19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
JOHN 1: 19 ESV
19 Καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ Ἰωάννου ὅτε ἀπέστειλαν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευίτας ἵνα ἐρωτήσωσιν αὐτόν· Σὺ τίς εἶ;
JOHN 1: 19 SBLGNT
In his book Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries,
“The evangelist begins his account of John’s ministry, Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. This verse contains the first of many references to ‘the Jews’ in this Gospel. While some of these references are neutral and others positive, many have negative connotations and denote Jesus’ adversaries among the Jewish leadership of the day. Great care needs to be exercised by modern readers in their interpretation of these references so as not to misconstrue them. The evangelist identifies ‘the Jews’ here specifically as ‘the Jews of Jerusalem’, almost certainly referring to members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, or ruling council. Part of their responsibility was to assess the genuineness or otherwise of those claiming to be prophets or the Messiah. So they sent ‘priests and Levites’ to question him. The Levites’ normal role was to support the priests in temple worship and to act as temple police. In this latter capacity, perhaps, they accompanied the priests to question Jesus. voice calling in the desert, in John’s case calling upon people to ‘make straight the way of the Lord’, i.e. to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah.”
There is definetly a stirring in the midst of the temple officials, who have sent people to inquire who John the Baptist was. Why? Let us look at the particular event, as it brings the beginnings of the temple involvement into view.
In verses 6–8, 15, the author has indicated the purpose of the ministry of John the Baptist; namely, to focus the attention of everyone upon the true light, Jesus Christ, as the object of faith. John the Baptist had made his first public appearance in the summer of 26 A.D. His austere mode of life, stern preaching, and emphasis upon the fact that even the sons of Abraham require thorough repentance and spiritual cleansing (symbolized by baptism) caused a mighty stir among the people so that Mark 1:5 – 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. It would seem that the Baptist, beginning in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, had gradually ascended the Jordan Valley until he had reached a little place which in the best manuscripts is called Bethany, Mark 1: 28 – “28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” 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, and the latter was near Jerusalem.
A Fahling, in his book, “The Life of Christ provides this insight.
“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. On many of the older maps and Plate XIV of W.H.A.B
.,( Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible) it is suggested that this Bethany was located just north of the Dead Sea.”
The interesting point of this remains that the Jews were aware and sent a delegation to inquire, and the first question asked was ‘Who are you?” not why or what authority, whom do you represent? The question was directly at the person’s core, and his character, essence, and his worth was the question. John the Baptist is confronted by the question that drives deep into his objective focus in his life. He was called to declare, and this leaves a vast opportunity for him to claim anything he wanted.
William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, New Testament Commentary, provides this insight.
When the Jews sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem, we learn that the Jews sent a committee to investigate John on the first of these four days. The term Jews in the Fourth Gospel often carries a sinister connotation: the nation as represented by its religious leaders who were hostile to Jesus (7:1; 9:22; 18:12–14) sent the delegation. [This hostility only manifest itself once Jesus identity is established and his works spread throughout the region. I defer with the characterization that this initial meeting had any link to their hate towards Jesus].
In this case, the Sanhedrin (consisting of high priests, scribes, and elders) The reason, though not definitely stated, is easy to surmise. Reports concerning the new preacher and the excitement which he created had been coming in thick and fast. Probably rumor even suggested that he might be the Messiah. There was also his impressive method of urging repentance by uttering heavy threats upon the impenitent, and the fact that he baptized … Jews, just as if they, children of Abraham, still needed repentance and cleansing. Moreover, it had probably been reported to them that this new revivalist (?) had said certain very unfriendly things about Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 3:7). Surely, an investigating committee was in order. A false Messiah might do a great deal of damage. Was it not the duty of the venerable members of the Sanhedrin to expose false prophets and would-be Messiahs (cf. Deut. 18:20–22) and to guard the religious interests of Israel?
The committee consisted of priests and Levites. The actual questioning was probably done by the former. The latter were sent along to see that the company would have a safe arrival, and to quell any riot which might arise.
This encounter proves that the Jews were aware of the prophecies and the coming of the Messiah. Old Testament prophecies point to the revelation of the deliverer, and the Jews were seeking to find out if John the Baptist was the Messiah.
As we are all aware today, the corruption of the temple officials, whom Jesus himself confronted and rebuked any times, proves that this initial encounter had sinister designs. One of the longest narratives by Jesus Himself is found in Matthew 23:23-36
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and pall uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 s“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous bloodshed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Therefore, these Jewish leaders had no idea what was in store for them when they sent their delegation to see John the Baptist. Later you will see how The Baptist himself confronts these leaders.
However, why have I dedicated a whole essay to this one verse? It seems rather inconspicuous in any theological meaning apart from the Jewish leaders seeking answers. Nevertheless, the exhortation lies in the question, “Who are You?” Therefore, this is the same question that we Christians must ask ourselves every day. Who are we? Are we genuinely sacrificed of self and grounded in Jesus. Hence, this is the same question that poses to us and challenges us in our faithful choice in Christ. Who are we? We are children of God, who had come into our realm and sacrificed himself for our sins. We are unworthy, sinners, and void of any credibility, but our saviour loves us, and our saviour patiently provides us with the Holy Spirit to faithfully find our way in this darkness.
Whatever we do, act or preassume in our actions guided by our reasoning, is living a life devoid of God, then remembering what Jesus revealed to the Jewish leaders and their temple. The temple they had desacralized and emptied it of God’s presence and replaced it with their subjective interpretations of divine and authoritative status meant. Jesus tore down the temple and rebuilt it. Our temple of self-righteousness has been torn down and who we are, are naked in our sins and we lay bare before the Lord in judgement. Are we willing to rebuild it according to the Word?
Remember what Jesus told them, place your faith in the Logos, and allow the Pathos, guide, and be the Ethos, grounded His Absolutes.