Scripture: 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 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Yesterday’s Daily Focus, John addresses the second aspect of receiving Christ: the Word. He tells us the Word became flesh (incarnate in human form) and dwelled with us (referring to John’s generation). Resultantly, they have seen his glory as the Father’s only Son, embodying grace and truth. And from this fullness of Christ, his generation of believers and all future generations of Christians have received his grace upon grace (i.e., in abundance). And while we have never seen God, Christ has made known the Father to us through faithfully proclaiming and living out the essence of his being as the Word.
Today’s devotion covers John the Baptist’s testimony before interrogating priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees in Jerusalem (vv.19 and 24). Thus, these emissaries of the ruling elders sought to know what John perceived of himself and his ministry. And the Baptist made it clear that he did not hold any grandiose view of himself as the Christ, Elijah (who would return before the Messiah’s arrival and foster reconciliation, see Malachi 4:5-6), or a great prophet. Emphatically denying these positions of religious authority, the Baptist quotes Isaiah as the voice of one crying aloud in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Next, they ask him why he baptizes fellow Israelites. The Baptist does not answer their question and instead declares that while he baptizes with water, amid the crowd stands one unknown to them who comes to complete the work that John has begun. Moreover, this unnamed man (Jesus) is preeminent to John’s mission. Lastly, John the Gospeller adds a footnote that this confrontation occurred at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan (implying it is not the town by the same name located near Jerusalem).
Takeaway: Such an investigation from the religious leaders was not unusual, as the frequent cultic activity in the first century posed risks for zealous uprisings against occupied Roman garrisons that would spur severe repercussions against all of Israel. So the chief priests and scribes closely watched religious events that drew large crowds.
Regarding their question about baptisms, the Pharisees saw themselves as the guardians of the law. They would sanction fellow Jews to travel abroad to proselytize (convert) Gentiles to Judaism. The ceremony required a renunciation of evil, immersion in water, and reclothing as a new member of the holy communion of law-keepers. While John followed aspects of this protocol, he sought to baptize Israelites who had lost their moorings and needed to repent of their sins (backsliders). Thus, he called for repentance (Luke 3:3) and baptized as confirmation of a changed heart that would be receptive to the Gospel message of the “greater one” who would soon appear.
Our takeaway? Like John the Baptist, we prepare the way for others to be receptive to the transformative power of Christ’s Gospel. But like John, we will encounter challenges in doing so—not just from those who need to repent but sometimes from our religious leaders who perceive themselves as the exclusive guardians of the faith. So assume we need to rise above the guarded hearts of those who fight back when their sins are exposed or above the church gatekeepers who feel threatened because we do not carry the proper credentials or follow their standard procedure. In that case, we will need to keep humble like John and seek the direction of the Holy Spirit through transparent prayer and the accountability of mature believers. Still, we must remember that two thousand years of church teaching brings wisdom to the conversation and will provide essential boundaries when we think outside the box.
In short, if we sincerely seek to prepare the way for others to receive the Good News, we must exercise patience, humility, and openness to the middle ground to navigate resistance and draw people to Christ. It’s one matter to be an innovator and another to be a rogue.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for John the Baptist and others through the centuries who crossed legalistic boundaries to present their Gospel of grace. Still, we know that it did not always end well for these heroes of the faith. So would you please help us follow the Holy Spirit’s lead and the counsel of godly believers to exercise patience, humility, and openness to the middle ground when meeting resistance—whether from fellow sinners initially resistant to our message or from guardians of our faith who may have personal agendas? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling