Pp Luke 7:18-23
1. References to John the Baptist
2. The Arrest of John the Baptist
1. Question and the Answer
2. Why did John doubt?
3. Final Verse
We should, perhaps, along with other commentators, think of Mtw 11:2 as beginning a series of events which concludes with Mtw 12:50 and which follows the theme of opposition from certain sections of the Jewish people.
Therefore, although ‘opposition’ would be a bit too strong a word, John’s question here in Mtw 11:3 shows the doubt in Jesus that even the Baptist was beginning to allow to rise in his own mind though he’d been God’s spokesperson announcing Jesus as the One (John 1:29-34). From here, Jesus turns His attention towards cities in which some of His great miracles were done where repentance had not followed the demonstration of the Kingdom of God (Mtw 11:20-24).
More traditionally in our own minds, chapter 12 opens with opposition from Jesus’ main adversaries - the Jewish religious leaders - in the form of the Pharisees opposing food gathering on the sabbath (Mtw 12:1-8), opposing the healing of a blind and dumb demoniac by attributing the work to Beelzebul (Mtw 12:22-24) and of demanding a sign from Jesus when they had sufficient demonstration of the Kingdom of God through the healing of the sick and diseased (Mtw 12:38-39).
But, the opposition doesn’t just stop there!
Jesus finds that a Jewish synagogue opposes Jesus’ healing of a man on the sabbath (Mtw 12:9-14) though the final verse mentions the Pharisees specifically as being the ones who began plotting together as to how they might destroy Him. Even His immediate family come to try and have a serious word with Him - implied in the parallel passage in Mark 3:31-35 where, a few verses prior to this, Mark 3:21 records that
‘...when His family heard [of His popularity and that He had no time even to eat], they went out to seize Him, for people were saying “He is beside Himself”’
Therefore, we should rightly see in Jesus’ statement of Mtw 11:6 when He says to John the Baptist via his messengers
‘...blessed is he who takes no offence at Me’
a summary of the appeal of Jesus to all who came to both hear Him speak and see Him do great miracles. The problem with Jesus’ ministry to Israel, as is typified in the present passage, is that it didn’t seem to conform with the ministry of the Messiah which the opposers of Jesus had expected. Instead of rejoicing that God was doing something in their midst and that people were being brought back into a relationship with God through personal repentance and God’s mercy, and because Jesus didn’t conform to their own perception of the Person they wanted Him to be, He found that opposition grew strongly.
I have commented on this in the life of the present day Church in the last section of this web page and so won’t repeat my points here but, what we mustn’t do as we read this entire two chapter passage is think that we’re immune from opposing the work of God. It’s sad to say that the new move of God in Church history has often been opposed by the recipients of the former one.
If only the next move of God might be accepted by God’s people, the whole world could be reached for Christ.
Edersheim’s extensive commentary on the history of John the Baptist is worth reading at this point even though I haven’t relied on it for most of the historical information here recorded. He appears to have other sources which expand and paint the actual events as they occurred and, it seems, an eye-witness account of the ruins of Machaerus even though he fails to mention his source (as the reader will see from my short article on this fortress, details are rather sketchy and difficult to find though I did manage to stumble on an archaeological summary of excavations and reports).
It may be true that much of what Edersheim writes may be slightly incorrect but the overall thrust and detail which he presents to the reader summons up a picture which is much better than any of the other commentaries can even come close to. For instance, he mentions both of Herod Antipas’ forts in Peraea and describes one of the actual prisons located in the ruins of Machaerus as it must have been witnessed by some adventurer or other (the first edition is prefaced 1883 so a visit at least a few years before this date must have been drawn on).
In the original printing layout and format of the work, the page numbers run 654-675 in the first volume of the two in the set but, seeing as there are a great many modern bindings and rewritings, the specific chapter to be found is entitled (unless they’ve renamed it!)
