In my post, John the Baptist and Jesus, I had a discussion with Steph about whether or not John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Steph argued that the synoptics do not present him doing so, and I said that they do.
I appealed to Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, and Luke 20:1-8, which are all pretty much the same passage. In them, the chief priests, scribes, and elders come to Jesus and ask him, “[B]y what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus replies that he’ll answer their question if they answer his first: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” That puts the Jewish leaders into a quandary. If they answer “From God,” Jesus will say, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” If they answer “From men,” they’ll anger the people, who regard John as a prophet. And so they respond, “We don’t know.” And Jesus then says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
My interpretation of this passage was as follows: Jesus asked them this question because John had proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. If the Jewish leaders acknowledged that John’s baptism was of divine origin, then they’d have to believe in Jesus, since John proclaimed Jesus. That was Jesus’ trap.
And part of me still sees that interpretation as valid, for it addresses the Jewish leaders’ question of “By what authority are you doing these things?” If John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, and his baptism was of God, then Jesus must have divine authority for his ministry.
But, after reading certain passages, I can understand how someone can arrive at another conclusion. According to Steph, Jesus wasn’t saying that John had proclaimed him to be the Messiah. Rather, he was trying to embarrass the Jewish leaders because they had rejected John the Baptist. “You’re trying to trap me with a question,” Jesus was saying. “Well, let me return the favor: Where were you when John the Baptist did his baptisms? Did you repent and accept his message, or not?” And this may be more than Jesus playing a game of “Gotcha!” He’s showing that the Jewish leaders were not all that sensitive to God’s activity in history, so they had no business condemning Jesus.
There are passages in which the scribes and Pharisees display a pretty dim view of John the Baptist. They claimed he had a demon because of his rigorous asceticism (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33). That’s rather extreme, don’t you think? And Luke 7:30 says they weren’t all that enthusiastic about John’s baptism: “But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (NRSV).
The Pharisees may have been pretty open at times about their contempt for John, but they didn’t want Jesus bringing it up, not with dozens of John sympathizers standing around them. They could picture the people saying, “Oh yeah, that’s right. You guys didn’t care much for John, did you? You even said this bold man of God had a demon. Stone them!”
And Matthew’s version of the incident bears this out. The Jewish leaders feared that Jesus would ask them why they didn’t believe in John. Immediately afterwards, Jesus indicated through a parable what he meant by “believe.” In his story, a father tells two sons to do something. One says he will, but he doesn’t do it. The other says he won’t, yet he repents and obeys his father’s will. The first son represents the Jewish leaders, whereas the second one symbolizes the sinners who repented at John’s preaching. Jesus then explains the lesson of the parable: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32). The Jewish leaders did not “believe” John in the sense that they failed to receive his message of repentance and forgiveness.
Of course, the New Testament is not entirely consistent about this. Matthew 3:7 narrates that many Pharisees and Sadducees did come to John for baptism, but he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers!,” he said. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” They may have turned away from him once he bruised their ego. Like many of us, they valued their own glory more than God and righteousness (in the Gospels’ telling).