“This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”” (John 1:19–23, NASB95)
John the Baptist was the last prophet sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of His Son. John knew his purpose and he was diligent in carrying it out. He knew that he was not the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One of God sent to save the world of its sins. He also knew that he was not an incarnation of the prophet Elijah, who the Jews expected would come prior to the Messiah coming to establish His earthly reign.
Malachi was the last of the prophets before 400 years of silence leading up to the coming of John the Baptist, and he left the people of Israel with a great hope with his last words. “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5–6, NASB95) The last that these people had heard was that Elijah was going to come back just before the time that the Lord would return to establish His kingdom, and of course they wanted to know from John the Baptist if he was Elijah. And John knew that this was not his purpose. He was not Elijah and he knew it.
So, they continued to question John as to who he was and why he was sent. They asked him if he was the Prophet spoken of by Moses, who told the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, or I will die.’ The Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well. ‘I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15–18, NASB95) In Acts 3:11-26 Peter also spoke of the coming of Christ and how He was rejected and put to death by the people. He spoke of the prophet spoken of by Moses and pointed to Jesus as being that prophet sent by God (See also Acts 7:37).
“No,” John replied to these questions. He was not the Christ, he was not Elijah, and he was not the Prophet. So, “Who are you?” they continued to ask. His answer was to quote the prophet Isaiah, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He knew his purpose was to proclaim the One who was soon to appear to the people. He was there to prick the people’s hearts and ears such that when the Messiah did come they would know Him and receives Him. John was sent before Christ to tell people that He was coming.
We, ourselves, as we remain today have a similar purpose. As his ambassadors we are to proclaim that He indeed did come and that the promise of a Savior has been realized in the Son of God who is Jesus. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:17–21, NASB95)
This is true when people willingly receive us, and it is true when we are challenged such as John who eventually was beheaded for doing what God called him to do. Peter wrote, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:14–16, NIV84)
As John was sent before, so we are sent afterward—each of us to proclaim that God has sent His Son to save people from their sins and to give then new life. “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:5–6, NASB95)