Living in rural places often means dealing with non-paved roads. While the road in front of our home is paved, about a half-mile to the east, it becomes a nonpaved gravel road. And at this particular point in time, that stretch of road is a bumpy and potholed mess. A few times a year the road commissioner will drag the road and fill in the holes with fresh gravel. For a while, it is relatively smooth and easy to drive on. This picture of roads being prepared is central to our next portion of John’s Gospel.
Throughout John the Apostle’s prelude, he has alluded to or mentioned John the Baptist. In verses 19-28 John the Apostle relates a conversation between John the Baptist and some investigators from the Pharisees.
“This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 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?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. “It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:19–28, NASB95)
The Jews of that day were expecting the Messiah, the Christ, to show up at any time. Much like our present-day expectation of Christ’s return. There were plenty of expectations and understood signs concerning how to spot this event. One of the “signs” was the return of Elijah the Prophet from the Old Testament. This wasn’t a nod to reincarnation, Elijah is one of two of the Old Testament characters who were seemingly translated directly to heaven (the other was Enoch). The expectation of Elijah’s return is based on Malachi 4:5-6.
The questions of the investigators seem like a set pattern. “Are you the Messiah?” No? “Okay then, are you Elijah?” No? “hmm, maybe we have the Elijah thing a bit wrong. Are you the Prophet?” “No,” John replied. “Then who are you, and what gives you the right to baptize?” the investigators finally ask.
All this is a bit curious because, in many ways, John the Baptist is like Elijah and was the prophetic voice foretold to be the harbinger of the Messiah. Jesus said as much in Matthew 11:14 (see also Matthew 17:10-13). Yet, John the Baptist was not Elijah physically returned to earth. Neither was he exactly a prophet, he was not foretelling what will be but what is. Listen closely to his declaration. “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – “A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. “Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”” (Isaiah 40:3–5, NASB95)
John the Baptist’s testimony wasn’t that the Messiah is coming but that the Messiah is here. This point is emphasized in verses 29 -34. The next day after the above interrogation, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming and declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Then in a self-revealing monologue, John the Baptist twice declares, “I didn’t recognize Him.” This is not to say that John didn’t know Jesus, they were cousins after all. But John didn’t recognize Jesus as the Christ until that moment. A recognition further confirmed by John seeing the Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus. John the Baptist’s final declaration is earth-shattering. “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and baptizes in with by the Holy Spirit. John the Apostle and John the Baptist both underlined this central truth with a very bright brush.