A Voice in the Wilderness
Perea was the region beyond the Jordan and Herod Antipas was Tetrarch there during John’s ministry. Antipas was the Herod who had John imprisoned and beheaded. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod imprisoned John in the castle Macherus which was located in Perea.Therefore, this meeting between John and the Jewish leaders has John’s imprisonment and death as its backdrop.
During John’s ministry, the majority of the priests were from the sect of the Sadducees and rarely were they of the Pharisees because these two groups were in opposition to one another. The Sadducees were a Jewish religious/political group in the first century A.D. In the New Testament, especially the gospels, the Sadducees often appear beside the Pharisees because both groups were in opposition to Jesus and his followers.However, by saying, “Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees,” (Jn 1:24) the author brings the reader’s attention to the sect of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a group dedicated to the Jewish law, especially those laws concerning food, the Sabbath, tithing and ritual washing. In the Gospel According to John the Pharisees are mentioned nine times. (cf. Jn 1:24; 4:1; 7:32, 45-52; 8:3-20; 11:45-57; 12:19, 42; 18:3) The disciple whom Jesus loved also frequently uses the phrase, “the Jews.” It is likely that this phrase is indicative of the Pharisees, or at least those who follow their pharisaical teaching.
Early Christian tradition and a strong majority of scholars date the Gospel According to John to the last decade of the first century A. D., and most believe that it reflects a Palestinian milieu, although the apostle may have written his account from Ephesus. Regardless of origin, the account reflects a Palestinian tradition as wells as that of Diaspora Judaism.Like authors today, the apostle focused on material that was relevant to his audience. After A. D. 70 (the Roman destruction of the temple), Pharisaism became a dominant voice in Judaism because the temple’s destruction ended Sadducean priestly dominance. In the decades following the temple’s destruction, Jewish believer’s and non-Christian Pharisees came increasingly into conflict, this conflict has been recorded in early rabbinic sources.Therefore, the author begins his gospel account with John’s testimony to the Pharisees.
In this text, there are four Old Testament figures represented: the promised Messiah (the Christ), Elijah, the Prophet (Moses), and Isaiah. Jewish people anticipated Elijah’s return per Mal. 4:5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” They did not conceive that the Messiah would come first as a Lamb before returning as a Lion to execute judgment. The Prophet mentioned here is a prophet like Moses: Dt. 18:15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren.” John denied that he is the Christ, Elijah, nor the Prophet but did claim to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness per Is. 40:3 and Mal. 3:1, the context of which is comforting God’s people through a messenger from the Lord.
In Judaism, it was Gentile converts who were baptized in order to cleanse their flesh, yet John baptized Jews; therefore, this confused the Pharisees, because it demonstrated John’s belief that all men needed cleansing. The Pharisees, however, considered themselves clean. They ate the right foods, they observed the sabbath, they tithed, and they did the ritual washings.
Often, when I preach the gospel outdoors in the public square, someone will accuse me of being self-righteous and judgmental. If John believed all men needed cleansing, one would assume that he believed himself to be clean since he was the one doing the baptizing. Yet, John tells the Pharisees that there is one coming after him who is better than him, whose sandal strap he is not worthy to loosen. (Jn. 1:27) During the first century, a slave carried his master’s sandals; yet John who baptized men in need of cleansing believed himself unworthy to loosen Jesus sandals.
1. What did the text mean to the original audience?
2. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
3. What is the theological principle(s) in the text?
· The principle should be reflected in the text.
· The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
· The principle should not be culturally bound.
· The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
· The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.
4. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principle(s)?
Josephus, Josephus the Complete Works, trans. William Whiston, A.M. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 18.2.
M. L. Strauss, “Sadducees,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nded. Joel B. Green, et al., eds., (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) 823-824.
L. Cohick, “Pharisees,” inDictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nded. Joel B. Green, et al., eds., (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) 673, 675.
C. S. Keener, “John, Gospel of,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nded. Joel B. Green, et al., eds., (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 422.