In my previous hub, What the Pharisees thought of John the Baptist, you met my imaginary Pharisee, Simeon. I used him to show how the Pharisees became the legalistic religious leaders they were. Hopefully it helped you understand that they were very adamant in preserving their religion and way of life. I believe this is why they were concerned with who John was and what he was doing. His popularity would have been a threat to them. He wasn’t one of them, and his words to them were less than kind. (Matthew 3: 7-10) On the surface, their question may seem innocent, but perhaps it had another purpose. Let’s take a closer look.
What does it say?
John 1:24- “Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
Ancient Jewish Baptism
What does it Mean?
Some scholars believe that baptism was a new practice to the Jews, and this was why John was questioned on it. However spiritual cleansing rituals had been a part of their practice since the building of the first Temple. The temple included a large bronze basin for the purpose of cleansing. This was used by the priests before they performed their spiritual duties. (Exodus 30:17-21) It was also customary to require converts into Judaism to be fully immersed in water as part of their conversion. Debates recorded between the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai show that this custom was practiced as early as the 1st century BC. Jewish law even dictated rules for convert baptism. The debates and the law, along with Old Testament requirements for spiritual cleansing all indicate that this was not a new idea for the Pharisees.
Knowing that baptisms were common, we can determine that it was John’s authority rather than his practice that was under scrutiny. The Pharisees implied that only Christ, Elijah or the Prophet had the authority to perform this ceremony. This was not true, priests could be the qualified witnesses required by the law. John had the lineage to be a priest. It is possible that he would have even been the High Priest, had that office not been so politically corrupted under Roman rule. (Luke 1) This would have given him the right to baptize. Although the Pharisees may not have known who John’s ancestors were and what rights he was entitled to as a priest, I think it is more likely that they were trying to undermine his power before the crowds of people that he was so popular with.
If the Pharisees were worried about John, can you imagine how his next statement would have impacted them! “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know, He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” John was an opponent they knew, and he was causing enough trouble, now they had an unknown person to worry about. Someone that John claimed was going to be greater than himself was there among them. Do you think they wondered if it was the Messiah? Or did they just assume it was another troublemaker to be dealt with?
What does this mean to me?
John knew exactly who he was and who he wasn’t. He understood what God wanted him to do. This gave him the courage to stand up to the Pharisees. He wasn’t threatened by them. He embraced his role with courage and boldness. John did not try to be greater than God called him to be. He knew that although he played an important role in history, he was nothing next to Jesus. This makes me think about the role God has given me to play out in my life. Do I know what God wants from me? Do I run from that role, or embrace it in obedience? Do I humbly accept who I am, recognizing that I am nothing before Jesus? Or do I claim the glory that belongs to God when I look at my accomplishments and think to myself, “Look at what “I” can do!”? These are the lessons that I see in the person and character of John. Ask God to show you what he wants you to learn from the life of John the Baptist.
Thank you for reading! Please consider reading my account of a young boy's view of Jesus' baptism.
- Meet a Pharisee and his view of John the Baptist, John 1:24 - 28
Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Simeon. I am a lawyer, a Pharisee if you will. My father taught me to love the law. He was a Pharisee with the most excellent reputation. My father was above reproach and perfect in keeping all the...
- Who was John the Baptist?
John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. True, we don’t meet him until the New Testament, and God hadn’t spoke to his people for 400 years, but he still qualifies as an Old Testament prophet. He even looked the part. Dressed in...
April Reynolds (author) from Arizona on September 19, 2013:
Thank you Emily, I appreciate your visit and your willingness to take the time to research what the Bible says. I hope that John continues to be a blessing for you!
emily on September 19, 2013:
Thank you for this account. Iv'e been reading John slowly, intent on researching everything I don't understand. This was very helpful. God has been blessing me through this study, and now, through your writing.
April Reynolds (author) from Arizona on December 16, 2011:
Thank you Mattmilamii! I agree, knowing the backround and culture of Bible events/people gives us a better understanding of the truth and relevance within the Bible. Which, I think, helps us apply it to our lives!
