As one reads this passage with understanding, the question arises: how is it that John the Baptizer, the man who was announced by the angel Gabriel to go before Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), have doubted the ministry of the very man whom he had announced?
The circumstance of John the Batpizer’s life and ministry are best known through the gospel of Mark. It is in this gospel, by means of retrospection, that Mark recounts the events surrounding the imprisonment and eventual execution of John at the hands of Herod the tetrarch. The account is also briefly mentioned in the gospel of Luke.
History informs us that the woman Herodias had previously been married to Philip, but had at some point left him in favor of his brother, Herod Antipas. Not only was this woman the wife of his brother, but she was also Herod’s niece, the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus. While Herod was not Jewish, being half Idumean and half Samaritan by birth, he was a leader in Israel, and thus assumed some manner of personal responsibility before the nation of Israel for his actions. His gross immortality with Herodias caught the attention of John the Baptizer, who had at some point spoken against Herod’s sinful behavior, stating plainly that it was not lawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18).
It was Herodias, not Herod, who was particularly angry against John for these words. The Scriptures tell us that she sought to have him killed, but Herod was a particularly superstitious man, and had some level of respect for John’s authority, hearing John’s messages readily and observing John’s sayings. Thus Herod was not willing to kill him, but only to imprison him as a means of pacifying the wrath of Herodias.
The amount of time John spent in prison was unknown, but the text seems to indicate that once he had been arrested, he was never again released. Mark 6:27 reveals that, in the process of time, Herodias was successful in her demand that John be killed. It is the interlude, however, that we are most interested in: the time between when John was arrested and when Herod had him beheaded.
The Scriptures tell us that, following several events in the ministry of Jesus Christ, John the Baptized sent two of his disciples to Jesus to inquire whether or not He was the Messiah, the one who should come. How strange it is that the very man who was chosen by God to herald the Messiah, and the man who had seen the Spirit descend like a dove upon him, and the man who had heard the words, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17); would also be the man who now questions whether or not Jesus is the One who was to come..
There are several important considerations as we seek to understand John’s motivations in sending his disciples. The first consideration was his temporal state at the time of his question. The second consideration was the near universal expectation of the Jews concerning the appearance of their Messiah. The final consideration is that of Jesus’ words and actions to that point in His ministry, and how they would have been received by His audience.
I don’t know about you, but there are certain days in my life – certain seasons even – when it seems as though the promises of God just aren’t comforting me the way that they should. This isn’t God’s fault: the promises have not failed, nor has God faltered; but rather it is my faith in those promises that has faltered, even when I know them to be true. Such an attitude is not unheard of, even in the material world. I know my wife loves me, but there are days when emotions or circumstances attempt to override fact, and my confidence falters. I know that I have been called to be a Pastor, but there are seasons in my life where circumstances or emotions override this knowledge and cause me to doubt my vocation. I know just as well that “all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Corinthians 1:20), yet my resolve in God’s promises is not always as consistent as it ought to be.
John was sitting in a prison cell; his life could end at any moment. He had spent years knowing that he would be Prophet of the Most High. He had baptized the Lord, and had heard the blessed declaration of Sonship delivered by God in heaven. The higher a man rises, spiritually and emotionally, the harder the fall if circumstances change for the worse. This is the reality of the human condition.
It is not this author’s intent to justify faithlessness, nor to defend John’s wrong actions or motives on the basis of his unrelated spiritual successes; yet it is our tendency to elevate men of greatness to extra-human status, thus assuming that his every recorded action must be righteous by default. In doing so, we do these men (and women) and disservice, and run the risk of stripping Glory from God and directing it in ignorance toward the vessels of honor that God graciously used to fulfill His sovereign purposes. We would do well to remember, as well, that while Jesus never justified John’s doubt, he did go on to defend John’s character, and declare him to be the greatest of men born to woman. High praise indeed!
So it is that we first consider John’s personal emotions, spiritual temptations, and level of personal discouragement as possible factors that may have motivated his doubt.
