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Luke 3:16 (ESV) John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire".

It is obvious what the word "unworthy" means, but what is the significance with the 'sandals'? Is there a deeper meaning hidden in this? If so, what is that deeper meaning?

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    It's demeaning to tie someone else's shoes, and John wasn't even worthy to do that. – curiousdannii May 6 '17 at 6:49
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I wouldn't call it a "deeper hidden meaning", but a "graphic obvious meaning" -- at least to John the Baptist's hearers.

Here, and in the parallel synoptic passages (Matt 3:11 // Mark 1:7 // Luke 3:16), John emphasizes the greatness of the one to come by reinforcing his own unworthiness in comparison. He uses the word picture of undoing the sandals -- the task of a slave -- as being one which is "too good" for him in the service of such a great one.

In addition to the three synoptic depictions, both John 1:27 and Acts 13:25 include this saying as well. They have subtle differences:

  • the synoptic accounts all speak of John not being ἱκανὸς ikanos "fit" to perform this action;
  • Matthew speaks simply of "sandals" not worth to "carry", no thong;
  • Mark and Luke speak of "thong of whose sandal" John is unfit to "stoop and untie";
  • John and Acts both use ἄξιος axios "[not] worthy" rather than the Synoptic "[not] fit".

Tabular view:

+--------------+--------+-------+--------+------------+
|              | Stoop? | Act?  | Thong? |  Status?   |
+--------------+--------+-------+--------+------------+
| Matthew 3:11 | no     | carry | no     | not fit    |
| Mark 1:7     | yes    | untie | yes    | not fit    |
| Luke 3:16    | no     | untie | yes    | not fit    |
| John 1:27    | no     | untie | yes    | not worthy |
| Acts 13:25   | no     | untie | no     | not worthy |
+--------------+--------+-------+--------+------------+

The value of including the "thong/strap" is that it slightly intensifies the disparity of status -- if handling a part of the footwear is a step down from handling the footwear itself.1

Although Luke shares the "thong" feature with Mark and John, Luke weaves it into a fuller account of John's ministry. In Luke's version, John the Baptist dispels any notion that he might be the messiah (Luke 3:15) by using this graphic language to portray the coming messiah as radically, almost incomparably greater than himself. For one so great, he is not even fit to do the demeaning work of a slave.


Note

  1. For further reflection on the "sandal" saying, see: J. Ramsey Michaels, "Paul and John the Baptist: An Odd Couple?", Tyndale Bulletin 42 (1991) 245-260, and see pp. 247-8; Daniel S. Dapaah, The Relationship Between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth: A Critical Study (University Press of America, 2005), pp. 66-69.
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  • This is a fascinating answer, and the fact that Mark's account is rhetorically most vivid might conceivably have to do with Markan priority. (If an idea or saying gets copied, does it become stylistically more vivid or less? Probably less.) – ktm5124 Jul 5 '17 at 23:26
  • Of course, this is an isolated incident, and I run the danger of looking for evidence to support something that I already assume. It would be interesting to compare other sayings that are copied in the synoptic gospels. – ktm5124 Jul 6 '17 at 1:22
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The meaning of "removing sandals" hearkens back to the days of Boaz and Ruth. Ruth was a widow without children. Boaz was a kinsmen-redeemer. To complete the legally binding redemption of land and marriage, Boaz removes his sandal and hands it to the other party. Ruth 4:7-8.

So, in John the Baptist's case, because he understood Christ to be the Redeemer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he was saying he was not fit to even untie Christ's sandals, let alone receive His sandals of redemption.

See also Isa. 40:3-5 for the prophecy.

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Those words should be taken in the context of their utterance, not outside of them. Now, the context gives account of two crucial points of which the second is superior to the first: a) that John is not a Messiah, for he is not worthy of untying His shoe-laces, and b) that the one who is the Messiah, Jesus, is not Messiah in a way expected by Jews (earthly, political), but someone totally different, thus debunking the habitual expectation and understanding of Jews by saying that "He will baptize with Holy Spirit and Fire" (Luke 3:15), which means that He will bring an ontological change within the very human heart, consuming in it the infection of sin and its consequence, death (that ruled over humanity since the fall of Adam) by the consuming fire of Holy Spirit (Hebrews 12:29). Now, such a Messiah-ship is already transcending all national, ethnic, cultural boundaries, but includes all humanity.

It is a new understanding of restoration of Kingdom, for now it means the cleansing of heart from the influence and drive of sin and demons, so that man may himself become a throne and dwelling place of the Father and the Son (John 14:23) together with the Holy Spirit that will become a source of infinite rivers of grace flowing from it (John 7:38).

Thus, this passage is about divinity of Jesus and the advent of the new Trinitarian life for all humanity.

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To untie ones shoes signifies time spent indoors after work. Both John's and Jesus' messages focussed on the time after work when we are free to do whatever we fancy. John and his wilderness characteristics portrayed the problem of unrestrained lust. John had been told by God that somebody was going to come after him, with the solution to the problem that he was going to signify and preach against. The solution to the problem was a mental crucifixion of our flesh, followed by strategic fastings to subdue our carnal flesh.The solution was hinted at in John's baptism, but Jesus' sacrifice on the cross portrayed it in more detail. Jesus' message was more powerful than John's, which is why John said that he (his message) was unworthy (was inferior).

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  • If the crucifixion of the flesh is the mark of a Christian (Gal 5:24), then strategic fasting is one of the means to that end (1 Cor 9:27). Another one might be to speak in tongues to confuse the builders of the tower of Babylon. – Constantthin Jun 25 '19 at 9:40
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John the Baptizer expressed humility.

Jesus forerunner John the Baptizer said: Luke 3:16 (ESV) John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire".

To untie the laces and carry them for him was a menial task, carried out by a slave, by saying that, John the Baptizer expressed humility and recognized that he was trivial in comparison to His Master -Jesus.

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More simply any place the Lord is standing is Holy ground. Touching any part of him or where he stands will be noticed by Jesus when defiled hands touch Holiness. John is expressing his understanding that he is a sinner, in need of a Savior, with absolute humility that he can't even stoop down near him because that ground is reserved for the most faithful to the Lord

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Please make sure you take our tour. Re: Questions and answers, we'd like to see Biblical text to analyze. Thanks. – John Martin Mar 24 at 2:09
  • barry Please try to combine your 2 answers into one. Thanks. – John Martin Mar 24 at 2:10
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Moreover, Jesus still wanted all to come to him, it mattered not if they were defiled or sick, becauseJesus saw it as an incredible act of humility and faith with healing of any that even touched his garment. Old testament jews would be confused given that only the most clean priests were allowed to tread uoon holy ground. This was the point of not even being able to get near God's feet i believe.

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