What does John 1:21 mean?
ESV: And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."
NIV: They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No."
NASB: And so they asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' And he *said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' And he answered, 'No.'
CSB: "What then?" they asked him. "Are you Elijah?" "I am not," he said. "Are you the Prophet?" "No," he answered.
NLT: Well then, who are you?' they asked. 'Are you Elijah?' 'No,' he replied. 'Are you the Prophet we are expecting?' 'No.'
KJV: And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elijah? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that Prophet? And he answered, No.
NKJV: And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
Verse Commentary:
Here, John the Baptist's interrogators (John 1:19–20) ask about specific Old Testament prophecies. The Baptist does not claim to be a particular figure, either the return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5), or the prophet whom Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15. The only claim the Baptist makes for himself is a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, which he states later (John 1:23).

It's important to note that the religious leaders are constantly asking questions about their pre-conceived notions. They don't ask the Baptist to explain himself until after they've run out of their own ideas. This is a common trait, even today, in those who are resistant to the gospel. Their first instinct is to criticize, assume, and point fingers. At some point, when all those poor ideas are exposed, there is nothing left to do but ask what the gospel really means. Even then, as this passage shows (John 1:22), that interest is often aimed at nothing deeper than getting the conversation finished.
Verse Context:
John 1:19–28 describes a conversation. On one side is John the Baptist, different from the author of this gospel. On the other are local religious leaders. Baptizing converts to Judaism was common, but the Baptist was calling on Jews to repent and be baptized. The Baptist makes it clear that he is not the "Promised One," but equally clear that his mission is to prepare the way for that One.
Chapter Summary:
The first chapter of John introduces Jesus as "the Word," from the Greek logos. This chapter clearly describes Jesus as God. After this prologue, the chapter describes Jesus recruiting the first of His disciples, as well as a conversation between John the Baptist and the Pharisees. There are seven names or titles for Christ in this chapter, including "the Son of God," "the Word," and "the King of Israel."
Chapter Context:
The first chapter of the gospel of John equates Christ with God and introduces John the Baptist. The Baptist specifically points to Jesus as the Promised One. Jesus collects the first five of His disciples. In this chapter, Jesus is given seven descriptive names, including "the Word," "the Son of God," and "the King of Israel." This chapter sets the stage for the rest of the gospel, by giving the reader a sense of who Jesus truly is, and why He has come. The rest of the gospel is an exploration of the claims made in this initial passage.
Book Summary:
The disciple John wrote the gospel of John decades after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. The author assumes that a reader is already familiar with the content of these other works. So, John presents a different perspective, with a greater emphasis on meaning. John uses seven miracles—which he calls "signs"— to prove that Jesus is, in fact, God incarnate. Some of the most well-known verses in the Bible are found here. None is more famous than the one-sentence summary of the gospel found in John 3:16.
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