John the Baptist: The Pharisees’ Puzzle

I’d like us to turn our attention to John 1:24-28. In this set of verses we see John the Baptist speaking to the Pharisees regarding his identity and what has become known as “the baptism of John”.  As we have seen before, (John 1:15) his words sometimes sound like a kind of puzzle because he is trying to speak of things for which there are no words to adequately describe his thoughts. This is why I have entitled this post The Pharisee’s Puzzle.

We pick up the story when John is being questioned by the Jewish authorities again.

The Pharisees’ View

Joh 1:24  And those who had been sent were of the Pharisees.

The apostle and author, John, wants us to know who was asking John the Baptist about his ministry and here we have the answer: the Pharisees – the highest and most powerful religious leaders of the time. The priests and Levites had previously questioned him and now it was the Pharisees who sent their people.  They were truly interested in what was happening for a variety of reasons. Being in the position of power as they were, it was their job to know what was being taught and what impact that teaching would have on the people. They were charged, after all, with taking care of the people, so they saw it as their duty. I think we can all understand that.

Now, we have to remember that the Jewish nation was, at this time, a theocracy. That is to say, God was the ruler over all national affairs, and they wanted to know if John was preaching a subversive form of teaching that would impact their rule. They wanted to know if it was a radical teaching that would undermine their power over the people, so, there is an element of fear of the loss of position at play, as well.  Here is what one researcher has found out about Caiaphas – a player in the Crucifixion account, I think you can see that Caiaphas was clearly concerned about his position in society:

Taking a relatively uncritical approach, older scholarship tended to be interested in Caiaphas’ character and motivation. … charges of “corruption,” “greed,” “bribery,” and “collaboration” are routinely brought against him. (This is the case in both Christian and Jewish writings; while texts involving Pharisees are nowadays read with a high degree of suspicion, those involving Sadducees or priests are not. It is tempting to imagine that it suits a wide range of scholars to lay accountability for Jesus’ death on a small band of aristocratic leaders with no modern-day successors to champion their cause).

Caiaphas clearly owed his position to Roman good will, and the Gospels present both men working together in the execution of Jesus.1

The apostle John, tells us in verses seven through ten of this chapter, that John the Baptist was sent by God and that he came to be a witness to the Christ.  These are pretty specific claims about the appearance of someone very special – the likes of which the world had not seen before. Is it any wonder that the priests were nervous?

Who are You and Why Do You Baptize?

Joh 1:25  And they asked him and said to him, Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?

In a previous passage, we read that he had told them he was neither the prophet nor Elijah – two of the signs the Jews looked for as ushering in the Jewish Messianic Age. Since he also denied being the Messiah, they asked him: why baptize? This question reveals that they considered John to have over-stepped his boundaries. What they are asking is: Where is your authority to cleanse people? They were especially concerned about the remission of sins idea that was a part of his brand of baptism.

Baptism was not unusual in ancient Israel. They had, of course the various ceremonial washings, and I don’t think these can be called baptism, but baptism was part of a ceremony when one had declared the desire, and had taken the steps necessary, to convert to Judaism. I think they looked at John’s baptizing activities with a wary eye, thinking they now had a situation which they never before had to address. They were afraid a new “cult” was in the making and their position could very well be in jeapordy.

The liturgical use of water was common in the Jewish world. The Law of Moses required ablutions (washings) on the part of priests . . . and on certain individuals who were unclean  . . .  We do not believe that the practice of baptism for the remission of sins as taught in the New Testament was based in any way on the Old Testament, however the Old Testament washings with or in water that were for the purpose of physical cleansing can be seen as a type or shadow of New Testament baptism, which is for the purpose of spiritual cleansing (1 Peter 3:21).

Toward the beginning of the Christian era, the Jews adopted (as a custom unrelated to Divine guidance) the custom of baptizing proselytes seven days after their circumcision. A series of specific interrogations made it possible to judge the real intentions of the candidate who wished to adopt the Jewish religion. After submitting to these interrogations, he was circumcised and later baptized before witnesses. In the baptism, he was immersed naked in a pool of flowing water; when he rose from the pool, he was a true son of Israel. After their baptism, new converts were allowed access to the sacrifices in the Temple.

When John the Baptist came on the scene in the first century Jewish world, his teaching included the necessity of baptism.  . . .  John’s baptism was not based on or authorized by the Jewish law or pagan religious customs and traditions. John was called to preach by God, armed only with the Word of God (Luke 3:2). Jesus tells us that the baptism that John taught was from heaven, not from men ( Matt 21:25). When John preached a baptism for the remission of sins, the people heard and obeyed. They submitted to the baptism that had been authorized by God. It was the first time in human history in which a person had the opportunity to be baptized for the remission of his sins, pagan and Jewish religious customs, notwithstanding. A necessary refinement in the administration of baptism had to be made following the death of Jesus, however, as Acts 19:1-7 points out. Rather than submitting to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance, we can now be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.2

The Pharisees’ Puzzle

Joh 1:26  John answered them, saying, I baptize in water, but One stands in your midst whom you do not know;
Joh 1:27  This One it is who has come after me, who has existed before me, of whom I am not worthy that I should loosen the strap of His sandal.

John spoke truth to them, but for those sent by the Pharisees, I can imagine such a statement constituted a sort of riddle. They probably left the river bank shaking their heads, unable to comprehend, after all, while the coming of the Messiah was an important event they constantly looked for, they doubted that a crazy man, recently from the desert would have anything to do with such a glorious event. Even though John had no idea who the Messiah was, he believed God and the mission he was on. He feared God and he knew what he was called to do and he did it. He had to have been one of those intense people that we run into every once in a while that really unsettles us.

Joh 1:28  These things took place in Bethabara at the crossing of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Bethabara is considered to be the city of Bethany east of the Jordan and near the Galilee.

We don’t know what the Pharisees thought about John. They had probably decided to keep an eye on him, but I suspect they passed him off as any number of zealots who claimed now or in the past to be the Messiah. They probably thought: This one will be false and will meet his end in a short while, in a way similar to all that had made similar claims.

Thank you for reading and God bless you.


1 Bond, Helen (2005), Joseph Caiaphas, The Bible and Interpretation. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Bond_Joseph_Caiaphas.shtml
2 Barnes, Ed (2005), Baptism: A Pre-Christian History. Expository Files. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from http://www.bible.ca/ef/topical-baptism-a-prechristian-history.htm


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