English Standard Version (ESV)
The Testimony of John the Baptist
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight[g] the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John came to bear witness to the light, that is, Jesus. His (Jesus') own, those who did not want to associate with Him, went to John as questioned who he was. I don't think they came in honesty, but rather they came seeking ammunition to discredit either John or Jesus. Perhaps they were hoping to stir up some rivalry between the two. But John did not go for it. He made it clear that he was not the Christ. He also stated that he was not Elijah. For their understanding was that Elijah would come again before the Messiah. (He was not Elijah, but did come in the Spirit and power of Elijah).
So who are you, they asked, because we need to give an answer to those who sent us. (Speaks a little to their motivation, doesn't it?) So John told them what he was doing, making straight the way of the Lord. He was making it plain for people, because the way had been so confused and forgotten. The way had become all about following a list of rules to the T, but John's ministry was one of cleansing and forgiveness. It was about a spiritual healing and becoming whole before God once again. That is why he baptized.
But he was not the Messiah. John only baptized with water. There was one who was greater. One whom John was not worthy of. One who would ultimately give John's baptism meaning by his sacrifice: Jesus.
Thought for Today: As we come into this season, do we understand and appreciate the role of Jesus? There have always been things to distract us from that role. The Jews were distracted so much by their legalism, that God needed to send John to set things straight. Doing good things is important, placing a few dollars in a kettle or helping a needy family at this time of year are great things, but they are not salvation. John understood this. He understood that salvation came as a gift from God alone, through Christ alone. And that apart from Jesus, such things do not make us worthy.