Because John the Baptist said the darndest things, you can imagine it did not sit well with the religious leaders, especially when he called them snakes. And that brings us back to the passage we are studying this week: John 1:19-34. We learn in John 1:19 that the religious elite back at their HQ in Jerusalem heard about this Elijah-like prophet baptizing people in the Jordan River, in the wilderness, so they dispatch some of their underlings to go out and see what John was all about.
Look at verse 20. The underlings ask John, “Are you the Christ?,” which is another way of saying, are you the Messiah? Are you the savior of Israel? John says, “I am not.”
So in verse 21, they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” It sure seemed like it, as we learned in the previous post. But that would be weird, right? Elijah come back to life 1000 years later? I think the agents asked this with a sneer, just salivating in the hope that he would say “Yes” because he was dressing and acting like Elijah. Then when he said, “Yes, I am Elijah,” they were tear him down verbally because that is ridiculous. People dead 1000 years don’t come back to life. But John answered, “No.”
So then in verse 21, they ask, “Are you The Prophet?” Notice that they did not ask, “Are you A prophet,” but they asked John, “Are you THE Prophet”. What are they talking about? Is there some special prophet that was supposed to show up? Yes, there was. In Deuteronomy 18, which I wrote about here, Moses told the people that a prophet would come, a prophet like him to lead the people. So there was, in the thinking of some, the idea that a great prophet like Moses would rise up and lead the people. Was this just another way of talking about the Messiah? Or was this a person that had already appeared in the Old Testament, say a Samuel or Elijah? We don’t know. But it doesn’t matter because John clears it up. Nope, he says, he is not the prophet.
So in verse 22, it seems the agents from the religious establishment are getting frustrated, “Just tell us who you are.” They have to report back to their superiors at HQ in Jerusalem, and so far John has given them nothing.
John replies in verse 23 by quoting the ancient prophet Isaiah. Actually he shortens Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3 to, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’.” Again, John connects himself to the Jewish peoples’ prophetic desert tradition. Specifically, he is saying, “I am not the Messiah, but instead I am one who is calling people to prepare for the Messiah who is coming.” John’s ministry was one of telling people to get ready for the Messiah by confessing their sins, turning away from a life of sin, and pursuing God’s heart of love and justice. Then the people would be baptized as a sign to all that they had washed away their old life of sin, and they were now pursuing their new life of following God.
John, in other words, was right in line with the prophets of old who spoke bold truth to people about how their lives were out of line with heart of God.
Notice in verse 24 that the agents of the religious establishment ask John why he baptizes, considering the fact that he has already told them he is not the messiah, Elijah or the prophet. John’s response again points to his mission, his purpose. He is the forerunner, preparing the way for someone else.
Who is that someone else? We’ll find out in the next post.