From the Word
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, he 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 They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John 1:19–23, RSV
The question arises, Did John really confess the truth when he denied that he was Elijah or a prophet, when Christ himself called him Elijah and more than a prophet. He himself knew that he had come in the spirit and power of Elijah, and the Scriptures called him such. The truth of the matter is that he simply confessed the truth in a straightforward manner, namely, that he was not that Elijah about whom they asked, nor a prophet. The prophets commonly led and taught the people, who sought advice and help from them. Such a one John was not and would not be, for the Lord was present, whom they were to adhere to and follow. He did not desire to draw the people to himself, but to lead them to Christ, which was needful before Christ himself came. A prophet foretells the coming of Christ. John, however, shows him present, which is not a prophet’s task. John directs the people to Christ, and this is a higher and greater office than that of a prophet, yet it is not on account of his merit, but on account of the presence of his Master. In praising John for being more than a prophet, not his worthiness but that of his Master, who is present, is extolled. For it is customary for a servant to receive greater honor and reverence in the absence of his master than in his presence.
The rank of a prophet is higher than that of John, although his office is greater and more immediate. A prophet rules and leads the people, and they adhere to him; but John does no more than direct them away from himself to Christ, the present Master. Therefore, in the simplest and most straightforward manner, he denied being a prophet, although abounding in all the qualities of a prophet. This he did for the sake of the people, in order that they might not accept his testimony as the foretelling of a prophet and expect Christ in other future times, but that they might recognize him as a forerunner and guide, and follow his guidance to the Lord, who was present. The gospel through which Christ has come into the world is the last message before the day of judgment.
Martin Luther and John Sander, Devotional Readings from Luther’s Works for Every Day of the Year (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Book Concern, 1915), 449–450.