John 1:6-8, 19-28


The noun "Gospel" or "Good News" does not occur in the Gospel and Epistles of John, the Evangelist. It occurs only once at Revelation 14:6. Many Lutherans believe that Revelation 14:6 is a prophecy about Martin Luther. That is why it was quoted on the cover of  Der Lutheraner  and is still found on the cover of the Concordia Journal. But the noun "witness" is a key word in the Johannine corpus. It is found fourteen times in the Gospel and sixteen times in the Epistles and Revelation. It always speaks of absolute Truth, be that of Jesus, the Father, the Baptist, the Evangelist, etc. The verb "to witness" occurs but once in both Matthew and Luke, but forty-three times in John's Gospel and fourteen times in the Epistles and Revelation. Like "witness" the verb has various applications: of Jesus, the Father, the Baptist, the Evangelist, the miracles of Jesus etc.  "Witness," in our text, is found at verses 7 and 19.  "To witness" is found at verses 7 and 8. The witness of the Baptist still stands in the Scriptures and is still as powerful as it was two thousand years ago. Witness means "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."  The Baptist had received "witness" by direct revelation and from the OT Scriptures.

John 1:6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.

"There appeared." The Baptist "appeared" in history as do all mere humans.

Bengel: God deals with men through agents similar to themselves, namely, men in order that they may the more readily take and accept His office of love.

John's appearing differed from other men. He had a direct, divine commission.

John 1:7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.

"He came" introduces his public ministry.  "As a witness" denotes purpose and the clause,  "concerning the light" emphasizes the witness and limits it to Jesus. Outside of Jesus Christ there is no spiritual Light. The darkness resists the Light but cannot quench it.

Luther: These words hurl another thunderbolt against the sectarians and fanatics of our own day, for these visionaries despise the oral Word. . . . Whoever fails to adhere closely to the Word of God takes offense very easily at this or that or something else. . . . However, the evangelist praises John the Baptist and declares that his office cannot be dispensed with; for he bears witness to Christ and points to Him who is the Life and the Light illumining all men. This implies that the external Word serves the purpose of engendering faith and of imparting the Holy Spirit. For God has decreed that no one can or will believe or receive the Holy Spirit without that Gospel which is preached or taught by word of mouth.
Lenski: Faith comes only through the preached Word, and God invariably honors the preachers who truly proclaim that Word. Those who leave the Word and cry 'Spirit, Spirit' or who invent methods that discard the gospel can never hope to have it said of them that men came to faith through them.
Westcott: The coming of the Baptist in the fulfillment of his office is contrasted with his personal coming.
IB: The word 'sent' carries the sense of official authority, recalling the OT prophets, through the word is frequently used in this Gospel of Jesus, who is par excellence the emissary of God to earth.
Ylvisaker: The name 'John' signifies 'God is gracious' and brings with it the promise it contains.
Correct. John preached stark Law, as should every preacher. But he was far more evangelical than we usually think. The word "witness" covers both his baptism and his preaching. That centered in The Light, Jesus Christ. Cf. John 1:29. Underlying the word "all" is the universal atonement. To this day anyone who reads John 1:29 and is converted is included in the word "all." 
Ylvisaker: When John (the evangelist) declares the purpose in sending the Baptist, that all should believe through his testimony, we learn not only that the grace of God is universal, that it embraces all humanity, but also that the testimony of the Baptist should be more than the testimony of the Law. The Law does not lead to faith in Christ.
Bengel: Through him, that is through John, not in John, but in Christ, see verse 12. The power of John's testimony extended itself so as even to come under the knowledge of the Gentiles. Acts 10:37.

John 1:8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

In Greek we have a  "but quite to the contrary." The evangelist makes certain that we understand that the Baptist did not use his office for self-aggrandizement.

Westcott: From this passage and other similar passages, verse 20 and 3:26ff, it has been plausibly argued that the Evangelist was familiar with some who unduly exalted the Baptist.
Ylvisaker: He was, indeed, as the text indicates, a light. The individual who believes is also called a light (Ephesians 5:8; Philippians 2:15); the Church of the Cross, likewise (Matthew 5:14).

But John was very careful not to detract from the Light, as verses 19-28 will clearly show.

The following verses are not included in the text. John 1:9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. John 1:10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. John 1:11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. John 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- John 1:13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'" John 1:16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. John 1:19 Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. John 1:20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ."

