When the crowds ask John the Baptist who he is, his answer is a series of confessions concerning who he is not (1:20-21). He “confesses freely” that he is not a messianic figure in such a way that leaves no question, although he claims to be another kind of harbinger of the messianic age. The Gospel of John presents the Baptist as an honest witness honest who gave an accurate testimony concerning Jesus. It is possible that the gospel writer intended John’s three-fold testimony to stand in contrast to Peter’s threefold denial (John 18:17, 25, 27). John the Baptist also denied things, but in his case he was telling the truth!
Not only does the writer state John’s honest testimony in three ways, he confesses three things that he is not (the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet). John’s threefold denial of being the messiah is very broad, covering a variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period.
I am not the Christ. The title is messiah, and many Jewish people in the first century expected an ultimate son of David to appear and re-establish a kingdom in Jerusalem. There was no one expectation, in fact, Qumran expected two messiahs. 4 Ezra expected a messiah who would rule for 400 years (ten generations) and then die.
I am not Elijah. Based on Malachi 4:5-6, many Jews believed that Elijah would return before the messiah came. Peter asks about the coming of Elijah after the transfiguration (Mark 9:9-13) and Jesus identified John as the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Matt 11:14, 17:12). Many thought Elijah might come to the aid of those suffering innocently, as reflected in the mocking of Jesus on the Cross (Mark 15:33-36).
I am not the Prophet. The Prophet was a messianic expectation based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18. In that text God says that a prophet like Moses will someday come and God will put his word in that prophet’s mouth. While it is possible the Deuteronomy passage had Elijah in mind, the Samaritans believed that a messianic prophet would someday come and the Qumran community believed that two messiahs, one of David and one of Aaron would eventually arrive to purify the Temple and the Kingdom. Fourth Ezra 2:18 says the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah will return in the last days.
John identifies himself as the “voice crying in the Wilderness” (1:23) This is an allusion to Isaiah 40:3, but the context of this allusion is critically important. Isaiah 40 is a prophecy describing the return from exile after Jerusalem fell in 586. The prophet is inviting the people of Israel to come out of exile and return to the wilderness where the Lord will meet them and lead them back to the land as he did in the original Exodus.
Like the original Exodus, in Isaiah 40 -55 God will meet the people in the wilderness and care for them, although this time it will be like a return to Eden. The wilderness will blossom and water will flow, and the people will enter the Land once again. Cyrus the Great permitted Judah to return to Judea and Jerusalem beginning in 538 B.C., but relatively few exiles returned, most remained in the Diaspora. Those who returned faced hardships (as described in Nehemiah). The return from exile after 538 B.C. did not fulfil the expectations of Isaiah 40-55 for a peaceful and prosperous Israel living in Zion.
For this reason there were many in the first century who seemed to think the exile continued as long as there was no king in Israel and as long as the “times of the gentiles” continued. Daniel 9 seems to show the exile was far longer than the 70 years predicted by Jeremiah, there will be 70 times 7 years until the restoration of peace to the land and the true Davidic king begins to rules from Jerusalem.
John claims to be an apocalyptic messenger preparing Israel for the long-awaited end of the exile.
Did the people who came to hear John preach understand his message this way? Are there any hints in the first few chapters of John’s Gospel that Jesus sees himself as the messiah?