If each of us were to make a list of some of the most prominent people in the New Testament, several people might come to our minds immediately. Of course there is the Lord Jesus Christ, and you might think of Paul, and Peter, and John. One person who may not make it near the top of our lists is John the Baptist. Jesus, however, puts John the Baptist at the top of His list, and pays Him the highest tribute.
In Matthew 11:11, Jesus said, “among those born of women, there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist“. In the next three verses of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus refers to him as the second Elijah, sent by God in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy, and He quotes the following words from Malachi 3:1 and 4:5: ” Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.”
The first eighteen verses of John’s gospel are called his “prologue”. If you open a book, you will often find an introduction, preface, or forward. It normally establishes the setting and gives some background information to prepare the readers for the rest of the story. John ends his prologue at verse 18 and now he begins to share a biography of Jesus Christ from his perspective. He is very detail-oriented, especially when it comes to times and places.
Beginning with verse 19 of John chapter 1, we will be looking into the events of the first week of Jesus’ public ministry. From out of the wilderness came a man whose clothing, diet, lifestyle, and message made his hearers think of Elijah, and his message was stirring up the nation of Israel. The apostle John tells us very little about the message of John the Baptist, and nothing about how he dressed and lived. He takes it for granted that these facts, which were written down in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, are now general knowledge. Matthew 3:1-2 says, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judah, saying ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’.” In Matthew 3:4, John the Baptist is described as wearing a “garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Thousands of people came to hear him, and many were being baptized as a sign of their repentance.
I. QUESTIONS ASKED AND ANSWERED (verses 19-22)
In John chapter 1, verses 19-22, John the Baptist fields questions concerning his identity. He knew his calling very clearly, was pursuing it wholeheartedly, and was ready and willing to answer any questions. A delegation of priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem in order to get some information from him. There are two important reasons why this delegation consisted of priests and Levites. Bible commentator William Barclay explains it very clearly, and these are his words: “. . . John was the son of Zacharias, and Zacharias was a priest. In Judaism the only qualification for the priesthood was descent. . . . If he was a descendent of Aaron nothing could stop him from being a priest. Therefore, in the eyes of the authorities John the Baptist was in fact a priest and it was very natural that the priests should come to find out why he was behaving in such an unusual way.”
This delegation was to ask him the question, “Who are you?” That’s an interesting question. Have you ever wondered when John the Baptist came to the realization of his calling in life? It may not have become clear to him until just before he began his public ministry. We don’t know. But his parents knew his calling before he was even conceived (Luke 1:13-17). The angel Gabriel told them, quoting the prophet Malachi’s prophesy. I can imagine that Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were watching and waiting for those words to be fulfilled.
The word translated “ask”, in John 1:19, is a word that was used to make a request of someone who was in a higher position than yourself, such as a person asking for something from God, a child from a parent, or a subject from a king. It is a word that implies humility and courtesy. The reason for the use of this word is found in the questions that they ask of him. When they asked, “Who are you?”, John the Baptist answered the question behind their question by saying, “I am not the Christ”. Verse 20 says that John the Baptist “confessed and did not deny” (his answer). He is saying “I promise you, I assure you of the truth of that statement, and I will not back down from it”. In our society we might say something like “I swear to God”, or “you have my word for it”. He doesn’t want there to be any question about the truth of his answer. In so doing, he passed up the opportunity to impress this delegation by boasting about himself.
But that answer didn’t satisfy the delegation. They said to him, “What then?” (“ti oun” in Greek). By using those two words, the delegation was expressing their impatience. Have you ever been in a hurry to get somewhere and then found yourself in a traffic jam? As you’re waiting for the traffic to start moving again, have you ever said or thought these words to yourself: “Come on, let’s get going! I haven’t got all day!” I think that’s what this delegation meant when they used the words “what then”. So they fired some more questions at him. “Are you Elijah?”
The Malachi 4:5-6 the Old Testament prophet Malachi said, “Behold I am going to send Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” The Jewish leaders were looking forward to the return of Elijah. They remembered that he did not die physically, but left this earth in a fiery chariot. So they concluded that the identical person would reappear. John the Baptist must have looked like Elijah because of the clothes he was wearing. He must also have sounded like Elijah in his preaching on repentance. But John the Baptist gives a simple answer: “No, I am not.” His answer to them was true. John was not the Elijah who went up into heaven in a chariot of fire.
Their next question was: “Are you the prophet”? The prophet they were referring to was the one foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, which says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” His answer to that question is “no”. Have you noticed that his answers have been getting shorter with each question?
Finally, in verse 22, the delegation stopped guessing and asked John the Baptist to give his own description of himself. They needed to have some information to bring back in their report, so they decided to give up their interview-format and preconceived ideas, and allow John the Baptist to control the conversation. They are no longer demanding information from him; they are pleading for it!
