|John the Baptist, baptizing at Jordan. LDS Media Library|
OK, so I realize that week for studying this is basically over, so maybe this is not super helpful to you at this point, but I’ve finally got some thoughts on John 1. After studying the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke, John 1 is noticeably very different. Scholars refer to Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “synoptics” (look-alikes), while John is more independent. But John 1’s got some really cool stuff, so let’s dive in.
In the Beginning was the Word (1:1–18)
I am not going to say a lot about the “prologue” of John, but both the Sunday School and the individuals and families manual invite us to reflect on John’s testimony of who Christ was before he was born. So some background on these passages can be helpful.
The word translated as Word is the Greek term logos (λόγος), which actually means more than just “word,” but reason, teaching, intellect, etc. Jewish thinkers of the day believed that the Logos (or, in Aramaic sources, Memra) was a divine intermediary through whom God interacted with man. Some scholars, such as Margaret Barker and Daniel Boyarin, argue that similar beliefs extend back into very ancient Israelite times.
By the New Testament period, many Jewish commentators had come to believe God himself had never directly interacted with humanity, because they were not worthy. As such, when they translated or interpreted Old Testament scripture which mentioned God or the Lord speaking with, or being seen by, prophets or patriarchs, or even just interacting with the material world at all, they would modify the passage to say that the prophet (or whomever) really just interacted with the Memra or Logos (cf. 1:18).
So one way to read John 1:1–18 is as one of these translations or reinterpretations of Genesis 1, with the Logos in the role of creation. But he goes even further than the typical midrash or targum—he says that the Logos was made flesh (1:14), and identified Jesus specifically as the Logos incarnate. So John is using the language and concepts of his time to testify that Jesus was more than just the Davidic Messiah—he was literally divine (1:1). For John, understanding this—i.e., knowing who Jesus really is—changes everything, going back to the very foundations of the world, the creation, “the beginning.”
Elias and “that Prophet” (1:19–23)
One question that the manual raises is, “Who is Elias, and who is ‘that prophet’?” We gain a better understanding of these topics when we understand that there were a variety of different “messianic” or “messiah-related” figures in contemporary Jewish thought and expectations. It is important to understand that these figures were not all necessarily seen as being the same or all connected to each other. Yet the New Testament connects Jesus to the fulfillment of them all.
Four of these figures show up here in John’s exchange with the Levites. So let’s take a look at each of these four, and talk about how Jesus is connected to them in the New Testament.
John’s initial response to the question “Who are thou?” is to confess, “I am not the Christ” (1:19–20). Clearly, John understood the implicit intent behind the question was to determine if he was the Messiah or not. The Messiah, or “anointed one” was expected to be of the lineage of David and would come to overthrow foreign rule and be established as the rightful ruler of Israel.
It should go without saying that the New Testament portrays Jesus as the Christ, the Messianic son of David. But it’s worth noting that he did not do what so many expected the Messiah to do. He did not overthrow Roman rule and establish himself as king of Israel. Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than what a lot of people were expecting, but what he did accomplish—the infinite and eternal sacrifice for sin—is far more important and far more powerful than simply driving the Romans out of Palestine.
Next, they ask, “Are you Elijah?” and he replied, “No” (1:21).
(Elias is the Greek form of the name Elijah. Although Joseph Smith understood this, Elias is also used sometimes as a title in Latter-day scripture and tradition. For more on this, see Robert Boylan’s blogand and .)
Owing to the prophecy in Malachi 4:5–6, many Jews were expecting the prophet Elijah to return. Eventually this expectation is manifest in the setting of an empty place for Elijah during the Passover meal, though it’s not clear how early this practice began.
John here denies being Elijah. Other gospels do link John to Elijah (e.g., Luke 1:17; Matt. 11:12–14; 17:10–13). Apparently, there were some who thought Jesus was Elijah (Matt. 16:14; Mark 6:15; 8:28; Luke 9:8, 19).
For the gospel writers, the coming of Elijah appears to be at least partially fulfilled on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus is ministered to by Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:1–3; Mark 9:2–4; Luke 9:28–30). So while Jesus was not Elijah, he was visited by Elijah before his own “great and dreadful day” of suffering.
They then ask him if he is “that prophet,” and again John answers, “No” (1:21).
This is another expected Messianic figure many Jews were anticipating would come soon, referring to the prophet predicted by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). The fact that they ask about this after John denied he was the Messiah suggests that Moses-like prophet was not necessarily seen as the same person as the Davidic Messiah.
The early Christians, however, believed that Jesus was both. In Acts, Peter cites Deuteronomy 18:15 as a prophecy of Jesus (Acts 3:20–23). It’s perhaps interesting that in original context, many ancient Israelites probably associated the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15 with Moses’s successor, Joshua (Heb. Yehoshua or Yeshua), since the name Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua.
One Crying in the Wilderness
Finally, I imagine somewhat exacerbated, they ask John, “Well, who the heck are you then?” (1:22, my paraphrase). Here we get an answer for how John himself understands his own role:
He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. (1:23)
Esaias is the Greek form of Isaiah, and John is referring to Isaiah 40:3:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
John is proclaiming to be the “forerunner” of the Messiah. And the gospels unanimously testify that he was the forerunner of Jesus specifically.
So each of these figures is either is Jesus or is connected to him in various ways in the New Testament. The message seems to be whatever kind of Messianic figure one was waiting for, that expectation was fulfilled in Jesus.
Anyway, I hope these somewhat rough, incomplete, and scattered thoughts are somehow useful to you, even if you are on the tail end of your John 1 studies this week.
 Note that Christ, Greek Christos (Χριστός), simply means “anointed one” and is the Greek translation of the Hebrew mashiach, i.e., Messiah.