Who are you?
This was John’s testimony when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”
He didn’t deny it but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
“What then?” they asked him. “Are you Elijah?”
“I am not,” he said.
“Are you the Prophet?”
“No,” he answered.
“Who are you, then?” they asked. “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What can you tell us about yourself?”
He said, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord — just as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. So they asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?”
“I baptize with water,” John answered them. “Someone stands among you, but you don’t know him. He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to untie.” All this happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28)
The apostle John was not exaggerating in his prologue when he said, “Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). If you’ve ever carefully read through the Gospels, then you already know Christ’s ministry was met with Jewish suspicion from the start. Animosity and violence soon followed.
Jesus was not what most people expected from the long-anticipated Messiah. Worse yet, at least to the religious establishment, he was unorthodox. Israel’s spiritual leaders expected the Christ to pat them on the backs and say, “Job well done leading my people,” once he arrived, but he didn’t. Instead, he exposed their many faults and criticized their hypocrisy. In ￼perhaps his most famous rebuke of all, he stormed into the temple and began flipping over tables—twice, in fact.
As far as we know, Jesus hadn’t preached his first word before the Jews’ inquisition began. John the Baptist was enough to put the Sanhedrin, the governing body in Israel, on high alert. (I should note the Sanhedrin had only as much authority as Rome allowed, which wasn’t much.) Regardless, they were quick to send a delegation of priests and Levites to question John as soon as they detected something amiss (Jn 1:19).
In this case, baptism is at the center of the controversy. Specifically, the Pharisees demand to know why John is baptizing at all (Jn 1:24). What gives him the right? He’s not the Messiah (Jn 1:20). He isn’t Elijah, whom the Jews expected to return one day, not realizing the Old Testament spoke of an Elijah-like figure preceding the Christ (Jn 1:21). He’s not even the so-called Prophet, whom the LORD promised long ago to raise up one day (Jn 1:21; Dt 18:15). So, what gives John the authority to baptize?
Perhaps additional clarity is needed because baptisms took place long before John emerged from the wilderness and began immersing people in the Jordan River. The problem here is that John is not baptizing Gentile converts to Judaism as was relatively common. He’s not washing away the heinous sins of pagan idolaters. The men and women lining up in Bethany across the Jordan are descendants of Abraham, God’s covenant people—Jews, in other words (Jn 1:28). Therefore, they should be holy by definition, nullifying any need to be baptized, especially by the likes of John.
Though the Sanhedrin sent this delegation to investigate John, and though the theologically liberal Sadducees constituted the its majority, and though the Sadducees are evidently curious about John for probably political reasons—they must suppress any movements that might potentially lead to an uprising before Rome suppresses them—the conservative sect of Israel’s leadership, the Pharisees, are the most interested in the Scriptural basis for John’s baptisms (Jn 1:24).
Why should the Pharisees be concerned about the symbolic cleansing of Jews? In short, it undermines their credibility as spiritual leaders because it contradicts their soteriological dogmas. A child of Abraham doesn’t need to be cleansed. We are holy by virtue of birth. And even if that weren’t enough, we are justified before God because we keep his law. Jesus will have something much different to say about the matter soon enough.
As subtle as they may be in this story, the seeds of contention are planted. They will grow and grow until they become an angry mob shouting, “Crucify! Crucify him!” (Lk 23:21).
Yet, please notice John’s humble reply to the interrogation. Far from defensive or irritated, he says, in effect, “This isn’t about me. It’s about Christ our Lord.”
What John actually says is:
“I am not the Messiah. I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord — just as Isaiah the prophet said. Someone stands among you, but you don’t know him. He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to untie” (John 1:20, 23, 26, 27).
We could all learn from John. “If the world hates you,” Jesus will later tell his disciples, “understand that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, you are not of the world” (Jn 15:18, 19). Genuine Christians will often find themselves at odds with the people around them, which is hardly a peculiar phenomenon. Our challenge is to respond not with surprise or self-righteous indignation, but with Christ-exalting grace.