The second consideration we will address concerns the almost universal expectation of the Jews concerning the advent of their Messiah. If the gospels teach us anything concerning the Jewish mind, it was their myopic expectation of the kingdom that Messiah would usher in. The restored Kingdom was the very essence of all Jewish expectation. For hundreds of years the proud people of Israel had been the doormat of every world power. The Babylonians, the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and finally the Romans. Just when they thought they had cast off one oppressor, the next was waiting at the door. Some of these overlords were benevolent, others were excessively cruel, but either way Israel was not sovereign! Everything that the Jews longed for religiously was directed towards God’s promises throughout the law and the prophets of the Messiah, the One who would come and cast off all heathen oppressors, re-gather and unite the nation of Israel, and lead them into a perpetual peace and prosperity under the direct shepherding of Jehovah God.
The gospels are filled with Jewish remarks concerning this expectation. There was a large number of Jews who refused to believe on Jesus until the day that they saw Him throw off their oppressors and claim His right as King. And was this not, even in the ministry of Jesus Christ, seemingly a reasonable expectation. Matthew 4:17 tells us Jesus’ gospel message: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom, Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom…the Jews expected the Kingdom to come.
The problem, then, was not this expectation, but rather the logical outworking of their expectation. The Jews heard the promise of the Kingdom, and so rationalized in their minds the order of events that would be required to see this Kingdom brought about. That order would be something like this: the King is revealed, the people get behind Him, He overthrows the Roman oppressors, He sets up His throne, and Israel lives happily ever after. John the Baptizer recognized another important step: repentance. John rightly recognized that the people’s hearts need to be prepared, and so preached this repentance.
But there was something that even John had not anticipated: the possibility that the people would reject repentance, and thus reject their Messiah. So unanticipated was this scenario that as John witnessed the nation divide between the believers and unbelievers, and as John witnessed Jesus continue to preach spiritual repentance rather than national deliverance, his confidence began to waiver as to whether or not this was the King who would unite the nation.
Even the inner twelve, the men who had followed Jesus and been taught by Him for several years, were not able to overcome their false understand of God’s Messianic plan until the 50 days after Jesus’ death, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them at Pentecost. In Matthew 18:1 the disciples spent their time debating over which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom. In Matthew 20:21 the mother of James and John asked Jesus to allow her boys to sit beside Him in the Kingdom. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Jesus had opened the eyes of His disciples’ understanding to recognize God’s divine salvific purpose, they asked Jesus in Acts 1:6, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” The Jewish mind was myopic in its expectation that Messiah’s appearance would inherently bring about the Kingdom.
The reason for this overwhelming Jewish expectation is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is sufficient to mention that the nature of Old Testament prophecy, when read at face value and in a linear and chronological fashion, does indeed present the Kingdom as appearing immediately following Messiah’s advent. It is not until the writings of Paul that it is made clear that the church age was a “prophetic mystery”: that there is no indication of the church in any Old Testament prophecy.
John was no different in his expectation. Though he, like many in Israel, were able to see past the apparent contradictions between Jesus’ ministry and their understanding of Old Testament prophecy through faith, this did not alter the fact that in their minds they still had a strong expectation of the nearness of the physical Kingdom. Yet with each passing day, as Jesus’ teaching went forth, His words would serve only do further alienate Jesus’ ministry from Jewish Messianic expectation. John being in prison, and unable to see Jesus’ miracles and hear His word first-hand, would perhaps suffer a deeper faith crisis than most in Israel.
Such can also be the case in the church today. When we, as God’s people, allow logical inferences based upon God’s Word to place undue expectations upon God and His sovereign plan, we can falter in our understanding of Scripture and thus blind ourselves to the weightier matters of the law. We run the risk of becoming so loyal to our inferences regarding God’s plan that we fail to see the realities of God’s plan. Such is the case in every area of theology, from salvation to Christian liberty to prophecy, when we allow our logical expectations to override God’s Word, such error can blind us to Truth, and lead others into our blindness as well.
This brings us to our final consideration, one which is closely related to the previous thought. The Jews’ expectation was heavily prejudiced toward an immediate revelation of the physical Kingdom. At the point of John’s question, Jesus’ teaching had focused upon the Jews’ repentance, but had presented a decidedly unique understanding of the Kingdom, its purpose, and its timetable. We reference particularly the gospel of Luke, as it would seem Luke’s account is likely the most chronological in nature.
