DIG: Why did the Jews ask John if he were Elijah? What prophet did they refer to? What do these questions reveal about why they were sent? Why did Yochanan cry out in the wilderness rather then in the Temple? Why do you think John responds so abruptly? What was his goal in life?
REFLECT: What is your goal in life? Have you ever felt ostracized because of your faith? Yochanan spoke the truth and boldly stood apart from his world in order to reach it more effectively (John 17:15-18). What opportunities do you have to do the same? Have you been baptized? Why or why not?
With these verses the inspired apostle John begins the account of his gospel. He has already shown us what he intends to do (see Af – The Memra of God); he is writing to demonstrate that the Memra (the Word) has come into this world. Having set down his central thought, he now begins the story of the life of Christ.
No one is more careful about the details of time as Yochanan is. Starting from these verses and going to 2:11 he tells us, step by step, the story of the first momentous week in the public life of Jesus. The events of the first day are here in John 1:19-28; the story of the second day is 1:29-34; the third day is unfolded in 1:35-39. The three verses 1:40-42 tell the story of the fourth day; the events of the fifth day are told in 1:43-51. The sixth day is not recorded for some reason. And the events of the seventh day of the week are told in 2:1-11.288
The first stage of observation was over (see Bf – You Brood of Vipers, Who Warned You to Flee the Coming Wrath). The Pharisees and Sadducees had reported back to the Sanhedrin (see Lg - The Great Sanhedrin) and all agreed that John’s movement was significant. But was he the Meshiach? That was the question that needed to be answered. However, that would be determined in the second stage of interrogation. Therefore, an official delegation was sent out so they could ask him questions.
The first day: Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews (Greek: Ioudaioi), or Jewish leaders (NIV), in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was (Yochanan 1:19). He was outside the pharisaic Judaism of his day. He had not been trained in the schools of the rabbis, he had held no position of honor in the Temple, and he was not identified with either the Pharisees, Sadducees or Herodians. He was a strange looking enigma to the religious elite. While the Baptist came from a priestly family (Luke 1:5), he did not conform to pharisaic dogma. John was a puzzle to them.
Subsequently they had many questions. From whom did he receive his authority? Who had commissioned him to tell anyone to repent? By what right did he baptize? The word Jews (Ioudaioi) appears in the gospel of Yochanan seventy times, and those Jews are always in opposition to Jesus. Flattery always follows success, and when John’s fame peaked the rumor spread that he was the Messiah. The Jews were waiting, and are waiting to this day, for the Messiah. The Baptist, however,repeatedly denied any messianic claims.
Frequently, messianic pretenders arose and caused rebellions. Yeshua’s day was an exciting time. So it was quite natural to ask John if he claimed to be the Meshiach. But he completely rejected the claim. Yochanan could have simply written, “And he said.” Instead, the inspired author records, that he did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). His reply was strengthened by the use of the emphatic pronoun I. It is as if Yochanan was saying, “I am not Messiah, but, if you only knew, the Messiah is here.”289 There was a Christ, but it certainly wasn’t Yochanan.
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” Why would they have asked him that? The rabbis taught that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald His coming and to prepare Isra'el for the messianic Kingdom. The last verses of Malachi read: Look, I will send to you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming great and terrible Day of ADONAI. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers; otherwise I will come and strike the land with complete destruction (Mal’akhi 4:4-6 CJB).
The rabbis also taught that Elijah would resolve all disputes. He would settle what things and what people were clean and unclean; he would clear up who were Jews and who were not Jews; he would bring together again families that were estranged. So much did the Israelites believe this that the traditional law said the money and property whose owners were disputed, or anything found whose owner was unknown, must wait “until Elijah comes.” It was also believed that Eliyahu would anoint Messiah to His kingly office, as all kings were anointed, and that he would raise the dead to share in the messianic Kingdom. But John clearly denied being Elijah himself. At first he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” Now he was down to only three words, saying: I am not (Jn 1:21a). As John grew more and more impatient with their questioning, his responses shortened.
Yochanan’s denial provoked a third question: Are you the expected and promised Prophet? The Israelites seem to have expected all sorts of prophets to appear before the coming of the Meshiach (Matthew 16:14; Mark 6:15; Luke 9:19). But this was particularly a reference to the assurance that Moshe gave to the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, when he said: ADONAI will raise up for you a prophet like me from among yourselves, from your own kinsmen. You are to pay attention to Him (Deuteronomy 18:15 CJB). That was a promise that no Jew ever forgot. They waited and longed for the appearance of the prophet who would be the greatest prophet of all. Impatient with the questions of his interrogators, his terse answer was: No (Yochanan 1:21b). His patience was gone and his responses went from five words, to three words, and now to one word.
This put John’s inquisitors in a tough spot. All they had gotten from the Immerser was a sting of denials. Yochanan was preaching, drawing large crowds in the wilderness, and baptizing. They needed something more definitive that they could take back with them. Finally exasperated, instead of making another futile suggestion, they asked him what he thought about himself. We can only imagine the tone in which they said to him, “Who are you?” Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself (John 1:22)?