‘The story of John the Baptist, from his last testimony to Jesus to his beheading in prison’
and is to be found in Volume 1 Book 3 Chapter 28. My notes cover ground which, I trust, is more certain but, even so, Edersheim’s work is an absolute must to read at this point.
I have included, by way of introduction, a list of the Scriptural references to John the Baptist for anyone wishing to begin their own understanding of both the man and his ministry though historical sources also illuminate the situation in which he found himself. Then, I’ve tried to give reasons for the arrest which rely not just on the Scriptural account but upon Josephus who offers an alternative explanation - before concluding with a brief overview of the site of the fortress of Machaerus to which John was taken when he was arrested.
1. References to John the Baptist
This section has been compiled for the reader who wishes to follow the line of Scriptures which deal with John the Baptist and his ministry from conception to death - and even beyond - as the remnants of his ministry continued even into the times of the early Church.
I have attempted to compile this list in chronological order rather than to use the NT order which seems to flit between different events and speeches.
Line of prophecy - Isaiah 40:3-4, Mal 3:1, 4:5-6
Conception - Luke 1:5-25
Birth - Luke 1:57-79
Early years - Luke 1:80
John the witness - John 1:6-8
Baptism of Jesus and John’s teaching - Matthew chapter 3, Mark 1:2-11, Luke chapter 3, John 1:19-34
John’s testimony to Jesus - John 1:35-42
John’s recognition that he is to decrease - John 3:22-30
Arrest - Mtw 4:12, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 3:19-20, John 4:1 (the inference from the first three Scriptures is that this was when the arrest took place)
The question of John’s disciples - Mtw 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39
John’s testimony to Jesus - John 5:33-36
John did no sign - John 10:40-42
John’s doubt - Mtw 11:2-19, Luke 7:18-35 (see also Luke 16:16)
Herod’s testimony of Jesus - Mtw 14:1-2, Mark 6:14-16, Luke 9:7-9
John’s death - Mtw 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29
Jesus thought to be John - Mtw 16:14, Mark 8:28, Luke 9:19
John taught his disciples to pray - Luke 11:1
John was Elijah - Mtw 11:14, 17:9-13, Mark 9:9-13
John’s authority - Mtw 21:23-32, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8
After the resurrection - Acts 1:5 (see also Acts 11:16)
After the ascension - Acts 10:37, 11:16
John’s influence in Ephesus through Apollos - Acts 18:24-19:7
2. The Arrest of John the Baptist
We have arrived at a break in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry to Israel with the beginning of Mtw 11:2 but, even as the passage turns back to consider the figure of John the Baptist and his question brought to Jesus by his disciples, we are confronted with Jesus’ interpretation of that ministry and further teaching which underpins the Gospel.
Indeed, it appears that Jesus used just about every opportunity that presented itself to proclaim the Gospel to whoever was present around Him and was unlimited by having to think that He should wait for a Sabbath when He could stand up to speak behind a lectern! We must remember that God’s spoken word is not restricted by the limitations which we normally put round it, God desiring to make Himself known at all times and in all situations.
The author of Matthew has already recorded the arrest of John the Baptist in Mtw 4:12 (Pp Mark 1:14) where it’s written that
‘...when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee’
making the Galilean ministry begin wholeheartedly from that time onwards.
Luke 3:19-20 adds a parenthesis into the record of the baptism of Jesus which is obviously out of chronological order here but which informs us that the circumstances surrounding John’s arrest were that
‘...Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison’
This Herod was Antipas, the ruler (tetrarch) over both Galilee and Peraea (which lay due east of the Dead Sea and therefore very close to the wilderness of Judea where John was baptizing Israel) and it would seem logical to assume that he was resident at that time in the latter of these two regions for other historical documents inform us that John was held captive in Machaerus, a strong fortification some five miles east of the Shores of the Dead Sea (see below).
