But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7, NRSV).
Sometimes when Bible things are confusing, I find it helpful to look at some different translations. And, regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees in this verse, different translations say some pretty different-sounding things.
Were the Pharisees and Sadducees coming “for baptism,” like the NRSV says? The CEB and The Message sound similar: they were “coming to be baptized by John” (CEB); or, more dramatically, they were “showing up for a baptismal experience” (The Message). The way these translations tell it, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John with an honest desire to be baptized. And their reward? They got called a brood of vipers!
Some translations are more ambiguous. According to the NIV, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just “coming to where he was baptizing”; in the NET, they were “coming to his baptism.” In these translations, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just showing up, and we are not really sure what their intentions were. Maybe they wanted to be baptized; maybe they wanted to lay down the law and put a stop to the madness; maybe they didn’t know what they wanted.
Alternatively, in the NLT’s words, maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees came “to watch him baptize.” Maybe they were curious spectators, standing back, arms folded, looking on to see how things would unfold. Maybe they had been instructed to bring back a report to their Pharisee supervisors so that the religious bigwigs could decide among themselves where exactly John fell on a scale of one to dangerous menace, and what to do about it.
As it turns out, the original Greek is about as ambiguous as some of the more ambiguous English translations. Very literally, it says something like this (with the ambiguous word left untranslated): “But, seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming ἐπὶ his baptism…”
The ambiguity is that ἐπὶ could mean “to”―as in, they came (with unclear purpose) to the place where John was baptizing. It could mean “against”―as in, they came with the intention of opposing John’s baptism rather than receiving it. (It also could mean “for”―as in, for the purpose of receiving John’s baptism―but this would be an unusual use of ἐπὶ; there are other words Matthew uses all the time to express a meaning like this.)
So, in my pondering about whether there may have been whole groups of people who came hoping to be baptized by John but instead found themselves being called some choice names, it was helpful to realize that the language of “coming for baptism” is actually a bit of a stretch―“coming to his baptism” is perhaps more faithful to the original text, and “coming against his baptism” is a very reasonable possibility.
The point of all this being, I don’t think John turned away anyone who came to confess and receive baptism. And this is a good thing to think about whenever we might feel justified in manufacturing boundary markers that place whole categories of people―even if it’s the religiously obnoxious, self-righteous ones like the Pharisees―outside the lines of who can confess and be cleansed, who can turn toward God and receive forgiveness.
I think John only spoke against the Pharisees and Sadducees because they had not actually come to receive baptism, but, more likely, to oppose it.
They may have stood silently in their fancy religious robes at the side of the river, looking down with judgmental frowns. They may have mumbled things among themselves. They may have even spoken out loud to John.
Maybe a bolder one called out: “John, have you met these people? Don’t you know that they have not been tithing and fasting and following the religious rules, like we have?”
The Pharisees and Sadducees must have been unnerved to see this uncredentialed, unauthorized, weird-looking preacher, drawing such a big crowd out there in the wilderness, so far from the religious power centers in the city of Jerusalem. John the Baptist was enacting an important religious ritual without bothering to ask for their permission, and they didn’t like it.
Here I think of John MacArthur’s recent quip that Beth Moore should “go home.” MacArthur is an influential pastor, and Beth Moore is a popular Bible teacher and women’s ministry leader (with whom no one seemed to have a problem until she started speaking up in recent years against sexism and sexual abuse in the church).
I’m not sure why people are still taking MacArthur seriously after all of the ridiculous things he’s said and done over the years―including fabricating an elaborate set of lies about having been in an office with civil rights leader Charles Evers on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered)―but MacArthur and other male pastors seemed to be just fine with Moore’s ministry as long as she more or less played by their rules. But as soon as a woman starts speaking “out of line,” giving the powers-that-be any reason to fear that their sense of control over women might possibly be tenuous and shrinking, they turn against her.
Fortunately for Moore―and for all of the other women doing their best to preach and teach faithfully, and for everyone else who falls outside (or on the wrong side) of the structures of institutional church power in various ways―we do not need the sanction of religious power structures, dominated by a handful of white men, in order to do and keep doing what God calls us to do. As my brilliant friend Joyce put it so well, “I’m not asking for your permission, Piper” (referring to John Piper, another prominent male pastor who seems to think he has some business trying to weigh in on what women can and can’t do).
John the Baptist did not ask for the permission of the religious power brokers, and he did not need to―even when those powers lashed back against him like a brood of vipers. They saw him as a threat to their authority, but he kept doing what God called him to do. Unlike the religious leaders who tried (and continue to try) to draw lines around who was in or out, John offered baptism for anyone who wanted it, and he had harsh words for those who opposed this practice. (More about the “brood of vipers” tomorrow!) May God’s Spirit fill us with courage to do the same.