The Baptizer replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of ADONAI’ (Yochanan 1:23).” When John referred to himself as a voice, he used the exact term that the Ruach HaKodesh had used of Him seven hundred years earlier when speaking through Isaiah. The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatsoever. He was not an important person, like Elijah, the prophet or the Messiah. He was no more than a voice. Not only that, he was a voice with only one thing to say - his was a one-point sermon. Look for the Meshiach.
It is interesting that the Qumran community interpreted the same passage from Isaiah in a different way. They withdrew and separated themselves, quietly reading the Scriptures in the desert to prepare the way of the LORD. Whatever happened to the people outside of their sect, they would be ready when the Messiah came. Yochanan, on the other hand, understood the words of Isaiah as a wake-up call to the nation. John was not concerned with himself or his own safety at all. He was trying to prepare the way of ADONAI with his back to God movement.
I am a voice crying out in the wilderness (Yochanan 1:23a). Why then did John the Baptizer not cry out in the Temple? Because Judaism was a hollow shell. It had outward pretense, but there was no life within. It had become a nation of legalists (see Ei – The Oral Law). John came to a Pharisee ridden nation that neither demonstrated the faith of Abraham, nor produced his works. Therefore, God’s herald appeared outside the religious circles of that day, and the wilderness symbolized the barrenness of the Jewish nation.290
Make straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23b). An ancient monarch (just like a national leader today) rarely traveled to any region without some planning. The city would be prepared and the route cleared of anything that might slow his chariot or make the journey unpleasant. The Immerser called himself a herald, a person announcing the imminent arrival of the king, a voice having no authority of its own. If the people chose to heed his message, it would be because they revered the coming king.
But the Pharisees who had been sent, were puzzled about one thing – what right had John to baptize?If he had been the Messiah, or even Elijah, or the prophet, he might have had that authority. Isaiah had written: So He will sprinkle many nations (Isaiah 52:15a). Ezekiel had said: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean (Ezekiel 36:25). Zechariah wrote: When that day comes, a spring will be opened up for the house of David and the people living in Yerushalayim to cleanse them from sin and impurity (Z’Kharyah 13:1 CJB). But why should Yochanan baptize? Consequently, they questioned him asking: Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet (John 1:24-25)?
What made the matter more confusing to them was the fact that baptism was not for Israelites at all. It was proselytes, the Gentiles, who were baptized. Was he suggesting that God’s chosen people had to be cleansed? But that was exactly what the Baptist believed. He was calling Jews to a baptism of repentance, saying, in effect, “Because of your sin, your are outside of Abraham’s covenant with ADONAI. You must repent like a Gentile and come to YHVH like it was the first time.”291
By this time Jesus had returned from the forty days of fasting and temptation, and was standing in the midst of the crowd. John recognized Him, and then dropped the subject of baptism to focus on the greatness of Yeshua. Baptism was important, but it was only a means to an end. Its purpose was to point people to the Lord. John’s interest was in the Messiah and in nothing else. I baptize with water, John replied: but among you stands One you do not know (Yochanan 1:26). John admitted that his baptism was merely symbolic and quickly turned the discussion away from water baptism – which pointed to the Meshiach – to the One he had come to herald. He was only the shadow, but in reality . . . the Substance had arrived.
He is the One who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie (John 1:27). Here John describes the chalitzah ceremony in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. The Torah dictates that if a married man dies childless, the widow is to marry her dead husband’s brother, preferably the eldest. The firstborn son they produce is considered a continuation of the dead husband’s line. The practice is known as Yibum, or levirate marriage. The brother-in-law is called the Yavam; and the widow is called the Yevamah.
However, if the dead man’s brother does not wish to marry the widow, or if she does not want to marry him, a standard divorce is insufficient to sever their bond. Instead, they perform a procedure known as chalitzah, which means removal; in this case, the removal of the brother-in-law’s shoe. Only after the chalitzah ceremony has been completed is the widow free to marry someone else.
The widow must wait ninety-two days after the death of her husband before proceeding with the chalitzah ceremony. This is in line with the commandment that a widow or divorcee must wait three months before remarrying, enough time for it to become obvious whether or not she is pregnant from her first husband, thus avoiding the possible confusion over the identity of the baby’s father. In the case of chalitzah, the three-month waiting period is in order to ascertain whether the chalitzah ceremony is even necessary at all, for if the woman is pregnant, then her deceased husband is not childless.
The widow and the deceased brother both appear in front of the local elders of the city usually consisting of three judges, two witnesses (as typically required during rabbinical proceedings), and the widow and the brother of the deceased.
If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals by untying the leather straps. The sandal was, and continues to be, a sign of authority or ownership. And then she spits in his presence and says, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Isra’el as “the household of the one whose sandal has been removed” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).
So when the Baptizer said, “The One who comes after me (the Messiah), is the One whose straps on his sandals I am not worthy to untie,” he was referring to the authorityof the Messiah compared to his lowly position. In this way he denied being the Meshiach.
This all happened at Bethany, which is identical to Beth Barah (the house of passage) mentioned in Judges 7:24, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing (John 1:28). It memorialized the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua. Therefore, separated as the Baptizer was from the corrupted sham in Jerusalem, it was a house of passage for those he immersed. They joined the little remnant who were prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17). Remember . . . what happens to the herald will happen to the King.