John the Baptist

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 11:39

Have you ever wondered whether Jesus really is who he’s said to be? You’re not the first to have doubts.

The man we call John the Baptist had a unique role to play in the kingdom of God. He was a bridge figure, whose ministry straddled the two testaments and owed something to each of them. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the fiery preacher of righteousness who minced no words in exposing the corruption of Israel’s leaders.

He walked around in the desert like a latter-day Elijah, dressed in rough clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, calling the people to repentance, and denouncing the spiritually complacent (see Matthew 3:7-10). John proclaimed that the axe of God’s judgment was already laid to the root of the tree, that the fire of God’s wrath was already kindled and ready to destroy all the unrighteous.

His preaching was so powerful that droves of people hiked way out to the wilderness to hear him, and then followed him to the Jordan to be baptized by him. That was John – a great guy to have on your side, if you were on the side of God, but probably not someone you would enjoy hanging out with. Prophets rarely are.

Then John was also the first evangelist, the first person in the New Testament to recognize and bear witness to Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world. John was the messenger who announced the Lord’s approach, the voice, in Isaiah’s language, that cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord. John pointed to the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He was the epitome of the gospel preacher, concerned only that the message be heard, not that the messenger be glorified. John said he was willing to decrease, so long as his Master could increase, an attitude we might wish were more common among contemporary preachers.

So John was the last and the first; the last prophet announcing judgment and preaching repentance, the first evangelist to recognize and bear witness to Jesus. Now in Matthew chapter 11 Jesus is going to return the favor. He will recognize and bear witness to John.

A Poignant Cry

As the chapter opens John is in prison. A bit later in the gospel (Matthew 14:1-12.) Matthew will tell us the story of how that came to be. A man named Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee. He became enamored of his brother’s wife, Herodias, and he persuaded her to become his consort. John denounced this immoral behavior. He had the courage to speak truth to power, to use a contemporary phrase, but John paid a fearful price. For daring to stand up even to the high and mighty and rebuke their sin, John earned the glory of a true prophet, but also the undying hatred of Herodias. Herod, who seems to have been a weakling, imprisoned John, but he remained somewhat in awe of him, and he feared him – or at least he feared the reaction of the people who held John in high regard.

Then one day Herodias’s daughter Salome came to dance at the king’s birthday party, and, prompted by her mother, she demanded John’s head as a reward for her performance. John the Baptist thus became the first in a long line of prophetic martyrs in the cause of righteousness, a line leading in the 20th century to people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Matthew 11 shows John to us in a different, very human, light. Here the Baptist is alone, languishing in a filthy dungeon in one of Herod’s desert fortresses. He still has some contact with the outside world through his few remaining disciples. From them he hears about Jesus’ public ministry, and by them he sends a message to Jesus.

John’s message comes in the form of a question, a poignant cry: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (v. 3). It’s impossible not to hear the disappointment in this question, the doubt that has crept into John’s mind and heart. His life’s purpose was to testify to Jesus as the Messiah. But now John’s wondering, afraid that perhaps he’s made a mistake. Even this great prophet and preacher knew what it was like to experience doubt. He understood what happens when things don’t turn out as you expected. He felt the confusion, verging even on panic, that comes when you fear that you may have been wrong to put all your hope in Jesus. What if he’s not the one? What if Jesus isn’t God? What if there is no God?

What made John begin to ask those middle-of-a-sleepless-night type questions was a combination of things. First of all there was his own predicament. John had done everything God had asked of him, and then some, and look what God had allowed to happen to him. There was also his suffering – physical and mental torture can undermine anybody’s faith. And most of all there was the puzzling failure of Jesus to do what John expected, which brings us to the next point – Jesus’ response to John’s uncertainty.

A Dramatic Answer

It seems clear to me that the root of John’s crisis of faith lay in his false expectations for the Messiah, which were the result of reading his own agenda into the will of God. John was looking for judgment. That’s what he proclaimed to the people, that’s what he warned them to flee, it’s what he expected the Messiah to unleash when he came. He recognized his cousin Jesus as the One whose way he had been sent to prepare, and he announced that to everybody.

But Jesus did not bring judgment. He didn’t redress all the old injustices of God’s people. He didn’t rescue those in bondage and punish the wicked. Jesus didn’t engineer the Great Upset that his mother Mary had sung about before his birth (Luke 1:51-53), raising up the poor and oppressed and casting down the rich and powerful. Far from it! As John himself could bitterly attest, injustice was as common as ever, and the vindication of the righteous seemed just as far off.

The problem wasn’t that John was wrong about the Messiah. He was right in principle, he was just wrong about the timing. God will establish justice; he will not let evil go unpunished, nor will he ignore the sufferings of the righteous. And the Messiah will come to judge the world and set everything to right.

What John could not know is that God’s plan is more complicated than he envisioned. God had determined to separate the two main parts of Messiah’s work – salvation and judgment – into two separate “comings.” When Jesus first came into the world, he came as Savior, full of grace and truth. But when he comes again, he will come as Judge to make all as it should be. John the Baptist’s mistake lay in thinking that everything would happen as he envisioned it, and when God’s plan proved different, John’s faith was shaken.

But Jesus has an answer for John, one that can encourage his faith, and bring him hope. He orders the messengers to go back and tell John all the things that Jesus is doing, how he is healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and most of all preaching good news to the poor (vv. 4-6). These are all signs of the true Messiah’s activity and reign. They’re all a clear fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (see Isaiah 35:5-6, 61:1ff.). John isn’t wrong, he need not have doubted. Jesus is indeed the One. There’s no one else. Everything we’ve ever hoped for will come through him.

A Moving Testimony

After sending John’s disciples back with the answer, Jesus turns to the crowd and bears witness himself to John’s character and ministry (vv. 7-15). He asks the people what they expected to see when they went out to the wilderness to hear John preach. Did they expect a reed shaken by the wind, i.e., a preacher who would say whatever he thought his audience wanted to hear, twisting like a weather-vane in whichever direction public opinion blew? Did they expect to find a smooth, well-dressed politician who would flatter them and feed them the secrets of success? If that’s what they were looking for they should have tried elsewhere. No, John was an authentic prophet; indeed, says Jesus, more than a prophet (vv. 9-10).

And then he adds something even more remarkable. He says that in the whole history of the human race (“among those born of women” in Jesus’ words) there is no one greater than John (v. 11). Think about all the famous characters of biblical and secular history up to that point: Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah; Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. None of them is greater than John. But then Jesus produces the most surprising statement of all: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

That shouldn’t be taken as a put-down of John. Jesus is simply trying here to impress on us the incredible privilege of belonging to the kingdom, the new order that starts with himself. For all his greatness, John is still part of the old order. He will die before the gospel age fully shines, though he was able to bear witness to its dawning. But so great are the privileges of membership in the New Testament people of God through faith in Christ, that the humblest Christian has far greater blessings than the greatest of the old heroes.

You know, you too can be part of that. Do you want to be truly great? Put your faith and hope in Christ, and never doubt that he is the One!