Edersheim assumes (with good reason) that Antipas would have been initially resident in his second palace at Julias, about six miles north-east of the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea and that, being so close to the region where John was baptising, could make a swift sortie to arrest him, allowing Jesus, who is assumed to be further west into Judea, the chance to move northwards back into Galilee. After the arrest, however, Machaerus seems to have been the fortress at which the king held John and to which he went for the remaining time before John’s life was taken from him.
Although we may think of Jesus’ ‘withdrawal’ into Galilee as being a step directly into the jurisdiction of the king who had just sent and arrested John, we should note that, if the king was resident in Peraea, it would have taken some time to work out a plan to arrest Jesus had He also offended the king. As will be seen below, also, to be resident in a land which bordered on Philip’s territory may have provoked a military confrontation because of the way he’d taken Philip’s wife to be his own. The only palace mentioned in the land of Galilee to which Antipas could have come was on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias, 7 miles by a direct sea route and ten over land to Capernaum where Jesus took up residence shortly after John’s arrest (Mtw 4:12-13) - Jesus is never reported as having visited this city and it’s reputed Hellenization may be one reason for this. Another may be that Jesus was aware that He should keep as far away from the king as possible.
Although we may be reading too much into Jesus’ withdrawal from Judea, it could also indicate that the arrest had taken place with the consent of either the religious leaders in Jerusalem or the Roman authorities residing there because Antipas’ men would have been venturing into directly controlled Roman territory (though Mark 1:5 and Luke 3:3 may give enough leeway to understand John the Baptist as fulfilling his ministry even in Peraea) and that, withdrawing northwards, meant that there was relative safety amongst the Galileans where the religious Jews of Jerusalem were weaker in influence over the people.
Luke doesn’t give us the reason for John’s arrest but Mtw 14:3 (Pp Mark 6:17) informs us that he’d been bound and placed in prison
‘...for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife’
The incident is detailed in Josephus’ Antiquities (18.5.1-2) with a direct comment on the arrest of John springing from it but not necessarily giving the same interpretation. Herod Antipas had decided that he wanted to take in marriage Herodias who was currently the wife of Herod Philip who ruled over an area which bordered on the eastern flank of Galilee. This involved two divorces which were to be kept secret until the time was to come when Herodias would take up her place as wife in his former wife’s place (the former wife being the daughter of Aretas).
However, when Herod returned from Rome, his incumbent wife learned of the agreement that Antipas had made with Herodias and requested that the king
‘...send her to Machaerus, which is a place in the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions. Accordingly Herod sent her thither, as thinking his wife had not perceived any thing...’
This played into her hands for Machaerus was under the control of her father and she fled eastwards, preparations having been made for her ahead of her arrival, and into Arabia where she met with her father and told him of Antipas’ intentions. Aretas had long since been at enmity with Herod and took the report from his daughter as sufficient grounds to march against Antipas (though both Aretas and Antipas took no part in the actual military conflict, sending their generals into battle instead).
Josephus records that
‘...when they had joined battle, all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas’ army...’
It can easily be seen as to why the residents of Philip’s tetrarchy had decided to rebel for they most likely took the actions of Herod against their king as tantamount to an offence against their ownselves. Josephus then continues to outline the reason for Herod’s defeat by the hands of Aretas as the Jews interpreted it, consigning it to a judgment from God as
‘...a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist’
Josephus then mentions the ministry of John (we quoted this earlier when we dealt with John’s first appearance in Matthew’s Gospel here) before giving the reason for John’s arrest as being tied up with John’s popularity and the increasing numbers of Jews that were going out to him (something that was beginning to happen to Jesus before John’s arrest - John 3:26). He writes that
‘...when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him’
There is, therefore, a difference of opinion between the Gospel writers and Josephus as to why John the Baptist was arrested and placed in Machaerus but neither one should be viewed as undermining the position of the other. It’s quite possible that, politically, the possibility of the rebellion which John the Baptist was attributed with could have been seen to have come out of his denunciations of the immoral relationship he had with Herodias, thus undermining the respected authority of the throne.
