The Second Thoughts of John the Baptist

by David Crabtree

I have been working through the Gospel of Matthew. This time through I have been particularly struck by Matthew 11:2-6, which records John the Baptist’s second thoughts about whether Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus’ response. On the one hand, the incident is a surprising turn of events. But on the other hand, it tells us a lot about Jesus and how he was perceived by those around him.

John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask whether Jesus was the “one” or if they should be looking for someone else. This is interesting because if anyone would have had abundant basis for knowing that Jesus was the Messiah, it would have been John. Let’s review some of John’s background.

John was born in unusual circumstances. His parents were advanced in age and had no children. While his father, Zacharias, who was a priest, was serving in the temple, an angel appeared to him and announced that, in response to his prayers, his wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son. The son would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and would “go as a forerunner before Him (the Lord) in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she, too, would have a son. Her son, Jesus, would be given the throne of David and would “reign over the house of Jacob forever.” From this description, Mary must have understood that her son would be the long awaited Messiah. The angel also reported to Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was pregnant. So Mary hurried to make the trip to Judah to visit Elizabeth.

As soon as Mary arrived and announced her greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. And Elizabeth said, “Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. Over those three months, Mary and Elizabeth must have recounted several times the unusual circumstances surrounding the conceptions of their sons, recalling every detail. At this point, therefore, Elizabeth and Zacharias must have understood clearly that their son had been appointed by God to prepare the way for Mary’s son, Jesus, the promised Messiah. As John was growing up, Elizabeth and Zacharias must have told him these stories many times.

When John began his ministry, he had taken these stories to heart. Describing the beginning of John’s ministry, the Gospel of John says that some priests and Levites came out to him to determine who he thought he was. They asked if he was the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet. He denied that he was any of these. He said instead, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). When asked by what authority, then, that he baptized, he answered, “I baptize you with water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27).

The next day Jesus came to John to be baptized. Upon seeing Jesus, John declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’” (John 1:29-30). But John seems to have been somewhat unclear as to who this other man was. He said, “And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water” (John 1:31). Either John had forgotten the stories he had been told as a child about his cousin so that he did not know the identity of the Messiah, or he and his family had lost contact with Jesus and his family so that John literally did not recognize Jesus even though he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. I am inclined to think that the latter was the case.

Either way, John clearly recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he baptized him. According to the Gospel of John, John the Baptist said, “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33-34). So at the time of Jesus’ baptism, John was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah.

But as Jesus began his ministry, John may have had some doubts about Jesus’ Messiahship. Matthew records an incident in which John’s disciples came to Jesus questioning his piety. This event occurs in the narrative right after a passage in which the Pharisees had raised a similar issue. The Pharisees asked why Jesus was eating with tax-gatherers and sinners. His response to this challenge had two parts. First he said he dined with tax-gatherers and sinners because they were the ones who needed help. This answer would have pleased the Pharisees who would have readily agreed that the people with whom Jesus was associating were people in need of help. But the second part of his response called into question who exactly was in need of help, and Jesus encouraged the Pharisees to reflect on this issue. Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). Jesus is pointing out that God wants his people to serve him because they are devoted to him rather than out of sheer duty—something the Pharisees needed to take to heart.

John’s disciples seemed to have had a concern similar to that of the Pharisees. They asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast” (Matthew 9:14)? They seemed to think that Jesus was not sufficiently pious or not sufficiently sober in view of the seriousness of Israel’s rebelliousness against God. Jesus responded with three analogies.

The first analogy is this: the attendants of the bridegroom don’t mourn while the bridegroom is with them. This analogy suggests that one must respond in a way that fits the occasion. Some responses are appropriate in certain contexts but not in others, and the presence of the Messiah is not the time to mourn.

The next two analogies make a similar, but slightly different, point. Jesus said that you do not patch an old garment with new cloth and that you do not put new wine in an old wine skin. These last two analogies suggest that some things lose their usefulness when they become old and cannot simply be updated to be made useful. They need to be completely abandoned or replaced.

Jesus seems to be using these analogies to say that his coming—in other words the coming of the Messiah—is an event of such significance that it warrants a change in spiritual expression. Fasting, in particular, is not the appropriate response to the coming of the Messiah.

To disciples of John, whose preaching emphasized the need for the people’s repentance, Jesus’ answer must have seemed like a rationale rather than a reason. It must have seemed to downplay the seriousness of the people’s rebelliousness. Jesus must have seemed cavalier, naïve, and not altogether spiritually aware.

