"And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that Prophet? 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. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing."
We see here that the priests and Levites sent to question John were from the Pharisees. Throughout the Gospels, this group of Jews is noted for their self-righteousness and unbelief. In these few verses of John, their blindness is clearly shown. They ask John why he is baptizing if he is not "that Christ, nor Elias (Elijah), neither that prophet." The two words translated that are definite articles in the Greek text. Therefore, they can be understood as the. As noted earlier, these men were confusing "The Christ" and "The Prophet." They are one and the same (Deut. 18:15, Acts 3:20-22). John's answer is interesting. He lets them know that he simply baptizes with water (symbolizing repentance, see Matt. 3:11), and proceeds to point out the fact of their disbelief in the One who has the power of spiritual baptism. He says, "I baptize with water: but there standeth One among you, Whom ye know not." The two verbs in this passage, standeth and know, are in the Perfect tense. This tense carries with it the idea of action completed in the past with the results carrying on into the future. The Christ child had come. He was now in their midst. They knew of His birth in Bethlehem. This is the group who explained the prophesy of Micah to king Herod when Jesus was born (Matt. 2:4-6, Mic. 5:2). And yet for all this, they had chosen to reject Him; they were rejecting Him now (ye know not), and in their present frame of mind, they would continue to reject Him. Christ was in their midst, and yet they had not known Him, they were not knowing Him then, and unless they repented, they would never know Him. This disbelief and pride was the reason for John's rebuke to them in Matthew chapter three. John then points out Christ's deity and says, "He it is, Who coming after me is preferred before me...." Even though Jesus was born approximately six months after John (Luke 1:36), He has existed from all eternity. He is the Word and He is God. He created John; therefore, John unashamedly upholds the Lord's worthiness and declares his own unworthiness by saying , "...Whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose." The Pharisees were challenging John's ministry of baptism, and John immediately addressed their root issue of unbelief in the One Who was standing among them, the One Who is God in the flesh.
We find here in this passage a valuable principle. This principle teaches us to avoid surface arguments and cut to the heart of the issue. Unbelievers and carnal Christians will often attempt to distract with frivalous questions and vain arguments. The spiritual child of God needs to have discernment and learn to keep the main truths in view. Repairing the hole in the bucket will eliminate the need to clean up the spilled water.