John was a curiosity to the people of his day. This is the reason for the questions about his identity. Generally, Malachai is thought to be the last prophet from whom the Jews had had a prophecy prior to John. From Malachai’s time to the time that John was preaching in the wilderness about 400 years.
Are You the Messiah?
John 1:19 And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you?
The religious leaders of the time were looking for a Messiah who would come with power to rid the land of the Romans who ruled over them. They had been under the thumb of one nation or another for hundreds of years and there were few times when the situation was bearable. John knew what was foremost in their minds. This is why he knew what they were really asking with the first question:
John 1:20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, I am not the Christ.
Are You Elijah?
The second question is related to the first. While John may not be the Messiah, his presence just might signal the coming of the Christ.
John 1:21 And they asked him, What then? Are you Elijah? And he says, I am not. Are you that prophet? And he answered, No.
According to scripture, Elijah was to return before the Messiah as a forerunner to the day of the Lord. They were making a natural progression of inquiry to get an answer.
Are You the Prophet?
The third question in John 21:1 refers a passage found in Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 18:18 I shall raise up a prophet to them from among their brothers, one like you [Moses]; and I will put My Words in his mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him.
Exasperated, they finally asked a question that would allow him to answer with more than one syllable:
John 1:22 Then they said to him, Who are you so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say of yourself?
The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness
And John quotes Isaiah 40:3:
John 1:23 He said, I am “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Well, this doesn’t look like anything the scriptures had described. The Messiah was to come in the clouds with might and power and vanquish the aliens from the land. Obviously, John was just another preacher who had been out in the desert under the glaring sun for too long.
I wonder if that is what they thought. The priests and religious leaders had no idea who Jesus was or for that matter that he had even existed at this particular time. Not all of them were evil guys who wanted to hunt him down and frankly, I don’t think John, himself, knew who the Messiah was. The Gospel of Matthew says that John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary came to visit her cousin, John’s mother, Elizabeth. But that doesn’t mean he grew up with the knowledge of Jesus’ identity. So when he was preaching the coming of the Lord for all these years, he didn’t know who the Messiah was – not until he saw Jesus approach to be baptized, that is.
I think that in John, the Scribes and the Pharisees thought there a promising possibility of the advent of the Messiah for whom they had been watching. It must have been something of a disappointment for them that John denied being the Christ as well as being any of the prophesied forerunners of the Messiah.
I imagine them in their fine robes, standing in front of this unshaven wild-eyed man clothed in camel’s hair and standing knee-deep in the muddy Jordan River, looking at him with tired and perplexed eyes, trying to figure him out. Yes, I think at this moment they were very disappointed.
Thank you for reading and God bless.