Luke 3:19 (previously quoted) notes that John’s comments to Israel concerning the king hadn’t stopped there for he had spoken publicly against
‘...all the evil things that Herod had done...’
making himself quite a celebrity in his opposition to the throne. While John was imprisoned, the threat of a rebellion had largely been undermined (even though John the Baptist was not trying to stir up any possible overthrow of his sovereignty but, rather, calling him to repentance as even Josephus noted - see the quote above).
Mtw 14:5 records for us plainly that Herod Antipas
‘...wanted to put him to death...’
but that he also feared that the people might rise up against him should he commit such an act
‘...because they held him to be a prophet’
Therefore, fearing the people and (Mark 6:20)
‘...knowing that he was a righteous and holy man...kept him safe...’
calling him to appear on numerous occasions before him even though his words caused him to become ‘perplexed’. It would appear that Herod was a man who, although he wanted to live his own life as he chose, was interested in spiritual matters for, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate had Him sent to the king who was in Jerusalem for the Passover and the Scripture records (Luke 23:8 - my italics) that
‘...when Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see Him, because he had heard about Him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by Him’
However, this is going beyond the chosen subject of this section but it certainly gives us a clear indication that running to hear the latest and best preachers and teachers within the present day Church doesn’t guarantee spirituality and acceptance with God.
It would appear from the authorities available to us that Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist in Machaerus for a multitude of political reasons, one being the offence which he was giving to his wife, Herodias, who Antipas had married immorally.
We will look at the execution of John the Baptist when we reach Matthew chapter 14 but, for now, we should note that the plot which Herodias contrived to entangle Herod to have John executed naturally gave the king justification for doing what he had already desired to be done but which he had hesitated to do because of how he perceived the people might respond.
In the end, no rebellion came and Herod remained established over both Galilee and Peraea.
The person who wishes to learn more about Machaerus than that which is recorded here should note that some commentators and sources spell the place as ‘Macherus’ rather than add the extra ‘a’ as I do. However, information regarding this fortification in present day Jordan seems to be incredibly sparse for the non-technical reader such as myself and I have had to rely more on ancient authorities (and then, only on Josephus for, although Strabo mentions it, he gives no other information regarding its position) than modern eye-witnesses (I put Edersheim to one side in his description of the place as there was no source from which I could determine that his information had come - not so much as a name of a friend who, perhaps, had witnessed the ruins on an exploratory visit) and commentators.
Machaerus, as previously noted above, was a stronghold situated some five miles due east of the shores of the Dead Sea, a residency of Herod Antipas, king of both Galilee and Peraea and rising today to a summit of 700m above sea level. This geographic altitude is somewhat misleading as the Dead Sea in its vicinity lies below sea level, causing Machaerus to appear even greater in elevation, though I have been unable to determine the height difference.
The site had first been built upon by the Jewish king Alexander Janneus sometime at the beginning of the first century BC (Antiquities 14.5.2) though it appears to have been destroyed by one Gabinius, the commander of the Roman forces who had come to Syria from Rome after Machaerus had been handed over to him by the same Alexander (Antiquities 14.5.4).
Aristobulus, who had fled Rome just after this campaign also fortified the site (Antiquities 14.6.1) but was defeated by the same Roman military commander, Gabinius, and was returned back to Rome upon his defeat.
Historical commentators differ on these last few points and it doesn’t appear to me, at this present time, that I’m able to say with any certainty that the above is absolutely true. Some put the destruction of the fortress under Gabinius to 57BC when he became governor of Syria but Josephus mentions one by the same name (who could be the same person) as the commander of the army which came against Alexander Janneus.
Perhaps the best that we can say is that the site had been used as a fortification and stronghold even before Herod turned his attention towards it and, having immediately seen the advantages of such a strategic position when he first came to power (37BC), set about establishing a fortification there which could survive the greatest of sieges. It was this fortification in which the Jews in their rebellion against Rome in the first century AD held out and to which John the Baptist would have been brought in the time of Christ.
