Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 record the covenant curses that God said would come on the old covenant community for flagrant, impenitent violations of the Mosaic law. The history of old covenant Israel shows us that despite God’s patience with His people and His sending them many prophets to call them to repentance, the Lord finally grew tired of the people’s impenitence and visited the worst of the covenant curses upon them—exile. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and took the Israelites from their land, and Babylon did the same thing to Judah and the Judahites in 586 BC (2 Kings 17; 25).
When the Jews came back to their land in 538 BC, sin was still a problem, as we see in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Over time, however, many Jews developed a new resolve to keep the Mosaic law and to avoid sin in order to prevent the exile from happening again. While those desires were commendable, many Jews crossed the line into legalism. They came up with many traditions and extra rules as a “fence around the Torah.” By keeping these extra rules, they reasoned, they would avoid breaking the actual commandments of the Mosaic law. And in time, these traditions came to be seen as part of the law itself. The chief party that took this approach was the Pharisees. Because of the Pharisees’ outward piety and concern for the law, the common people looked to them as exemplars of holiness.
Understandably, these Pharisees became concerned when John the Baptist came calling for all the Jews to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin (Mark 1:4). Surely at least some Jews, they thought, such as the Pharisees, would not need to be baptized because of their holiness. That explains why the Pharisees were associated with the group of people sent from Jerusalem to investigate John the Baptist’s practice. He would need divine authority to make such an audacious claim that even the Pharisees needed baptism (John 1:24–25).
John’s answer was to point beyond himself to another in their midst who had the kind of authority the Pharisees were asking about. John the Baptist came as a witness to a greater figure, One whose sandal he could not untie (vv. 26–29). Since first-century Jewish disciples could do almost everything for their masters except untie their sandals, an act reserved for slaves, this shows the depths of John’s humility. As necessary as John’s ministry was, it would be eclipsed.