Some things to keep in mind about today’s message is...
- I will be giving a lot of background information that may not seem applicable to everyday life at first glance, so stick with me. I think it is important in helping us better understand who the religious leaders were and why they opposed Jesus.
- As we look at this passage try to see beneath the surface of what is happening and seek out ways to apply what is being taught. I will conclude with some personal applications that I drew out but I would like to extend the invitation for you to expand on the Word.
Before we begin this passage I need to give some background information on our two key players (John and the religious leaders) and the religious system of this time.
John The Baptist – We don’t know a lot about John the Baptist but what we do know we find it in the Scriptures.
- John was of priestly descent. His father was a priest and his mother was in the line of Aaron (Moses’ brother). Both of them were righteous before God. (Luke 1:5,6)
- John was strong in Spirit. He was a person of energy and strength; quite charismatic you can imagine.
- He lived in the desert (or wilderness) for most of his adult life until his public ministry began.
- He was an odd looking fella clothed in camel hair and a belt and he had a strange diet consisting of locusts and wild honey.
- In his public ministry he preached baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
- He had disciples.
- He prepared the way (or was a witness) for the coming Messiah. We will talk more about this later.
The Religious Jews – Most often when the term "Jews" is used in the Gospel account the Apostle John is referring to the religious leaders. The hierarchy of the religious order was a little complex and it was tied to the government. There was no separation of Church and state.
The Temple Order – There are many ranks and levels to the priesthood and they are as follows…
- The High Priest – This is the head priest and he was of the order of Aaron (Levites). Traditionally the office of high priest was a lifetime position (there are a few exceptions). He was the supreme religious leader of his people. He wore clothes and symbols that distinguished himself from other priests. He oversaw the whole order of the priesthood, he wore the urim and thummin which they used to seek and discern God’s will for Israel. His most important duty was in offering the sacrifice in the Holiest of Holies on the Day of Atonement for the nation of Israel. He was the "big bossman" and you didn’t want to get on his bad side.
- Priests – They served various duties and functions within the Temple. Their roles were similar to what a Priest or clergy performs today. They would offer sacrifices, keep the candle wicks trimmed, ensure the candles remained lit. They performed many of the custodial duties of the temple.
- Levites – They were the lowest ranking officials in Temple. They served as guards, policemen, door keepers, singers, musicians and servants of the temple.
The Religious Leaders –
- Sanhedrin – The highest judicial body in the land of Israel. They controlled Jewish internal affairs under the watch of the Romans. The High Priest was the head of the Sanhedrin. They were a sort of Supreme Court of Chief Priests and elders in Jerusalem. They functioned as a court to decide major cases and interpret disputed points of law. They oversaw Temple activities and had some policing powers (under watch of the Romans).
- Pharisees – Were made up of religious leaders, Scribes and priests. They were extremely accurate in all matters pertaining to the Laws of Moses. They held the law up high but morality low. They were not strong enough to control the Sanhedrin. They opposed to the Roman government (namely Antiochus Epiphanes who tried to annihilate the Jewish faith a number of years prior). They were engaged in establishing oral tradition about how laws were obeyed. They met in fellowship groups and controlled the teaching of most synagogues around the country. Their traditions are the source of what is known as Rabbinic Judaism. They were (but not all) enemies of Jesus.
- Sadducees – Were upper class Jews not partial to the teachings of the Pharisees. They held that only the written word of the Books of Moses (The Pentateuch) were the only authoritative books and the traditions of the Rabbi’s did not. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They ceased to exist after the temple destruction in 70 A.D. Most priests and Levites belonged to this group.
John 1:19 - 31
John the Evangelist (the author of this Gospel) introduces a new topic in verse 19. He did not witness the account so he is probably telling a well known second hand story of what happened.
Verse 19 – The religious leaders (probably the Sanhedrin) sent some priests and Levites to question John about who he was. They did not send in the big guns as of yet. They were to ask John who he was… This was not just a casual “Who are you?” question. They were coming to find out specifically if John was the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet.
