John 1:21
And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
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(21) What then?—Not “What art thou then?” but expressing surprise at the answer, and passing on with impatience to the alternative, “Art thou Elias?” (Comp. on this and the following question, Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 18:18; Isaiah 40 ff.; Malachi 4:5; 2 Maccabees 2:1-8; and Note on Matthew 16:14). The angel had announced that “he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias.” The Lord declared “Elias is come already” (Matthew 18:12-13), and yet the Forerunner can assert that, in the literal sense in which they ask the question and would understand the answer, he is not Elias, still less “the prophet,” by which, whether thinking of the words of Moses or the fuller vision of Isaiah from which he immediately quotes, he would understand the Messiah himself,

1:19-28 John disowns himself to be the Christ, who was now expected and waited for. He came in the spirit and power of Elias, but he was not the person of Elias. John was not that Prophet whom Moses said the Lord would raise up to them of their brethren, like unto him. He was not such a prophet as they expected, who would rescue them from the Romans. He gave such an account of himself, as might excite and awaken them to hearken to him. He baptized the people with water as a profession of repentance, and as an outward sign of the spiritual blessings to be conferred on them by the Messiah, who was in the midst of them, though they knew him not, and to whom he was unworthy to render the meanest service.Art thou Elias? - This is the Greek way of writing Elijah. The Jews expected that Elijah would appear before the Messiah came. See the notes at Matthew 11:14. They supposed that it would be the real Elijah returned from heaven. In this sense John denied that he was Elijah; but he did not deny that he was the Elias or Elijah which the prophet intended Matthew 3:3, for he immediately proceeds to state John 1:23 that he was sent, as it was predicted that Elijah would be, to prepare the way of the Lord; so that, while he corrected their false notions about Elijah, he so clearly stated to them his true character that they might understand that he was really the one predicted as Elijah.

That prophet - It is possible that the Jews supposed that not only "Elijah" would reappear before the coming of the Messiah, but also "Jeremiah." See the notes at Matthew 16:14. Some have supposed, however, that this question has reference to the prediction of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15.

21. Elias—in His own proper person.

that prophet—announced in De 18:15, &c., about whom they seem not to have been agreed whether he were the same with the Messiah or no.

John was at Bethabara when these messengers came to him, John 1:28. They asked him if he were

@Elias. The Jews had not only an expectation of the Messias, but of Elias to come as a messenger before him, according to the prophecy, Malachi 4:5; as appeareth, Matthew 17:10 Mark 9:11; of which they had a gross conception here, that Elias should come out of heaven personally, or at least that his soul should come into another body, according to the Pythagorean opinion. Now the meaning of the prophecy was, that one should come like Elias; and this was fulfilled in John, Luke 1:17, as our Saviour tells us, Matthew 17:12 Mark 9:13; but they asked the question according to that notion they had of Elias. To which John answereth, that he was not; neither that Elias that ascended in a fiery chariot to heaven; nor any body informed with Elias’s soul: and thus the words of our Saviour, Matthew 17:12 Mark 9:12, are easily reconciled to this text. They go on, and ask him if he were

that prophet, or a prophet. Some think that they meant the Prophet promised, Deu 18:18; but that was no other than Christ himself, which he had before denied himself to be; nor doth it appear from any text of Scripture that the Jews had any expectation of any other particular prophet; but it is plain from Luke 9:8, that they had a notion that it was possible one of the old prophets might rise again from the dead, for so they guessed there concerning Christ. But others think that the article in the Greek here is not emphatical, and they only asked him if he were a prophet; for the Jews had a general notion, that the spirit of prophecy had left them ever since the times of Zechariah and Malachi; which they hoped was returned in John the Baptist, and about this they question him if he were a prophet. To which he answereth, No; neither that Prophet promised, Deu 18:18, nor yet any of the old prophets risen from the dead; nor yet one like the prophets of the Old Testament, who only prophesied of a Christ to come; but, as Christ calls him, Matthew 11:9, more than a prophet, one who showed and declared to them a Christ already come; for the law and the prophets prophesied but until John; the law in its types foreshowing, the prophets in their sermons foretelling, a Messiah to come; John did more. His father indeed, Luke 1:76, called him the prophet of the Highest; but there prophet is to be understood not in a strict, but in a large sense, as the term prophecy is taken, Romans 12:6. And the term prophet often signifieth one that revealeth the will of God to men; in which large sense John was a prophet, and yet more than a prophet in the stricter notion of the term; and in that sense no prophet, that is, no mere prophet: so, Numbers 11:19, Moses tells the people they should not eat flesh one, or two, or five, or ten, or twenty days, because they should eat it a whole month together.

