The Jews” here do not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. John uses it to denote the religious establishment and this is the first time in the gospels this is seen. Specifically, they are sent here to look into the activities of an unauthorized leader.
The Levites as most of you know were descendants of Levi who were the priests of God’s people.
Fun Fact: The Greek word for “Jews” occurs about 70 times in this Gospel.
Note John doesn’t say exactly who he is: “Well, I’m Jesus’s cousin, the son of the priest Zechariah” etc. Instead, he focuses on his mission: to prepare and cleanse (hence baptisms) the way for Jesus.
Elijah did not die (2 Kings 2:11) and thus believed he would return to earth to announce the end times. John is repeatedly asked if he is the Messiah and he gets more and more terse with each denial. Like we do when repeatedly asked a question.
The Messiah means “the Anointed One”. In the Old Testament anointing was a sign of being set apart. Here, the people are seeking “the One”.
Baptisms grew out of the Old Testament tradition of ceremonial washings. In the first century AD, baptisms with water were only for Gentiles converting to Judaism. So if Jews agreed to be baptized they are openly repenting of their sins.
Untying thongs of sandals was the duty of slaves and a duty which disciples did not do for masters. John is saying he’s not worthy of even this duty. He is lower than a slave.
Bethany is just outside of Jerusalem on the banks of the Jordan River. See map HERE