The Baptist Bemused?
Matthew 11: 1-9ish
“When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.”
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”
Jesus has finished admonishing his disciples and Matthew turns his attention to John the Baptist–he makes this clear in the context of his composition. Again, I think it’s time to rid ourselves of the chapter and verse breaks, so that we’ll consider the context and not isolate chapter and verse. However, this is a good place for a chapter break. I realize, and agree, that chapter and verse breaks are essential for ease of reference but we must train ourselves to ignore them while reading. Matthew purposefully provides perfect parsing, a chapter break is not necessary, for the reader clearly sees a new chapter in the book of Jesus as the true Israel. Many translations read differently but say the same thing. “After,” “When;” for example, all indicate a completion of something when coupled with the word “finished,” after the words, “When” or “After.” We understand words, so long as we keep them in context. Matthew gives us a transition text, literally; “and when it came to pass that Jesus had finished speaking to his disciples…” In other words, “moving on,” but we will get back to this…moving on.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Our minds should return to Matthew chapter (for ease of reference) three. That’s where we meet the ministry of John the Baptist. Remember, John came preaching and went baptizing. John came to the wilderness and went to the water. Also remember that the wilderness is a desolate place. If you are reading this and haven’t recently read my missive on the “Preaching Prophet,” may I humbly suggest doing so now? Each missive builds on the last, as does Matthew’s composition, and we are zooming in on John the Baptist now, as does Matthew’s composition. We follow the scriptures where they lead. Right now, we are told that John the Baptist is in prison and has questions for Jesus.
Consider the CAGED method of Biblical interpretation, where:
- Context is king
- Author’s aspirations to audience are apex
- Genre is the General
- Expository exegesis of examples enlightens; simply put, search similar scenarios and examples in the rest of scripture, particularly our Old Testament tutor; what else does scripture say on the subject?
- Divide rightly the word; are examples arbitrary or subjective and showing synthesis?
The broader context is the life of Jesus, which up until this point, has resembled greatly, the way of Israel. Born, sent to Egypt, “out of Egypt I called my son,” Baptism, temptation in the wilderness, law-giving and sending out the 12. As we zoom in, we must remember where we are in the broader context, Jesus is teaching and preaching and his disciples are sent out. Now, using the CAGED method, we zoom in on today’s text.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’ As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John…” Context, context, context, are the 12 disciples present? Whose disciples are mentioned? Where is John the Baptist? A close examination, or even a cursory reading reveals that it is John who sent his disciples to Jesus from prison because he had heard of the works of Jesus. For whatever reason, we think that the disciples of Jesus are present, probably because of the word, disciple. However, all indications are that they are not. Whether or not they are is of little significance but I bring it up because we assume that they are there when the context reveals otherwise. We must read, not read into, the context. Disciples are present but they are named as John’s disciples. We also note that John sends his disciples to Jesus because he is in prison. We also note that John had heard of the works of Jesus, and having heard of these works, he specifically sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus himself, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Let’s take some vitamin E, and look at what other scripture says about John the Baptist.
In John 1:19 (ahhhh, ease of reference), John, the apostle writes of John the Baptist, “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” And, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”
“This is the Son of God,” John said at the baptism of Jesus. Why now does he question this? We also remember what John said earlier in the context of Matthew, “I have need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Luke and Mark tell shorter but similar stories about John the Baptist. John saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus, he heard the words, “This is my Son.” We also see similar testimony that John heard of all the things Jesus was doing. He saw with his own eyes, and heard with his ears the testimony of Jesus, how could he question? Why did he question? Notice the response of Jesus to John’s questions, which he told John’s disciples.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The response of Jesus to John’s questions is to tell John what he has already heard. Notice; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” Jesus responds; tell him about my deeds, literally, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” John didn’t ask for confirmation of the deeds of Jesus, he asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Don’t be offended by this, but that’s just Jesus being Jesus? That’s quite often how Jesus, the long-awaited messiah, the true Israel, the creator of all things responds to questions. He doesn’t answer how we want, but based upon our need. Speaking of being offended, we glossed over that part.
“Blessed is he who is not offended by me.” Or in the NASB, “Blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over me.” That’s an odd statement within the context. Yet it is written and seems to be directed at John. Or was it? Did John truly waver in his faith so much that he sent his followers to ask Jesus if he was the true messiah? Some pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim that John’s question actually was for the benefit of his disciples. And it most certainly was, but not solely for their benefit. Notice, “shall we look for another.” Many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim that John would never waver in his faith, after all, he leaped even in the womb over Jesus. Problem, the context says John, himself asked and Jesus instructed his disciples to report back to John.
On the other hand, many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers take a hard left when examining this text. They believe John to have been completely disturbed and distraught by what he had heard concerning the Christ. Problem, that’s not in the context either. The context reveals a middle-of-the-road scenario, by way of the words of Jesus. Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples to fear not. In fact, it has been surmised that the Bible contains a verse-a-day for a year that reads, “fear not.” But Jesus doesn’t say that here, he quotes Isaiah, saying the gospel is preached to the poor and the blind receive sight. He also gives a blessing to one who doesn’t stumble over him. Did John question Jesus as the messiah? Yes. Was he terribly distraught about it? No, the context is clear. John, like all, all people, didn’t know exactly what to expect from the coming messiah. Which begs the question, what do we expect from the second-coming messiah? Luckily I have written about this, if one is interested. Scroll down my homepage and reread Revelation with me.
In closing, let’s take a little more vitamin E and look at what Isaiah said the messiah would do. Remember, Jesus quotes this in his answer to John so that John, the disciples, and we will understand. “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release from darkness to the prisoners.” And “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Remember John the apostle writes that John the Baptist quoted Isaiah concerning himself. Now Jesus quotes Isaiah to John the Baptist concerning himself. John questioned and Jesus answered. The context says so.