And they asked him, what then? art thou Elias?.... Elijah, the prophet; the Tishbite, as Nonnus in his paraphrase expresses it; who was translated, soul and body, to heaven: the Jews had a notion that that prophet would come in person a little before the coming of the Messiah; See Gill on Matthew 17:10 wherefore these messengers inquire, that since he had so fully satisfied them that he was not the Messiah, that he would as ingenuously answer to this question, if he was Elias, or not:

and he saith, I am not; that is, he was not Elijah the prophet that lived in Ahab's time, and was called the Tishbite; for John's answer is to the intention of their question, and their own meaning in it, and is no contradiction to what Christ says of him, Matthew 11:14 that he was the Elias that was to come; for he was the person meant by him in Malachi 4:5 though not in the sense the Jews understood it; nor is it any contradiction to what the angel said to Zacharias, Luke 1:17 for he does not say that John should come in the body, but in the power and spirit of Elias; See Gill on Matthew 11:14.

Art thou that prophet? Jeremiah, whom some of the Jews (t) have thought to be the prophet Moses spoke of, in Deuteronomy 18:15 and expected that he would appear about the times of the Messiah; see Matthew 16:14 or any one of the ancient prophets risen from the dead, which they also had a notion of, Luke 9:8 or, as it may be rendered, "art thou a prophet?" for prophecy had long ceased with them:

and he answered, no; he was not Jeremiah, nor any one of the old prophets risen from the dead, nor a prophet in the sense they meant: he was not like one of the prophets of the Old Testament; he was a prophet, and more than a prophet, as Christ says, Matthew 11:9 yet not such a prophet as they were; his prophesying lay not so much in predicting future events, as in pointing out Christ, and preaching the doctrine of the remission of sins by him,

(t) Baal Hatturim in Deuteronomy 18.15. Tzeror Hammor, fol. 127. 4. & 143. 4. Siphre in Jarchi in Jer. i. 5.

And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, {i} I am not. Art thou {k} that prophet? And he answered, No.

(i) The Jews thought that Elias would come again before the days of the Messiah, and they took as the basis of their opinion Mal 4:5, which is to be understood as referring to John, see Mt 11:14. And yet John denies that he is Elias, answering their question just as they meant it.

(k) They are inquiring about some great prophet, and not about Christ, for John denied before that he is Christ, for they thought that some great prophet would be sent like Moses, using to support this position De 18:15, which is to be understood to refer to all the company of the prophets and ministers, which have been and shall be to the end, and especially of Christ who is the head of all prophets.

John 1:21. In consequence of this denial, the next point was to inquire whether he was the Elias who, according to Malachi 4:5, was expected (back from heaven) as the immediate forerunner of the Messiah.

τί οὖν] not, quid ergo es (Beza et al.), but as τίς does not again occur (vers. 19, 22): what then is the case, if thou art not the Messiah? what is the real state of the matter?

Art thou Elias? So put, the question assumes it as certain that John must give himself out to be Elias, after he had denied that he was the Messiah.

οὐκ εἰμί] He could give this answer, notwithstanding what is said in Luke 1:17, Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10 (against Hilgenfeld), since he could only suppose his interrogators were thinking of the literal, not of the antitypical Elijah. Bengel well says: “omnia a se amolitur, ut Christum confiteatur et ad Christum redigat quaerentes.” He was conscious, nevertheless, according to John 1:23, in what sense he was Elias; but taking the question as literally meant, there was no occasion for him to go beyond that meaning, and to ascribe to himself in a special manner the character of an antitypical Elias, which would have been neither prudent nor profitable. The οὐκ εἶμι is too definite an answer to the definite question, to be taken as a denial in general of every externally defined position (Brückner); he would have had to answer evasively.

ὁ προφήτης εἶ σύ;] The absence of any connecting link in the narrative shows the rapid, hasty manner of the interrogation. ὁ προφήτης is marked out by the article as the well-known promised prophet, and considering the previous question Ἠλίας εἶ σύ, can only be a nameless one, and therefore not Jeremias, according to Matthew 16:14 (Grotius, Kuinoel, Olshausen, Klee, Lange), but the one intended in Deuteronomy 18:15, the reference of whom to the Messiah Himself (Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37; John 1:46; John 6:14) was at least not universal (comp. John 7:40), and was not adopted by the interrogators here. Judging from the descending climax of the points of these questions, they must rather have thought of some one inferior to Elias, or, in general, of an individual undefined, owing to the fluctuation of view regarding Him who was expected as “the prophet.”[113] Nonnus well expresses the namelessness and yet eminence of this ὁ προφήτης: μὴ σύ μοι, ὃν καλέουσι, θεηγόρος ἐσσὶ προφήτης, ἄγγελος ἐσσομένων; Observe how the rigid denials become shortened at last to the bare οὔ. Here also we have a no on the Baptist’s lips, because in his view Jesus was the prophet of Deuteronomy 18.

[113] Luthardt thinks of the prophet in the second portion of Isaiah. Comp. Hofmann, Weissag u. Erf. II. p. 69. It would agree with this, that John immediately gives an answer taken from Isaiah 40. But if his interrogators had had in mind Isaiah 40 ff., they would probably have designated him whom they meant more characteristically, viz. as the servant of Jehovah.

21. What then?] ‘What then are we to think?’ or, ‘What then art thou?’

Art thou Elias?] The Scribes taught that Elijah would come again before the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 17:10), and this belief is repeatedly alluded to in the Talmud. Comp. Malachi 4:5.

