Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus?  Matthew 11:2-6

People of a certain age will remember sea monkeys. Ads for sea monkeys appeared on the back of comic books and promised you could send a dollar to the address below you could have a kingdom of sea monkeys in your fishbowl. The original ads claimed you could “own a bowl full of happiness—instant pets!” The illustration showed these monkey-like creatures, the king was wearing a crown and had a robe and scepter, etc. If you sent in your money, you got a small box of dry brine shrimp which, when rehydrated, were “alive.” But they looked nothing at all like the drawing in the ads.

Although the analogy is not ideal, John the Baptist built up considerable anticipation for Jesus as the Messiah. He and his followers were convinced Jesus was the Messiah and he would begin the eschatological judgment and set up a new Davidic Kingdom expected by the Prophets. Jesus was the “coming one,” as in Psalm 118:26, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But after his baptism, Jesus did not take up the winnowing fork and judge the aristocrats in control of the Temple nor did he seem at all interested in reviving David’s kingdom. John and his disciples may have been “underwhelmed.”

Jesus and John the Baptist

John sent a few of his disciples to ask Jesus if he in fact the messiah. In Matthew 4:12 Jesus heard John had been put into prison. John was arrested by Herod for preaching against his divorce and marriage to his sister-in-law. Matthew 14:1-12 narrates John’s death at the hand of Herod Antipas (cf., Antiq. 18:116-19).

John heard about the “deeds of the messiah,” but Jesus’s teaching and miracles were not quite what John and his disciples had expected. The “deeds of the messiah” refers to Jesus’s miracles, but also his proclamation to Galilee that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, or fully present in Jesus’s mission.

There may have been growing doubt among the disciples of John about Jesus. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John question Jesus about his non-practice of fasting. It may be these disciples were not satisfied with Jesus’s response (that Jesus is the bridegroom, so it is time to celebrate, unlike John’s ascetic lifestyle). Perhaps these disciples related their own doubts to John in prison and are sent back to Jesus to question him more directly. It is about 100 miles from Machaerus to Capernaum in Galilee, so a round-trip is a significant journey.

In Matthew 3:14 John the Baptist recognized Jesus as “the one who is coming,” But now in 11:3 he wonders if Jesus is really the “coming one.” John’s own preaching in Matthew 3 condemned the Pharisees as a brood of vipers who are not producing fruit in keeping with repentance. He told them the “ax is already at the root” to cut off the trees that do not produce fruit. The bad trees will be “thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:7-10).

The one who is coming will render that judgment: he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11). John agrees with Peter in Acts 2, the new age will begin with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people (Acts 2:14-21; citing Joel 2: 28-32).  

The one who is coming has a winnowing fork in his hand and he is ready clear the threshing floor (3:12). The harvest is a metaphor for apocalyptic judgment. When the kingdom of heaven finally arrives, the wheat will be gathered into the barn, the weeds will be destroyed on the fire.

Because Jesus has not (yet) rendered apocalyptic judgment on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, John asks if Jesus is “the one to come” (ὁ ἐρχόμενος). This phrase was not a messianic title in first century Judaism, but Matthew uses it to refer to the Messiah.  In Matthew 3:11, John talks about the “one coming after him.”

At the baptism, John assumed the coming one was Jesus, yet after hearing about the messianic signs. John has heard something about Jesus’s ministry, his deeds and his teaching. But that ministry is not exactly what he was expecting. He is bewildered: could it be that he was mistaken? Jesus is not the messiah he was expecting.

In response to John, Jesus points to his miracles. Matthew illustrated all of these messianic deeds in chapters 8-9.

  • The blind receive sight, Matthew 9:27-34; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Lame walk, Matthew 9:1-8; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Lepers cleansed, Matthew 8:1-4; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Deaf hear, Matthew 9:27-34; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Dead are raised up, Matthew 9:18-26; Isaiah 26:19.
  • Poor have heard the good news preached to them, Matthew 5:3; Isaiah 61:1-2.

Jesus therefore claims to be the “coming one” who fulfils messianic expectations.

He adds a beatitude: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (v. 6). This implies John may have not understood these signs as proof Jesus is this messiah. Where is the winnowing fork? Why are the Pharisees not being cast out into the fire? The verb σκανδαλίζω can have the sense of shocked or angered. In Matthew 15:12 the Pharisees are offended by Jesus calling them hypocrites.

Answering John’s disciples as he does, Jesus confirms he is the “coming one,” the messiah. If Jesus is the messiah, then who was John the Baptist?

2 thoughts on “Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus?  Matthew 11:2-6

  1. I perceive, after decades-long study of the Gospels and related texts of the 1st to early 2nd century as to earliest Christianity, that John was perhaps as much or more prominent a deceased leader of a religious movement as was Jesus. To me, as a “Process” Christian, Jesus’ teaching was much more universal and influential, but that may not have historically been the case… not until probably sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

    I’m not studied in focus on that enough to argue the case, nor is this the place. But a couple clues that NT and Christian origins students should keep in mind and seek to understand further are these: Josephus is our main extrabiblical and 1st century source on John as well as the post-crucifixion period of several decades to around 93 (+/-).

    Josephus has much more to say on John than on Jesus (especially after the fraudulent, later-added “testimony of Josephus” to Jesus is taken out, but EVEN if it’s left in). Also more than re. James, whose death he does describe…the only other Jesus-follower he covers, to my recollection.

    Students should read Josephus’ statement about John in comparison with Gospel stories. The two overlap in some regards, but differ in more significant ways, such that it becomes impossible to both take Josephus basically at his word and believe what the Gospels claim. The supposed “hand-off” by John to Jesus, John’s willing “decrease”, etc., does not fit the historical account of Josephus.

    It also does not fit well with hints in the NT of a separate and continued following of John at least as far away as Alexandria and chronologically at least into Paul’s Asian ministry (Acts 19), with Apollos knowing little of Jesus-following or claims of Jerusalem disciples receiving the Holy Spirit (per Acts, Pentecost and after). Such hints of an ongoing and theologically much different “Baptist” movement has further/later historical evidence. Seems there was some competition, as similarly with early docetists, combatted in the Gospel of John via the Doubting Thomas story.

    It further seems it all was prominent enough that Luke, in Acts, feels a need for some mention, but not any real explanation re. it, nor any explanation of the vibrant faith community (or communities) in Alexandria. Very curious for as supposedly careful an historian as Luke.

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