19 Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”
23 He said: “I am
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’
as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:19-23, NKJV)
So far, in the first 18 verses of the gospel of John, we have seen an introduction to Jesus Christ – that He was God, that He came became a man, that He was the light of the world, that He was rejected by the world, and that whoever receives Him become children of God.
Interspersed in that introduction to Jesus were several statements about a man named John. We know him as John the Baptist.
Now, in verse 19, the gospel zooms in on John for a closer look at his witness of Jesus Christ.
1:19-23 The Jews
When John uses the term, “The Jews,” often he is not referring to all of the Jews, but actually to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership.
John the Baptist had been preaching at and baptizing in the Jordan River, quite a ways away. Where exactly he was is up for debate. The KJV says, “Bethabara”, the NAS and NIV say “Bethany”, and the Amplified lists both. Either place you choose, you’re talking either 20 miles east or 55 miles north of Jerusalem. This was not in the center of town.
But regardless of his location, he was creating quite a stir among the Jewish leadership. Luke says that the multitudes were going out there. Matthew tells us:
Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6)
And in Mark we read:
Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:5)
So something’s happening miles outside of town. The leadership figures they ought to check this out.
Who Are You?
They ask John, “Who are you?” This could have easily been a big temptation for John. After all, he was born of the tribe of Levi, the son of a priest. Miraculously born, even. He was God’s messenger, sent in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was the very last Old Testament prophet. He could have claimed all of these glories.
But He didn’t. He simply said, “I am not the Christ.”
The Jews had been expecting three different guys to show up and cause a stir. Of course, they were expecting their Messiah, the Christ, to come. But once it was settled that John wasn’t Him, they asked about the other two guys they were expecting.
“Are you Elijah?” You see, God promised in the last paragraph of the Old Testament that He would send the prophet Elijah again. “No, I’m not Elijah.”
“Are you ‘the Prophet’?” “Who’s that?” we wonder. Back in Deuteronomy 18, the Lord told Moses:
I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)
So they had also been expecting this prophet like unto Moses. But John said, “Nope. I’m not him either.”
“So who are you, buddy?” “I’m the fourth guy you should have been expecting, the voice written about in Isaiah.”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)
“That’s who I am,” John says. “Just a messenger, preparing the way of the Lord.”