In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Who are you?” It’s one of the most fundamental questions you can ask someone, or be asked. How do you answer? What things do you consider part of your personal identity? How you answer that question may depend on context or circumstances. If you’re among friends or coworkers of your husband or wife, you may well first identify yourself as his wife or her husband. When I go to visit someone at the hospital, or call the hospital to find if someone is a patient, I usually identify myself as the pastor of the person in question. Once when I was still a seminary student, doing pulpit supply for a vacationing pastor, after the service as I greeted the congregation, one little boy came up to me and asked, “Are you Jesus?” I felt quite honored. I answered, “No, but I hope to serve Him someday.” The boy’s father explained why his son asked: “It’s the beard.” Oh. Nothing to do with my preaching, just the facial hair. Trust me, I am under no delusion that I am Jesus, or even John the Baptist, even though I’ve baptized people.
John the Baptist was by no means mistaken or confused about his identity or his purpose. He was in the wilderness along the Jordan River, “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). Priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” This is not simply idle curiosity. John’s questioners are a formal delegation sent by the Jewish leaders. The verbs “confess” and “deny” suggest that the Baptist was undergoing a formal legal interrogation. He is expected to answer seriously and truthfully. “Who are you?” “He confessed, that is, he did not deny, but rather he confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” This repetition shows that John took the interrogation seriously, and that, as a faithful witness sent by God, he did speak the truth. Look at how many times these men asked John who he was. “Who are you?” “I am not the Christ.” That’s one. “What then? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” Two. “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” Three. With the first three questions, his answers get shorter and more curt. Then they ask him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” That’s a fourth time. Again, this is not just a case of Hey, could you tell us a little about yourself? We’d like to get to know you better. John’s first three answers simply would not suffice. These priests and Levites were sent to carry out some official business on behalf of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. They want to know where he thinks he fits into the end-times expectations, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the fulfillment of His promises to His people Israel.
In response to the first Who are you? John answers, “I am not the Christ.” We have become so accustomed to using “Christ” as a name that we may forget that “the Christ” is actually a title. Christ, from the Greek, and Messiah, from the Hebrew, both mean “Anointed One.” In ancient Israel, holders of three offices were anointed with oil to mark them as chosen by God: prophet, priest, and king. After the Exodus, the Lord had Moses anoint his brother Aaron as priest. When God’s people wanted a human king for themselves, like the nations around them, the Lord instructed the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then later David as king in place of the unfaithful Saul. Both times, Samuel acted not on his own, but as the Lord directed him. Later still, during Israel’s apostasy under King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, the Lord commanded the prophet Elijah to anoint Hazael as king over Syria, Jehu king over Israel, and Elisha as prophet, to take Elijah’s place.
“I am not the Anointed One.” John certainly spoke and acted as a prophet, one of those anointed offices; he even dressed like one famous prophet by the name of Elijah. So John was an anointed one, a prophet, as the Holy Spirit declared by the mouth of John’s father, Zechariah the priest (Lk 1:76). But he was not The Anointed One. By the time of John and Jesus, certain expectations had accumulated around the title Messiah, Christ, Anointed One. Some were drawn from Scripture, while others were wild imaginings and speculations. Even some of the notions about the Messiah drawn from Scripture had become distorted by traditions that contradicted God’s Word. The main hope was that the Anointed One, as Son of David, would restore the kingdom of Israel to the glory it formerly had under King David. Like all mankind, David was a sinner—a sinner whose sin brought disgrace upon the Name of the Lord and troubles to his own house—a sinner who needed God’s forgiveness and true faith in his Savior God. In other words, David was a sinner just like you and I. Yet in the minds of many David was idealized, as close to perfection as one can get in an earthly king. The Messianic king to come would be an even greater king than David, for his kingdom would cover the whole face of the earth! For some, the Messiah was expected to lead Israel to military victory over all the nation’s enemies, especially the hated Romans. Some thought Messiah would destroy all the Gentiles (that includes you and me), while others believed he would treat them better, making them slaves to serve God’s chosen people instead. With all of those false notions about the Messiah, John definitely had to and did deny being the Messiah. It’s small wonder that Jesus, who truly is the Messiah, did not use that title to identify Himself.