II. JOHN THE BAPTIST’S DESCRIPTION OF HIMSELF (verses 23-28)
A, A “VOICE” (verse 23)
What he gives as an answer may have created even more confusion in their minds, but I’m sure that his brief answer was written down word-for-word. His answer should have been easy for them to remember because John the Baptist quoted Isaiah’s prophesy in Isaiah 40:3 as his answer to them. This quote made by John the Baptist can be found in all four of the gospels. Here in verse 23 John says, “I AM A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD’.”
We need to read Isaiah chapter 40 and see John’s quote in the context of this amazing chapter on the greatness, the sovereignty, the power and the love of God. We need to see these words of John in the context of God’s mercy, His faithfulness, and His wonderful plans for His people. The Babylonian captivity is about to occur and Isaiah has been describing God’s condemnation of them for their sins, and the things they are going to experience in captivity. The Jews at the time of John’s Gospel were under the “captivity” of Rome. Without that context, we won’t see what John the Baptist wants the nation of Israel to see about their God and about the preparations that need to be made in anticipation of His coming. The time has come.
As John the Baptist has already said, he is not the Messiah (the Word), but he has the God-given privilege and responsibility of being the “voice”, proclaiming the Word loud and clear. He spoke in a loud, strong voice, filled with emotion and conviction, so that all would hear him (whether they wanted to or not)! I was listening to one of Billy Graham’s first crusades at Madison Square Garden. He was preaching his message at the top of his lungs! Microphones and sound systems weren’t as powerful and as sophisticated in the mid-1950’s as they are today, and he wanted to make sure everybody heard every word he had to say to them! His preaching at that crusade gave me a better impression of what John the Baptist must have sounded like. And he didn’t have any microphones or speakers in his day! God must have given him a powerful set of lungs and vocal chords!
The words “make straight the way” were a familiar expression in that day. Before a king would visit a town in his realm, a messenger called a “forerunner” would be sent ahead of him to announce his coming. This gave the townspeople some time to fix the road, removing any obstacles, and to make themselves presentable to him before his arrival. John was saying, in effect, “The King of heaven and earth is coming. Get your hearts cleaned up and your lives prepared to welcome His arrival!”
B. A LOWLY SERVANT (verses 24-28)
Verse 24 may not seem significant, but John’s wording tells us otherwise. He says, “Now they had been sent by the Pharisees.” Would it come across more clearly if it were translated: “Oh, by the way, those priests and Levites were sent by the Pharisees.” Who gave the Pharisees the right to tell the priests and Levites what to do and what to say? The Pharisees had no authority from God. The word “Pharisee” means “separated” or “separatist”. The movement started about 150 B.C., and by the time of Christ, this sect had become a very powerful and corrupt part of the Jewish religious hierarchy, even though they were neither priests nor Levites.
In verse 25 the delegation said to John the Baptist, “Why are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” They are saying, “Who gave you the authority to baptize?” The Lord Jesus addressed that question of authority in Matthew 21:23-27. The chief priests and elders asked Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.” In reply Jesus asks them a question about John the Baptist. They were speechless. Here is a portion of that conversation: “I will ask you one thing too, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” . . . “We do not know”. . . . “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do things.”
When the delegation asked John the Baptist why he was baptizing, they really meant “why are you baptizing Jews?” In their minds baptism was meant only for Gentiles who wanted to adopt the Jewish faith. They were angered at the suggestion that they needed repentance and baptism. In answer to their question, John gives another description of himself. He describes himself as a lowly servant, not even worthy of such a humble service as untying his Master’s sandals. That was considered to be one of the most demeaning jobs that a servant could be called upon to do for his master. Once again John the Baptist turns the focus of the conversation away from himself and onto the Messiah. He also tells them that the Messiah is already in their midst but they don’t know Him.
If someone asked you the question, “Who are you?” or “Who do you think you are?”, how would you respond? John’s focus was on the Messiah, and he was a “voice”, preparing the way for the Lord. His words were “repent and be baptized”. Jesus’ words in Mark 1:13 were: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Any day now, any moment now, the Lord Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (I Thes. 4:16-17). God has called Christians to be a “voice”, pointing people to Him. The message is still the same: “Repent” – turn from your sins and your control over your life, “believe” in Christ as your Lord and Savior, turning your life over to Him, and “be baptized”, make a public declaration of your faith to your family, friends, and community. If you haven’t made that decision, there’s no better time than now. Please, don’t put it off any longer.
Christians, whenever you are tempted to think that you are indispensable to the work of the Lord, remember John the Baptist. The fact that God uses us is no excuse for pride. Instead, it is a reminder of Christ’s worth and His glory, and the privilege of being a voice for Him and a light that reflects His glory. The King is coming! Let’s let the whole world know before He arrives!
The blueprint of John 1:29-34 is on the drafting table, the Spirit of God is the Architect overseeing the project, and construction will begin soon. Hope you will come back again. God’s Word is a never-ending, construction project, and our lives are “concrete examples” of the effects of working hard on the project. May we, as His workmen, grow wiser, stronger, and better equipped to serve Him with each working day.