John 1:24-28 (NIV): Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
It was inconceivable to the Pharisees to think that their view of the Scriptures and of God’s plan was in any way deficient. They had tried to pigeon-hole John into the plan as they had worked it out, but he didn’t fit into any of their convenient categories. He wasn’t the Messiah (Greek: “The Christ”), he wasn’t Elijah, he wasn’t even the Prophet. So their next question to him was, “If you aren’t any of these people, what are you doing baptizing people?”
John’s answer was clear and concise: “I am baptizing with water, but I am merely preparing the way for the One who will come after me. He is already here, but He hasn’t revealed Himself yet. But that time is coming soon. He is majestic, and mighty, and holy. I am not worthy to even be His lowliest slave – the one who unties His sandals for Him.” Luke adds an important element to John’s declaration that was spoken to a crowd at a different time: “I baptize you with water, but the One who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (cf. Luke 3:16)
The Pharisees understood baptism to be a sacramental act associated with other forms of ritual washing. For example, new converts to Judaism were often baptized, symbolically washing away the uncleanness of the gentile world from them. But John’s baptism puzzled them. These were Jewish people that he was baptizing. According to the belief system of the Pharisees, they didn’t need to be baptized.
But John tried to get them to see that his baptism was a merely step of preparation, a way to prepare the hearts of the people for the One who was to come. It symbolized a turning away from sins committed in the past (repentance), and a fresh, clean, open heart, ready to welcome in the Messiah when He came. John understood that Jesus would bring a better, more complete baptism than he was doing. Jesus’ baptism would carry with it the promise of the Holy Spirit and fire that would purge the heart of every sin, and make mere human beings into genuine saints. (cf. Acts 2:38-39)
Father, the Pharisees had already made up their minds about what You were doing, and how You would go about it, so the majority of them completely missed it when You did act – it didn’t fit into their predesigned template. But You clearly revealed Your plan to those with ears tuned to Your voice, and they passed the word to others who were ready to hear (cf. Luke 3:2-3). Father, help me to keep my ears tuned to Your voice at all times so that I can hear every syllable that you speak to me. The free up my tongue so that I can clearly tell others. Amen.