by Al Maxey

Issue #626 ------- July 25, 2014
An honest man, like the true religion, appeals to the
understanding, or modestly confides in the internal
evidence of his conscience. The imposter employs force
instead of argument, imposes silence where he cannot
convince, and propagates his character by the sword.

The Letters of Junias (1769-1771)

Why Then Do You Baptize?
Reflecting on a Challenge Posed to
John the Baptist by the Pharisees

John was different. His appearance and actions were rather shocking to people. In fact, many didn't quite know what to make of him. Most realized he must be some kind of prophet, but they had trouble determining what kind. "There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light" (John 1:6-8). "John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:6). He didn't live in a nice house or keep office hours; he stayed outside of town in the wilderness, and people would come out to hear his teachings. Yes, he was different, but he spoke great truths with great conviction, and the crowds flocked to him. Some began to speculate as to who this man might be, "wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ" (Luke 3:15). The Jews certainly longed for the Coming One: the expected Messiah. Could it be this strange man dwelling in the wilderness? Finally, "the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites" (most likely a delegation from the Sanhedrin, according to most scholars) "to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, 'I am not the Christ'" (John 1:19-20). John certainly made no claim to fame; he sought no personal following, but rather sought to point people to the Coming One, who, in fact, was already among them (John 1:26b), but as yet unknown to them.

Well, the delegation reasoned, if this man is not the Messiah, then who is he?! So, they asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" (John 1:21). "I am not," he told them. "Are you the Prophet?" He responded, "No" (vs. 21). "Finally they said, 'Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" (vs. 22). The leaders of the Jews didn't quite know what to make of John, but they recognized him as a force that must eventually be "reckoned with." Better sooner than later. But first, they had to determine who and what this man was. If he wasn't the Messiah, and he was quite clear in his denials, then perhaps he was Elijah or "the Prophet." The Jews had long taught that prior to the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Elijah was to reappear among the people (Matt. 17:10). This was based on their understanding of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5 -- "I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." Jesus told His disciples, "Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him" (Matt. 17:12). He was referring to John. No, John was not literally Elijah, but rather John took on Elijah's prophetic role, seeking to turn the hearts of the people to God, preaching repentance, and preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. In fact, before the birth of John, an angel announced to his father, Zechariah, "Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:16-17). He would be the forerunner of the Messiah; a public witness to His appearing. Thus, when asked by the delegation, "Who are you?", John replied, quoting the prophet Isaiah in Is. 40:3, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord'" (John 1:23).

The Jewish delegation also wondered if John was "the Prophet." This was a reference to something Moses had said: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him" (Deut. 18:15). "I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him" (vs. 18). There was much speculation over the centuries as to who this unnamed prophet would be, and when he would appear. Most, however, felt it would coincide in some way with the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, again, this delegation wondered: if John was not the Messiah, could he be this expected prophet mentioned by Moses? What they did not realize, however, and a fact Peter made clear years later, was that this unnamed prophet mentioned by Moses was none other than Jesus Himself (Acts 3:20-23). The Jews failed to perceive this, expecting this "prophet" to also be a military leader who would overthrow those oppressing the people, and to reestablish the nation (as per the expectation voiced in 1 Maccabees 14:41). Later, when Jesus began to gain a large following, some "began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself" (John 6:14-15; cf. 7:40).

No, John had not come to be a military leader, nor had he come to be the Messiah, nor was he Elijah (although he came in the spirit of that great man of God). Rather, he came to call the people to repentance, and to prepare the way for the coming of God's Son. He was a witness, a forerunner, a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Nothing more. Thus, John made no effort to elevate himself before the people or this delegation from the leaders in Jerusalem. He "felt that the work he had to perform entirely concealed the importance of his own personality. He lost himself in his office and in his message" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 27]. His response to these men who questioned him was "one which displayed his true humility. He was clear, frank and unambiguous" [ibid, p. 49]. The "priests and Levites" (John 1:19) who had been sent from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem had their answer. They may not have liked it, for they still were not sure what to make of John, but they now knew he made no claims to being the Messiah, or Elijah, or the "Prophet" predicted by Moses. He was just some "voice crying in the wilderness" that the people found fascinating (and would probably soon "get over").

At this point another question was posed to John the Baptist, one which the apostle John makes clear came from men who were Pharisees. It is important to note that the querists were Pharisees, "for this remark is inserted to prepare the way for what follows; for the Pharisees, who attached the highest importance to all ceremonial observances, were just the people to call in question the authority" of anyone who dared to practice such religious rites in public [Dr. Alvah Hovey, An American Commentary on the New Testament: John, p. 72]. These Pharisees asked John, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" (John 1:25). Ceremonial washings and immersions for religious reasons were not unknown to the Jews at this time (or to the Gentiles, for that matter), but the authority to practice or implement such rites and rituals was generally restricted to certain people who were recognized by the Jewish leadership. In other words, these "men of law" wanted to ascertain the credentials of this man who dared to baptize. They believed, from their understanding of Ezekiel 36:25, that in the Messianic reign there would be "baptisms," but they also believed this would be something only the Messiah or His immediate representatives would have the authority to practice. Thus, if John was not one of these men, then they demanded to know by what authority he did what he was doing (a question, by the way, which Jesus would later cast back in their faces with great effect -- Matt. 21:23-27)! In their view, "John is assuming their power, and yet is not one of them" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 387]. Thus, their concern was that John had no authority to baptize, therefore his baptism must be "an innovation" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 50]. "They demand by what authority he introduced a new rite and ordinance among them," thus becoming "an innovator in religious affairs" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword].