“Are you Elijah?” There were also plenty of end-times expectations and speculations around the prophet Elijah. He had not died, but was taken up into heaven bodily by the Lord. Through the prophet Malachi, the Lord promised: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:5–6). Jesus would later tell His disciples, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13–14). So why did John say, “I am not [Elijah]?” Is he contradicting Jesus? No; rather, John would not feed their false expectations. John dressed like Elijah, and he rebuked a king for public sin like Elijah; but, did he do the miracles Elijah had done? Elijah had called for the rain to stop, and for three-and-a-half years the Lord withheld the rain. Elijah raised a boy from the dead, and he called fire down from heaven to consume Ahab’s soldiers. John, like Elijah, was sent by God to call people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins —and that the people came and confessed their sins, receiving Baptism and forgiveness, that is a greater miracle than all the fire from heaven!
“Are you the Prophet?” This was not just any prophet; they were looking for The Prophet foretold by Moses: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen” (Dt 18:15). “And I will put My words in His mouth,” said the Lord, “and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (v 18). For the people of Israel specifically, this was the oldest of the three promises. Again, all three promises, all three figures—the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet—were from God and His Word; but, so much of the truth had been covered with layer upon layer of false hopes and vainglory.
What answer does John finally give? Who is he, and what is his mission? “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” It is God the Holy Spirit who gives John the prophetic words to speak, just as He had given them to Isaiah centuries earlier. Yet this happens through John’s proclamation of Scripture, the Word of God, not his own thoughts and words. You can hear the irritation in the question of the interrogators: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Messiah, not Elijah, nor the Prophet?” He begins to point them to the Coming One whom they should be expecting—they should be, but aren’t. “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” (Jn 1:26–27). John doesn’t downplay the importance of Baptism; Jesus would give His own command to baptize. He does highlight the importance of knowing this One who comes. John is saying, “I am but a minister, a humble servant, doing as the Lord commands me; He is the One you really need to know and believe!” Indeed, in the very next verse after today’s Gospel, we hear John’s greatest testimony about Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
This is the highest work and office and identity of the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be the meek and humble Lamb of God. He the Lord of hosts, the almighty God of Israel and Creator of the universe, well able to spare and save Himself from suffering and death. Yet His suffering and death on the Cross to take away the sin of the world is His glory and might! Who else could do it? Who else would do it? We, His creatures who rebelled against Him, who have despised His Name, His Word, and His worship—for us He died, willingly! This true Messianic King defeats His people’s true enemies: the devil, hell, the world, and our own sinful flesh with its ungodly desires. He is the true Elijah, who ascended into heaven, and over whom death has no power. He is the final Prophet, who speaks the Word of His Father—indeed, He is the “Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing” (LSB 379.3), proclaiming Himself to the world, not out of ego, but in obedience to His Father, because the Father has sent Him to do that. He is the Light, directing our footsteps in His Way, the Teacher whose teaching has Himself as its sole object, who enlightens hearts and minds once darkened by sin. In contrast to John’s “I am not the Christ,” this Jesus declares, “I AM. I AM your God and Savior. I AM for you, and I give you My life, the very life which I and My Father live.”
Who is John? Who are you, and who am I? We confess with John, “I am not the Christ.” As Synod President Matthew Harrison pointed out, this is very freeing. I am a sinner; Jesus alone is the Sinless One. I can’t be the Christ; only Jesus can. With John, we “bear witness about the Light, that all might believe” in Him through our testimony (Jn 1:7). Yet Jesus did say to His disciples, to you and me, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). How can that be, and isn’t that putting a lot of pressure and expectation on us? If being the light depended on us, then we’d all burn out very quickly. It depends on Jesus and His Holy Spirit. We are not the light merely by reflection; rather, Jesus, with the Father and the Spirit, enters our heart and mind through water and the Word, and as He is the Light dwelling in us, so we are the light. Keep filled with the Light, keep burning brightly, by hearing His Word. Keep knowing Him, and in knowing Him, you will know who you are, for you are of Him.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.