21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
The delegation from Jerusalem continued to interrogate John the Baptist about who he was.
21 And they asked him,
The “they” here are the religious leaders of verse 19.
The delegation from Jerusalem tried another alternative about who John was.
Are you Elijah?”
Elijah ascended to heaven on a fiery chariot (2 Kg 2:11). People had the assumption that he would return before the coming of the Messiah (Mal 3:1; 4:5). The Malachi passage was the last promise in the Old Testament.
He said, “I am not.”
John pithily answered that he was not Elijah. This was a denial of the delegation’s assumption about the return of Elijah.
There was a sense in which it was true that John the Baptist was like Elijah (Mt 11:14; 17:12; Mr 9:13). John was a bold preacher like Elijah. This was a denial of John being Elijah himself. Israel was not ready for the final coming of Elijah, so John came in the “spirit and power of Elijah” instead (Lu 1:17). John did not deny that he came to fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus said that John was the Elijah of Malachi’s prophecy. John’s denial was that he was Elijah himself.
“Are you the Prophet?”
The delegation offered a third opinion as to who John the Baptist might be. The “Prophet” here was predicted by Moses (Dt 18:15). Some in Jesus’ day thought that this Prophet would be different from the Messiah—that he would lead another exodus, as Moses had. However, the Deuteronomy passage about the Prophet refers to Jesus (Ac 3:22-23; 7:37).
And he answered, “No.”
John the Baptizer denied as well that he was Moses. His answers were becoming increasingly terse. John’s short answers made no mistake about who he was or what his message would be.
Temptation to exalt self in ministry is a great danger.
John could have seized on the religious expectations of his culture. He was not going to be their political advocate or champion. He could have sensed their disappointment that he was not going to save them from Rome. John did not yield to that temptation to advance himself. He never viewed this as missing a great opportunity for his career. Neither should we.