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11 June 2018

John the baptist checks in on Jesus.

But for the best of reasons.

Matthew 11.2-6 • Luke 7.18-23

In Jesus’s day there was no such thing as freedom of speech or religion. Your religion was either what the king said it was, or what the king permitted within his borders. Your speech was whatever the powerful couldn’t take offense at, ’cause if they did, they would kill or persecute you. That’s why Jesus taught in metaphors and parables on a frequent basis. It wasn’t just to make people think.

His relative John bar Zechariah, also known as John the baptist, was not so vague. John flat-out said the governor of the Galilee, Antipas Herod (frequently called “king” because he was the son of King Herod 1, but properly a Roman tetrárhis/“ruler of a quarter-province”) was in violation of the Law, ’cause he had married his brother’s ex. Lv 18.16 Plus she was his niece, which generally violates the command against having sex with close relatives. Lv 18.6 Since John wouldn’t shut up about it, Mk 6.17-18 Antipas threw him into prison, and so much for his ministry. John never got out alive.

In both Matthew and Luke, John heard what Jesus was up to, and sent some of his own students to ask Jesus a question. In Matthew we find out why John couldn’t do this personally: It was by this point John was in prison.

Matthew 11.2-3 KWL
2 John the baptist, hearing in prison of Messiah’s works,
sending some of his students, 3 told Jesus,
“Are you the one to come, or do we look for another?”
Luke 7.18-19 KWL
18 John the baptist’s students informed him about all these things.
Calling two particular students of his, John 19 sent them to the Master,
saying, “Are you the one to come, or do we look for another?”

And this question really confuses Christians. Because we’ve read the other parts of the gospels, in which John was entirely sure Jesus is the one to come. So it’s a little confusing when John suddenly sends Jesus some students with the question, “So are you the one to come?”

Most of the time, Christians assume John had a massive crisis of faith. After all, he’d been tossed into prison, he was gonna die, and when you ponder your mortality like this, you start to rethink everything. Maybe John didn’t believe anymore. So, to make himself feel better, he send students to Jesus with the unspoken request, “Please tell me my life hasn’t been in vain. Please tell me you’re Messiah.”

I don’t care for this interpretation. Mostly because I think the interpreters are projecting their own doubts upon John. He had no such doubts.

The imaginary crisis of faith of John the baptist.

Much as Christians try to imagine what Jesus would be like if he were us, we do the same thing with a lot of other folks in the bible. We put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes, or Ruth’s, or David’s, or Elijah’s. We imagine how we’d respond if we were in their circumstances. Then we teach about our responses. Because human beings are all fundamentally the same, right? So why would their responses be all that different from our own?

Simple: We’re from entirely different cultures. We don’t think alike.

If an American, any American, were tossed into prison for criticizing the president, we’d be outraged. And lots of other Americans would be outraged as well. Even those who love the president. Freedom of speech isn’t just our birthright as Americans; we consider it a fundamental human right as well. When anyone gets thrown into prison for speaking their mind, we consider it an absolute wrong. (Well, unless we hate what they said. But give us a minute to get over our personal outrage, and most of us will grudgingly accept that yeah, it’s still wrong to put ’em in prison.)

But an ancient didn’t think this way at all. They’d expect to go to prison. ’Cause there was no freedom of speech. Didn’t exist as a political reality till about 242 years ago. Still isn’t absolute in the United States; plenty of us still wanna lock up people who burn the flag, or fire football players who kneel during the national anthem. You don’t wanna mess with civic idolatry around here, y’know.

If an American were tossed into prison for preaching, it’d be completely unexpected. Most American Christians believe, deep down, that since we’re God’s chosen people, nothing bad should ever, ever happen to us; that God’ll send angels to lift us up lest we trip on a rock. Ps 91.12 Discovering that life is suffering? That’d trigger a crisis of faith in most of us. We thought when we turned to Jesus our suffering would be over, not starting. We’d doubt whether God even exists.

Yeah I know Jesus never taught any such thing. Just the opposite. Jn 16.33 But you tell that to American Christians.

So this is why interpreters claim John was going through a faith crisis: Because if they went to prison, they’d go through a faith crisis. And they imagine John was just like them.

No he wasn’t. John knew exactly who Jesus was. Read your bible.

John saw the Spirit land on Jesus; he heard the Father’s voice identify Jesus as his beloved son; Mk 1.11, Mt 3.17, Lk 3.22 he knew who Jesus is.

John 1.32-33 KWL
32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
33 And I hadn’t yet seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
yes, him—told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”

John knew it before he was even born. Lk 1.44 When the subject of Jesus’s growing influence later came up, John told his students he was happy to take a back seat, because he recognized his rank was below Jesus:

John 3.28-30 KWL
28 “You yourselves heard me testify: I said I’m not Messiah.
Instead I’m the one who’d been sent ahead of him.
29 The groom’s the one with the bride.
The groom’s friend, joyfully standing and listening, rejoices at the groom’s voice.
So this joy of mine is full:
30 He has to grow—and I, shrink.”

