John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, Whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.
John’s response, “I baptize with water,” left me wondering why that was the only answer he gave to the men who questioned his authority to baptize. So, of course, I did a little research. I am always humbled at what I do NOT know about the scriptures, after over 65 years of teaching, studying, reading.
It was required of Gentiles, if they chose to convert to Judaism, that they undergo complete immersion as a sign of total cleansing and change. After the baptism, they were to put on spotless clothing, again a sign of their desire to stay clean, ceremonially and spiritually.
Therefore, what John was saying was that the Jews needed to humble themselves in preparation for the coming of Messiah. Complete immersion would put them in the same position as the Gentiles, effectively erasing the line between them.
John’s baptism in water was like saying, “Come on, get ready! The King will be here, and we need to be clean and fresh, ready to receive Him! Put on your best clothes to honor the King!”
(This is just a “by the way,” not intended to be criticism or preaching, but simply an explanation. Some have asked me why I always dress up for church. Simply put, it is to honor the King. If I were invited to the White House or the residence of any other ruler, I would take a bath, wash my hair, put on my nicest clothes and present myself to honor that ruler. It is done out of respect. Going to church should be an important occasion, in which we honor and worship the King of Kings. That’s why I dress up. God does, after all, see the outward appearance as well as the heart. My dressing up is not to dishonor people, but to honor the Lord.)
In the next verse, John clarifies that he himself is not the focus of his preaching and baptism. It is the One Who comes from God; the One Who always was, and always will be. John says he is not worthy to loosen the strap on Jesus’ sandals. Doing so, in preparation for washing dusty, dirty feet, was the job of the lowest slave or servant in the household.
I can imagine that the priests and Levites who questioned John were scratching their heads and giving each other sideways looks when John said that the One he served was already among them, and they just didn’t know it. They must have wondered how a king could be in their midst, and not be recognized.