So then, it is not a complete shock when we hear that John was having doubts about Jesus. Those doubts are all the more explicable when we take into account the fact that John had just been arrested and was being held in one of Herod’s castles. John no doubt knew that his execution was just a matter of time. As he sat in prison anticipating his execution, he probably started thinking back over the course of his life and reflecting on his ministry. He was questioning what his ministry accomplished. A lot of people came out to the wilderness to be baptized, but did he really change anyone’s life? Was there any evidence of national repentance? Why was there no popular outcry as he sat in prison? If the people had really taken his message to heart, would they not be outraged by his arrest? And where was Jesus? He was the one whose arrival John was proclaiming. What was he doing to further the cause? Why didn’t he speak out about John’s imprisonment? It must have looked to John as though his life had served no good purpose.

This, then, is the context in which John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else” (Matthew 11:3)? Whatever picture of the Messiah John had formed as he announced the Messiah’s coming, Jesus did not match it. John was a prophet sent to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, but Jesus’ ministry seemed too cavalier, too lacking in piety to fit the Messiah. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to fit the part. (And indeed, the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as more of an everyman than a superman.)

When John’s disciples brought John’s question to Jesus, Jesus’ response was typically indirect. Instead of a simple yes or no, he gave instructions as to how John ought to evaluate the situation. First Jesus directed the disciples to observe what was happening in and around his ministry and to report to John what they heard and saw. Then Jesus suggested a characterization of his ministry: “The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel (good news) preached to them.”

It appears that Jesus is listing the wonders that he was performing, making the claim that only the Messiah could perform these miracles. But I don’t think this is the nature of Jesus’ argument. Rather, Jesus is making a much more profound claim.

Jesus’ characterization is not a quotation from the Old Testament; no such verse exists, and I have not found any prediction that the Messiah would do these particular things. However, the blind, the deaf, the leper, and the lame are all images that the prophet Isaiah used numerous times in the book of Isaiah. He used them to depict some incapacity, some defect, some brokenness. Describing the glorious future that awaited Zion, Isaiah said, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

In another passage, Isaiah used language that resembles some of the words in Jesus’ statement. In chapter 61, Isaiah recorded what appear to be the words of the coming Messiah, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted (poor); He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). This could be considered a prediction of something that would characterize the Messiah, but if so, it is, at least in part, symbolic.

So then, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the poor are all used by Isaiah as images to represent brokenness. In the kingdom of God there will no longer be brokenness, and so those incapacities will be taken away and made well. The kind of brokenness at the heart of God’s concern, however, is spiritual brokenness. The physical forms of brokenness are merely metaphors for real, fundamental brokenness; they are all used to signify the kind of healing and restoration that will reign in the kingdom of God. The Messiah will bring spiritual reconciliation and peace to his people; the spiritually blind, deaf, and lame will no longer be incapacitated.

So then, one of Isaiah’s major themes is that the Messiah will bring spiritual health to God’s people. Jesus was doing this. But how does one see this kind of spiritual healing? Where is the tangible evidence of spiritual transformation?

Jesus faced into this problem earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. A paralytic was brought to him for healing, and Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The scribes were outraged by the presumption of such a statement because only God can forgive sins. Jesus responded to them by saying this:

“Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, and walk’? But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed, and go home.” (Matthew 9:5-6)

In other words, Jesus recognized the fact that the scribes could have no empirical evidence that Jesus actually had the authority to forgive sins, so he performed a miracle that would demonstrate that he had divine authority for his actions: he healed the paralytic.

In Jesus’ response to the disciples of John, he was essentially saying this: Report to John what I am saying and doing. Some of what I am doing is healing the blind, the deaf, and the lame. Those are empirically verifiable acts that demonstrate that I have the authority to do the work of the Messiah. And these are not random miracles. They are the very metaphors that were used in the book of Isaiah to describe the healing that the Messiah would bring. I came to fix the spiritual brokenness of my people, and my acts of fixing physical brokenness are designed to remind you that I am the Messiah that Isaiah was talking about.

The Gospels do not tell us how John responded when his disciples returned from talking to Jesus. I can only assume that what John was experiencing was a temporary funk caused by his discouragement while anticipating his execution. I assume that the report brought to him from Jesus caused him to reflect on the bigger picture. He had to remind himself of what he knew about his mission, what he knew about Jesus, and what he knew about what God was doing in history. Having done so, John could see that everything was proceeding as God had intended, even if it was different from what John had envisioned. John could see that Jesus was a perfect fulfillment of the themes of Isaiah. John just had to adjust his expectations. I assume that John was able to do this and to meet his death at peace with God; I assume this because it would be most in keeping with the character of John as it is presented in Matthew as a whole. I find it interesting that even a prophet had his lapses in faith. It is more than interesting; it is encouraging.

Copyright May 2014 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree