19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."

22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 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.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.  Version: NRSV.



  • Having set the stage with his prologue (vv.1-18), John the evangelist now begins the story proper.
  • The chapter seems to span four days, though this is not certain. (See Advanced section in John 1-C, tomorrow.)
  • DAY ONE (vv.19-28)
    • The authority of John the Baptist is under investigation by the priests and Levites (v.19ff).
      • He refuses to allow people to believe his is something he is not.
        • He was not the Messiah. Messianic expectation ran high in the first century, and it was important to distance himself from impostors and political troublemakers.
        • Nor was he Elijah. He did come in the spirit of Elijah (see Malachi 4:4-6), but he was not literally Elijah, or a reincarnation of him.
        • Nor was he "the Prophet." This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18, a Messianic prophecy. Many misunderstood this passage in the first century -- Peter set them straight in Acts 3 -- as well as in the seventh century, when the Muslims claimed it spoke of Muhammad.
      • He identifies himself as the messenger of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 who was to prepare for way for the Lord. After the messenger, the Lord himself would pay his people a visit! Be sure to check out these O.T. references if they are at all unfamiliar.
    • His right to baptize is called into question by the Pharisees (v.25ff). John simply points to Christ, who alone is worthy.
    • Thus we see that all the leaders of the religious establishment challenge John's authority. This is the pattern we will see with Christ, the same groups opposing him. Jesus clearly represented a threat to the establishment.


  • The phrase the Jews (v.19) appears only 16 times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined, but 70 times in John! The Jews often refers to the Pharisees in the gospel of John, as opposed to the common people.
  • The Bethany (or Bethabara, KJV) at which John baptized was on the east side of the Jordan. This is not the Bethany on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. For more, click here.
  • Why did John baptize?
    • In the O.T. (e.g., Leviticus), washing was often associated with moral cleansing.
    • In Jerusalem at this time, Jews immersed themselves before they went up to the Temple to worship. Immersion was not considered strange or unusual.
    • In publicly identifying oneself as a sinner, personal humility and solidarity with other penitent Jews was built. In fulfilling the mission of Malachi 4:4-6. it was vital that people specifically repent of sin, and repair their relationships with one another. That was the only way to become people ready for the coming of the Lord -- then as now!
    • John was building a natural bridge not only to Christ, but also to Christian baptism.
  • In reference to sandals (v.27), Rabbi Jehoshua b. Levi said, "All works which a slave performs for his master a disciple should do for his teacher, except undoing shoe straps" (Keth. 96a, Str-B 1:121).
  • In 27 AD, Jesus was an unknown (v.26). Despite his divinity and the dire need for religious reform and prophetic preaching, he waited until the time was right before he began his "public" ministry. For more on why he waited so long before launching his messianic ministry, click here.

Thought questions:

  • If you had been a first century Jewish priest, how would you have viewed the activity of John? How would you have felt about this solitary figure baptizing beyond the Jordan and talking about big changes in the air?
  • As you read Isaiah 40, what light is shed for you on the ministry of John the Baptist and its relationship to Jesus Christ?
  • What can Christians, and Christian leaders, learn about humility and cooperation from the ministry of John?