Why would they come to the water?

John the Baptist Preaching, by Giambattista Tiepolo

I’ve been telling the Baptism of Jesus story in children’s worship for years. It’s one of my favorites, with the cool flap in the blue felt river that lets you dunk Jesus and have him come up in the middle of the water. But until recently, it had been years since I read the actual biblical account.

There was something unexpected in the “grown-up version” in Matthew (3:7, NLT): Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist to be baptized.*

Not to interview him to complete their committee report on New Religious Movements. Or to hang back and gather evidence to convince their colleagues to start a committee to investigate religious extremism.

To be baptized. Why?

The Pharisees and Sadducees, as we know them from the New Testament, are debaters of minute differences in the law and purveyors of punitive interpretations. John the Baptist certainly lays into them when he sees them in his crowd:

“You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed, “Who warned you to flee God’s coming judgment? Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say, ‘We’re safe — we’re the descendants of Abraham.’ That proves nothing. God can change these stones here into children of Abraham. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10, NLT, my emphasis)

So why would those Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized by this man who eats bugs and lives out in the wilderness? We think of them as so sure of their own righteousness that they are bossy about everyone else’s. Why would they heed the call? Wouldn’t they be more likely to be suspicious of such an extreme character as John the Baptist?

I went to my handy New Bible Dictionary and to the Jewish Virtual Library, to see who the Pharisees and Sadducees were. And what I discovered surprised me.

As an average reader of the Bible, I pretty much equated them. But to each other, they had deep theological disputes. General consensus seems to be that Sadducees were upperclass political and religious conservatives. They only took as authoritative the laws written in the Torah and they took them literally. They focused on maintaining Temple rituals and serving in the Grand Sanhedrin, the group that interpreted civil and religious law for the Israelites.

The Pharisees also served in the Grand Sanhedrin, but were theologically looser than the Sadducees (even writing that seems funny). They took not only the written law as authoritative, but also oral law — things they believed God said to Moses about how to apply the Torah (these were later written down and form the Talmud). Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in an after-life that rewarded the good and punished the wicked, and in a messiah who would bring about world peace.

The main thing that connects them, and connects their negative treatment in the New Testament, is their obsession with the law, as if keeping the law in and of itself would make them right with God. It reminds me a little of when a person hears about something bad happening to someone else (robbery, cancer, physical attack) and they want to know all the details of how it happened — mostly so they can determine that they don’t do any of those things, and can therefore believe they are “safe.” As if doing X and avoiding Y or being a child of Abraham is guaranteed to keep you “safe.”

So what would draw these legalists to the waters?

Did they think John the Baptist was one of them? That he was a fellow strict applier of the law who was taking the rules about the need for ritual purification in fresh/running water more seriously than even they did? That what he was doing was one layer of conscientiousness above praying loudly on the street corners, so they needed to step up their game and come out to be baptized? Did they come out of fear, thinking that if they didn’t cover this base, they wouldn’t be right with God? Or was going to get baptized by John the 30s equivalent of slapping on a WWJD wrist band (1990s) or talking about “back-masking” and burning your rock and roll albums (1980s)?

But wait, there’s more. There was a third group around at this time, the Essenes. Here’s how the Jewish Virtual Library characterizes them:

A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.

We don’t know whether John the Baptist was an Essene at any point, but there are enough similarities between them that the Pharisees and Sadducees may have associated him with the sect. So why would a Pharisee or Sadducee come penitently to a Essene-like person?

I think the simplest answer is the most plausible: they were not all the same.

While the cultures of the Pharisees and Sadducees each seem homogeneous, some individuals probably knew that God wanted obedience more than sacrifices, knew that the wise person was the teachable person, and could recognize God nudging them to change, even if that nudge came in an unexpected package. These keepers of the law could not all be religious bullies.

Think for a moment of any group that espouses a doctrine you disagree with hot-heartedly. Are all the members of that group the same? Is there anything redeeming about a particular individual you can think of in that group? Is there something you can learn from anyone in that group? I think of a minister who, in the early 1990s, published a number of articles and letters against women holding all church offices in the Christian Reformed Church. I was saying unflattering things about him one night when one of my friends noted that her parents either knew him or went to his church, and that this man had a powerful prayer ministry. She had specific examples that are lost in the sands of time, but I remember having to stop on a dime and realize that someone I vehemently disagreed with could have something to teach me.

So what can we learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees?

My humble suggestion: that it’s important to know the Word of God and to let it permeate your life. After all, Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-20). Knowledge of the Word is not sufficient to keep us right with God, but there’s a world of richness in the Bible that even a life-long believer can be continually discovering and being changed by. I’m certainly finding that.

Without wanting to seek knowledge of the Word for myself, I never would have read that some Pharisees and Sadducees came to the water to be baptized. I’m glad I know that. I find it hopeful that the urge to listen to and to follow God goes deeper than our theological arguments, deeper than our theological assumptions, and did even way back then.


* Matthew is the only one to identify those men as coming to be baptized. Luke records the same “You brood of snakes” speech that Matthew does, but says that it was given to “the crowds.” I should also note that my print version of the New Living Translation is one of few translations that makes this positive claim. The Biblegateway.com NLT has the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch John baptize; the NIV has them coming to where he was baptizing; the NRSV has them coming for baptism; The Message has them coming to be baptized because it was the popular thing to do. Fascinating, the difference word choice makes.