Because of John’s enormous impact, the Sanhedrin—Judea’s council of religious authorities—sent a delegation to investigate John and his unorthodox baptism activity.
These men were priests, who came from the extended family of the high priest, and other representatives from the tribe of Levi who were temple workers. And, being sent from the Pharisees, they were also Bible experts.
It was a well-traveled road, cobblestoned in the Roman way. The air was redolent with the smell of fried meat and pungent wine spreading from the dotted stands offering food and drink. Kiosks selling the assortment of goods travelers often found they wanted—including amulets and souvenirs—were wedged in everywhere along the way. Hawkers’ competing voices called out to the pilgrims.
The constant desert wind blew hot all around them, braziers spit with fat; clay, silver, and bronze figurines clinked like wind chimes; pack animals groaned and brayed; children screeched in laughter, and sometimes in protest; travelers shouted to each other over the clang and clamor. As Levites, the men avoided most of the common commerce which catered to every nationality, for fear of becoming ritually unclean by some accidental brush or touch.
One of the men lifted the hem of his outer garment and wiped his forehead. They had begun this excursion to Bethany soon after Shacharit prayers, taking best advantage of the cool morning, but now the sun was approaching its zenith, and they needed a rest.
Another lifted his gourd while uncorking the little clay stopper for a sip of water. “Brothers,” he said, his breath heavy from the heat, “let us stop a while.”
One of the priests familiar with the area suggested a stall he knew of, just a little farther ahead, where they could sit in the shade and have something to eat and drink in safety. Their destination would not be far off, after that.
As they made their way forward, the blue tassels on the corners of their robes became ever more grubby from the swirls of dirt lifted by many feet. And at regular intervals, when they shook the gravel from their sandals, they noted the growing traffic headed towards the Jordan’s banks, just over the horizon. The Baptist had been drawing ever larger crowds, pulling not just from the local villages, but indeed from all Judea, from the Galilee to Jerusalem itself.
It was not often religious pilgrims would actually leave the holy city for an even more spiritual experience, but that is what the Sanhedrin had increasingly been hearing. More and more, travelers to the city would come for the temple prayers and ask for the Lord’s protection as they entered the wilderness, seeking a word from the great prophet.
“Some say he is the ‘voice crying out in the wilderness.’” They had just reached the Levite-friendly refreshment booth. “I wonder who -he- thinks he is?” They all nodded at this good question. They knew who others were saying the Baptist must be. They knew who the Baptist’s father had been. John himself could have been a priest, even a high priest, descended as he was from Aaron’s seed. But who did John think he was?
The delegation had come with five burning questions:
- Who are you?
- Are you Elijah?
- Are you the Prophet?
- What do you have to say for yourself?
- Why are you baptizing people?
Judging from John’s response, these were not unexpected questions, and they were fair to ask. It was well within the Sanhedrin’s purview to examine those who would presume to speak for God. Especially now, with the Roman occupation, and the time of the Maccabees only a generation behind them. On the one hand, if there were to be a Messiah who would liberate them from oppression, the Sanhedrin should know it first, and lead the people to him.
And on the other hand, if John were a pretender or leading the people astray, the religious authority needed to take him in hand and shut down his ministry. As well, his popularity was somewhat troublesome for temple business, for though John supported the Law and the Prophets, and all the oral law and wisdom of their forefathers, he was baptizing even those of Jewish faith in good standing with the Law and with their temple practices.
“Who are you?”
One of them shouted above the low din and drone of the surrounding crowd.
John was very forthright about not being the Messiah. Messiah means “the anointed one,” the king from David’s line who would be the everlasting king of Israel.
“What then? Are you Elijah?”
They knew that Elijah had not died, and believed Elijah was going to come back one day and announce, at the end of the Ages, that the anointed one, the Messiah, was coming.
John was very like Elijah, he dressed like him, he appeared suddenly, he was rustic like Elijah, having a similar lifestyle and preaching style, and he was full of the Holy Spirit, powerful.
But he said no because he was not -literally- Elijah.
When the angel Gabriel told Zechariah, John’s father, he and his wife (elderly and childless as they were) were going to have this miracle baby, Gabriel said John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepare the way of the Lord.
Later, Jesus also said John had come in the spirit of Elijah to announce the suffering Messiah—instead of the conquering Messiah King.
One day, Jesus implied, Elijah will come and announce Jesus’ second coming as conquering King, but this was not that time.
“Are you The Prophet?”
There was some confusion about Moses’ prophecy, whether he meant the Messiah, or some other great prophet, so the delegation was covering all their bases.
John’s answer was very simple: “no.” The delegation was on the wrong track by pursuing John as anything special.
“Who are you? In order that we may deliver an answer to the ones who sent us, what do you say about yourself?”
They wanted John to make a stand, religiously and politically. What did he stand for? Was he for or against The Sanhedrin and its interests? What authority did he think he had to run this big religious operation, as they saw it, in competition with the official religious authorities? They saw him as a possible threat to their establishment.
So John gave them the best credentials anyone could have, God’s word.
“I am the voice shouting tumultuously in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
Just as Isaiah the prophet said.”John the Baptist, as quoted in John 1:23
The priests and Levites, Bible scholars all, were visibly shaken. One of them unconsciously began to stroke his prayer shawl, just under his outer cloak. Several of them looked at each other with startled eyes, knowing the scroll from which John had chosen his words. What could it mean? For though he had spoken one line, this famous passage had been memorized by them all, even the ordinary villager.
“Israel’s sin has been paid for!?” One of the priests rasped in a hoarse whisper. Isaiah had meant the time of exile had come to an end, had he not? So, what did John mean by that?
Another muttered throatily, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken?!”
“Yes,” hissed a third, his voice grated with horrified fascination, “Here is your God?!” They shuddered together as though a sudden chill wind had blown through the sweat of their distress. “And where is he?”
To a man they abruptly turned their heads in every direction, taking in the crowds around them, the sere landscape with its tufts of dusty vegetation and rocks burnt black by the sun, as John held them in his steady gaze. They had suddenly realized they were looking for the one who
Tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.Isaiah 40:11 (NRSV)
[John the Baptist | The LUMO Project, Free Bible Images, http://www.freebibleimages.org]