John the Baptist Questions Jesus

Matthew 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35 and 16:16

DIG: How might prison have given rise to Yochanan’s doubts? Does Jesus answer John with promises or with evidence? Why? How might the Immerser, who knew the TaNaKh well, reply to Yeshua’s reply (see Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1)? What encouragement does the Lord give Yochanan? What does the Good Shepherd say about the Baptizer? How did John fulfill prophecy? In what way did he exhibit faith? In what way is the New Covenant believer greater than the forerunner? Who did Messiah compare to children? Why?

REFLECT: When did you come to the place in your own spiritual pilgrimage when you knew Yeshua was the One for you? How did you come to that understanding? What difference has it made? In those periods of discouragement and doubt, what most renews your courage and faith? In what specific way can you be an encourager to someone in your church or messianic synagogue leadership? In your family? Among your friends? If you could ask the Rock of our stronghold about a decision you are facing, what would it be?

John had been in the dungeons of Machaerus for two long years. The old fort was located in a hot and desolate region five miles east and fifteen miles south of the northern end of the Dead Sea. It is hard to imagine anyplace more remote or desolate, situated in the middle of the desert, high atop a mountain. The dank cells are carved into the rocky hillside, and, in fact, some are nothing more than caves. The floors, ceiling, and walls are impenetrable rock. There are no windows in his cell; the only light comes through small slits in the thick wooden door. It is a place of solitude and silence, damp and chill, where hope is hard to maintain through month after month of sleeping on the ground and where one’s skin grows pale from never feeling the warmth of sunlight. The living hell of the prison had been praying on John’s mind and he started doubting if Yeshua really was the Messiah.620

John’s own disciples were reporting Jesus’ activities to him. They told the Immerser that the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees were not responding well to Christ’s message. Not only that, John (like the apostles) did not understand that Jesus would come first as the Passover Lamb to be sacrificed, and then come again as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah to rule (Revelation 5:5). He would come first as Yeshua ben Joseph, then return later as Yeshua ben David. He had probably expected, like many other traditional Jews of his time, that the Meshiach would instantly bring the promised redemption to Israel. So out of these negative circumstances, and the fact that John had been in prison for quite some time, he started having doubts about the reality of the claims of Christ.

With Jesus not ushering the messianic Kingdom immediately, and with such intense opposition, it was understandable how even Yochanan could have some doubts. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent two of his disciples to ask Him, “Are You the Expected One, or should we look for someone else” (Mattityahu 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20 NASB)? Along with Branch, ben David, King of kings, and other titles, the Expected One was a common name for the Meshiach. Every Jew of Yeshua’s day would have known that to ask if He were the Expected One was to ask if He were the Messiah. John had already announced Jesus as the Messiah, and addressed Him as the Lamb of God, baptized Him in the Jordan River, and declared in all humility: He must become greater; I must become less (John 3:30). But the events (or lack of them) caused his mind or emotions to put a cloud of doubt over his belief. The herald was not asking for information, but conformation. He believed, but his faith had weakened. John came to Jesus through his disciples, saying, like the father of the boy the Prince of Life cleansed of an evil spirit: I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief (Mark 9:24).

In John’s experience, and the experience of countless believers after him, doubt might better be described as bewilderment or confusion. His doubt was the doubt of a believer. He was not questioning the truthfulness of God’s Word as revealed to him in the TaNaKh or at the baptism of Yeshua. He was, rather, uncertain about his understanding of those truths. Nearly all the Gospel references to doubt pertain to believers rather than to unbelievers; and the kind of questioning John experienced concerning the identity of Christ can only occur in the life of a believer. In the interim, before the written revelation of the NewCovenant, there were many things that seemed unclear and needed clarification.

It should be reassuring to us that even a man of John’s spiritual distinction and gifts was subject to doubt and confusion. From Yochanan’s situation we can see that the four reasons that caused him to doubt are the same reasons that can cause us to doubt.621

The first cause for doubt is difficult circumstances. Humanly speaking the career of Yochanan the Baptizer ended in disaster. He had been courageous, holy, loyal selfless and committed in his service to God. He had done exactly what ADONAI told him to do. He had been filled with the Ruach from birth and had lived his entire life under a Nazarite vow. But now he could not help by wonder if prison, shame, physical torment, and loneliness were his rewards. John knew the TaNaKh well, but when left alone with his own thoughts, terrible questions rose in that murky dungeon. Like serpents that crept out of its walls, they would uncoil and raise their heads with terrible hissing. It must have been beyond depressing for him to think that the single purpose for which he had dedicated his whole life was a failure.

