The questioners from Jerusalem were in a difficult position. So far all they had elicited from John had been a string of denials; they had no positive statement to put in their report. Yet John was preaching, drawing crowds in the wilderness, and baptizing. They must have something to say about him. So they turn the matter over to John. Instead of making another suggestion they ask him what he thinks about himself. They must have some answer to take back to those who had sent them.
The Voice in the Desert. John’s reply is given in words from Isaiah 40:3 that are applied to him in each of the four Gospels (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). In each of the others the words are applied to John by the Evangelist; here John uses them himself. The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatever. He is not an important person, like a prophet or the Messiah. He is no more than a voice (contrast the reference to Jesus as “the Word”). He is a voice, moreover, with but one thing to say. John’s ethical teaching is not large in amount, nor striking in content (see Luke 3:10–14). John’s real function was not to teach ethics, but to point people to Jesus. “Make straight the way for the Lord” is a call to be ready, for the coming of the Messiah is near. The imagery is that of preparing a roadway by clearing away the obstacles. This was an important process in ancient times, especially for roads in the wilderness country.
The sect at Qumran made use of the text from Isaiah to apply to themselves, apart from Israel, and to focus on internal preparation. Not so John. By contrast, John understood Isaiah’s words as a clarion call to the nation. He was not concerned with himself and his own safety at all. He was trying to prepare the way of the Lord by getting people ready to meet the Lord. He was only a voice; but a voice proclaiming the Lord’s message.
Why then do you baptize… This seeming fourth question appears to come from outside the “delegation.” The meaning of v.24 (Some Pharisees were also sent) not quite clear. Were they a rival delegation? Folks who took it upon themselves to interject, unhappy with the progress made by the official delegation and accordingly added some questions of their own. In any case, on this occasion their inquiry was the natural: this man was preaching and baptizing. He was drawing crowds in the name of religion – and why does he baptize?
Leon Morris again: “Baptism was not a new practice in Judaism. It was the regular rite in the admission of converts from other religions. When such a conversion took place, the males of the family were circumcised and all, of both sexes, were baptized. This was seen as the ceremonial removal of all the pollutions contracted in the Gentile world. The novelty in John’s case and the sting in his practice was that he applied to Jews the ceremony that was held to be appropriate in the case of Gentiles coming newly into the faith. All Jews were prepared to accept the view that Gentiles were defiled and needed cleansing. But to put Jews in the same class was horrifying. The Jews were God’s people already. It is true that on the basis of certain Old Testament passages some people expected that there would be baptizing when the messianic age dawned (Ezek. 36:25; Zech. 13:1). But John had denied being the Messiah. It was all very perplexing and the Pharisees wanted to know more about it.” (Morris, 123)
Why does he baptize? There is no notion of John’s baptism of repentance (cf. Matt 3:1–12), because John’s baptism belongs solely to his witness. This becomes even clearer in the account of Jesus’ baptism in vv. 32–34. John is not depicted as an actor in Jesus’ baptism; John’s only role is to allude to it, for the text does not actually say that John baptized Jesus. God and the Spirit are the actors. Indeed, as vv. 31a and 33 make clear, John “knew” Jesus only because John had been told by God how to interpret the descent of the dove (v. 32).
John does not offer a detailed explanation, but rather uses the question to again point out the differences between himself and the Messiah. John quickly moves away from the topic of baptism to the person of Jesus. John does not depreciate the importance of baptism, but his baptism is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to point people to Christ (v. 31). John’s interest is in the Christ and in nothing less. So he proceeds to tell his inquisitors that the Great One stands among them, though they do not know him (cf. v. 11). Then he repeats the words about his coming after him (v. 15). Finally he brings out the greatness of the one who was to come by referring to his own personal unworthiness. He was not worthy to loosen the thongs of the great one’s sandal. Loosing the sandal was the task of a slave; a disciple could not be expected to perform it. There is a rabbinic saying (in its present form dating from c. a.d. 250, but probably much older): “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.” John selects the very task that the rabbinic saying stresses as too menial for any disciple, and declares himself unworthy to perform it. He is unworthy of the most menial of tasks for the one who was to come after him. Humility could scarcely take a lower place.
The section closes with a note of place. These things happened at John’s normal spot for baptizing on the other side of the Jordan (i.e., from Jerusalem). While there are textual variations it seems that “Bethany” is the right reading. But quite early the location was lost sight of. The Evangelist adds “on the other side of the Jordan” to distinguish this locality from the better-known Bethany, which was near Jerusalem.
John 1:19 Jews from Jerusalem: The scholar G. J. Cuming argues that in this Gospel ‘the Jews’ … means Judaeans as opposed to Galileans. Especially does it apply to the chief priests and the Pharisees, whom he depicts as our Lord’s bitterest opponents. The indictment is not drawn against the whole Jewish nation but against its religious leaders. The choice of the word ‘Judaeans’ to describe them strongly suggests that the Evangelist was a Galilean. This last point is not to be overlooked. Some maintain that the use of the term makes the author a foreigner, whereas it is sufficient explanation that he came from Galilee. The scholar T. L. Schram was fully treated this linguistic question and summarizes that the Jews are consistently portrayed in John’s Gospel as people whose actions are determined by the Law and usage, and their refusal of Jesus is expressed accordingly. On the point of disbelief they contrast not with Jesus but with his disciples.
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in Anchor Bible series, ed. William Albright and David Noel Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 1-54
- Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 981-83
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 59-80
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 33-47
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 33-62
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 77-101, 114-25
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 515-29
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at crossmarks.com/brian/
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org