I am not] A forger would scarcely have ventured on this in the face of Matthew 11:14, where Christ says that John is Elijah. But Christ is there speaking figuratively (comp. Luke 1:17); John is here speaking literally. He says he is not Elijah returned to the earth again.

that prophet] Rather, the Prophet, the well-known Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15, who some thought would be a second Moses, others a second Elijah, others the Messiah. From John 7:40-41 we see that some distinguished ‘the Prophet’ from the Messiah; and from Matthew 16:14 it appears that Jeremiah or other prophets were expected to return. Comp. 2Es 2:18; 1Ma 14:41. This verse alone is almost enough to prove that the writer is a Jew. Who but a Jew would know of these expectations? Or if a Gentile chanced to know them, would he not explain them to his readers? In John 1:25, John 6:14; John 6:48; John 6:69 our translators have repeated the error of translating the definite article by ‘that’ instead of ‘the.’

No] The Baptist knows that ‘the Prophet’ is the Messiah. His replies grow more and more abrupt; ‘I am not the Christ,’ ‘I am not,’ ‘No.’

John 1:21. Σύ, thou?) John had said, I am not the Christ. They persevere in asking about the subject: it would have been better for them to have asked about the prædicate, Who is the Christ? Where is He? But John presently leads on the conversation to this.—οὐκ εἰμί, I am not) He was a second Elijah; he was not the Tishbite himself, about whom their enquiry was. He rejects from himself all things [all the characters, which their conjectures attributed to him], in order that he may confess Christ, and bring the enquirers to Christ.—ὁ προφήτης, the Prophet) that one, of whom Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 18:18, spake [The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken, etc.] The article has reference to the promise of the prophet, who was about to teach all things, and to the expectation of the people. Yet they supposed Him not only to be distinct from Christ, but even inferior to Elias, as is evident from the gradually descending climax here, and in John 1:25 [Christ—Elias—that prophet]: although the people afterwards regarded the prophet as the same as Messiah the King, ch. John 6:14-15 [Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world; When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make him a king, etc.]; and again, on the contrary, they looked on the prophet as a distinct person from the Christ, ch. John 7:40-41. [Many said, Of a truth this is the Prophet; others said, This is the Christ.]—εἶ σύ, art thou) they enumerate all those of whose coming prophecy had foretold.

Verse 21. - And they asked him, What then? What is the state of the case? The very repudiation of Messiahship in this form seems to imply some association with the Messianic period of which they had so many conflicting ideas. Malachi (Malachi 4:5) had predicted the coming again from heaven of Elijah the prophet, and the LXX., by translating the passage "Elijah the Tishbite," had strengthened the common mistake of a metempsychosis, or such an abnormal manifestation before the coming of Messiah. Schottgen ('De Messia,' H.H., vol. 2, pp 226, 490, 533-537) quotes a variety of proofs of this anticipation, and that Elijah was expected "three days before Messiah; that he would come in the mountains of Israel, weeping over the people, saying, 'O land of Israel, how long will you remain arid and desolate!'" (cf. my 'John the Baptist,' 3. § 4). There was a true sense in which (as our Lord informed his disciples) John was the fulfilment of Malachi's prediction and of the language of the angel to Zacharias (Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:12), and that John came veritably in the spirit and power of Elijah. In that sense "Elijah had come already," just as Christ their David had come, in fulfilment of Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 37:24; cf. Jeremiah 30:9; Hosea 3:5), to rule over them. In the physical, superstitious sense, John the son of Zacharias was not the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah, and so he boldly answered the inquiry, Art thou Elijah? with a categorical negative: I am not. They press their question once more. Art thou the Prophet? It is doubtful whether they here take up another popular expectation of the physical return of one of the old prophets, or whether, with an exegesis afterwards modified by the apostles, they point to Deuteronomy 18:15, and reveal the fact that they had not identified the prediction of "the prophet like unto Moses" with their Messiah. If they had identified these representations, they would not, of course, have pressed him with an identical question. It is highly probable that that prophecy had, with the predictions of Malachi and Isaiah, led to numerous expectations more or less identified with the Messianic cycle of coming events. In John 6:14; John 7:40; Matthew 16:14, we see the prevalence of the expectation - of a longing for an old prophet. They yearned for no upstart, but for one of the mighty brotherhood of departed men, in veritable flesh and blood. Now John and now Jesus was crudely suspected by some to be such a resuscitation. The Baptist, like the Samaritan woman, and subsequently St. Peter when full of the Holy Ghost, had sharply identified "the Prophet like unto Moses" with the Messiah himself; and therefore, on either hypothesis, he gives a curt reply to this inquiry, and he answered, No. John 1:21What then? Art thou Elias?

Better, as Rev., Elijah. Some authorities read, What then art thou? Elijah? Elijah, predicted in Malachi 4:5, as the forerunner of the day of the Lord.

Art thou that prophet?

Rev., "the prophet." According to the Greek order, the prophet art thou. See Deuteronomy 18:15, and compare Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37; John 1:46; John 6:14.


Observe how the successive denials become shorter.

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