(John 1:17-18 ESV) 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
In typically Hebraic style, verses 17 and 18 are parallels. To make the Father known is the same as bringing grace and truth. The Law of Moses, therefore, does not reveal God in the same way that Jesus does.
We were told in v. 14 that Jesus was filled with grace and truth. Now we see that grace and truth reveal God, and they reveal God in a way that is equivalent to seeing God. In other words, grace and truth provide a personal, intimate knowledge of God, not mere head knowledge but experiential knowledge.
This is because Jesus is God. To see and be with Jesus is to experience God himself. The grace and truth found in Jesus are God’s grace and God’s truth.
“Truth” therefore is the truth about God, God’s self-revelation through Jesus.
(John 1:19-23 ESV) 19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 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?” 23 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.”
The Gospel now turns from Jesus back to John the Baptist. John had been mentioned earlier, but now the author uses the testimony of John about Jesus as a transition from the high theology of the earlier verses to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
John was obviously a prophet, and so he drew considerable attention from the religious authorities. He was popular among the common people. Quite naturally, the Pharisees paid him a visit.
By his time, several men had come claiming to be the Messiah (or Christ), and so it’s not surprising that the Pharisees thought John might be another false Messiah. But John denied being the Messiah. He also denied being the Prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:15 (often taken to be a messianic prophecy) or Elijah.
John obviously emulated Elijah in many ways, and Malachi has prophesied that God would send Elijah at the end of the age —
(Mal 4:5-1 ESV) 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Jesus himself identifies John with Elijah (Matt 11:14). It’s therefore surprising that John denies the identification. He likely meant that he was not the literal Elijah. Recall that Elijah went to heaven in a whirlwind. He didn’t die as the rest of mankind die. Therefore, the Jews expected the actual, literal Elijah to return — and John quite properly denies being Elijah in that sense.
Rather, John describes himself at the one spoken of in Isaiah 40, as we discussed earlier. Notice how little John says about himself. He is curt to the point of rudeness. He only speaks of himself in response to direct questions. He understands his role is to draw the people to Jesus, not himself. He is not interested in talking about himself at all.
(John 1:24-25 ESV) 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?”
V. 25 is quite a puzzle. We can certainly understand why they asked him why he baptized, but why associate baptism with Elijah, the Prophet, and the Messiah? After all, the passages speaking of these personages say nothing at all about baptism.
The most likely understanding is that John’s baptism was so closely associated with repentance that they were really asking why he was calling the people to repentance — just the sort of thing that one would expect at the dawn of the Kingdom.
(Isa 1:27-28 ESV) 27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 28 But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.
(Jer 31:18-19 NAS) 18 “I have surely heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have chastised me, and I was chastised, Like an untrained calf; Bring me back that I may be restored, For You are the LORD my God. 19 ‘For after I turned back, I repented; And after I was instructed, I smote on my thigh; I was ashamed and also humiliated Because I bore the reproach of my youth.’
You see, the New Testament’s call to repent is about more than leaving behind a life of sin. To call the nation to repent was to repeat the calls of Jeremiah and the other prophets just before Jerusalem was destroyed. John was condemning the entire nation of Israel by implicitly comparing their spiritual condition to the state of Judah immediately before their destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. And they were condemned by God for idolatry.
The Pharisees had separated themselves from the rest of Israel, attempting by very scrupulous obedience to the Law of Moses to bring about the coming of the Kingdom and the Messiah. They thought they were the ones who would bring the Messiah, and yet John condemned them — and the rest of the religious establishment — as the moral equivalents of idolaters and Baal worshipers! It’s no wonder that they questioned John’s qualifications!
(John 1:26-27 ESV) 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.”
John responds evasively. Someone is among his followers who is far superior to John. The reference to untying his sandals is a reference to the work of a slave. Disciples of a rabbi would perform various menial tasks for their rabbi — but it was a rule that some tasks were too degrading even for a novice disciple. Among these was the removal of the rabbi’s sandals — only a slave might do a task that low. And John said he was unworthy even to do this.
(John 1:28-31 ESV) 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
“The Lamb of God” is surely a reference to —
(Isa 53:6-7 ESV) 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
John then declares that he baptized “that he might be revealed to Israel.” It’s hardly obvious how John’s baptismal work reveals Jesus. Perhaps the idea is that by calling the people to repentance he opens their hearts to the work of Jesus that was to follow.
Of course, John’s words contrast his work with the work of the Pharisees — who claimed to be bringing the Kingdom through their legalism. John said, no, it’s not your legalism that brings the Messiah — it’s my baptism, that is, my call to repentance. The Pharisees would have considered themselves the very last people needing to repent! John’s criticism was very pointed indeed.