Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

John 1:6-8, 19-28




“In the beginning was the Word (Greek: logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1). This Gospel begins with beautiful poetic words about Jesus—poetry that does not mention Jesus’ name or describe his visage, but rather uses metaphors simple enough for a child and rich enough for all of us.

In the first of these metaphors, John refers to Jesus as “the Word” (logos). To understand his meaning, we need to look back to the Old Testament, which uses the Hebrew word dabar to speak about “the word of God”—a message from God to humans, whether a command, reprimand, or announcement—sometimes spoken through the agency of a prophet, but at other times spoken directly from God to the person of concern.

The Gospel of John uses the Greek word logos in much that same way. The Word is eternal—present with God the Father from the beginning—participating fully in every step of creation (v. 3). God sent this Word into the world as God’s ultimate revelation of himself. If we want to know God, we can see him in the face of Jesus. If we want to know how God would have us live, we need only read the Gospels (and, perhaps, Philippians 2:5-11) to see the perfect example of a Godly life. If we want to know something of God’s grace, we need only look at the cross. If we want assurance of our future, we need only look at the open tomb.

We see a number of metaphors for Jesus in this Gospel. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (6:35)—“I am the light of the world” (8:12)—“I am the door” (10:9)—“I am the good shepherd” (10:11)—“I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)—“I am the way, and the truth and the life” (14:6)—“I am the true vine” (15:1).

Jesus introduces each of these metaphors with the Greek phrase ego eimi“I am”—a phrase derived from the name of God as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals himself by the phrase, “I am”—God’s name. As we shall see, John the Baptist reveals himself by the phrase, “I am not.”

At verse 6 (the beginning of this week’s Gospel lesson), the subject shifts to John the Baptist, whom the author identifies only as John, as if we already know him. John, like Jesus, is God-sent (v. 6), but the author speaks of him, not in poetry, but in prose. The change in literary style as well as explicit words regarding John’s status make it clear that, great though he might be, he is the John-the-lesser when compared to Jesus-the-greater.

At verse 10, the subject shifts back to the Word. John the Baptist comes back into play at verse 15, but only to testify to the Word. At verse 17, we have the first mention of Jesus’ name, which is paired with his title—Jesus (the name) Christ (the title). Christ means “the anointed one,” and is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, Messiah.

At verse 19 (beginning the second part of this week’s Gospel lesson), we have the first interrogation of John the Baptist by priests and Levites from Jerusalem, asking, “Who are you?” John denies that he is the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet (vss. 19-21), and says that he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (v. 23).

At verse 24 (also part of our Gospel lesson), we have the second interrogation of John, asking why he is baptizing. This provides John another occasion to speak highly of “the one who is coming after me” (v. 27) and humbly of himself.

At verse 29, we have the second mention of Jesus’ name. John declares him to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Once again, John reaffirms Jesus’ superior nature. While he mentions baptizing (v. 31) and “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” (v. 32), he does not specifically mention baptizing Jesus. Instead, he once again asserts Jesus’ superior nature as one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, while John baptizes only with water (v. 33).

At verse 35, John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God to two of John’s disciples, who then follow Jesus, another clear testimony to Jesus’ superiority. This leads to the story of Jesus first calling disciples (vv. 39, 43).

John 1:19 – 12:50 is known as the Book of Signs, and includes a number of Jesus’ miracles—including his first miracle at Cana of Galilee (2:1-11)—signs which reveal his glory (2:11). The first witness to his glory, however, is John.


6There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7The same came as a witness (Greek noun: marturian), that he might testify (Greek verb: marturese) about the light, that all (Greek: pantes—all, everyone) might believe through him. 8He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light.

“There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6). Note the contrast between Jesus and John. Jesus is the Word (v. 1), but John is only a man (v. 6). The Word was present with God in the beginning, but John the Baptist was sent by God much later.

Each of the Gospels tells of John the Baptist and tells us that he is the lesser and Jesus is the greater:

• In Mark, John says that Jesus is more powerful than he (Mark 1:7).

• Matthew tells us that John “would have prevented” Jesus from coming to him for baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).

• Luke tells of John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary, now pregnant with Jesus, came to visit—and Elizabeth (John’s mother) was filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaiming, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy!” (Luke 1:39-44).

“sent by God.” But we must not miss the fact that John “was sent from God”—just as Moses and the prophets were sent by God (Exodus 3:10-15; Isaiah 6:8; Jeremiah 1:4-19)—just as Jesus was sent by God (3:17). While John is subordinate to Jesus, God has called him to an important work—a calling that John will fulfill with uncommon vigor. Jesus will say of John, “Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer” (Matthew 11:11).