John 1:19 Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.

Verses 1-18 are called the prologue. Except for verses 6-8 and 15, the witness of the Baptist, the prologue speaks of the person of Christ, both preincarnate and incarnate, and that God, a gracious God, is known only in Christ, the Life and Light of the world. Now comes verse 19.

In verses 6-8 the witness centered in Christ and the Gospel. In verses 19-28 it centers in the Baptist himself, his person and work, but leads to Christ again. In the Synoptics the word "Jews" is rarely used of the Jewish authorities, Jesus' enemies, but is very frequent in John.

Jerusalem was the home of the Sanhedrin. They had the right and responsibility (Deuteronomy 18:20) to stand as sentinel over the religious affairs in Israel. But, in this instance, their motive was pernicious. The priest and Levites were delegated for this formal inquiry. Josephus tells us that the Baptist's activity caused a great stir. The fact that this delegation came from Jerusalem to Bethany, verse 28, quite a distance, bears that out.  "You, who are you?" They don't ask about Christ or John's activity. Look at Luke 3:15. The whole populace was asking the same question.

John 1:20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ." 

The piling up of verbs shows how emphatic and sincere the Baptist was.

Lenski: The Baptist's reply was more than a reply, it was a full, complete, clear-cut confession.
Westcott: It may be regarded as being, in some sense, a temptation of John corresponding to the temptation of Christ.

By the way, verses 19-28 happened the day before Jesus came to the Baptist, verse 29. John's Gospel does not record Jesus' baptism or temptation. Very likely verse 29 indicates a day shortly after Jesus' temptation. Note the emphatic "I am not the Christ." He said this without their asking about Christ or whether he was the Christ.

John 1:21 They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No."

And so, a second question: "Well, what then?" In a spiritual sense John was Elijah, Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:14, but not as the Jews literally understood the promise.

Westcott: The denial of the Baptist is directed to the Jewish expectation of the bodily return of Elijah.
Bengel: He was a second Elijah; he was not the Tishbite himself, about whom they made inquiry. He rejects from himself all thing in order that he may confess Christ, and bring the inquirers to Christ.

The third question:  "Are you the Prophet?" The Jews knew the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-18.

Bengel: They supposed the Prophet not only to be distinct from Christ, but even inferior to Elijah, as is evident from the gradually descending climax here in verse 25.
Westcott: The reference is probably to Deuteronomy 18:15, interpreted not of the Christ, Acts 3:22; 7:37, but in some lower sense. Look at John 7:40-41.
Lenski: The Baptist's denial does not clash with what was promised regarding him in Luke 1:17, and with what Jesus afterward said of him in Matthew 11:14; 17:11, three statements which correctly interpret Malachi.
All commentators note that the answers of the Baptist in verses 20-21 become shorter and shorter, denoting his sincerity and humility. Arrogant and vain people become wordier as they go along. It is clear from this entire account that John the Evangelist, a disciple of the Baptist, was a witness to what happened in verses 19-28.

John 1:22 Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

The Baptist had forestalled their asking him whether or not he was the Christ. Then they had asked whether he was Elijah or the prophet (which implies that they did not consider Deuteronomy 18:15 as Messianic). Verse 22 likely denotes desperation, for as Bengel says:  "They had already enumerated all those of whose coming prophecy had foretold."  They could think of no other specific person. "Well, then, who are you?" We have something like "Tell us."  The purpose clause practically says:  "It's not we who want to know. We're supposed to report to the authorities." They were not interested personally, nor, for that matter were the Jews. If they had returned to be baptized, confessing their sins, the Evangelist would surely have recorded it. They ask one final question:  "What do you say about yourself?" 

John 1:23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'"

The Baptist prefixes an emphatic I to the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3, found in all four Gospels with reference to the Baptist. Only John tells us that the Baptist consciously applied the prophecy to himself. He is only God's voice, crying in the wilderness. What does the voice cry? "Make straight the way of the Lord.."  Here "Lord" is Christ.

Ylvisaker: He disowns at once, both pride and a false sense of humility. He acknowledges that he has an office, and this office is of God. In His testimony there is the knowledge of self and the knowledge of Christ.
Lenski: Whereas the prophet has two poetic lines in a synonymous parallelism, the Baptist uses only one. Such condensation and abbreviation are constantly employed when quoting.

