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.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 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 1:19–28
For any alert reader, one of the most striking features of the gospel stories is the questioning that is evoked by the coming of Jesus. Jesus and the events surrounding him precipitate the most urgent and intense questioning, because the coming of Jesus means conflict and upheaval. His coming disturbs, and as it disturbs, it not only bewilders but it provokes opposition. The advent of God’s Messiah tears the world open; it sets before those who are privy to it something that astonishes and affronts, and so it generates questions—irritated questions, questions that are the expression of deep frustration and offense, questions that seek to challenge and suppress the uncontainable reality of the advent of Christ. Above all, the question so often thrown at Jesus is: “By what authority?”
Now, those whose lives are caught up by this upheaval—those like John the Baptist—are also caught up in the questioning. Here, in our text, John is faced with the stark demand to give account of himself: “Who are you?” (John 1:19). Yet, as we shall see, what is most striking about his answer is its indirectness. He answers the question of who he is by speaking not of who he is but of what he does: he is the voice of the herald who speaks; he is the one who baptizes for repentance. In just this way, in this very elusiveness, he demonstrates the secret of who he is—he is in himself nothing; he is simply the God-given witness to the coming of God’s Messiah.
John indicates the coming of God’s Messiah by speaking, and he speaks thus, the gospel tells us, “in the wilderness” (John 1:23). He does not speak from the seat of prestige in Jerusalem, not in the temple or even in the synagogue, but outside. In the wilderness of the sour history of the elect people of God; in the sheer waste and perversity of Israel’s hostility to God and God’s mercy; in the barrenness of Israel’s attempts to arrest the course of God’s grace and channel it into itself and preside over it—in all this desolation, John speaks. He does the one thing that above all things must be done: he speaks of the coming of God’s Messiah. As he does so, he beckons and stretches toward the miracle that is about to step onto the scene.
He testifies that God’s dealings with God’s people are not at an end. God has not withdrawn himself; God has not been excluded; even the sins of God’s people, even their wicked attempts to possess God, have not driven God from them. On the contrary: God himself is on the way, directing his paths toward his people with inexorable judgment and even more inexorable mercy. And because this is true, then John also testifies to what more than anything else is required of God’s people. Because the Lord of the covenant is coming to his people, because this is the time of his advent, then they must “make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23); they must clear away every obstacle and make in the desert a highway for God. And, above all, John testifies to the sheer presence of God’s Messiah. “The next day,” the Gospel continues, “he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he” (John 1:29–30).
So John indicates the coming of God’s Messiah by the action of his speaking. Second, he indicates the coming of God’s Messiah by the action of his baptizing. It was, we can probably assume, John’s baptizing that attracted the attention not just of the crowds but of the officers of society. And his baptizing attracted that sort of press because it seemed to be the sign of the fact that John had some sort of special significance, some noteworthy role as an agent in the saving work of God. Having failed to get a straightforward answer to their question, “Who are you?,” the priests and Levites get a bit edgy about John’s evasiveness and worry that they might have to go back to their masters empty-handed. So they press him: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:25). But John’s reply makes things no better at all for his interrogators. For he tells them that his action of baptizing is like his word of testimony: it’s not about him, but about another.
As with his speech, so with his baptism: it indicates. It indicates the cleansing that is required in the face of the coming of the Lamb of God. He—the Lamb of God, not John—is the one who cleanses from all sin; his baptism, not John’s, will be the baptism with the fire of the Spirit, which destroys unholiness and sanctifies the people of God. There’s no power in John’s baptism, no force or capacity of its own. The content of his baptism is simply this: “Among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me” (John 1:26–27). John’s baptism is testimony, a pointing to the coming Messiah who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
What does this curious material have to say to Christian people as we stumble through the wilderness of life? The first thing to say is this: no less than its original hearers, we stand beneath this witness. John lifts up his voice and addresses us. We aren’t superior to it; we aren’t free to consider it from afar as some curio from the past, some fragment of a long-gone religious culture to which we cannot conceivably belong. What we encounter here is testimony, a testimony that we aren’t at liberty to ignore. The burden of that testimony is this: “Among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26).
There is a whole spiritual world in those few words from the Baptist. What we might hear in them is something like this: God’s Messiah, Jesus the Christ of God, is present. He is among us, and because he is present, God himself is present.
However crazy it may seem, we somehow have to grasp that in the gatherings of the gospel community is the presence of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The purpose of our assembly is to be confronted by testimony to the gospel. The burden of that testimony, at its most basic and its most pointed, is that our lives stand under one all-encompassing fact: the fact that among us stands Christ himself.
This post was adapted from Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations by John Webster, edited by Daniel Bush (Lexham Press, 2020).