"The question now asked is one that would naturally occur to Pharisees" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 115]. "These Pharisees note what seems to them an unauthorized and thus illegal act on the part of the Baptist" [ibid]. "The explanation that the men who now speak are Pharisees is necessary for the understanding of the question which they put to the Baptist. They were of the party which laid utmost stress on the strictest outward observance of the law, around which they had also built up a forbidding hedge of traditions and human commandments. They were utterly self-righteous and cultivated a formalism that was ostentatious, especially in observing ceremonies, fastings, alms-giving, long prayers, tithes, etc." [ibid]. "The sect of the Pharisees was very strict in the observance of all rules and regulations concerning worship and the proprieties of service. The testimony of John relating to his specific work did not interest them, but the authority for his baptizing was a matter of much concern to them" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 409]. How dare this man baptize without checking with them?! "Baptism in water defined the central symbolic act required by John in the course of his preparatory preaching in the wilderness" [The Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1562], yet where did he get his "authorization" to perform such religious rites? The Pharisees knew it didn't come from them, nor was he the Messiah or one of the expected prophets! So, "why then do you baptize?!" They wanted an answer! John Wesley (1703-1791) noted in his Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible that their major peeve seemed to be that John baptized "without any commission from the Sanhedrin." In other words, he wasn't "authorized" to baptize. Not by them, anyway!

"The Pharisees represented the strict interpreters of the Law and were particularly interested in examining the credentials of any new religious teacher in Judaism" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 36]. They were the self-appointed "guardians of truth" (or, the "truth" as they understood it, which was far more tradition than truth), and they descended on any and all who dared to deviate from their rigid religious rut. John was not "one of them" -- indeed, he didn't seem to be anyone of note -- and they were not amused by his antics! Interestingly, John did not argue with them or even disagree with them. In fact, he declared that his whole ministry was simply to point to "the One who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie" (John 1:27). John essentially said, "I'm nobody; HE is everything!!" John wasn't trying to gain a following; he urged people to follow the Messiah. He was simply called to prepare the people's hearts to accept God's Son, and thus he called them to repent and to visibly evidence that repentance in baptism. "John was merely helping the people perform a symbolic act of repentance. But soon One would come who would truly forgive sins, something only the Son of God -- the Messiah -- could do" [Life Application Bible, p. 1871]. How could anyone object to such a messenger and such a message?! Turn to God, prepare yourselves, your King is coming! I fear today we may have the same situation -- legalists issuing challenges over credentials and authorization and regulations concerning baptism (among other things), when we ought to simply be calling people to repent and come to Jesus: our Savior and King. Oh, that we had more humble messengers of God's Grace, and fewer militant religionists fuming and fussing about "authority" and "credentials" and "religious rituals."

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Indiana:

Al, I am finally getting around to ordering your book Immersed By One Spirit. Please find a check enclosed. We will probably not meet on this side of eternity. We'll just have to wait until we are on the other side of eternity. God bless you! By the way, so many of your writings have hit the nail on its head, but the one you did on 2 Timothy 2:15 [Reflections #518] was a great one!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I need to order 10 more copies of your new book From Ruin To Resurrection, for which my check is enclosed. This book can do SO MUCH good!! Thanks oodles!

From a Reader in Texas:

Since I am only a few days from my birthday, any purchases for myself at this time are "off limits." In fact, I fully believe someone in my family will be giving me a copy of your latest book [From Ruin To Resurrection] for my birthday, and I expect it will have some answers to things I have been considering (because that has always been the case with your writings). BTW, I enjoyed the "Rethinking Hell Conference" a few days ago in Houston in which Edward Fudge was honored.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

The "Reader from Georgia" wrote to you: "Remove me from your Reflections mailing list as I no longer wish to read your trash! YOU ARE A DEMON!!" Ahhh, one man's trash is another man's treasure!! Keep up the good work, Al.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Your last Reflections titled "The Righteous 'Scarcely Saved'" was an excellent piece! I've sat in frustration all my adult life listening to preachers and Bible class teachers misuse this passage (1 Peter 4:18). Whether Peter had the coming Roman siege against Jerusalem in view, or was just speaking to generic temporal persecutions and afflictions, one's eternal salvation was clearly not the subject under discussion by him, as some contend.

From an Author in Texas:

Your article "The Righteous 'Scarcely Saved'" reminded me of an article on which I was working: "Where is the Suffering?" Where is the suffering of those who sit in pews and are continually assured of their salvation because they are in the "right church," because they "worship correctly" every Sunday, because they were baptized in water "for all the right reasons," and because they are obedient to all the commands they perceive to be "essential to salvation"? Is that their perception of suffering with Jesus? I don't think this is what Peter meant by "suffering with Jesus."

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