19 This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (Jhn 1:19-23 NASB)
The Inquisitive Priests
So here we don’t have the full testimony of John. This is specific to his response to the priests and Levites whom “the Jews” sent to interrogate him. They wanted to know, “Who are you?” John seemed able to intuit that they were asking if he was the Christ, because the coming of the Messiah was the zeitgeist. As an aside, sometimes our apprehensions of the zeitgeist, the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history, the prevailing ideas that seem to come to people independently, are true. As usual, Levites and priests came thinking of themselves as the judging authorities. They knew what they were looking for because they knew the scriptures well, and if it didn’t fit their expectations, there would be no convincing them otherwise. If John was the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, they would want proof. If he was not, I suppose he was nobody worth worrying about.
I really want to point something out here. Hardly anyone is as great a scholar and as steeped in Old Testament prophecy as these Levites and Priests. They were being sensible about their confidence of these things. In their minds, they were acting to defend the Jewish people from heresy – they were doing the good thing! They were men of honor and stature, recognized by all Jews, and they worked hard to get there. They were genuine Bible believers and they knew the Bible in its original language and many many traditional exegetics of its passages. They were not fake experts. They really were experts. Ironically, the questions they were asking were the right ones. Strangely, they were not handed the evidence they were seeking, even though it was staring them right in the face. Jesus later taught that John was the last great prophet, and was in fact Elijah (Matthew 11:11)
It is not Biblical or theological knowledge or perfect hermeneutics which lead us to Christ (John 5:39,40). God is able to obscure all of that. It is the movement of the Holy Spirit to lead us to faith which brings us to Christ (John 6:44,65, 12:37-40, 16:13,14, Ephesians 1:4-6). God is not working to present us with perfect facts. He is working to create faith in us.
In line with this, I want to note that John the Baptist was a terrible apologist here. He wasn’t even trying. I would have jumped in to say, “I’m not the Christ, but I know who it is! Why didn’t he do that? How would these guys have responded? They were not seeking, but judging (Proverbs 25:2). He avoided a useless and fruitless line of inquiry here. In our efforts, we would do well to remember that we are not here to respond to the judgments of experts. We are here as instruments of the Holy Spirit to offer the gospel of grace to starving sinners. This is a huge relief to me!
Here is the mark of a true prophet of God: humility and truth! As we see in other passages, John the Baptist’s message was a stirring reminder of the Old Testament law, a message that anyone should be able to discern really. When asked if he was the Prophet or the Christ or Elijah, he gave the answer he knew: no! He had no flowery message pretending to know the fate of nations or peoples, or the course of pandemics or disasters, no dressed up tips for prosperity (Ezekiel 13:3). He had a lower notion of his own identity than Jesus did. Jesus said to His inner circle of disciples, that John the Baptist was Elijah.
Who are you?
Here is the takeaway from all this for me. There is always a question swirling over our heads, a cloud of inquisitors asking: “who are you?” It is even a constant driving voice in our own heads. How shall we answer? Shall we praise ourselves? Debase ourselves with false humility? Try to produce a true humility?
John the Baptist’s own assessment of himself was at distinct odds with Jesus’ assessment of him. And you can bet that your own assessment of yourself is at odds with God’s assessment of you. There is a good reason Jesus counseled us not to take on labels such as “Father” or “Teacher” (Matthew 23:8-9). We are vaporous voices in a wilderness of obscurity and disinterest, sinful souls. No, it is not that I love God (1 John 4:10). John did not perceive that he was Elijah come before the day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5-6). But which matters more, that John didn’t see himself that way, or that Jesus did see him that way?
Your own answer to the question “who are you” doesn’t matter. God has a different answer. It is far better to come saying “I am only an unworthy servant” (Luke 17:10). It is not my assessment of myself which matters. It is not the assessment of anyone else about me which matters. There is only one assessment which will stand. God’s assessment shall stand the test of time for all eternity concerning me. And God has declared definitively that I am beloved, worth the death of His only begotten Son. That is His judgment. It is a much better judgment than saying that I am Elijah or the greatest prophet ever (Matthew 11:11). I am the beloved of God, the very bride of Christ, an adopted son of the Most High. I am a royal priest, member of a holy nation, one of the people of God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9). These are not ever assessments I would have dreamed to make of myself. I am a miserable sinner, a squirming guilty worm who deserves only judgment and derision in my own eyes. That is the truth. But God has spoken great things over me in Christ, and I believe that His assessment, and His assessment alone, is true.
And that is very good news indeed!