23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:23-27 (ESV)
“The Baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
Jesus asks this question of those who don’t believe in him, who refused to believe in John the Baptist. He asks this of men who were too filled with their own righteousness to acknowledge need for the repentance John preached, whose egos were too proud to accept the grace and mercy Christ offered. It was a question not only meant to get him out of danger, but to prick their consciences, to make themselves reconsider their situation. It is a question that might be asked today of Christ’s baptism, where do you say it comes from? For though they are not the same, they are as related to each other as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, of law and of Gospel, repentance and faith. The question at bottom is, is it something we do for God, or is it a shower of God’s grace? Is it our work, from man, or God’s work, Christ’s commission that comes from heaven? How you answer is the difference of faith itself, in faith in self, and faith in God, reliance on your works, and trust in God’s grace.
The men in question had once asked John the same thing. “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Just who are you? And if you are not the Christ, if you are not Elijah then why do you baptize?” They themselves had come to believe the Messiah would baptize in the manner that Ezekiel had promised when speaking for God he said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (Ezekiel 36:25-26 (ESV) Ezekiel had promised a baptism, and now there was a man baptizing. Could he be the one?
It was the question that everyone had regarding John. But John was adamant that he was not the Messiah, not the Christ. He even denied being Elijah, though he shared the same dress and diet. He only said that he was coming to prepare the way of the lord, to make straight the highway. He came preaching repentance, preaching the law, that the people would be prepared for him who was to come after, the man of whom John said would baptize in the manner of which Ezekiel spoke, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is the baptism we have all received, the one baptism of which Eph. 4 speaks, in which we were buried into Christ’s death, so that just as he was raised from the dead, we too might walk in the newness of life. It is this baptism which Christ commissioned when in Matthew 28 he tells the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them all that I have commanded you.”
John’s baptism, from heaven or from man? The elders, the chief priests, they could not answer this question truthfully, for to do so would be to acknowledge Jesus of whom John the Baptist prophesied. To do so would be to admit that it was Jesus who was the messiah. And to say that his baptism was from man would anger the crowds. The Elders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Chief Priests did not understand the baptism of John, they did not understand their need for repentance, they thought they were good enough and had followed the law well enough to earn their own salvation. And it was precisely this for which they had to repent.
Christ’s baptism, from heaven or from man? Far too many believe that baptism is a matter of man, of man pledging himself to God, of man obeying the law of our Lord. And with this they deny the children and suffer them so that they cannot come to Christ. Those who answer this way do not find themselves with Christ, but against Christ, for with Christ there is no middle ground. He did not come to give new laws, to stoke one’s own ego but to save the lost. He came to give us righteousness, to save us from our sin, and to this end he gave us baptism, a heavenly shower that cleanses us from our sin and gives us the Holy Spirit, that we would be his own and live under him in his kingdom and by his grace serve him in everlasting innocence, righteousness and blessedness. And so you do, because you have been raised from death to walk in the newness of life in a baptism, not from man, but from the God who became man for us men and our salvation, who died on the cross was buried and rose again that he might shower us with grace from heaven in a sprinkling of clean water that washes us from our uncleanliness, cleanse us from our idols, and gives us his Holy Spirit, takes from us a heart of stone, and gives us life in a heart of flesh.