At this time Israel was under Roman leadership and they had lost their sense of independence. There was a great sense of anticipation and hope for the Messiah to come and deliver the nation because it seemed the board was set for his imminent coming. The Jews believed the Messiah was coming to set Israel free from captivity and establish his Kingdom through the nation of Israel.
Verses 20 - 21 – John the Baptist vehemently denies he is the Messiah. He also states that He is neither Elijah nor the Prophet (which was believed to be one like Moses). The Jews inquired about Elijah because Malachi 4:5 reads, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” They were wondering if he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. They thought the prophet like Moses because Deuteronomy 18:15 says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”
Verse 23 – John states who he is and why he has come. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” He was the one who laying the foundation for the One who all of Israel has been anticipating… The Messiah.
Verse 25 - 28 – By what authority was he baptizing? According to D.A. Carson in his commentary on John, “There interest is in what authorizes John’s baptismal practices. It is not that baptism is unknown. Some Jewish groups practiced ‘proselyte baptism’, i.e. proselytes were baptized in the process of converting to Judaism… Candidates baptized themselves. One of the things that characterized the baptism of John the Baptist is that he administered it.” He continues, “They want to discover by what authority John is baptizing Jewish people as part of the preparation for the Kingdom of God he is announcing. Looking around for an adequate authority to sanction so extraordinary a practice, they wonder if he is an (end times) figure.”
I have given a lot of background information and it has been given to assist us in better understanding some future events of John. However at this point I to want to stop and look at how all this can be tied together and apply to us today. As I was studying this passage I thought about not only are we introduced to two new characters in this story but also to two opposing attitudes when it comes to our relationship with God. I would characterize these groups into two categories; heart changers and rule followers.
John the Baptist’s ministry and life was devoted to pointing people to Jesus. He was a heart changer. He knew his place in life. He had a humble and strong spirit to him. He was not about self promotion, he was about Jesus promotion. He had no agenda of his own. He had God’s agenda. He was more concerned with people being right with God by preaching a message of baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. His purpose and goal was to show people a new way of life and a true relationship with God through the Messiah (Jesus Christ).
The Jews (or religious leaders) on the other hand were all about rules, conformity and power. Their whole lives and ministry were centered on keeping the law and being pious. Their “religion” was more about doing than being. They were very much into self promotion and power by imposing rules and regulations on people based on their own interpretations and beliefs. The clothes they wore were lavish and their attitudes were conceited. They had no concern for God’s agenda; they were more about God changing his agenda to fit their plans. There was no talk of repentance and forgiveness and submitting to God. It was all about the rules. Their righteousness was based on outwardly keeping the rules.
When I look at these two groups I am reminded of how these attitudes are still among us today. Thankfully there are heart changers in this world today. There are believers today who are caught up in Christ promotion and preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. They understand that their spirituality or faith is not a result of keeping rules and pointing out the sins of others in a self righteous way. They are who they are because they are submitted to the One (Jesus) who has shown us the way to the Kingdom. A heart changer receives a new heart when Jesus becomes their Lord and Savior. They don’t just become better versions of themselves, they become new creations in Christ. The old has passed away and the new has come.
There are also people and attitudes among us today of the rule followers. These are individuals depend on “doing” more than “being”. In their minds their fulfillment of duties and “being a good person” are all they need in order to be a Christian. They attend church on a semi regularly basis, they try to be moral (but like all of us fail every so often). They will put some money in the plate when it comes around and feel good about their duties they have fulflled. There is little to no change in heart; they are the same person they have always been and maybe there is a little compartment in their life for God.
The question I want to leave with you today is… Are you a heart changer or are you a rule follower in your relationship with Jesus? Are you putting all your chips on the fact that you are a good person and follow the rules as insurance of eternal life? Or have you repented of your sins, sought forgiveness and given your heart completely over to Jesus to completely transform your life?
 Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel of John p. 145 Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Company