On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me, John as a witness to me. 1: 19-28
The ministry of John the Baptist in Bethany, across the Jordan was certainly making news in the headquarters of the Jewish faith. We are told that the ‘Jews’ sent in the Levites and priests to enquire as to who he was. In the Gospel of John, when we read the word ‘Jews’ it refers to the religious establishment in opposition to Jesus. In verse 24, St John tells us that the ‘Jews’ who sent the priests and the Levites belonged to the super conservative group called the Pharisees who had spiritually ‘separated themselves’ from the rest of Judaism in order that their practices and beliefs in the faith were not contaminated.
If you understand the longing and waiting for the Messiah among the Jewish people, you will be able to decipher precisely the focus and intention in the line of questioning. The Levites and priests did not want to start a national sensation by asking a direct question. Asking John the Baptist if he was the Messiah would have ramifications both on the political scene with the Romans as well as an overthrow of power in Jerusalem’s temple. Hence the ‘discreet’ question, ‘who are you?’
John knew what the purpose of the question to him was. There was a longing for a Messiah and while some wanted a warrior King that would overthrow the Romans many others longed for redeemer. John knew who he was in the larger plan of God and he was not the Messiah. This is his ‘confession,’ “I am not the Messiah.” That line was enough to deflate the hopes of a nation all at once. Think of hopes of the French people being dashed to the ground with that penalty shoot-out against Argentina. However, the matter at hand remains, who then was John?
Jewish aspiration and hope had rested on the belief that it would be Elijah who would usher in the reign of the Messiah.(Malachi 4:5-6). If John was not the Messiah, was he then Elijah? Could the Jewish people still hope for the best? John confesses that he is not Elijah. Yet Jesus noted that in a sense, John was Elijah, ministering in his office and spirit (Matthew 11:13-14 and Mark 9:11-13).
Perhaps if John was not Elijah, was he then a prophet of God? The last prophet of God walked this land 400 years ago and since then there was no Prophecy. In these four hundred years without prophetic voices the Pharisees arose as interpreters of God’s will. If John was not the Messiah, nor Elijah perhaps he was the spokesperson of God to his people? In Deuteronomy 18:15-19, God promised that another prophet would come in due time. Based on this passage, they expected another Prophet to come, and wondered if John was not he? But John confesses he none of the above.