When a believer has faithfully and sacrificially served Christ for many years and then experiences tragedy, perhaps even a series of tragedies, it is difficult not to wonder about God’s love and justice. When a child is lost to death or to unbelief, a husband or wife dies or leaves, cancer strikes a loved one, we are tempted to ask, “Lord, where are You now when I really need You? Why have you let this happen to me? Why don’t You help?” But if we dwell on such thoughts, the Adversary magnifies them and tries to use them to undermine our trust and confidence in ADONAI. Except for when we willingly continue in sin, we are never so vulnerable to doubting God’s goodness and truth and believing Satan’s lies as when we are suffering. Difficult circumstances are painful and trying, but our response should be the same as John’s – going to the Lord and asking Him to quell or doubts (James 1:2-12).622

The second reason for confusion is incomplete revelation. Although John had heard about the deeds of the Messiah, his information was secondhand and not complete. He had been in prison for a year; but even while Jesus was preaching, Yochanan had no direct contact with Him after His baptism. If Yeshua’s own talmidim failed to understand Him and exhibited little faith after being with Him for three years, it’s easy to grasp how John could also have doubts. Like the prophets of the TaNaKh, the Forerunner did not experience the full truth about Christ that he was sent to declare (First Peter 1:10-11). The information that John’s disciples brought back to him was still not firsthand.

Many believers today also doubt certain truths about God because of incomplete information, because they have inadequate knowledge or understanding of His Word. The believer who is immersed in Scripture has no reason to stumble. When ADONAI is allowed to speak through His Word, doubt vanishes like mist in the darkness like mist in the sunlight. Jesus responded to the doubts of two disciples on the Emmaus road by explaining to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself (Lk 24:25-32). We all need the continual truth of His Word to protect us from doubt and to dispel confusion. The Bereans were noble-minded and received the message with great eagerness because they examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).623

The third source of confusion is worldly influence. Most Jews expected the Messiah to free Israel from her bondage, which was at the time was under Rome. He obviously couldn’t establish His own Kingdom of justice and righteousness without first dealing with the pagan, unjust and cruel Romans. Jesus, however, had done nothing to oppose Rome, either in words or actions. Yeshua’s own apostles had some of those same misconceptions. They constantly had doubts about the Master because He didn’t fit their preconceived ideas. Even after His resurrection they still expected Him to establish His earthly Kingdom (Acts 1:6). All of them had been victimized by what people around them thought He should be.

People today, including some believers, doubt and are confused about the plan of God for the same reason. Their minds are so full of the ideas of people around them that they fail to understand the plan of ADONAI. We constantly hear people ask, “If Christ loves everybody so much, why do children die and people starve and get diseased and become crippled? If God is a God of justice, why is there so much corruption and injustice in the world? Why do so many good people have it so bad and so many bad people have it so good? If God is so loving and merciful, why does He send people to hell? If God is so powerful and false religions are so evil, why doesn’t He just wipe out those imposters?” Because the Lord does not fit their preconceived ideas of what He should be like, people are confused, often times indignant, and sometimes even blashpemous.624

The fourth root of doubt is unfulfilled expectations. The fact that Yochanan instructed his disciples to ask, “Or should we look for someone else?” seems to indicate that John’s expectations about the Messiah had not been met. Under the direction of the Ruach, Yochanan had boldly proclaimed: I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mt 3:11-12). John knew that what he preached was true, and he knew that Christ was the one about whom he preached; yet Jesus had done none of those things. He saw no divine intervention, no judgment, and no execution of justice. Jesus did not avenge the righteous. He did not even defend Himself against His accusers.