Jesus had performed great miracles among the Jews. In Luke 4:38-41 Jesus healed Simon’s mother and preached in the synagogues of Galilee. In Luke 5 Jesus called Jewish disciples, healed leprosy and commanded the man to declare his cleansing according to the Mosaic law; he also healed a paralytic. These were all signs of the Kingdom, consistent with the Old Testaement declarations of theKingdom being a place of near perfection: a reversal of the curse and the restoration of Israel. It was here, however, that things began to be…unexpected. When Jesus healed the paralytic, Luke 5:20 tells us He said this to the man, “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.” This was very significant, and the Jews took notice. Their response in verse 21 was, “Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”
Here it was the public perception began to diverge strongly between believers and unbelievers. Though the nation began to split, however, to the believers this was not surprising; Messianic prophecy announced that the Christ would be God, and those who truly believed knew this to be true. Then things became even more strange. In Luke 5:29 Jesus is seen eating and drinking, not with just and devout Jews, but with publicans, a group of Jews that were seen as traitors to national pride for their work with Rome to collect taxes. When the scribes and Pharisee confronted Jesus, His response in verse 32 was simply, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
This concept was somewhat unique to much of the nation. The Jews had worked tirelessly to keep themselves ritualistically clean, so much so that the Mosaic law became the lifeblood of the nation. In the minds of the devout, this loyalty was done with the intent that they would be ready for Messiah, and now this man Jesus, claiming to be Messiah, was not rallying the pious around Him, but rather consorting with the unfaithful. In the mind of any Jew, this would be a shock, to say the least. Thing get even more strange, however.
In Luke 5:33 the scribes and Pharisees questioned Jesus’ commitment to the law, noting that His disciples did not fast as was customary in Jewish culture. Jesus’ response in verses 34-35 was thus: “Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.” Jesus then went on to give a parable, one which they would not understand but which, to the modern believer, is very significant.
Jesus said in Luke 5:36-39, “No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.” In this parable Jesus announced something new, something so new that it would not possibly fit into the “old bottle” of the law. This would be new wine, and necessitate a new bottle.
We find more of the same in Luke 6:1-5. The disciples are in the corn fields on the Sabbath, plucking ears of corn and eating them. Again, such action was contrary to Jewish tradition concerning the expectations of the Mosaic law, and thus overtly offensive to the sensibilities of the Jewish leaders. Likewise, in Luke 6:6-11, Jesus heals a withered hand on the Sabbath, offending the traditional restriction imposed by Jewish leaders according to their interpretation of the Mosaic law.
Following such open and clear manifestations of the Jews’ false loyalties to the law above even their loyalty to the God who gave them the law, Jesus gives what is commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount, teaching that the blessings of God are bestowed, not simply upon a man with the proper blood line, but rather upon the man whose heart follows after the True and Living God. He tells them to love their neighbors, but also to love their enemies. Not only to bear persecution for righteousness, but also to allow oneself to be defrauded in the name of righteousness. He tells them that a good disciple is known, not by lip-service, but by action in the service of his master. All of this was a direct confrontation against all that the Jewish system had become. There would be no Jew, regardless of how devout, that would not cringe at Jesus’ words concerning the traditions that they had spent their lives following.
In Luke 7:1-11 Jesus goes one step further. Yes, He had spoken against the Jewish religious establishment. Yes, He had defied the false traditions of the elders as they heaped unnecessary weights upon the keeping of the law. Yet in the first several verses of Luke 7, Jesus ministers to the needs of a Roman Centurion, one who was very kind to the Jews, and yet nonetheless a Gentile. Among a nation of men and women who had grown to despise and separate from all things that were not Jewish, the man claiming to be Messiah, the King of Israel, was ministering to their enemies.
Such was the string of events that preceded the day when John sent his disciples to ask Jesus concerning His Messianic identity. It was not that John, like the other disciples of Jesus, did not believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Yet Jesus’ action defied what the Jews had taught and understood for hundreds of years, and were so new and different that might cause any Jew conflict and confusion at His actions.
Introspection would cause us to ask the same questions of ourselves. Do we, as God’s people, read the Bible with such stubborn pre-conceived notions of its intent and meaning that we fail to see what is really there? Are we so caught up in our traditions that, when confronted with Biblical truth that contradicts our understanding, we reject the True in deference to the familiar and comfortable? What “blind spots” do we have, and when we stand before God one day, what elements of our religious devotion will be seen in His eyes as misguided idolatry rather than humble devotion?