They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “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.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
In the previous section, we read that the priests and Levites who came from Jerusalem were commissioned by the Pharisaic faction of Jerusalem’s ruling elite. They publicly demanded that John provide them with his credentials. In rapid-fire succession, they asked, “Are you Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?”
To put it simply, it was implicit in the committee’s questioning that John had no authority to carry out this mass Israelite water ceremony. In a later Jesus-related event, (Jn. 10:24) the Judean authorities will tell Jesus that if he is the Messiah he needed to tell them (emphasis on “them”) clearly. He answered that he did not need their Temple approval, since he had the approval of the yet higher power that once indwelled the Temple – the Almighty God of Israel – his own 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.” (verses 26-27) From this we can deduce the following:
First, John believed that his authority was based on God’s approval. No approval from the Judean authorities was therefore required. Later on in the Gospel, the author will present these Jerusalem authorities as the evil Shepherds of Israel prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel. (Ezek. 34:1-16) The author will further show Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of Israel who must govern Israel in their stead. It will be done consistently, in juxtaposition with the incompetence of Israel’s current rulers.
Second, John launched the charge of “not-knowing,” which would become a repetitive theme in the entire Gospel, resulting in a fully developed court case against Israel’s formal leadership. This in turn would show Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of Israel. In verses 26-27 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? What I’m doing here is something – yes, but it is nothing in comparison to what He is going to do. He is so much greater than I am.”
This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center, June 14, 2017, and reposted with permission.