When John the Baptist ministered in Israel, he gained a great deal of popularity. It is hard to say exactly what drew the people to him other than the mysterious work of the Spirit of God. John was not rich. He was not socially slick. He simply told people to repent of their sins and to prepare to meet the Lord’s Messiah.
When people came to John, they were making themselves ready, or at least declaring that they were making themselves ready, to meet the promised Savior. It reminds me of Genesis 19, where God commanded the Israelites to wash on the days before he appeared to them on the mountain and delivered the Ten Commandments. The washing was a reminder to the people that they needed to turn from their sins and be cleansed in order to meet the Lord.
Keeping all that in mind, it is fascinating to see, in Matthew 3, the two times that John the Baptist objects to baptizing someone. Those objections are very different, and they are very telling.
Matthew 3:7 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
When the religious leaders of John’s day started joining the crowds, John objected. Perhaps John saw that these men were using his baptism as a way to identify with the people and to gain political popularity rather than as a genuine repentance. Certainly John calls them to show genuine repentance before he was in any way ready to baptize them.
But then came Jesus. Again John objected. But this time, the objection is far different.
Matthew 3:13-14 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
This time, John does not call names or find himself offended that an unrepentant sinner is asking for baptism. Instead, John sees Jesus as so very different than all the religious leaders of his time. John actually believes that Jesus is of such a holiness that Jesus should baptize John for repentance, not the other way round.
We should learn two things from these two objections of John. From John’s words toward the religious leaders, we need to remember that we are sinners, that we need grace, and that God calls us to repent. God is not at all impressed with a person who refuses to turn from his or her sin and be humble before the Lord.
At the same time, we learn from John’s objection to Jesus that Jesus is far greater than any person we have ever met. Whereas the best religious thinkers of John’s day needed to repent, and whereas John—himself a genuine prophet from God—needed to repent, Jesus is holy and perfect. Jesus is God in flesh. He is the perfect Son of God. He lived out perfection and is our only hope to have a right record before the Lord. This objection from John is just one more call for us to turn from our sin and worship the Lord Jesus.