John’s testimony to Jesus will lead others to faith, but it is also offered as evidence in a trial. John’s interrogators in this passage are not curious passersby, but are a delegation sent by official Judaism (vv. 19, 22). The expression “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi, v. 19) occurs repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel and has a wide range of meanings. Its most common usage, as in v.19, is as a synonym for the Jewish religious establishment, which is the source of most of the opposition to Jesus’ ministry in John. Here it likely refers to representative from Jerusalem leadership who quite naturally are going to make inquiries about what may well be a new religious movement – especially if there are messianic claims. There was a history of such movements and claims leading to religious disappointment and political ruin. Once John the Baptist acquired a following, the questions were sure to come. The first one was simple and straight forward.
Who Are You? The delegation from Jerusalem asked a simple question, “Who are you?” John was a puzzle. He did not conform. Officialdom wanted to know more about him. Perhaps understanding the question they would ultimately reach, John replies “I am not the Messiah.” This is even though no one in the delegation is reported to have said anything about the Messiah. Messianic speculations were in the air, and he framed his reply accordingly.
If this was Mark’s gospel, we might have just “I am not the Messiah.” Instead we have a rather complicated expression: “he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted.” The NAB’s translation of hōmologēsen as “admit” is an odd choice, as the normal meaning is “confess.” Nonetheless, this piling up of one expression on top of another is perhaps intended to indicate the seriousness of the Baptist’s reply. He rejected any suggestion that he might be the Messiah. His replies here and in vv. 23, 26, 27, 30, 31, 33, and 34 are all clear expressions that there is someone greater coming. The effect is to make it quite clear that John claimed a subordinate position.
In v.20 the point is that, whatever John was, he was certainly not the Christ. There was a Christ, but not him. While modern Christians might think of “Christ” as little more than a personal name for Jesus, properly it is a title, “the Christ,” which means “the anointed” (as does “the Messiah”). In the Old Testament various people were anointed, but notably priests and kings (for the latter, cf. the phrase, “the Lord’s anointed”). The rite was used to set men apart for special functions. When in due course the expectation grew up that one day God would send into the world an exceptionally great Person, a mighty Deliverer, One who would represent him in a very special sense, this coming great One was thought of not as “an anointed one,” but as “the anointed one,” “the Messiah.” Among those set apart by God for special functions Jesus stood out.
More Questions. Unlike the delegation’s first question, the second and third are pointed, “Are you Elijah?”; “Are you the prophet?” (v. 21). Elijah and the prophet were both figures upon whom some of the messianic expectations of Judaism came to rest. Elijah was transported into heaven without dying (2 Kgs 2:11), and many Jews expected his return as the harbinger of the messianic age (e.g., Mal 4:5). “The prophet” derives from the prophet-like-Moses of Deut 18:15. In the Qumran community, this prophet was seen as a messianic figure, and similar expectations may lie behind the delegation’s question
Elijah. It had been foretold by the prophet Malachi that before “that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” God would send Elijah the prophet (Mal. 4:5). This was understood to mean that Elijah would precede the Messiah. Accordingly when John made it so clear that he was not the Christ his interrogators bethought them of this prophecy and inquired whether then he was Elijah. His denial puzzles many, for Jesus explicitly asserted that John was “the Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14). This is one of the passages that seem to show that this Gospel was written in independence of the Synoptics. It is not in contradiction of them, but had John had their statement before him he would scarcely have left his own account in just this form.
Leon Morris address this oddity: “The solution to the difficulty is probably that there was a sense in which John was Elijah and a sense in which he was not. He fulfilled all the preliminary ministry that Malachi had foretold (cf. Luke 1:17), and thus in a very real sense Jesus could say that he was Elijah. But the Jews remembered that Elijah had left the earth in a chariot of fire without passing through death (2 Kings 2:11), and they expected that in due course the identical figure would reappear. John was not Elijah in this sense, and he had no option but to deny that he was. And, of course, we must bear in mind the possibility that John may not have known that he was Elijah. No man is what he is in his own eyes: he really is only as he is known to God. At a later time Jesus equated John with the Elijah of Malachi’s prophecy, but that does not carry with it the implication that John himself was aware of the true position. It is further proper to point out that, whereas the Synoptics give something of a biography of the Baptist, this Evangelist does not. Instead he concentrates on John’s theological significance, and derives this rigorously from his relationship to Jesus. Jesus confers on John his true significance. John’s own estimate of himself matters little.” (Morris, 118-19)
The Prophet. If John was not Elijah, then perhaps we was “the prophet.” The Jews appear to have expected all sorts of prophets to appear before the coming of the Messiah (cf. Matt. 16:14; Mark 6:15; Luke 9:19). More particularly they thought of the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15–19). But John was not that prophet either, so he answered briefly, “No.” It is not without its interest that from the days of the very earliest Christian preaching it was held that “the prophet” was identical with the Christ (see Acts 3:22), whereas the Jews distinguished between the two, as we see from this passage and 7:40–41. The increasing curtness of John’s successive answers should not be missed. It appears to stem from a dislike for answering questions about himself. He had come to bear witness about Another.