19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 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?” 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, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Who are you, John? Well, his name means, ‘the Lord is gracious.’ John’s name was given to him not by his parents but from heaven itself (Lk. 1:13). So, when you insert the meaning of John’s name, our text opens saying, “This is the testimony, the witness, of God’s grace…”
Priests and Levites come from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?”
If someone walks up to you and asks, “Who are you?” how do you answer? You maybe start with your name and tell them about your family. You talk about your job or what you are studying in school. The conversation might turn to your interests, hobbies, or pet-peeves.
John doesn’t do that. The priests and Levites come out into the wilderness to see this guy who has a large following, has his own disciples, and has baptized gobs of people from Jerusalem and Judea (Mt. 3:5-6). They want to know and so they ask, “Who are you?”
“Well, I’m not the Christ.” And you can just picture John go back to preaching and baptizing, and the priests and Levites scratching their heads.
Even though the picture we have of John in the Gospels is extremely intense, John must have been a bit of an introvert. But if we have a biblical understanding of who John is and what God had given him to do, this is a perfect answer.
John is the forerunner. He is the one sent by God to point people to God’s grace in Jesus. John is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. And when you are preparing the way for the Christ who is so great and mighty that you aren’t even worthy to untie His sandals, confessing that you aren’t Him makes a lot more sense.
Now, the priests were students of the Old Testament. They knew that the last word they had from God was that God would send Elijah (Mal. 4:5), the prophet who didn’t die but was taken into heaven. Malachi had prophesied that God would send His messenger before Him who would prepare for God’s coming into the Temple (Mal 3:1). There was even some in those days who thought that Elijah would return from heaven and be the Messiah. So, these priests and Levites ask, “Are you Elijah?” And John says, “Nope,” and goes back to baptizing.
Now, this may seem a little strange because Jesus will say that John is the Elijah whom Malachi spoke about (Mt. 11:14). But John’s denial is probably because of their misconceptions.
So, the priests and Levites think it over some more and ask, “Ok, are you the prophet?” And they ask this because of what we heard in our Old Testament lesson (Dt. 18:15-19). In that text, Moses told the people that God would raise up a prophet for His people from among them. And Moses made it very clear, “To Him you shall listen.”
In that text, Moses reminds the people about the day when God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. The people were, well, terrified and asked Moses to not let God speak to them anymore. And God said, “Yeah, talking to them like that is too frightening for them. I’ll speak to them again in a way that doesn’t make them wet themselves. I’ll put my words in the mouth of my Prophet, and He will speak to the people.” God was referring to Jesus – the One who speaks God’s words of forgiveness, who makes God’s grace and truth known (Jn. 1:14). So, when John gets asked, “Are you the prophet?” again, he says, “No.”
The priests and Levites are done asking John, “Who are you?” because John isn’t interested in answering. “Fine, you won’t tell us who you are. But we need to tell the guys who sent us something. What do you say about yourself?”
And John still keeps the focus where it should be, “Listen, guys, I’m no one. I am simply a voice preaching in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord.”
Now, what does all of this mean for us today? What can we learn from this text?
One thing we can learn from the priests and Levites is that even if someone has studied the Scriptures, it doesn’t mean they are teaching the Bible rightly. Don’t simply listen to someone’s preaching and teaching because they seem nice, can quote a verse periodically, and sound “Bibley.” Know the Bible. And if any preacher or teacher isn’t constantly pointing you to Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, avoid them.
Second, see how John confesses right away that he is not the Christ. Don’t ever trust in yourself for your salvation. God delivers you. Like John, you are not the Christ. But thanks be to God, you don’t need to be. Jesus has come. He has delivered you from sin, death, and the devil. His birth, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension have secured a place for you to live forever with God who is full of mercy and grace.
Finally, take a page out of John’s playbook and point people to Jesus. John has a laser-like focus on Jesus and isn’t interested in talking to people unless he is pointing them to Christ. Point others to the One who delivers them from sin. Point them to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Tell them that they don’t need to save themselves. Jesus saves them.
This is the testimony of John. This is the testimony of God’s grace. May that be our testimony as well. May that be our witness as we gather together and as we go out from here.
I look forward to celebrating the coming of God’s grace with you tonight as we rejoice in the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.