John “came as a witness (Greek noun: marturian) that he might testify (Greek verb: marturese) about the light” (v. 7a). The words “witness” and “testify” come from the same root. Both are commonly used in legal settings. In a courtroom, witnesses help to establish guilt or innocence by their testimony. Their purpose is to witness to that of which they have personal knowledge so that a judge or jury can rightly determine truth. It is hard to overstate the importance of these words, “witness” and “testimony,” in this Gospel.

There are many witnesses to Jesus in this Gospel. The Father (5:32, 37; 8:18)—the Son (8:14, 18)—the Spirit (15:26)—Jesus’ works (5:36; 10:25)—scripture (5:39)—the disciples (15:27)—the Samaritan woman (4:39)—and the crowd (12:17).

“to the light” (v. 7a). Jesus is light. He says, “I am the light of the world” (9:5). But in this Gospel, the religious leaders are blind. This is a major emphasis of the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in chapter 9. Once Jesus touches him, the blind man is able to see—but the Pharisees refuse to see—refuse to believe that the man who can see is the man born blind—refuse to see the Son of Man who is standing in their midst. Jesus says, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (3:19).

“that all (pantes—all, everyone) might believe through him” (v. 7b). This is the purpose of John’s testimony. By the time that this Gospel is written, late in the first century, Gentiles have been fully appropriated into the church.

Belief is the purpose, not only for John’s testimony, but also for this Gospel itself. In its closing verses this Gospel says, “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

“He (John) was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light” (v. 8; see also 1:4; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9; 12:35, 46).

This gospel makes it clear that John the Baptist is subordinate to Jesus. John “was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light” (v. 8). He confesses, “I am not the Messiah” (v. 20). He is not Elijah or the prophet (v. 21). He cries in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (v. 23). He is “not worthy to untie the strap of (Jesus’) sandal” (v. 27).

The reason for this repeated emphasis on John’s subordinate status is quite simple. John is famous. He has his disciples and Jesus has his, a source of confusion and possible rivalry (Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33; 7:18-23; John 3:25-30). Even decades later, Paul will encounter John’s disciples in Ephesus—disciples who were quite ignorant of Jesus until Paul’s arrival (Acts 19:1-7). The historian, Josephus, has more to say about John than about Jesus. John seems almost to be in competition with Jesus, even late in the first century when this Gospel is written. The author of this Gospel goes to lengths, then, both to acknowledge John’s sent-by-God status and to make it clear that he is subordinate to Jesus.

One of the purposes of this Gospel is to make it clear what John is not. He is not the light—not the Messiah—not Elijah—not the prophet—not worthy to untie the strap of the Messiah’s sandal. The author takes no chance of being misunderstood. John is present only to serve as a witness to Jesus. Jesus is the main character. John has only a supporting role.

This models appropriate behavior for those of us who proclaim the Good News of Christ today. Our purpose is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to point to the risen Christ. That doesn’t mean that Christian clergy cannot become famous. John was famous in his own right. “People from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him”—including many Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7). But John never forgot that he was sent by God with a mission—to point to Christ—and he lived his life in pursuit of that mission. We who have been called by God in modern times need to emulate both his focus and his faithfulness.


19This is John’s testimony (Greek: marturia) when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He declared and did not deny it, but declared, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22They said therefore to him, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23He said,

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'”
as Isaiah the prophet said.

“This is John’s testimony” (marturia) (v. 19a)—here we have the “martyr” word once again (see v. 7). John testifies first to who he is and is not (vv. 19-28), and then gives his testimony regarding Jesus—who Jesus is (v. 29-35).

“when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?'” (v. 19b). This Gospel uses this phrase, “the Jews” more than 70 times. In most cases, the phrase refers to Jesus’ opponents—members of the Jewish religious establishment—Pharisees and priests for the most part (2:18, 20; 5:10, 16, 18; 6:41, etc.). However, not all Jews are opposed to Jesus. John is Jewish (the son of a Jewish priest)—Jesus’ disciples are Jewish—Jesus is Jewish. Jesus says, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). Nor are all Jewish religious leaders Jesus’ enemies! Nicodemus comes to learn from Jesus (3:1 ff.), and Joseph of Arimathea is a secret disciple who will attend to Jesus’ burial (19:38).

Priests and Levites (v. 19b) are religious professionals—men who handle holy objects and conduct holy services. The fact that these priests and Levites are from Jerusalem strikes an ominous note, because Jesus’ opponents are centered in Jerusalem. It is in Jerusalem that he will die.

