It is interesting to note the phrase in Greek “one who comes after me” (opiso mou erchnomenos) does not simply mean “one who arrives chronologically behind me” but is a turn of phrase which means “one who is my disciple.”
So what? Let’s find out!
You can see that in Matt 16:24 the ESV renders the phrase literally which then requires interpretation while the NIV renders the meaning of the phrase’s interpreted figurative meaning.
ESV “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'”
NIV “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'”
However, note that BOTH of them render the same Greek phrase literally in Matt 3:11.
ESV “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. “
NIV “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”
This is the same phrase as in 16:24 and has the same meaning especially considering the sandal context. Matt 3:11 does not simply mean “chronologically, after I am done there will come someone amazing.” It means something like “there will be one of my disciples who is actually of higher status than I.”
Rabbinic disciples were tasked with doing all manner of physical task for their teachers including waiting on them at table and carrying various burdens. Tasks regarding feet, however, fell beneath the responsibilities of disciples and were relegated to servants and slaves.
The Talmud (ca AD 250) records the rabbinic saying:
‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.’ (SBK, I, p. 121).
In Matt 3:11, John is saying something bizarre: he will have a “follower” (aka disciple) that will somehow flip their relationship on its head in such a way that John will somehow be of lower status than his disciple. A simple reversal like this would would in itself be a head-scratcher but John goes far beyond that. John says that he will be so much lower that he will not even be worthy of a task considered beneath a disciple – a task normally relegated to slaves.
For those of you who are visually oriented:
1. Master’s position (John the Baptizer’s normal position)
2. Normal Disciple position (Disciple X)
1. Master’s position (Disciple X)
2. Normal Disciple’s position
3. Slave’s position
4. John’s understanding of his position
And of course, Matthew relates only two verses later the story of Jesus submitting himself to John for baptism to John’s amazement and protestation. John is flabbergasted at the fulfillment of the prophecy that he himself has just made!
How great are Your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!
Behold, these are but the outskirts of His ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?
In light of this Master-Disciple-Slave concept, we should not be able think about Jesus washing his disciple’s feet without some shock and awe.
How awesome is His humility, compassion, patience and love towards we who are so unworthy! Let this sink in: Our God is not a God who demands to be served by the few worthy. Our God is a God who serves those who are unworthy to serve Him.
If the depths and heights of the Lord’s power, grace, and humility are stunning and unfathomable even to His prophets who had but the merest glimpse, how much more are they to we who have seen the glory of the Lord in Christ fully in the cross?
What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.