The coming of the Baptist, his mission, his use of God's Word, were in precise fulfillment of prophecy. Repentant sinners wanted to know what these words from Isaiah meant. They confessed their sins and were baptized. But in this case the delegation made no such inquiry, did not confess their sins, were not baptized. Evidently the Baptist's testimony left them cold. That still happens today and we should not let it dampen our enthusiasm.

John 1:24 Now some Pharisees who had been sent

This verse has caused difficulties in translation:
  1. AV and NKJV take it to mean that the delegation was made up entirely of Pharisees;
  2. LB RSV TEV JB and NASB take it to mean that the Pharisees had sent them;
  3. NEB and AAT take it to mean that some of them were Pharisees;
  4. NIV evidently takes it to mean that the first delegation (verses 19-23) returned and that a second delegation, made up of Pharisees, came back for further questioning.

These Notes consider the translation of NIV the correct one. We have a second delegation. The Pharisees are not mentioned in verse 19. Furthermore, the Pharisees had an interest in baptism. Verse 25-26 dwell on baptism, not the person of the Baptist. But, we can't prove that verse 24 denotes a second delegation, nor does it affect the sensus literalis.

John 1:25 questioned him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"

Ylvisaker: If he were not among the personalities they had enumerated, he had, in their view, no right to baptize. In the following reply, John again diverts their attention from his person to his office. . . . The evangelist in no way indicates that the delegates from the Sanhedrin were affected in their attitude by John's answer. There is, however, a solemn indictment in the words of the Baptist 'Ye know not.' Now the conflict opens which reaches its climax in Jesus' death. The fourth evangelist pictures this struggle, and therefore this incident is placed in the beginning of the Gospel.

What they say in verse 25 amounts to a fact or particular condition  "if, as you say, you are not etc."  Note  "We are totally unacquainted with any Biblical person, not already mentioned, who has the authority to baptize."  They were very dubious of John's right to baptize. They were clearly still dead in their trespasses and sin.

Lenski: Passages like Ezekiel 36:35; 37:23 led the Jews to expect a lustration and cleansing of the people.

If that is so, they were expecting baptism. But, they reasoned, it had to be by a truly commissioned person.

John 1:26 "I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know.

In all the cases of questions (verses 19-23)  "replied" was used only once for an emphatic: "NO."  In verse 26 we have "replied" again for an emphatic statement.

Stoeckhardt: This was a severe rebuke for the Jews, especially for their spiritual leaders that they did not know the Christ who was to come, the Christ of prophecy, because they did not know and understand the Scriptures, which testified of Christ, nor had they any longing for the Savior of Israel.
Ylvisaker: The evangelist in no way indicates that the delegates from the Sanhedrin were affected in their attitude by John's answer. There is, however, a solemn indictment in the words of the Baptist 'Ye know not'.
Bengel says: 'In the midst of you' especially at the time of His baptism. 'Ye know Him not', he addressed the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who had not been present at the baptism of Jesus. And he whets their desire that they may be anxious to become acquainted with Him.
Lenski: John answers the Pharisees as readily and as succinctly as he had answered the Sadducees. To baptize with water simply says that John is using a means of grace. Christ's redemption is the basis of the means of grace.

Lenski is worth reading on verse 26 to show the relationship of John's baptism, a true means of grace, with the redemptive work of Christ.

John 1:27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."

This tells us in what respect John is not worthy. The remainder of this verse clearly shows the utter humility of the Baptist. There is very likely something to the idea that the delegation(s) from Jerusalem was (were) a severe temptation to John to make more of himself than he really was, though we cannot prove it. Likewise, perhaps, at John 3:25-30 when the disciples of John complained that people were following Christ rather than John. But John answered:  "He must increase but I must decrease."  The point we are making is that when a Christian is tempted to pride he must resist by stating the true facts of his own condition.

John 1:28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Much has been written about the locale of this Bethany and its variant, Bethabara. In any case, it was on the east side of the Jordan. Hendriksen discusses this matter at length. We quote in part:

We are distinctly told that this Bethany was beyond the Jordan, not to be confused with the place of identical name where Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus lived. The latter was near Jerusalem. Although the exact location of the Bethany mentioned in our paragraph is not known, it would seem that those are not far wrong who look for it just east of the Jordan, about thirteen miles below the Sea of Galilee and about twenty miles south-east of Nazareth.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays, Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp.9-12. Used with permission.

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