Q. I have recently been applying the technique of reading the Bible without thinking much about the chapters. Something struck me when I saw that John the Baptist, who was there at Jesus’s baptism and not only saw the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus but also heard the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus was indeed God’s Son, later on sent his disciples, when he was in prison, to ask if Jesus was the one or whether they should continue looking for another. What caused John, who in the beginning seemed fully persuaded, after a few pages seemingly to question his belief concerning Jesus’s identity. As I got to thinking about this question, I asked myself could it be that the disciples found themselves in the same circumstance after living and experiencing supernatural experiences with the Messiah, since we see them going into hiding after Jesus is arrested. Could you please help clarify what could be going on here, what could be the author be trying to communicate to us.
First, I commend you for reading the books of the Bible as whole literary works, rather than treating their chapters as discrete units to be considered individually and separately. As you’re already discovering, the purposes of the biblical authors extend throughout their entire works, and to appreciate those purposes, we need to catch the flow and development of plot, characterization, and themes as these unfold over the course of a whole book. So good for you for noticing the change in John the Baptist’s position toward Jesus—that is indeed something the author wants to use to convey a message to us. (Keep up the good work in your reading of and reflection on the Bible!)
I’ll approach your question through the Gospel of Matthew, because it’s the one that makes the most use of these episodes in John the Baptist’s life. To state the matter simply, John definitely knew, when Jesus came to him for baptism, that Jesus was the Messiah. The Spirit descending and the voice from heaven made that clear. But John didn’t yet understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was.
John said of the Messiah, “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.” In other words, John expected the Messiah to come in judgment, rewarding the faithful and punishing the wicked. He didn’t yet realize that Jesus came the first time to teach, heal, and finally suffer and die on our behalf. Only when Jesus returns a second time will he execute the kind of judgment that John expected in his own lifetime.
Because John didn’t realize this, he didn’t expect that he would be put in prison by King Herod when he challenged him to become a more godly ruler. John probably expected that either Herod would repent, as so many thousands of people had already done in response to his preaching, or else God would “start at the top” and judge and punish Herod for his defiance. Instead, Herod threw John in prison and he languished there. A fine place for the herald of the one who was supposed to come with his winnowing fork in his hand!
So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” In other words, “Was I wrong to say that you were the Messiah?” Jesus responds, in effect, “You were right that I am the Messiah, but you were wrong about what kind of Messiah I am.” This is what he means when he tells John’s messengers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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.” These were all signs of how God’s kingdom was breaking into the world through Jesus’ teaching and his acts of healing and compassion. John, on the other hand, was expecting Jesus to seize power and trounce the enemies of God, so he missed the significance of what was going on in Jesus’ ministry.
There are at least two things that the author would like us to understand from this. The episode is placed within the section of Matthew’s gospel dedicated to the “mystery of the kingdom.” In this section, we discover that the kingdom of God doesn’t look like what we expect. The episodes in this section lead up to the collection of parables, which talk about the kingdom beginning in small, nearly imperceptible ways, but then growing to have a great impact. For example: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” So one thing we’re supposed to learn is to look for the kingdom in the right places, and to use the right means to promote its growth and extension.
But Matthew also records that Jesus said to John’s disciples, after calling their attention to his teaching and healing, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” This can also be translated, “Blessed is the person who is not offended by me,” or, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” It means that we should continue to trust Jesus, believe in him, and follow him, even when things aren’t turning out for us the way we expect. It’s likely that none of us really appreciates exactly what kind of Savior Jesus is, for us and for our world, and so we need to keep trusting him even when things happen that we don’t understand and weren’t expecting.
If we doubt him instead, then we “stumble,” that is, we are “offended” or “scandalized.” In the parables that follow shortly after this episode, Matthew repeats the specific Greek term that’s translated those various ways in English. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus warns about “people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (that is, they stumble or are offended). This parable generalizes the message from the episode of John the Baptist, warning all readers to apply it to themselves.
But along with this warning there is some wonderful encouragement. The Gospel of Matthew alternates between collections of narrative episodes and collections of Jesus’ teachings. The first large collection of teachings is the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, that is, a series of statements in which Jesus says that certain kinds of people will be blessed for certain reasons. (For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”) There are nine beatitudes. We’re supposed to wonder, “Why not ten?” Many characteristics of the Sermon on the Mount clearly portray Jesus as a new Moses, delivering a new understanding of what the kingdom of God means. The teaching that Moses brought down from the mountain began with the Ten Commandments; why doesn’t Jesus teaching on the mount begin with ten beatitudes?
If we read the Gospel of Matthew as a literary whole, we realize when we come to the episode about John the Baptist that we’ve finally found the tenth beatitude: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” If we’re going to be the kind of people through whose lives the kingdom of God can break steadily into this world—meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so forth—then we also need to be prepared to suffer for taking such a counter-cultural stance without trying also to seize power to protect ourselves. The kingdom of God will advance through this very suffering. But we need to trust in Jesus all the way through it.