John the Baptist meets the Leaders, 1. 19-28
These verses describe an encounter between John the Baptist and a deputation of priests and Levites. The key phrases are ‘from God’ and ‘from Jerusalem’. One solitary man sent from God meets a whole deputation of men sent from Jerusalem.
To be ‘sent from God’ implies having been in God’s presence. Only the Lord Jesus was literally sent from God, 16. 28; 17. 8. But Luke writes of John that ‘(he) was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel’, 1. 80. During those years of solitude he cultivated fellowship with God. We all need a solitary place in daily life where we can commune with God and cultivate His presence. If we begin each day with Him we shall be sent each day from Him. We shall be a people sent from God each day.
Jerusalem was the nation’s capital, with its temple, its feasts, its priesthood and its sacrifices. A deputation from Jerusalem was highly prestigious. The delegates sent to John doubtless considered themselves greatly his superiors. They meant to question him ruthlessly and to report fully on his activities to the Sanhedrin, their council. But John had the ultimate status because he was a man sent from God. No one can get any higher than that!
The leaders were suspicious of his unauthorised preaching, and feared that he might undermine the religious establishment. Perhaps he might even claim to be the long-promised Messiah. The delegates, doubtless, represented the power-groups in the Sanhedrin. They would include the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the scribes. Their arrival by the Jordan must have caused a stir. The crowds would go quiet and would listen intently. However powerful the delegates were, they would nevertheless want to avoid provoking the crowds, who doubtless recognized John as a prophet, and who would not tolerate his being harassed and bullied by these religious VIPs.
Their inquiry began with a short series of questions, the first of which was pre-determined, for ‘the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?’ v. 19. It was a simple question. All the Baptist had to say in reply was, ‘I am John, son of Zacharias and Elizabeth’.
But he knew what lay behind the question. There was widespread speculation in Israel about the imminent coming of the Messiah. Many of the people who had come to the Jordan thought that John might himself be that promised leader. He now stamped out that suggestion entirely, and said emphatically: ‘I am not the Christ’.
The questioners continued, ‘What then? Art thou Elijah? And he saith, I am not’. Possibly the delegates were thinking of Malachi 4. 5, ‘Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord’. A problem arises from John’s denial of being Elijah, in that after King Herod had imprisoned him, the Lord Jesus said to the people concerning John, ‘For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elijah, which was for to come’. John would literally fulfil the ministry which Malachi had foretold, as Gabriel had made clear to Zacharias, Luke 1. 17. But John was certainly not the man who went to heaven in a chariot of fire without dying, 2 Kgs. 2. 11. One writer resolves the problem in this way: ‘The Baptist humbly rejects the exalted title, but Jesus on the contrary bestows it on him’, C.F.D. Moule quoted by Leon Morris.
The third question was, ‘Art thou that prophet?’ They were thinking of Deuteronomy 18. 1 5-19, and the promise of another prophet like Moses. But John still replied in the negative - ‘No’. His responses became more brief: ‘I am not the Christ … I am not … No’. The delegates wanted him to talk about himself, but he only wanted to talk about Christ. What a healthy and commendable outlook! The deputation was fast losing patience. They repeated their first question, but John had nothing to add to his first answer, so they framed yet another, ‘What sayest thou of thyself?’ This enabled him to answer from the sacred scripture, ‘I am the voice’, Isa. 40. 3. This chapter in Isaiah is full of the Word, the Son of God. John regarded himself merely as a voice. No one can see a voice. A word expresses the thoughts of the person using it. A voice simply makes the word audible. As the voice is servant to the word, so John was a servant to the Lord.
The Pharisaic delegates demanded, ‘Why baptizest thou then?’ In those days Gentile families who embraced Judaism could be admitted to the fold only if the males were circumcised and the whole family was baptized.
This was because Jews believed that Gentiles needed cleansing, but John insisted that Jews needed cleansing as well. Therefore they also required his baptism as much as Gentiles. But John was disinclined to discuss baptism! He had momentous news for them: There standeth one among you whom ye know not’. Not that the Lord was literally standing there among the crowd that day, whilst the investigation was proceeding. John simply means that the Messiah was at that time living in Judaea, although unknown to most.
‘He it is who coming after me is preferred before me’. The Lord Jesus was born at least six months after John the Baptist, and John began his public ministry before the Saviour began His. But John adds, ‘(He) is preferred before me’, meaning that He had priority both in heaven’s estimation and in the Father’s estimation. In verse 15 he said, ‘This was the one of whom I spake, he that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me’. This was how John habitually thought of the Lord Jesus. J.C. Ryle writes, ‘To exalt Christ and abase himself, seem ideas never long out of John’s mind’.
‘The thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie’. Leon Morris, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, refers to an ancient rabbinic saying: ‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the losing of his sandal thong1. That task was seen as too menial for a disciple to perform. Such was John’s lofty estimation of His Master that he felt altogether unworthy to perform that lowliest of tasks on His behalf. We would do well to cultivate such depths of humility in the light of the surpassing and excelling glories of Christ.
John had no more to say to his distinguished visitors, and they seem to have terminated their investigation at that point. They may well have felt that they had been subjected to a far more searching scrutiny than had been inflicted on the Baptist.