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The Witness of John.
19. And this is the record of John. The history now begins its sweep onward. All before is prefatory. The historian passes by the incidents connected with the birth of John and of Jesus, the early history, and even the account of John's preaching and the baptism of Christ, given in the other Gospels. He wrote at a much later period and these facts are supposed to be well known. The witness here noted was given after the baptism and probably while Christ was in the wilderness at the time of the temptation. When the Jews sent priests and Levites. John uses the term “Jews” as though he was not of that race. He was now an old man and for many years had transferred his allegiance to another nation (1 Peter 2:9), and for a long time had been dwelling in Asia Minor, among Gentile Christians. That his Jewish feelings had gradually passed away is often shown in his language. Usually “the Jews” means the ruling classes of Judea. In this case it refers to the SANHEDRIM. As this court fills a conspicuous place in the New Testament history it will help the student to have a clear understanding of its nature. The Jewish writers claim that it originated with the seventy elders whom Moses (Num. 11:16, 17) was directed to associate with himself in the government of Israel, who, with himself, would make a court of seventy-one persons. Hence it was composed of seventy-one members. There is, however, no positive proof of its existence during the period of the Jewish kings, and it only appears in unmistakable form during the later days of the Hebrew commonwealth. Its very name, Sanhedrim, or more correctly, 33Sanhedrin, is Greek, and this fact points to a period after the Macedonian conquest of the East, when it assumed shape. According to the Jews themselves (Jerusalem Gemara), forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem the right to inflict capital punishment was taken away from it, which agrees with the answer of the Jews to Pilate (John 19:31). It was a supreme court to which belonged the trial of a tribe fallen into idolatry, false prophets, and accused priests. As an administrative council its jurisdiction was still more extensive. Jesus was arraigned before this body as a false prophet (John 11:47) and condemned as a blasphemer (Matt. 26:65). Peter, John, Stephen and Paul were arraigned by it as false teachers and deceivers of the people. It was entirely in harmony with its prerogatives that it should send an official deputation to ascertain the character of John. He had produced a profound sensation and stirred the whole land, and it was the duty of the Sanhedrim, from its standpoint, to examine into his claims. There is nothing in the language to show whether this deputation was hostile or friendly, and it is probable that it was neither, but only one of inquiry. Its members were all of the sacerdotal tribe. (Joh 1:20)
20. I am not the Christ. The idea had already begun to receive currency that John might be the expected Christ. In his preaching recorded by Matthew he denied this with great emphasis and explained his relation to the Coming One. Here he is equally emphatic. The stress which the apostle here lays on this denial shows that he had in mind that later class of the disciples of John, who in the latter half of the first century, asserted that he was the Christ. (Joh 1:21)
21. They asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? Malachi (4:5) had declared that Elias would precede the Messiah. Hence when John denied that he was the Christ, the next question was whether he was Elias. He said that he was not; he was not the literal Elias whom they expected; nor is it certain that God had revealed to John that he was the spiritual Elias. He was greater than he himself knew. He was, in many respects, in mission, manner of life, fearlessness and ruggedness, an Elias, and was the Elias foretold by the prophet (Matt. 17:12), though Elias did literally come on the mount of transfiguration. Art thou that prophet? They ask still another question. Moses had predicted a prophet like himself (Deut. 18:15), but John denies that he is the fulfillment. It was later (Acts 3:22; 7:37) when the apostles understood that Jesus was he of whom Moses did speak. (Joh 1:22)
22. Who art thou? The conjectures are exhausted and they demand an explicit answer, that they may carry the information to “them that sent them,” or to the Sanhedrim. 34 (Joh 1:23)
23. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John answers this question by quoting Isaiah 40:3, where the prophet describes his mission. The passage is applied to John, Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:2, and Luke 3:4. He sinks his own personality, and is simply the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” His work was that of preparation for the Lord. (Joh 1:24)
24. Of the Pharisees. The messengers were not only of the religious tribe, but of the strictest of Jewish sects. The Pharisees were far more attentive to external rites than any other class, and as the next question is concerning such a rite, the fact that they were Pharisees is noted. (Joh 1:25)
25. Why baptizest thou then? This question shows that John's baptism was, to them, a new rite. They could understand that Christ, or Elias, or “that prophet” might establish a new ordinance by the divine authority, but if John is none of these, why does he do so? Their perplexity shows that, in some way, the baptismal rite was new to them. It is claimed that Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith were baptized (immersed according to all the Jewish authorities) before this time, but the only proof offered is the testimony of the Talmud, written two or three centuries later. Even if proselyte baptism had been instituted, John's rite presented the new feature of baptizing Jews, those who considered themselves God's people. In that it called the chosen people to baptism it was a new rite. (Joh 1:26)
26. I baptize with water. The correct rendering is in water, and the preposition en is thus rendered by the American Committee of the Revisers, as well as by Canon Westcott of the Church of England and the most judicious scholars. Even in the Common Version, out of 2,660 times that en occurs in the Greek of the New Testament, it is rendered by “in” 2,060 times. There is no good reason why it should not be so rendered every time it occurs in connection with baptism. The translators of the Catholic Bible in English, the Douay Version, were more honest than King James' revisers, and have always so rendered it. John does not answer the question of the Pharisees directly, but points to one already standing among them. The baptism of water connects itself with that pre-eminent being. Standeth among you. This points out that the Christ was already on the earth, in Judea, though unknown and unrecognized by the people. 35 (Joh 1:27)
27. Whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. The latchet was the thong by which the sandal was bound on the foot. To loose or fasten it was the work of a menial. The dignity of Christ was so exalted, that John counted himself unworthy even to attend to this office. (Joh 1:28)
28. These things were done in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The Revision substitutes Bethany for Bethabara. Both terms are found in the manuscripts, but Bethany has the better authority. The Bethany named was not the one near Jerusalem, but a village, whose site is not now known, on the east bank of the Jordan. Bethany is said to mean “the house of the boat,” and Bethabara “the house of the ford,” both alike pointing to a ferry or ford of the Jordan. We have three allusions to the localities of John's baptismal rite, all showing that abundance of water was an essential; Matt. 3:5, 6 and 13; John 3:23, and the present passage.
The sending of this deputation is a proof of the great stir caused throughout Judea by the teaching of John. That he exerted a profound influence upon the nation and was accounted a prophet are evident from Jewish writers. Josephus, a Jewish priest and general, a contemporary of John and Christ, says (Antiquities, book 18, chap. 5): “Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and one who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to him for baptism; for that the washing with water would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away (or the remission) of some sins (only), but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when (many) others came into crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence which John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he might advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not to bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him to repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Machærus, the castle I have before mentioned, and put to death there.”
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