In our study of John’s Gospel, we’ve now made it past the Prologue! Although today’s reading still has a strong connection with it, essentially illustrating in narrative what was said in this part of the Prologue:
John 1:6-8 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
This first story is all about this witness to the light – John the Baptist – and emphasises the fact that he himself was not the light. In fact, it bangs on at considerable length about what John was not. He wasn’t Elijah. He wasn’t the Messiah. And he wasn’t even just a very naughty boy. Let’s take a look at the story, then think about why this is such an important point.
Who was John the Baptist?
John 1:19-20 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
This is almost legal language, as John is called to the witness stand and cross-examined by the Jews. He solemnly and categorically denies that he’s the Messiah. Why would he need to do this?
Well you have to admit, John, you’re looking kind of Messiah-ish. Hanging out in the desert, calling for repentance, baptising people, and preparing them to cross the Jordan once more and re-enter the promised land. You look like you’re putting together a peasant army to conquer the land again (like Joshua in the Old Testament and, more recently, Judas Maccabeus in his rebellion against Greek rule). So if you’re not the Messiah, who are you then?
John 1:21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
In Jewish tradition, the return of Elijah would prepare the way for God’s judgement – either as a forerunner to the Messiah, or even as the Messiah himself:
Malachi 4:5-6 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
We see this theme taken up in Jewish writings between the Testaments:
Sirach 48:9-10 You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire. At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
So Elijah was a significant figure in Jewish expectations about the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. (That’s probably why people thought Jesus was calling for Elijah when he cried out on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.”)
And another significant figure was “the prophet,” referring to God’s promise to Moses:
Deuteronomy 18:18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
So if you’re not the Messiah, or a resurrected Elijah, or the “prophet like Moses,” then who are you?
John 1:23 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.’”
This is a reference to Isaiah 40:3. If you look at the context, it’s all about the return of God to Jerusalem to reign as king. John’s role is to announce the “return of the king” (to pinch Tom Wright’s way of putting it, which he stole from Tolkien…).
Notice, by the way, that John the Baptist is a “voice” – which may be a deliberate contrast with the eternal Word that is Jesus. (Similarly, he’s a temporary lamp rather than the enduring light, in John 5:35.)
Why does John baptise?
So we’ve established that John is the herald announcing God’s return to Jerusalem to bring in his kingdom. Which leads to the Jewish leaders’ next question:
John 1:24-25 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
That is, if you’re not one of the figures we’re expecting to be involved in the bringing about of God’s kingdom, what gives you the right to go around baptising? You’re getting the people all stirred up – what’s it all in aid of?
There was probably an element of confusion in their question (We don’t get why you’re doing this) as well as an element of politics (Are you setting yourself up as a leader of Israel in place of us?).
John doesn’t give them a straight answer immediately.
John 1:26-28 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
He doesn’t quite answer the question, does he? All he does is mention that he baptises with water, and that there’s someone greater on the way. (In the other three Gospels – Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16 – John says that this one who is greater will baptise with the Holy Spirit. But not here, in John’s Gospel. The implied contrast is left hanging.)
And John isn’t even worthy to untie the sandals of this greater one. This emphasises the difference in their status, as a disciple was expected to do everything for their teacher except untie their sandals, which was the job of a slave. This is a deliberately self-deprecating statement by John, highlighting his subordination to the one who comes after him. He’s even less than a slave by comparison.
But the question isn’t answered. And doesn’t really get answered until the next day. Either for the Pharisees, or you. See you tomorrow.