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John was drawing large crowds into the wilderness, which drew attention away from the temple. The Pharisees appear to be the first to question John’s credentials and calling. John 1:24, 25 says,
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
Yet Sadducees also came (Matt. 3:7). John denounced them too, calling them a “brood of vipers.” This hostility suggests that John had personal experience with their greed and corruption. Some earlier conflict, no doubt, had expelled him from the temple, causing him to baptize at the Jordan, instead of participating in the usual priestly duties and baptizing at the laver.
John’s father—and therefore John himself—was from the sixth division of priests called Abijah (1 Chron. 24:10; Luke 1:5). King David had organized the priestly families into 24 divisions, so that each could minister twice a year, a week at a time. At the times of the feasts, all of them ministered as needed.
But John baptized in the wilderness as if from the temple. He spent time in the wilderness seeking God. His wilderness experience provided the revelation from Isaiah that he was the voice crying in the wilderness. His baptism of repentance implied the need for repentance among the temple priests themselves.
By calling them a “brood of vipers,” John put his finger on the temple problem, as well as his own calling to baptize as a rite of purification.
When the Pharisees asked him why he was baptizing, they were really asking by what authority he baptized. It was certain that his authority did not come from the temple. John was somewhat evasive, not answering the question directly.
The unstated issue was that the leaders of the priests themselves had become corrupt and were in need of baptism. John did not want to be part of that corrupt system, so he left the church, as it were, and started a wilderness movement with a call to repentance.
In avoiding a direct answer, John merely stated that his baptism was subordinate to a greater baptism that was yet to come, administered by the Messiah Himself. John 1:26, 27 says,
26 John answered them, saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27 It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
Both Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16 tell us that John was referring to the baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire.” Therefore, it is clear that there are at least two baptisms in Scripture. Heb. 6:2 says also that “instruction about washings” (Greek: baptismos, plural) is part of the “milk” of the word that was taught to new believers.
Again, Heb. 9:9, 10 speaks of “various washings” (NASB), or baptisms (KJV) that Moses had established in the tabernacle in his time. Baptism was not a new phenomenon, nor did John invent baptism, as many think. The priests baptized themselves at the laver, pouring water through spickets onto their hands and feet to purify themselves before they entered the sanctuary.
The author of Hebrews let it be known that water baptism itself could do nothing to cleanse one’s heart. Neither could “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a red heifer” cleanse the heart. John anticipated this view even before the start of Christ’s ministry, telling the Pharisees that there was a greater baptism yet to come that could do what water baptism could not do.
John’s baptism marked the start of a 4-year “visitation,” that is, a divine court investigation, to see if the nation would bear fruit that was fit for the Kingdom. This was truly the underlying purpose of John’s baptism. John says in Luke 3:9,
9 Indeed, the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Many of the common people believed and repented, being baptized by John, but the religious leaders did not want to condone the ministry of an excommunicated priest. Since the leaders represented the nation itself, this rejection amounted to a national rejection of both John, the messenger, and Jesus, the Messiah. The nation’s lack of fruit was, therefore, the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and Judea as a whole forty years later.
When John was executed after just one year of ministry, Jesus took over the investigation (as a fruit inspector). This is the meaning of His parable in Luke 13:6-9.
Although the nation as a whole rejected both John and Jesus, there were many common people who believed. These were the ones who were given the right to become children of God through a spiritual begetting (John 1:12, 13).
John 1:28 says,
28 These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The KJV reads, “Bethabara,” but the texts read Bethania, or Bethany. This is not the town near Jerusalem where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived but was rather “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” a town near Jericho where Joshua had led the Israelites across the Jordan. John was baptizing in the same place where Israel as a nation had been baptized symbolically, when they crossed the Jordan under Joshua.
John 1:29-31 continues,
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ 31 And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested in Israel, I came baptizing in water’.”
Jesus was John’s cousin, but he did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah until He came to him for baptism. Whether John was well acquainted with Jesus or not is for others to discuss elsewhere. Some say that Jesus had been traveling with His uncle Joseph (of Arimathea) for many years and that John, therefore, did not recognize who He was. But no explanation is given here.
It is significant, however, that “the next day” after the Pharisee delegation had come to inquire about John’s calling, Jesus came to him for baptism. John then discerned that He was the Messiah. More important, John understood that the Messiah was called to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
It was certainly not universally known or believed at the time that the Messiah would have to die as a sacrifice for sin. Most were looking for a military Messiah who would conquer Rome and live to rule the Kingdom. But John had a genuine messianic revelation and was among the few who knew that His purpose was to die for the sin of the world.
John also made it clear that the Messiah outranked him, even though John was six months older than Jesus. John was born around Passover of 2 B.C., and Jesus was born in September of the same year. Yet John says that Jesus was of a higher rank because “He existed before me” (NASB). The Emphatic Diaglott reads, He “is in advance of me, for He is my superior.”
Whether this is a reference to Christ’s pre-existence or simply to Christ’s higher rank is debated, but the story falls within the context of the apostle’s earlier assertion that the Word was in the beginning with God. I believe that the apostle intended for us to see it in that light.
In verse 31, we see that John’s baptism of repentance was so “that He [Christ] might be manifested in Israel.” The word translated “manifested” is phaneroo, “to make manifest, visible, or known.” The root word, phaino, means “to bring forth into the light, cause to shine.”
John understood that his own ministry would somehow bring the Messiah to the attention of the people. Did he know that the Messiah would come to him for baptism? Probably not, because when Jesus came, he did not think he was worthy to baptize the Messiah—nor did he think that the Messiah needed to be baptized (Matt. 3:14, 15).
Jesus, however, insisted upon being baptized, not because He needed to repent of sin, but “to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, the law had prescribed baptism for the consecration of priests (Lev. 8:6) before anointing them with oil (Lev. 8:10). Jesus was being consecrated into the (Melchizedek) priesthood. John the Baptist was the last of the legitimate priests under the Old Covenant, and though he was probably unaware of it, he was consecrating his successor under a new order of priesthood.