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I understand John 1:31 has the words "I did not know him" but in the actual context of the scripture itself, beliefs and doctrines aside, John is clearly saying he didn't know Jesus is the one that would baptize with the holy spirit.

John 1:31 NKJV

I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.

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3 Answers 3

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When examining any such statement, it’s absolutely essential to take it in context and to look up any references and allusions.

To start with, here’s John 1:19-23 ESV:

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 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?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Clearly the priests and Levites were expecting the Messiah and Elijah. I’m not positive what they meant by "the prophet," but it seems likely to have been a more theologically acceptable alternative to some of them instead of the literal resurrection of Elijah.

John denies all of these possibilities, but instead, John the Baptist (or Baptizer) quotes the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3, which in literal Hebrew reads as follows:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of YHWH. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Notice that John replaces the reference to YHWH with “the Lord” (mar in Aramaic). This is a circumlocution of YHWH, which was first documented by the Essenes about 100 BCE. Surprisingly, Isaiah records a promise that YHWH will appear on the earth!

Continuing, we read John 1:24-28 ESV:

(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

We later learn that John taught the people who came to him about righteous behavior, and then he immersed them in water as their expression of repentance and pietistic consecration. John answered the representatives from the Judean religious leadership that a previously unremarkable person will emerge who has great authority and honor.

In John 1:29-34 ESV, we read

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

And here John informs the people that a man--this man, Jesus--is to be the sacrificial, atoning lamb of God, revealed to John by the Holy Spirit as the Son of God!

Thus, John very likely knew Jesus as his cousin, but it was only after the Holy Spirit visibly descended on Jesus that John was assured that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

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Why do people believe that John and Jesus never knew one another?

No one can really know why other people believe the way they do, but the best I can figure is that they ignore the context and take only the first part of the statement - "I did not know Him" - as a straightforward statement without any restrictions or nuance.

The rest of the statement makes it clear that John knew who Jesus was, but not all the particular details of Jesus' purpose; and John also knew that Jesus would be revealed to Israel, so John, by baptizing people, was preparing them for that revelation whenever it came.

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John the Baptist knew one another as the John's prologue shows. John's prologue and its early chapters shows the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptizer. Observe the words "this one" in John 1:2 YLT and "this one" in John 1:7 YLT

The introduction of John the Baptist's service in John 1:6-8,15,19, 35 shows the greatness of John the Baptist as Jesus himself said "among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer" Matthew 11:11 WEB. John the Baptizer's prominence as shown in John's prologue shows his part in presenting the ministry of Jesus. John's introduction of Jesus' ministry, John 1:6-8 makes no sense if John 1:1 is about the Genesis creation.

John the Baptist clearly did not testify about an eternal, divine, personified word that was a co-Creator. The testimony of John the Baptist as shown in John 1:15,30,33,34 shows John the Baptist knew Jesus. Jesus knew John the Baptist as Matthew 11:1-18 show.

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