John “declared and didn’t deny, but he declared, ‘I am not the Christ'” (Christos) (v. 20). The dialogue between John and these men from Jerusalem takes on the flavor of an interrogation. One question follows another, intended to clarify but also to probe for a chink in John’s armor. First and foremost, they ask, “Who are you?” John “declared and didn’t deny it, but declared, ‘I am NOT the Christ'” (v. 20). Declared, did not deny—unusually strong wording. Apparently John is aware of talk that he is the Messiah, and wants to curb rumors before they go any further.

“They asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not'” (v. 21a). Elijah did not die, but was taken up in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), and Jews expect him to return as a forerunner of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5; Mark 8:28; 9:11). John the Baptist dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; 2 Kings 1:8), is the forerunner of the Messiah (Mark 1:1-4), and is identified by Jesus as Elijah (Matthew 11:12-14; 17:12; Mark 9:13).

But Jesus will say of John, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. If you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come” (Matthew 11:13-14). Jesus understands John’s ministry in a deeper way that John himself. John would never consider equating himself to the great prophet Elijah—but Jesus knows that that is who John is.

“‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No'” (v. 21b). John denies being the prophet promised by Moses—a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18). That prophet is Jesus, and this Gospel will identify him as such (6:14; 7:40).

“Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (v. 22). John was sent by God (1:6). These priests and Levites were sent by the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem—those who will later be responsible for Jesus’ death.

Feel the frustration here! John is clearly someone special, as the people’s response to him makes evident. The priests and Levites from Jerusalem have a responsibility to monitor religious activities and personages. They have come to investigate John, and have asked the right questions—but John has given them no answers. At this point, they are failing—and floundering—and fearing. How can they return to Jerusalem before they get some answers?

So these religious authorities cast their question more broadly, asking “Who are you?” instead of “Are you the prophet?” They plead, “Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.” Anyone who has been deputized by higher powers to carry out an important mission can appreciate the concern of these mid-level religionists who must soon return to Jerusalem—and to their superiors. “Give us an answer,” they plead.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (v. 23). With John’s answer, we move past what he is not and get to what he is. The quotation is from Isaiah 40:3. In its Isaiah context, the people were captives in Babylonia, and Isaiah’s vision promised a second exodus with an angel carving a straight road through the wilderness to allow the Israelites to return to their Promised Land—a return that God actually made possible, if not necessarily on a superhighway. But God has not sent John to alert people to a road that they will use. God has sent John to call the people to “make straight the way of the Lord.”

What does it mean to “make straight the way of the Lord”? A straight highway is much easier and faster to travel than a route that has lots of hills and twists and turns. A construction worker who helps to build modern highways helps to make it possible for us to reach our destinations quickly and safely. In like manner, those of us who are making “straight the way of the Lord” are doing what we can to facilitate the Lord’s coming into people’s lives and hearts.


24The ones who had been sent were from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. 27He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.” 28These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

“The ones who had been sent were from the Pharisees” (v. 24). This is the second interrogation of John, this time by the Pharisees. The opponents of Jesus during his lifetime, the Pharisees will become the leading opponents of the church later in the century.

“Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet” (v. 25). The Pharisees want to know what authority John has for baptizing Jews, a practice usually reserved for Gentiles converting to Judaism.

“I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen” (vv. 26-27). When John says, “I baptize with water,” we expect him to say that the one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit or fire—but instead he uses the opportunity to simply bear witness to the greatness of the one who is to come.

“whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen” (v. 27b). Again John says what he is not. He is “not worthy to loosen the strap of (Jesus’) sandal,” a menial task required only of Gentile slaves. John is saying that the degree of difference between him and the one who is already in their midst is greater than that between a master and the lowliest slave.

We have to admire John’s courage, because his questioners are clearly hostile, but John pulls no punches in his witness to Christ. He speaks boldly, even though his boldness may put him in danger. His courage and forthright testimony serve as a model for modern Christians. God calls us to witness to Christ by word and deed—in good times and bad—when it suits us and when it doesn’t—when it is dangerous and when it isn’t. Ironically, the witness of the church has often been more faithful during times of persecution than during times of prosperity.

Those of us who enjoy religious freedom need to remember that Christians die every day because of their witness to Christ. We also need to face the reality that, in our post-9/11 world, we may find ourselves faced with a decision to renounce Christ or die. It has always been dangerous for Christians in the Third World. It might now become dangerous for the rest of us. That will not be altogether bad for the church, which will be strengthened by the loss of the never committed.

“These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (v. 28). This is not the Bethany near Jerusalem where Jesus will visit Mary, Martha and Lazarus (11:1-44). Scholars are unsure of the location of the Bethany beyond the Jordan River.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan