(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.
Verse 24 clarifies John’s earlier statement in which he referred to the sending group as “the Jews”. Here he identifies the Jews as Pharisees. Today, when we hear the word, “Pharisee,” it ordinarily is used as an insult to describe someone takes pride in his or her set of rules and looks down on others who don’t accept them. (A Pharisaic conservative would want me to have said, “his set of rules”; a Pharisaic moderate would want “her set”; a Pharisaic “Progressive”, “their set”.) But here the reference is to a conservative theological movement within the Jewish people. In first century Israel there were a number of different religious parties. The two most influential parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Also fairly well represented were the Zealots and the Essenes.
The Pharisees took a lot of criticism from Jesus and the other writers of the New Testament, but not because their fundamental beliefs were so wrong. Their fault was that their practices had led them to become hypocrites. The Pharisees were the “back to basics” branch of Judaism. They believed strongly in the authority of the Old Testament and they were scrupulous about keeping the regulations laid out therein.
There were two basic problems with the Pharisees, however. The first was that they were casuists. Casuistry is the practice of taking certain fundamental laws, say, the Ten Commandments, and then fine-tuning them to address the many situations that come up in the course of daily living. American law is essentially casuistry developed on the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. So far, so good. The need for such rulings is obvious enough. The problem came about when the specific rulings began to take on the same binding authority as the original Law. This process created a culture of service to the letter of the law rather than to the spirit of the law, and to the One who gave the Law. Out of this veneration of the letter came a mindset of works righteousness. Good behavior, rather than being understood as God’s guidance for abundant life, devolved into a measuring stick for exhibiting one’s worthiness. Pharisees followed lots of rules, and this made them feel good about themselves. Effectively, this legalism became a religion of self worship.
The other problem with the Pharisees was that, as Jesus pointed out more than a few times, they had become hypocrites. They had come to enjoy their status, their power over the community, and the money they could assign themselves because of their insider authority. They had become an entrenched political party that practiced fleecing of the people. Jesus was particularly hard on them for their apparent love of money and their unscrupulous methods of lining their own pockets.
In spite of the Pharisees negative portrayal throughout the New Testament, there is reason to believe that some of them saw the light and converted. For example, in the book of Acts, chapter 6, verse 7, we read: The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
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Baptism was well known in Israel when John began his ministry. The action is clearly sacramental in that it is a physical expression of an intended spiritual experience. The physical washing represented a cleansing in preparation for entering into the presence of God. God is pure; those who want to be united with him must also be pure. Such purification rituals would have ordinarily been conducted by a priest and, so, being authorized by God, would have been thought effectual. In other words, a mystical benefit was granted by God to the one being baptized. Therefore, the action was more than a symbol. The inquisitors knew that John wasn’t part of the established priesthood, so the gist of their question, since they established that John was not the Messiah, nor the Prophet, nor Elijah, was a challenge to his right to be administering baptism.
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John’s response seems like a deflection. He’s somewhat dismissive of his own ministry, “I [only]baptize with water.” The Gospel of Matthew records John’s answer more fully: 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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.(3.11). John’s baptism is symbolic and spiritually beneficial. The One baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. The purification coming through the One is a spiritual transformation: I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” (Zechariah 13.9). The means of the transformation is the Holy Spirit.
Even though John is dismissive of his own ministry, he does not apologize for it. “I baptize,” he says, implying that he will continue to do so. But his response actually does answer the question of the Levites. John says that his baptism and preaching point to the One and that his connection to the One is his authorization. John’s allusion to untying the sandals or carrying the sandals of the One makes it clear that his role is that of a servant.
All this begs the question as to who it is that John serves. His answer is vague. John tells them that he “stands among you.” He is in Israel, but John also notes that they don’t know him. He has not revealed himself yet. Does John not know who Jesus is? This is doubtful. His own mother had called Jesus her Lord before either John or Jesus had been born. What seems likely is that John was in on the secret of Jesus’ identity and that he was knowledgeable about the timeline—the need for Jesus’ time of preparation for his ministry and work. John’s preaching tells us that he knows Jesus is to reveal himself soon.
The final remark in this section is about the location. It reads like a footnote and seems to be of little importance. Perhaps that is the case, but two thoughts come to mind. The first is that the political leaders in Israel were active in taking the pulse around the country. Minions were sent out to investigate any sort of threat to the order of things. This is classic behavior of people in control who are also determined to maintain control. The religious leaders were very concerned about their “kingdom” and, strikingly, as can be seen by the kinds of questions they put to John, not overly concerned about the Kingdom.
The other thought has to do with recognizing the value of historical references. Not all of the Bible is historical, per se, but many of its books are filled with real people and real events. The historicity of the Bible is extremely important, both because this supports its authenticity and because it underscores that what happened in the Bible happened through real people. The Bible is applicable to real people. It is applicable to anyone who reads it. The Spirit world of the Christian God is not something divorced from the physical world, which is also of the Christian God.