John 1:19-23 (NIV): Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”
John knew exactly who he was and precisely what his calling was. The religious leaders had heard about a powerful preacher whose preaching was causing the repentance of many, and that he was baptizing hundreds of people. So they sent a delegation to check him out.
There were three important personages that were closely related in the minds of the devout at the time: The Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. The Messiah, the anointed Deliverer (in Greek “the Christ”) had been expected for some time, so they wanted to find out if John was finally Him. The popular image of Messiah had grown into a religious, military, and civic leader who would overthrow the Romans and take over the throne in Jerusalem, ushering in a new golden age for the Jewish people. The Jewish leaders asked John if he was the Messiah they had all been waiting for. And, of course, he said no. He knew that he was merely the forerunner, the preparer of the people for the coming of the true Messiah (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76-77). The Messiah Himself would be coming later.
They next asked John if he was Elijah, the great prophet who had overthrown the priests of Baal and Asherah, turning the hearts of a rebellious people back to the Lord (cf. 1 Kings 18:20-40). Based on Malachi 4:5-6 the religious leaders understood that Elijah was going to come to prepare the way for the Messiah. But they interpreted the words of the prophecy too literally. John was not a reappearance or reincarnation of Elijah. Instead, he was a unique messenger cast in the mold of Elijah, and with a similar calling. Jesus Himself identified John as the one who had fulfilled Elijah’s role as the forerunner, the preparer of the people (Matthew 17:10-13).
Failing to identify John with either of these, the leaders asked him if he was the Prophet. The Prophet (with a capital P) was less clearly defined in most people’s minds than the Messiah or Elijah, but he was predicted by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. But even though John was a genuine prophet, bringing the word of the Lord to the people, he had not come to fulfill the expectations that the people had for “THE Prophet.”
Instead of any of those predetermined roles, each loaded with implications and assumptions, John knew exactly who he was and what he had been sent to do. He was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'” His role was to proclaim the soon coming of the Messiah and to urge people to get ready – to repent and to prepare their hearts to receive Him when He did show up. That was his role, and not only was he actively and conscientiously working the job he had been given, he steadfastly refused to be turned aside from it by the expectations of anyone else.
Father, You have given each one of us a job to do, just like You did with John – a job just as clearly defined, and just as vital: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NIV) Help us to be just as faithful in fulfilling our calling as John was in fulfilling his, and just as unwilling to be turned aside or distracted from it by anything or anyone. Amen.