Matthew Milam II from Chicago - Be A Blessing... Become A Hand Of God on December 16, 2011:
Good observation on the act of spiritual cleansing and the origins of baptism. I thought about the account of Naaman’s anger with the prophet Elisha when told to wash in the Jordan. It could have been due in part because it was such a common practice; something Naaman had seen many times with no miraculous effect.
Concerning the rights of John as a priest; it was an obvious fact that he was the son of Zacarias, something and someone the Pharisees probably knew. His mother Elisabeth was also a direct descendant in the line of Aaron, named after Elisheba, his wife (daughters of Aaron, Luke 1:5). Elisheba, Hebrew for Elisabeth, means God is her oath. It may be a reminder to the oath that references the rights of Levites in Numbers 18 (see vs. 8 and 11 for duration). It not only gives weight to John’s authority but also foreshadows the significance of his relationship to Christ as redeemer.
It’s the addition of nuances like these that enhance our understanding of the times and culture of Biblical events. You’ve done an excellent job and I thank you for sharing.
April Reynolds (author) from Arizona on December 09, 2011:
What wonderful questions lone77star! Thank you so much for asking them. I do believe absolutely that John was fallible! He was a man just like us, therefore he wasn't perfect. However, I don't think that his movement was a stumbling block to Jesus or that sending his disciples to check out Jesus was a sign that he had lost his way. After reading your question this morning I looked carefully at the scriptures and compared it to the same story in Matthew where I found and extra detail that explained it for me. John was in prison when he sent his disciples to question Jesus. (Matthew 11:2-6) Now I imagine that the rumor and gossip mill was just as active then as it is today. So I think that John was hearing all these stories while he sat in prison and had no way of being able to go and see if they were true or if all these fantastic things were being done by the same person he had baptised in John 1. So I think sending his disciples to check it out was just a responsible way to see if the person the stories were about was the same person he had testified to be the Son of God.
As far as Jesus saying he was lower that the lowest of heaven, I think that is a correct statement of John's position. Jesus starts out by saying that among those born of women, there is none greater, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater. So I think it is a matter of what he means by the kingdom of heaven. If he is talking about those who live in the holy realm in the constant presence of God, then John would be in a much lesser position because he is not in the presence of God. He is in jail, which isn't even a very high position here on earth. Jesus could be talking about the kingdom of heaven that he brought to us. When we accept his sacrifice that forgives us of our sins, we are seen by God as perfect and holy. This would make anyone in that Kingdom greater than John because at this point Jesus hadn't died and made that sacrifice yet. So no matter how great he was he was still a sinner like the rest of us, Christ's blood had not covered his sins.
Finally, I have notice in my studies of the bible, that the people in the New Testament took things very literally. When Jesus offered the woman at the well living water, she looked for his water jar (John 4:11). When he talked of his body as being living bread, the people thought he wanted them to eat his flesh. (John 6:52) I think that is what is happening here. When the Jews ask John if he is Elijah, they are asking if he is the exact same Elijah the Tishite that lived in their Old Testament history. I think John is indicating that no he is not that same person. When Jesus says that John is Elijah, I think he is speaking spiritually or figuratively, as he is in the other stories. The angel told John's father that John would have the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). In this way, John fufills the prophesies of Elijah coming to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. John was very much like Elijah in dress, manner and being filled with the Holy Spirit. But he was not literally Elijah the Tishite come back to life. We see that Elijah later with Moses at the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17). (can you imagine Peter saying "Hey, there's John!")
Anyway, these are my thoughts on your questions. I hope they make sense to you. I appreciate that you would take the time to ask me for my thoughts.
Thank you for reading!
Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on December 09, 2011:
A beautiful lesson. God can ask a lot of us sometimes and at times we may not understand why.
But was John fallible? Was he and his movement a stumbling block to Jesus and his mission (Luke 7:23-28)? Why would John send his own disciples to check with Jesus to see if he is the messiah? What was the confusion? Had John lost his way with a tad of uncertainty? Could this be why Jesus made it clear that John was lower than the lowest of heaven?
John said that he was not Elijah (Elias), but Jesus said later that he was. Jesus had said that John was of the earth, but that Jesus himself was of heaven, above. Who would know better if John was Elijah returned?