"Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?' He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.' And they asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' He said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' And he answered, 'No.' Then they said to him, 'Who are you then, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?' He said: 'I am "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the LORD," as the prophet Isaiah said.' Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees" (John 1:19-24).
John the baptizer is the first witness for Jesus that John the apostle presents. The actions described in this context took place after the baptism of Jesus and His subsequent temptations in the wilderness. The "priests and Levites" referred to here were also Pharisees (cf. 1:24). Was John tempted to lie about his identity? There is no proof that such is the case. Rather, the repetition in stating that "he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed" seems to show firmness in his answer.
If you are not the Christ, then "are you Elijah?" Malachi had declared that Elijah should precede the Messiah (cf. Mal. 4:5). The Jews interpreted this prophecy literally, and looked for the return of the physical Elijah (cf. Matt. 17:10). Although Elijah did return (cf. Matt. 17:3), the prophecy of Malachi referred to a spiritual Elijah; that is, one who would come "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17); one who would come to change the hearts of the people (cf. Mal. 4:6). It is in this sense that John fulfilled Malachi's prediction (cf. Matt. 17:12,13). However, he answers their question according to the sense in which they had asked it. He was not the literal Elijah that they were expecting; he was not the man who had been translated about 900 years before this time.
If you are not Elijah, then "are you the Prophet?" Approximately fifteen hundred years earlier, Moses had prophesied of a great Prophet to come (cf. Deut. 18:15-19). Jewish theologians mistakenly distinguished between this prophet and the Messiah (cf. John 7:40,41). The New Testament teaches that Jesus was both the Prophet and the Christ (cf. Acts 2:36; 3:22).
Since they had been unable to guess John's position, they asked him to state it plainly. They did not want to return to Jerusalem without completing their mission, and thus far, they knew nothing more than whom John was not! John answered by quoting from Isaiah 40:3. He essentially affirmed that his personal identity was unimportant, but his message was very important. He was nothing more than a voice or an announcer of Him who was to come.
"And they asked him, saying, 'Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?' John answered them, saying, 'I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.' These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing" (John 1:25-28).
Likely this was the question, or the real issue, all along - "What business do you have immersing people and causing all this stir?" Perhaps the Pharisees were jealous of the attention John was receiving (as they often were of Christ, at a later time). If John had answered "yes" to any of their previous three questions (and claimed to be the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet), it wouldn't be surprising to find these Pharisees labeling John as a blasphemer. However, since he humbly denied being anyone important, they wanted to know why he presumed to introduce any other ordinance than those provided for by the law of Moses.
John didn't give them a direct answer to their question, but we know the answer from 1:31. John "came baptizing with water" that the Christ "should be revealed to Israel." John the baptizer explained to them how unworthy he was to perform even the most lowly service for the One who was among them; the One they did not know; the One who was coming after him. In essence, John appears to be saying, "You want to know by what authority I baptize? The authority rests in Him for whom I prepare the way. It is a small matter to introduce baptism in water for one so worthy. If you accept Him, my baptism will need no explanation, and if you reject Him, then this baptism and its authority are both irrelevant."
We will continue studying this context in our next lesson.