The only way you go from this much certainty, to doubt and unbelief, is if somebody hit you on the head with a rock and you got soap-opera-style amnesia.

So what was John’s deal? I don’t know that it was John’s deal. I’m of the mind this was about silencing the doubts of John’s students.

Andrew and Philip had left John to follow Jesus, but the rest of ’em kept right on following John. Not that there’s anything wrong with what John was teaching, but John’s entire reason for existence was to point to Jesus. If John’s followers weren’t following Jesus—if in fact they refused to follow Jesus out of some misbegotten loyalty to John—it’s a good bet John wasn’t happy about that. They weren’t taking the direction he was pointing.

Like I said, an ancient would expect to go to prison for speaking his mind. So you wanna know why John wouldn’t shut up about Herod? Because he wanted to go to prison, and be out of his students’ way. They’d have to go follow somebody else, and he hoped it’d be Jesus. But John had some stubborn students. They just wouldn’t leave his side. You gotta be impressed by their loyalty, but you also gotta be frustrated by their density.

So, from prison, John straight-up sent them to Jesus. Ostensibly to ask if he was the erhómenos/“coming one,” a clear reference to John’s best-known teaching:

Mark 1.7 KWL
John proclaimed to them, “One stronger than me comes after me.
I’m not able to stoop down and loose his sandal strap.”

The NLT translated erhómenos, “the Messiah we’ve been expecting,” as if John was stupid enough to bring up Messiah around Antipas’s guards. The previous time anyone mentioned Messiah to a Herod, all the toddlers in Bethlehem got slaughtered. You realize Messiah means king, and kings got super paranoid about rivals to their thrones. So John only ever referred to Jesus as “the one to come,” and his students knew just what he meant by that. As did Jesus.

Luke states John sent two particular students. Either these were the toughest cases, or the ones most likely to be believed by the others. And off they went to Jesus.

Luke 7.20 KWL
Going to Jesus, the men said, “John the baptist sent us to you,
saying, ‘Are you the one to come, or do we look for someone else?”

What do you think all these miracles indicate?

Jesus isn’t stupid either. Had he told John’s students, “Yep, that’d be me,” and they went back to Antipas Herod’s palace with the statement, “Yep, he said he’s Messiah,” off he’d go to prison. So he did the same thing he’d did elsewhere: He pointed to his good works. If he’s doing the works of his Father, there ya go. Jn 10.37-38

Luke 7.21 KWL
At that hour, Jesus had cured many of disease, plague, and evil spirits,
and restored sight to many blind people.

Growing up, I had a bible-storybook which interpreted Luke 7.21 to mean that once Jesus heard the question, he turned round and went on a curing spree. Just to show John’s students what he could do.

That’s a fun idea, but I suspect it’s more accurate that Jesus had just been curing people anyway. Not to show off, but because it’s just what he did. Back then, there were no real doctors in the entire world. It was all folk medicine and witch doctors. The world had plenty of sick people, and only one true healer. Jesus had his work cut out for him.

This being the case, Jesus could point to the works he’d already accomplished, and let them do the talking.

Matthew 11.4-6 KWL
4 In reply Jesus told them, “Go back and inform John what you heard and saw:
5 Blind people see. Lame people walk. Lepers are cured. Deaf people hear.
Dead people are raised. Poor people are evangelized.
6 How awesome for those who aren’t offended by me!”
Luke 7.22-23 KWL
22 In reply Jesus told them, “Go back and inform John what you saw and heard:
Blind people see. Lame people walk. Lepers are cured. Deaf people hear.
Dead people are raised. Poor people are evangelized.
23 How awesome for those who aren’t offended by me!”

Christians take that last statement of Jesus’s—the KJV has “And blessed is [he], whosoever shall not be offended in me”—and assume Jesus meant John. As if John, of all people, were offended, outraged, skandalisthí/“tripped up,” by anything Jesus did or taught. John knew Jesus took priority over him, Jn 1.30 and couldn’t take priority if the Father hadn’t authorized it. Jn 3.27 So John was neither offended nor outraged. John’s students, on the other hand, who were jealous on behalf of their teacher, Jn 3.26 were the ones with the hangups. And they needed to see and hear for themselves what Jesus was doing.

So why’d Jesus send them back to John? Not to encourage John, although this message certainly would. But to bring the good news to the rest of John’s students: This is the one John prophesied about. Look what he can do! Stop doubting and believe. Come follow him.

Y’know, other people are gonna have a similar question about whether our Christianity is anything valid. And it’d be nice if we could give the same response Jesus did: “Go back and tell ’em what you heard and saw. Blind people see. Lame people walk. Lepers are cured. Deaf people hear. Dead people are raised. Poor people are evangelized.” Pity we can’t. ’Cause Jesus authorized us to do all those things in his name. So we have absolutely no justification for it.