2 January 2013

John 1:19-28

"I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal" (v. 27)


John the Baptist was creating a public stir though his open-air preaching and his practice of baptizing people in the river Jordan. Mark's Gospel tells us that "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him" (Mark 1:5), so it was natural for the Jewish authorities to send out a delegation to find out what was going on.

When probed, John distances himself from any grand titles. Jews of that time were expecting a variety of figures to appear: the Messiah, a leader who would be anointed with God's Spirit; Elijah, who, it was believed, would return to earth prior to "the day of the Lord" (Malachi 4:5); and "the prophet" of whom Moses spoke (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), and whom some Jews identified with the Messiah (as in John 6:14). But John denies that he is any of them. He is just "'the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (v. 23, quoting Isaiah 40:3).

The delegation is clearly not satisfied. John's baptizing activity was unprecedented. The Jews were familiar with repeated ritual washings in the temple. They may also have been familiar with the practice of baptizing Gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to embrace the Jewish religion (proselytes). But John was baptizing Jews in a once-for-all rite, and the delegation wanted to know why.

John does not answer their question fully. His main concern is to point to someone else who was already standing among them, and whom they did not yet recognise, the thong of whose sandals John said he was unworthy to untie. Humility could scarcely have taken a lower place. To untie the thong of someone's sandals in that culture was the work of a slave. John, therefore, in effect, was saying that that he was unworthy even to be a slave of Jesus. 

To Ponder

  • "Among you stands one whom you do not know" (v. 26). Is Jesus someone you have come to know, or is he still someone who, though near, still remains to be recognised for who he really is?
  • If Jesus is someone you have come to know, to what extent is it your passion, as it was John's, to live for him and seek to make him known?  

Bible notes author

The Revd Peter Ensor

Peter Ensor is a Methodist minister who teaches New Testament, biblical languages, and Early Church history at Cliff College, Derbyshire. He has also worked as a theological educator in Kenya, Cameroon and Ethiopia, and has served in three english circuits, latterly as superintendent of the Hazel Grove and Poynton Circuit in the Manchester District.