It has always been hard for believers to understand why the LORD allows so many of His children to suffer and allow so many wicked, ungodly people to prosper (see Psalm 37 and 73). It was especially hard for John the Baptizer. For one thing, he had a deep devotion to righteousness and was called by ADONAI to preach repentance and judgment. More than that, he was called to proclaim the coming of the Expected One who would execute that judgment – which he thought would begin shortly, if not immediately, after the Meshiach appeared on the scene. Believers today sometimes get excited about the Lord’s imminent return; but when many years pass and He does not come, their hope, along with their dedication, often fizzles out. Some scoffers will even say: Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation (Second Peter 3:4).625

Therefore, when Yochanan’s disciples asked Jesus if He was the Expected One, that at that very time He cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind (Luke 7:21).

Weeks passed. The journey from Machaerus to Galilee was just four days. John prayed as he waited patiently for a response from the Nazarene. Finally, he heard his disciples at his cell door. They had returned with a very specific message from Yeshua. John could hardly contain himself. What did He say? They answered: Jesus told us to go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor (Mattityahu 11:4-5; Luke 7:22). This was no scolding, but a loving confirmation of His true identity (Isaiah 35:5). The purpose of Christ’s miracles was to authenticate His messianic claims (see En – Four Drastic Changes in Christ’s Ministry).

To this, Yeshua added a tender rebuke for John’s benefit: Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Me (Mattityahu 11:6; Luke 7:23). It was as if He were saying to the Herald, “Don’t doubt if you want to have the blessing of My joy and peace.” The warning did not take away from Messiah’s esteem for Yochanan, as His testimony immediately showed. When John died, he did not have all his questions answered and neither will we. He still must have wondered when the Savior of Sinners would usher in His Kingdom, judge the wicked, and usher in His long awaited reign of righteousness. But he no longer had any doubts about who Yeshua was, or about His goodness, justice, sovereignty or wisdom. He was content to leave everything he didn’t understand in the Lord’s hands, which is the secret of being blessed and not stumbling.

After John’s disciples left, the Lord began to speak to the crowd about Yochanan. He asked several probing questions of the crowd in order to illustrate the vital message of the Immerser. What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? The reed to which Jesus referred was common along Near Eastern riverbanks, including those of the Jordan where John baptized. They were light and flexible, waving back and forth with every breeze. But the Baptizer wasn’t like that - he never wavered. If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces (Matthew 11:7-8; Luke 7:24-25). The soft man dressed in fine clothes would not live in the wilderness as John did (Mattityahu 3:4). His life-style was a testimony against self-indulgence and self-centeredness. Both physically and symbolically he dressed, ate, and lived far apart from the hypocracy and corruption of pharisaic Judaism in Jerusalem. He was not interested in the ease or approval of the world.

Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? The answer to that question was clearly yes. The Forerunner had developed a large and dedicated following and most people did indeed consider him to be a prophet (Matthew 14:5, 21:26). The prophetic office began with Moshe and extended until the Babylonian captivity, after which for 400 years Isra’el had not prophet until John the Baptist. He was the valedictorian of the prophets, the most dynamic, articulate, confrontational, and powerful spokesman ADONAI had ever called. As the last prophet, Yochanan would not only announce the Expected One was coming but that He had arrived. Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet (Mt 11:9; Luke 7:26).

This is the one about whom it is written, “I will send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You” (Mattityahu 11:10; Luke 7:27). Malachi said it this way: I will send My messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple; the messenger of the Covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies (Malachi 3:1). The quote here introduces a passage that explicitly states that Elijah the prophet will precede the coming day of the Lord, that is, the Day of Judgment (Malachi 4:5). Judaism expects Elijah – who never died but was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind in a fiery chariot (Second Kings 2:11) – to precede the Messiah. In fact, Jews have a place set for him at every Passover Seder to welcome him home.

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11a). What was Jesus saying? Was the Immerser greater than Abraham? Moses? and David? Yes! We do not have a record of John’s entire ministry because the four Gospels focus on the Messiah and not His forerunner. We know that Yochanan had tremendous influence not only in the Land, but also outside the Land. In Acts, Paul runs into a group of men who were disciples of John. They had not even heard that Jesus had come on the scene (Acts 19:1-7). In fact, there are villages in present day Syria that speak Aramaic that still consider the Baptizer their prophet. So he had a much greater influence than someone merely reading the Gospels would realize. But then Jesus gives us what seems to be a contradictory statement.

