In Matthew 11:2-6, John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come. Jesus’ response is one that confirms he is the one they were to be looking for, not by a simple admission but by pointing to the deeds he was doing. In the previous post for this series I had noted that I didn’t accept the common accusation of doubt that many commentators seem to attribute to the Baptist though I basically held that supposition. After some further study this week I realized that I’m not the only one who disagrees with that interpretation. In fact, it seems, at least several of the early church fathers had quite a different view as to why John was asking Jesus this question. I think their view makes much better sense of the passage as a whole and thought it would be worth spending another post on before getting into the main purpose of this discussion.
The Doubt Of John The Baptist
To start, I want to take a look at how some of the commentators handle John’s questioning. John Nolland, in his commentary on Matthew writes:
John speaks through the mouthpiece of his disciples: the words are his and not theirs … It is not clear how we are to relate John’s confidence about Jesus’ identity implicit in 3:14 with the present questioning, but a certain discomforting tension between John’s expectations and what Jesus did is common property to Matthew 3:14, 9:14, 11:3. John needed to come to terms with the fact that the one of whom he had now been hearing such remarkable things was, despite the quite unexpected form of his ministry, the one whom he had heralded as eschatological judge and deliverer—‘the one coming after’ John (Mt. 3:11).1
Nolland brings up Matthew 3:14 and Matthew 9:14 as demonstrative of a “tension between John’s expectations and what Jesus did.” One of the things I would point out here, however, is that there is more relationship between Matthew 9:14 and Matthew 11:3 than there is with either of those verses and Matthew 3:14; primarily because in both 9:14 and 11:3 we have John’s disciples in the picture. We can see that Nolland fully attributes this doubt to John the Baptist, specifically noting that the words are John’s and not his disciples. Craig Blomberg writes similarly:
Here Matthew notes only John’s doubts, which lead him to send his followers to question Jesus. He has heard specifically of the works of the Christ (NIV lacks the article). The “works” presumably refer to Jesus’ entire ministry thus far but focus specifically on his miracles as illustrated in chaps. 8–9. These mighty deeds should have reinforced John’s confidence in Jesus’ messiahship. Why then does one who had such a high view of Jesus (3:11–14) now question him?2
For a look at one more, Stuart Weber’s commentary on Matthew also attributes the doubt specifically to John. He writes:
Matthew is not saying that John knew Jesus was the promised Christ (“anointed One,” equivalent to the Heb. “Messiah”). In fact, while John suspected this to be true, the fact that he sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus revealed his doubts. Perhaps John, in the hopelessness of his imprisonment, was swayed by the popular expectations of the promised Messiah-King—that he would come to rescue Israel from political oppression. John may have been genuinely asking. “If you are the king and I am your ambassador, how is it that I am in prison and opposition to you is growing?”3
So the modern view seems to be that it is indeed John’s doubt that is needing to be assuaged in this passage. So John, while in prison, sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the one who is to come. But what I couldn’t help noticing was that while this view on the surface would seem to make the most sense, that isn’t how many of the great scholars of old had interpreted the passage.
Giving The Benefit Of The Doubt
For example, Augustine goes through great lengths explaining that the problem was that John’s disciples were doubting Jesus was the Christ so John told them to go ask him themselves. He writes:
Therefore because John’s disciples highly esteemed their master, they heard from John his record concerning Christ, and marvelled; and as he was about to die, it was his wish that they should be confirmed by him. For no doubt they were saying among themselves; Such great things doth he say of Him, but none such of himself. “Go then, ask Him;” not because I doubt, but that ye may be instructed. “Go, ask Him,” hear from Himself what I am in the habit of telling you; ye have heard the herald, be confirmed by the Judge. “Go, ask Him, Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” They went accordingly and asked; not for John’s sake, but for their own.4
Augustine, throughout this homily, writes from the point of view that John the Baptist is the herald of Christ and Christ is the Judge himself. The disciples of John are witnessing their rabbi in prison and wonder why the herald would be meeting this demise and are likely doubting John’s own claims of Jesus. It’s amazing what this starting point does for the passage as a whole since Jesus then goes on to, not only confirm who John is, but to praise John as the greatest of those born of women! The basis of this starting point is that of Matthew 11:6 which reads “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Augustine states quite plainly of this “[d]o not suspect that John was offended in Christ.”5
Chrysostom takes this same position and further reiterates the point of Matthew 11:6, writing:
Wherefore also He covertly added His reproof of them. That is, because they were “offended in Him,” He by setting forth their case and leaving it to their own conscience alone, and by calling no witness of this His accusation, but only themselves that knew it all, did thus also draw them the more unto Himself, in saying, Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” For indeed His secret meaning was of them when He said this.6
In fact, when Chrysostom was preaching on this he built what I think is probably the most surefire case of this interpretation.7 He notes this same John was heralding the coming of Jesus even before he was born in Luke 1:41-44. I’ll add that John had the Spirit of God prior to birth in Luke 1:15.
But know that what is often claimed, and I held to this in the previous post, is that John the Baptist was likely having doubts due to missed eschatological expectations. Chrysostom brilliantly writes that in the proclamation that John the Baptist gives in John 1:29, that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” he couldn’t possibly be confused with what that title meant for the Messiah. What’s more, in Matthew 3:11, John says of Jesus that He will baptize with the Spirit. This is a post-resurrection event. In these statements, John foretells both the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Chrysostom also makes some observations about John’s disciples. In John 3:25-30 the disciples go to John and inform him “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”8 And John’s response is most telling. He says “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” At least some of John’s disciples didn’t like the idea that Jesus must increase and John must decrease.
Earlier in Matthew 9:14, John’s disciples ask of Jesus why they and the Pharisees fast but Jesus and His disciples do not. From this we can know that at least some of John’s disciples needed clarification and went to Jesus for the answer. Because of the evidence we have regarding some of John’s disciples, Chrysostom surmises the disciples are jealous of Jesus, that he is getting the attention they think John deserves. So John sends them for their own benefit. He writes:
What then doth he? He waits to hear from them that Christ is working miracles, and not even so doth he admonish them, nor doth he send all, but some two (whom he perhaps knew to be more teachable than the rest); that the inquiry might be made without suspicion, in order that from His acts they might learn the difference between Jesus and himself. And he saith, Go ye, and say, “Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?”9
There are others who held this view, from Origen to Calvin10 and I do believe it makes more sense in light of the passage itself and the testimony of the Gospels as a whole. It is not unreasonable that John would send his disciples for their own benefit, so they could hear for themselves from the mouth of Christ. At any rate, John was now in prison, soon to be executed and if John realized that his time on earth was up, it would only make sense that he would want any of his disciples that were still unsure to understand, for certain, that he was not the Christ and Jesus was. In the next post I’ll start looking into the deeds that Christ gives as testimony of who He is.
- Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (450–451). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press. ↩
- Blomberg, C. (1992). Vol. 22: Matthew. The New American Commentary (184–185). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. ↩
- Weber, S. K. (2000). Vol. 1: Matthew. Holman New Testament Commentary (161). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers. ↩
- Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament (R. G. MacMullen, Trans.). In P. Schaff (Ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume VI: Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels (P. Schaff, Ed.) (310). New York: Christian Literature Company. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- John Chrysostom. (1888). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (G. Prevost & M. B. Riddle, Trans.). In P. Schaff (Ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume X: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (P. Schaff, Ed.) (240). New York: Christian Literature Company. ↩
- Ibid. (239-240). ↩
- All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. ↩
- Same as footnote 6, page 239. ↩
- Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (203). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. ↩
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