- John 1:19-34 – “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
So as we begin, we need to make sure we are all on the same page. In verse 19 it says, “And this is the testimony of John.” The John that is referred to in our text today is not the author of the Gospel of John. There are two Johns that play a significant role in the Gospel accounts, John the Baptist, who is the person referred to in our scripture today, and John the Disciple, who is the author of this Gospel. Two different people.
In the Gospel of John, the author, John the Disciple, never refers to himself by name. He usually calls himself the disciple in “whom Jesus loved.” Therefore, if you see the name John in the Gospel of John, it is most likely referring to John the Baptist. Clear as mud?
So who is this John the Baptist? To answer this, let us go back and look at verse 6, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
So our introduction to John the Baptist includes that he was 1) Sent from God 2) to bear witness about the light, and 3) He was not the light. So as we begin, let us start with the question why do we need to know that John was not the light. Why make this statement?
Not the Light
In between the Old Testament and the New Testament there is about 400 years. These years are called the 400 years of silence. They are called the years of silence because that was a period of time that God did not have a prophet for the nation of Israel. God was in effect silent. He had said everything that needed to be said as it relates to the Old Covenant. The Old Testament Canon was closed.
In about the year 26 A.D. in steps John the Baptist. As verse 6 says, “He was sent from God.” With John, God start speaking again prophetically. John begins to preach a message of repentance for the Kingdom of God is at hand. For those who embraced this message of repentance, they were immediately baptized. This symbolized their commitment to turn back to the Lord.
What is interesting is that every single one of the Gospels talks about John the Baptist: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is interesting because the Gospels are all about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, yet each one of them are inspired to insert a short narrative about this Baptist fellow.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are given a glimpse into the ministry of John the Baptist. In Matthew 3:4-6 it says, “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” What I want us to focus on is verse 5, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him.” I could not find a very exact number, but It appears that it is estimated that about 1 million people lived in Jerusalem around the time of John the Baptist. Judea was the province that surrounded the City of Jerusalem. In Judea were towns such as Bethlehem, Emmaus, Lydda, Joppa, Bethany, Jericho, and many other small towns. I was not able to find Judea's population during the times of John, but make no mistake it would have been tens of thousands up to one hundred thousand additional people. Likewise, the third area mentioned, the area around the Jordon River, I was also unable to find a estimated population. However, the river runs the eastern boarder of the province of Judea and Samaria for 156 miles and empties into the Dead Sea, so the river valley would also have had an additional tens of thousands if not one hundred thousand people.
So the point that Matthew desires to make is that John the Baptist was wildly popular. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and potentially up to 1 million people were taking pilgrimages out into the middle of nowhere to listen to a guy in funny clothes preach about how sinful they were. In fact, John was so popular that Herod the tertruach, the ruler of the province was afraid of him, and according to Matthew 14 arrested him, but did not kill him because he feared what the crowds response would be.
The Jewish historian Josephus who lived during the time of John the Baptist in his antiquities said this, “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.”
It should also be noted that this influence of the Baptist was not limited to just Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordon River, and it was not limited to just the time before Jesus came. In Acts 19:1-7 we see Paul in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey, engaging with the people and he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
This conversation would have occurred about 25 years after John’s ministry. Once you start to let some of these things sink in you can understand the words of Jesus in Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.” DSO we can understand why it is important to understand that John the Baptist is not the light, that he is not the Christ.
And it is because of the greatness of John, and the immense influence that John had over the Jewish people that we see in our text today, verse 19, a delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem coming out to Bethany to check this guy out. And the first question they ask is”Who are you?” What a peculiar question. “Who are you?” Didn't they know?
Yes and no. They new who he was, he was John, the son of Zechariah the priest. But they could also sensed something greater about him, as if he was more than just John. There question is a question of amazement and wonder. And you can see that in the answer that John gives in verse 20, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Once again, what a strange answer. Why answer it this way? Because John knew what was on their mind, and he knew what was on everyone else's mind. For 400 years Israel hadn't heard from God, then all of the sudden John shows up and he is full of the Holy Spirit and preaches words of power and are piercing people's hearts. And murmurings start to work their way through the crowd, is he the one? Is he the long awaited for Messiah? Perhaps people begin to even attempt to pressure him into the position, such as they would later attempt to do with Jesus is trying to force him to be King. And just like in an interrogation, John confessed to the truth, and stated very clearly that he was not the Messiah.
The delegation, however, is not satisfied with his answer. John has to be more than just a charismatic preacher, so they ask him if he is Elijah and if he is the Prophet. What is that all about? First, let us start with the question about “the Prophet.” Who was this? In Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses says this to the people of Israel, ““The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—.” This is the prophet they are speaking about. This is the prophet they are wondering if John is. John answer to this is no, why? Because the prophet Moses is talking about is none other than Jesus himself. For Christ is the Prophet and the prophecy. As the author of Hebrews so rightly puts it, “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
They also asked are you Elijah? For those who do not know, Elijah was an Old Testament prophet. He lived almost 1000 years before John the Baptist. He was a great and powerful prophet of God. So why would the Jerusalem delegation ask if he was some dead guy? It is because a prophecy found in the very last book of the Old Testament, Malachi.
- Malachi 4:5 - “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”c
Now what is interesting is that John says, nope, not Elijah. This is interesting because all the others Gospels identify John as the Elijah spoken of in Malachi. Jesus in Matthew 11:14 says, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” So why did John say no? Good question. We don't know the answer. Perhaps John was playing coy, and said no, because even though he was the Elijah that was prophesied, he was not Elijah in the flesh, but he was John. Or as D.A. Carson believes he did not know the fullness of his lot in life. Yes, John knew what he was called to do, and yes he was doing it, but he was not convinced that he was in fact that Elijah that God proclaimed would come.
A Voice in the Wilderness
So who does John say he is? John 1:23 - “He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
What does this mean? This is a quote from Isaiah 40:3. The book of Isaiah is very interesting. It has significant structure to it. In fact, some people call the book of Isaiah the mini-Bible within the Bible. What is interesting is that in the chapters leading up to chapter 39 we see warning and judgment, preparing the people of Israel to be conquered and taken into captivity by Assyria and Babylon, which did happen in 722 B.C. and 586 B.C. Then in chapter 40 Isaiah makes a dramatic shift and stops the words of judgment and starts to give words of hope and comfort for the people of Babylon. It is almost as if you are starting a brand new book. If you have time today, take a look, it is really quite remarkable. And these words of hope, these words of comfort begin by saying this:
- Isaiah 40:1-3 - “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. 3A voice cries:b “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
This was John's calling. This was John's purpose. To point people to Jesus Christ, our comfort, our prince of peace, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No matter how popular he was, his mission did not change, he was merely a voice crying out. He was not the light, and he knew it, and he embraced it, and proclaimed it. I think it is so fascinating. Johh the Baptist had thousands and thousands of followers in his life, perhaps hundreds of thousands. 2000 years later, he as none. No one follows John the Baptist. Jesus on the other hand, when he died there were 120 people who followed him. 2000 years later 2.2 billion people claim to follow Jesus. As a lawyer, I love evidence. If you ask me, that is some pretty good evidence that John was telling the truth when he said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ and “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Our roles are not much different than Johns. As God chose him, so he also chose us.
- 1 Peter 2:9- “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. “