He declared: Yet whoever is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Mt 11:11b; Lk 7:28). While John is the greatest of the prophets, the least of those in the B’rit Chadashahwill be greater than he was (Matthew 16:18-19). This tells us that the position of being in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-9) is greater than the position of being the righteous of the TaNaKh before the birth of the Church in Acts 2:1-41. Therefore, the least New Covenant believer is even greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus said: From the time that John the Baptist started his ministry until now (which had been a relatively brief period of time, perhaps eighteen months), the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violent opposition (Matthew 11:12). There had been be an intense spiritual battle over the heart and soul of Isra’el as the Meshiach was ready to appear. He generated conflict wherever he went, because his message upset the status quo, so the Kingdom moved steadily through the godless, sinful worldly system that opposed it.

All of God’s previous revelation culminated with the Herald, for all the Prophets and the Torah prophesied until John (Matthew 11:13; Luke 16:16a). John was part of the Torah and all the Prophets, yet he is also the beginning of the Gospel. You might say he has one foot in the TaNaKh and one foot in the B’rit Chadashah.

But since that time, the Good News of the kingdom of God, which is has not come, is being preached directly, first by the forerunner (Mattityahu 3:1-2) and now by Yeshua (Mattityahu 4:17; Mark 1:15), with the result that everyone is forcing their way into it (Luke 16:16b). This emphasizes the passionate decision one must make in order to enter the Kingdom. Therefore, John the Baptist was a transitional figure between the age of promise and the age of fulfillment. He was the last of the prophets, and the Dispensation of the Torah ended with him. Then we have another statement about John the Baptist and Elijah.

Previously, Jesus said that John had come in the spirit and the power of Elijah. But John, while freely admitting that he was the one who prepared the way for the Lord, he vigorously denied that he was Elijah (John 1:21-23). But now Jesus said: And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. The Lord was making the point that if the Messiah was accepted as King, and if the Kingdom were received, then John would have fulfilled Elijah’s function to restore all things: See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful Day of ADONAI comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come during the Great Tribulation and strike the Land with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6). But since the messianic Kingdom was rejected, John did not fulfill Elijah’s function. As a result, Elijah himself will someday return to fulfill that function (see my commentary on Revelation Bw – The Return of Elijah). Whoever has ears, let them hear (Matthew 11:14-15).

That did not mean, however, John’s ministry was a failure. He prepared people to accept the Messiah once He was known. Those who were baptized by Yochanan were making a commitment to believe in whosoever John pointed out as the Messiah. John was successful in this. All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John (Luke 7:29). The common people who had believed in John’s message had no trouble in believing in Jesus as the Meshiach.

But the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees and the Torah-teachers, had rejected John’s message and God’s purpose for themselves. We know this because the Immerser had not baptized them (Luke 7:30). So by rejecting John’s baptism of repentance they rejected ADONAI’s purpose for them and the nation of Isra’el.626

Jesus characterized Pharisees who had rejected John as children. He went on to say: To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? The rabbis used many expressions to introduce an illustration, analogy or story, such as “To what is the matter like?” or “How can I illustrate this point?” Those who refused to believe in the Good News covered their unbelief with criticism. So in that rabbinic tradition, Yeshua illustrated His point by saying: They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others (Matthew 11:16; Luke 7:31-32a)? They were like rebellious children that insisted on having their own way.

The marketplace was a central area of cities or towns where people shopped or socialized. On certain days of the week, farmers, craftsmen and merchants brought their produce or merchandise to sell. Children played while their parents bought, sold, or visited. Two games, “wedding” and “funeral” were particularly popular. Since weddings and funerals were two of the major social events, children liked to mimic them. Weddings included festive music and dancing, and when the children played “the wedding game” they expected everyone to dance when the imaginary flute was played, just like the grownups did at a real wedding. Likewise, when they played “the funeral game” they expected everyone to mourn when the imaginary dirge was played, just like the paid mourners did at a real funeral.

But there were always the rebellious ones, who refused to go along with the rest of the children. We made happy music, but you wouldn’t dance! We made sad music, but you wouldn’t cry” (Matthew 11:17; Luke 7:32 CJB). If the game was “wedding,” they wanted to play “funeral;” if the game was “funeral,” they wanted to play “wedding.” Nothing the other children did could satisfy them. They were complainers who ruined everything. There is never enough proof for unbelief.

