Hey there, I'm Josh Hawkins, this is Episode 43 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last episode we looked at Jesus' testing in the wilderness immediately following His baptism. I talked about how there is much more going on than just a 40-day fast to prepare Jesus for His ministry. I highlighted two very specific ways that Jesus was acting as a representative through his testing - first, as the new humanity, and secondly as the head of the nation of Israel. And He can only do this because of His uniqueness as both the first sinless man to walk the earth since Adam and God in the flesh.
Well I want to pick up the story today from John's gospel. After these next few episodes, I hope you'll be able to see clearly that John alone is describing this early part of Jesus' ministry. Before we actually look at details today, I want to mention something very important about John's Gospel versus Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I mentioned this all the way back in Episode 10. Aside from just a few events, John is exclusively focused on Jesus' activity in Judea and in Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are actually focused in the opposite way, barely mentioning Jerusalem until Jesus was about to be crucified. This doesn't mean that John got the events wrong or wasn't around or didn't hear the whole story - it just means John is complimentary to the other Gospels. The reason why I'm saying this is because chronologically, John's gospel is so often misunderstood and misplaced. The early chapters of John are happening in the Spring of 27AD, stretching from Jesus' baptism in John 1,
through the cleansing of the temple and the Passover feast in John 2,
Nicodemus in John 3,
and then Jesus leaving Judea, traveling through Samaria, and then finally landing in Galilee in John 4. I want you to see this - John 1 all the way through John 4 is happening before any of the synoptic Gospels pick up their accounts of Jesus in Galilee. This is super clear from the passages, and I'll show you as we move forward. We just never put this together. So I'll repeat that - everything we're looking at in this early Judean period is happening before anything that Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe after the baptism of Jesus. This is why I'm calling it the "early Judean period." I hope you see how important it is that we get this chronology right as we continue the story.
So let's jump into the text and get going.
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 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.”
(John 1:19–23 ESV)
Let's place this chronologically and geographically. The location is easy - the last verse makes it clear that this is happening in Bethany beyond the Jordan. But where does this fit chronologically? Clearly this is still around the time of Jesus' baptism, so what about more generally - does it fit before or after? I believe this is happening after Jesus was baptized and is still in the wilderness. Remember what we looked at in the last couple of episodes - Jesus was immediately driven to the wilderness by the Spirit after His baptism. I believe this scene with John the Baptist and the priests and Levites is happening while Jesus is still in the wilderness. This will become even clearer when we actually look at the next scene in John 1.
So let's set the stage for a second. It's been several weeks since Jesus was baptized by John, and John by his own admission understood that Jesus was the one he was preparing the way for. But now Jesus is just gone, and he had no idea when He'd be back or what he was even up to. Just imagine how John must have felt. What was going in in his heart? Was he really sure that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for? I mean, John baptized Him and the most important moment of his ministry happened, and then Jesus was nowhere to be found. What's really going on here?
In the midst of the turmoil that surely must have been going on in John's soul, the Jewish authorities send priests and Levites from Jerusalem and they ask John who he is. Oh, what a test this must have been for him. Jesus is being tested in the wilderness by the enemy, and now John's test comes. "Who are you?" they asked. This is such an important question and carries with it so much history that we miss if all we do is just read the early chapters of John's Gospel.
In order to better feel the weight of their question, let's remember back a couple of episodes to Episode 35 when I brought a short history lesson on the Maccabean Revolt. How did that begin? It was a bunch of guys gathering out in the wilderness, plotting and scheming to overthrow the Greeks and retake the city of Jerusalem for the Jews. And now, what's going on here in early 27AD? Well, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness and crowds are gathering to him from everywhere. So what do you think is on the minds of the Jewish authorities? I'm sure they were thinking "wow, we need to figure out what's going on with this guy - is he the one whom all the prophets spoke about that would liberate our nation from oppression and usher in the promised blessings of the covenants God made with our fathers?" But perhaps there was an element of fear as well - as we'll later see, the Pharisees were power hungry and wanted to maintain their authority at all costs. If John was indeed the one promised, they most certainly would try to get on his good side so they could have a place in the kingdom.
And the very first thing John says is "I am not the Christ". With a better understanding that we have now of that word "Christ" and a little bit more of a historical background of why they would even be asking this question, we can feel the weight of what John says in response. He's saying "I'm not that long expected king of Israel that would sit on David's throne and crush Israel's enemies." Of course Rome was oppressing Israel at the time, and clearly the nation was not experiencing the blessings that God had promised them. I'm sure John Himself was even eager for God to fulfill what He had spoken. But with confidence, he confesses that he's not the one and passes this part of his test. Then, the priests and Levites ask him explicitly if he was "Elijah" or "the prophet". And John answers no to both questions and passes another part of his test.
Now all three of these figures - the Christ, Elijah, and the prophet - are all figures that are mentioned in the Old Testament. Of course we know the Christ to be from 2 Samuel 7 and God's covenant with David, that he would set one of his descendants on his throne in Jerusalem forever. Elijah comes from Malachi 4:5, where the LORD said that He would send Elijah to Israel before the day of the LORD comes. So again, drawing on context we've already looked at, if John was proclaiming that the Day of the LORD was near or at hand, then it would be a reasonable question to ask whether or not John was Elijah. Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers, said that it was common tradition that Elijah was expected to return and anoint the Messiah as a signal of the start of the messianic age. And then "the prophet" - this comes from Deuteronomy 18, where the LORD said that He would raise up a prophet for Israel like Moses was. So all three of these figures were present in some capacity in the expectation of the people of Israel. And John the Baptist is none of them.
So who is he then? Of course he is the one from Isaiah 40: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’" John is not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet - he's the one preparing the people of Israel for Yahweh's coming.
Let's keep going in John 1:
“They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
(John 1:24–28 ESV)
John's response here is just awesome. He hasn't seen Jesus for weeks, but he's still baptizing, calling Israel to bear the fruits of repentance, and he still sees Jesus as the One that his whole ministry has been about thus far. He says that he isn't even worthy to do the typical job of a slave in the culture of the day - to untie someone's sandal. I hope you see now that the timing of this test for John makes it all the more significant for him. Imagine yourself in his situation. How would you have responded to the inquisition from Jerusalem? Would you have drawn attention to your own importance, detracting from the identity of the One you were pointing to? Because that's what John's ministry was about - calling men to repentance and pointing others to the One that was coming, the One that was mightier than him and who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Imagine how things would have been different if John was saying "look at me, look at my importance, look at my value." Not only was John's lifestyle cruciform, but his message was too - meaning it was shaped like the cross. There was no self-assertion or self-promotion in it. Even when he declared to the inquisition who He really was, it was all in reference to Jesus and His importance. And isn't pride and self-importance the thing we struggle with all so often? John was no different. So just as Jesus was being tested in the wilderness, John being tested. And both of them passed with flying colors.
Well, here's a couple of points for your meditation this week:
1) Imagine you're John, and it's been a week since you've baptized Jesus. You haven't seen him since then and each morning you've awakened to the sun shining and another day of preaching and baptizing before you. How would you be feeling?
2) Ponder the moments after the priests and Levites from Jerusalem leave. What was going on in John's mind?
Now as we'll see in the next episode, John doesn't have to wait long after the priests and Levites leave before Jesus comes back. The next verse in the narrative is John 1:29 and it says that it was the very next day that John saw Jesus again. We'll look at that next time, so subscribe via email so you don't miss it. You can find the subscription form and all of the other episodes of this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. Spend some time meditating on this scene this week. Blessings to you, and I'll see you next time.