Wednesday, December 19, 2007

John the Baptist's Inquiry

There has been some friendly debate as of late regarding the nature of John the Baptist's inquiry. It is recorded for us in St. Matthew 11 and in St. Luke 7. The debate concerns the nature of John's question to Jesus.

It is a healthy discussion. The reason is simple. The image that the church has of John the Baptist is one of a great man who is bold and absolutely staunch in his faith. He lives in the desert and he alone seems to understand the times. All the world is dying and going astray. The Jewish people were embroiled in battles with the Romans as each carefully jockeyed for control. Zealots were gaining strength. John the lone prophet cries out to the people to repent and be baptized for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. To come to an understanding of John's inquiry, it is necessary that we look at the gospel narratives to get a fuller picture.

To begin, the gospel of St. John (that is, John of Zebedee) makes a comparison of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Jews asked John, "Who are you?", and he answered. John answered in St. John 1:26-27 "I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose."

mmediately after this in St. John's narrative the evangelist tells us, "The next day John 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 is preferred before me, for He was before me.' I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water."

And then comes the statement which is evidence to the church that John is a prophet-- "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'" Then John makes the confession, "And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God."

There is more in St. John 1. The very next day John the Baptist stood with two of his disciples and Jesus walked by. John says to his disciples, "Behold, the Lamb of God." We are told that those two disciples left John to follow Jesus. John didn't put up a fight. He knew this is the way it was supposed to be.

There is more to the story that may have an influence on the interpretation for the reason of John's inquiry to Jesus. In St. John 3:22ff we are told that there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews. John's disciples came to him and said, "Rabbi, He[Jesus] who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified--behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!" John's disciples were upset at the lack of loyalty that people had for John. They thought that John should have the "following" that he had at the start.

John didn't agree with them. He took the occasion to preach a great Christological homily and makes the well-known statement, "He must increase, I must decrease." John says at the end of chapter 3, "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." In other words, these disciples need to believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

St. Matthew 9:14ff we see John's disciples re-enter the scene. They come to Jesus this time to question Him. "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answers them and moves on. John's disciples are critically judging Jesus and John the Baptist is the "measuring rod." Jesus doesn't measure up.

The inquiry in question takes place when John the Baptist is in prison just before he is beheaded at Herod's orders. St. Matthew 11:2 reports, "when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him [Jesus] 'Are you the coming One, or do we look for another.'

The question of good debate is: Is John suffering under the trials of being in prison? Is the flesh of John the Baptist getting the better of him? Does he need to hear it again that Jesus is the Christ? Certainly, it would be in line with the church's doctrine and all of scripture to say YES, John needs to hear the gospel. After all, don't we all need to hear the gospel over and over for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith? Absolutely.

It is my position, however, that this is not primary reason for John's sending his disciples to Jesus. It is my belief that when St. Matthew tells us that "when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He [Jesus] departed to Galilee"(St. Matthew 4:12) this is a programmatic statement--a major shift. It is an official announcement declaring the move from the Old Testament prophetic period to the New Testament fulfillment. St. Mark likewise, "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God..."(St. Mark 1:14).

This statement in the gospels is an announcement. It is signaling a shift in things. This is the very demonstration of John's words to his disciples in St. John 3:30 that John must decrease and Jesus increase. John's being put in prison to die is a necessary thing and John knows this.

One other thing should be mentioned. In St. John 3:29, John the Baptist responds to his disciples by talking about the bridegroom and using the imagery. In St. Matthew 9:15 when Jesus responds to John's disciples, Jesus, too, makes reference to the bridegroom and uses the same imagery. John the Baptist and Jesus are teaching the same thing. They are on the same page. John's disciples are hearing the same thing from Jesus as they have heard from their own Rabbi.

So, when John sends his two disciples to ask Jesus if He is the coming One, Jesus responds, "Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, theh deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them." And then here is the clincher: "And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me"(St. Luke 7:22:23).

John the Baptist has not been offended. The Greek word for "offended" is skandalizein. This word means "to cause to fall or sin." John's disciples have been sinning by following John more than Jesus. John has not fallen or sinned because of the works of Jesus. On the contrary, as I have demonstrated above, John and Jesus have been saying the same thing, exhibiting "omologein" the same confession.
As further proof that John's question is meant for his disciples is seen in Christ's explanation to the crowd who had witnessed the exchange . Jesus says to the crowd, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? In other words, the reed is faith, the wind is the world, the flesh, and temptation. This is not to say that John wasn't a sinner. He was, indeed. But Jesus says that John was more than a prophet. "For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist..."
This is Jesus explaining to the crowd that John's faith wasn't a reed shaken by the wind. This greatest of all prophets knew his Lord and Savior and he knew that he was getting ready to die at the hand of Herod.
This points to the reality that John was a loving and masterful Rabbi and prophet. John had a deep concern for his faithful disciples and he was going to teach them one more thing in hopes that they may see Jesus as He is--The coming One who ransoms the world from sin.
The thing that we should all keep in mind about prophets is this: Nowhere do we see a prophet in the Bible questioning whether God is in their midst. They always know when God is speaking to them and they know when they see him. This is the mark of a prophet--to know the divine oracle. The prophets often show their sin by either fearing for their lives or in their not wanting to communicate the divine oracle (Jonah). This careful distinction must be kept in mind in interpreting John the Baptist's inquiry.
After all, John the Baptist was, according to Christ's own testimony, a prophet, yea and more than a prophet.