Jesus applied the first illustration to the response of the nation to John the Baptist. For when Yochanan came neither eating nor drinking wine they said: He has a demon (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33). To pharisaic Judaism, John’s lifestyle was like a funeral. He grated against their immoral nerves, so in the final analysis they killed him. They tolerated him for a while, but he would not let them sit on the fence and be neutral bystanders. Thus when they had to choose, they chose not to believe him. Instead of accepting the Herald’s rebuke of their sinfulness, they rebuked his righteousness. Demon possession was the given reason that John was rejected; however, the real reason for his rejection was because he had rejected pharisaic Judaism and the Oral Law (see Ei - the Oral Law). Remember, what happened to the herald will happen to the King.

Messiah applied the second illustration to the response of the Pharisees to Himself. Unlike John, fasting or abstaining from wine did not characterize Jesus’ lifestyle. In fact, in contrast to Yochanan’s ascetic life-style, Yeshua fully participated in all the normal social activities. Yet He would be rejected on the same grounds as John, that of demon possession (see Ek – It is only by Beelzebub, the Prince of demons, That this Fellow Drives Out Demons). The Lord lived in the wedding mode (Mattityahu 9:14-15) and said: The Son of Man, came eating and drinking. The Pharisees and the Torah-teachers, however, were quick to exaggerate His normal activities, charging Him with being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19a; Luke 7:34).

First, the wine Jesus and most other Jews drank was made by boiling fresh grape juice down to heavy syrup in order to prevent it from spoiling and to simplify its storage. Water would be added as needed to a small amount of the syrup to make the “wine.” It was nonalcoholic, and even when allowed to ferment it was not intoxicating because it was mostly water. Thus, He was not a drunkard.

Second, yes, He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not in the sense that the Pharisees meant. They tried to imply that because Jesus associated with sinners that He also shared in their sin. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He did not participate in their sinful lifestyle, on the contrary, offered them deliverance from it (see CP – The Calling of Matthew).

Yeshua’s statement culminates in the statement that despite the rejection of John and Jesus by pharisaic Judaism, wisdom is proved right by all her children (Mt 11:19b; Lk 7:35). Wisdom, here, is personified and corresponds to God’s way. The children of God’s wisdom are contrasted with the children of this generation (Mt 11:16; Lk 7:31). The children of God’s wisdom will be clearly seen by their spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:13-26), and the rebellious children of this second illustration, pharisaic Judaism, who did not respond, will also clearly be seen by their lack of spiritual fruit.627

How sad it is that there are some who cling to their own righteousness so tightly that they are closed to the grace of ADONAI. Yeshua came to deliver the Good News of salvation to all men and women. The gospels are full of accounts of people who sought out the Lord and placed their faith in Him. None were disappointed. However, Messiah did not limit Himself to those who sought Him. When He encountered a widow having to burry her only son, the Man of sorrows and Himself acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3) was filled with compassion (see Eb – Jesus Raises a Widow’s Son). Jesus went up and touched the coffin they were carrying him on and the miracle-working Rabbi brought the boy back to life.

All that is required to receive grace from Ha’Shem is that we listen and trust in Him. If we will do that, He does the rest. God will provide evidence His grace by seeing that we bear fruit. The Chief Shepherd enlists those who hear His voice. And those who listen closely succeed beyond their abilities because of the power of His grace.

We can take heart in knowing that the Suffering Servant seeks out everyone – even those ignored by the powerful and the wealthy. He never discriminated, but offered His mercy and grace to everyone. Even today, ADONAI desires to touch those around us. The hope of the Good News is for them. If we listen to the Spirit, He will show us how to share the Gospel with our friends, neighbors, and family members. And, the Lord will pour out His mercy and grace to those who listen and believe – for His faithfulness is not dependent upon our righteousness, but upon His righteousness and unconditional love.

Thank, You, Father, for giving us Your Son. Because He is faithful to us, we need never despair of Your love. Help us to trust in the power of your grace to flow through us to everyone around us. Amen, He is faithful.628


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