24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
In the previous commentary section, we read that the priests and Levites who came from Jerusalem were commissioned by the pharisaic fraction of Jerusalem’s ruling elite. They publicly demanded John provide them with his credentials. In rapid fire succession, they asked, “Are you Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?”
These rhetorical questions were really a statement from Jerusalem about John’s lack of proper credentials. John was not the Messiah. He was not Elijah, who was expected to prepare the way for God’s visitation of his people. Neither was he the eschatological prophet of Deut.18:18. To put it simply it was implicit in the committee’s questioning that John had no authority to carry out this mass water ceremony that he and many others called “prophetic” activity. In a later Jesus-related event (Jn.10.24) hoi Ioudaioi (“the Jews”) will tell Jesus that, if he was the Messiah he needed to tell them (the emphasis on “them”) clearly. He answered to them that he does not need their Temple approval, since he has the approval of the higher power yet that once indwelled the Temple – Almighty God of Israel – his father.
John’s response bewildered the priests and Levites. He said, “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” (vs. 26-27). First, John believed that his authority to do so was based on God’s own approval. Later on in the Gospel, the author would present these Jerusalem authorities as evil Shepherds of Israel prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 34:8, 12, 16). The author will further show Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of Israel that must govern Israel in their stead. It will be done constantly juxtaposing it to the incompetence of Israel’s formal rulers. When we come to treating John chapter 10 (and we have a long way to go), we will consider in detail the role of Jesus as the good shepherd of Israel in opposition to the Hoi Ioudaioi.
Second, John launched the charge of “not-knowing” that would become a repetitive theme in the entire Gospel, resulting in a fully developed court-case against the evil shepherds. This Gospel will show Jesus to be the true and good shepherd of Israel.
In Jn.1.26 John essentially challenges the delegation by saying something to this effect: “You’ve come to me because you’ve been sent from the official shepherds of Israel. Isn’t it interesting that neither you, nor those who sent you, know about the One who is coming after me? I’m doing here is something – yes, but it is nothing in comparison to what He is going to do.”
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