Josephus notes of Herod’s building work (pages 387-8) that
‘...he surrounded a large area with walls and towers and founded a city there from which an ascent led up to the ridge itself [known respectively as the lower and upper city today as noted below]. Not content with that he built a wall round the very summit and erected towers at the corners, each ninety feet high. In the middle of this enclosure he built a palace, breathtaking in the size and beauty of the various rooms; and at carefully chosen spots he constructed a number of tanks to receive rain water and maintain a constant supply...He further provided an ample store of weapons and engines and managed to think of everything that could enable the occupants to snap their fingers at the longest siege’
Although the fortress had fallen into Roman hands on the death of King Agrippa in 44AD and was under the control of the prefect of Judea, when war broke out against the Romans, the soldiers abandoned the military position and Jews took it over.
Jerusalem was the only city which lay unconquered before the advance of the Roman army when Josephus in the Jewish War (page 278) reports that there still remained the three fortresses of Herodium, Masada and Machaerus which had yet to be conquered and which stood alone from all the surrounding Jewish area which had been totally subjugated. A bit like the strong defensive line which the French built prior to World War 2 and which the Germans swept round to deal with at a later date, the Romans appear to have done the same.
When Jerusalem finally fell in 70AD and was sacked by the armies of Rome, the Romans turned their attentions to the three remaining fortresses and quickly overcame Herodium (c.71AD) but Machaerus presented a few problems, not least because the Romans feared that, with its impregnability proverbial, it might encourage many of the fleeing Jews to continue to revolt against them and defend the position, increasing in confidence and resilience before a fresh rebellion would sweep through the land.
Therefore, they turned their attention next to Machaerus (c.72AD).
Josephus (page 387) describes it’s natural defences awe-inspiring, the actual fortified rocky hill on which it stood
‘...rising to an immense height, and for that very reason it is almost impregnable; and nature has found means to make it unapproachable too. For it is trenched on every side with ravines too deep for their bottoms to be seen, difficult to cross and quite impossible to fill in...The ravines to the north and south are considerably smaller [than that to the west] but just as serious an obstacle to an attacker; that to the east is found to be at least a hundred and fifty feet deep and it extends as far as a mountain situated opposite Machaerus’
There appears to have been two aspects to Machaerus - the palatial residency which was linked to the fortification on the mountain and a lower city-like complex of buildings with a slightly lower elevation down on the same ridge. It was to the latter that the Gentiles were banished according to Josephus when the siege took place, the Jews opting for the more easily defensible palace and fortress on the upper ridge. In an article by Michele Piccirillo for the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (and located on their web page at here but linked to their home page - in the subsequent archaeological observations, I have used this web page as the main source), it’s noted that the palace was situated on the higher of the two plateaus and is given the demarcation ‘upper city’ while the ‘lower city’ (still to be extensively excavated as is the more ancient fortress built under Alexander Janneus) was built abutting the steep northern slope with large military defence works.
Evidence of Jewish occupation has been found in the palatial residence in the Upper City which confirms the authenticity of the account but
‘A comparison between the real Machaerus and the one described by Josephus strengthens the impression that the historian allowed himself too much liberty in the description, abetted by the desire to glorify King Herod and the Romans military might capable of the impossib[ility] to even assault an inaccessible fortress like Machaerus’
For example, both the upper and lower cities were reached from the east across a 15m high bridge which connected the fortress to the ridge. From Josephus, the impregnability of the place makes one wonder how the inhabitants ever managed to leave the site but the existence of this exit routeway shows us that, although it was possible, the Romans had decided that it didn’t afford them a good opportunity across which to launch a successful military attack - perhaps it was too narrow a ridge.
Although the military commander Bassus began the siege of 72AD by attempting to fill in the ravine to the east (identified by explorer G Ricciotti during his visit in 1936 with the ‘jumbled rock heap piled up at the north west base of the fortress’ being just the beginning of the siege ramp which was never completed as described below), the overthrow of the fortress came about through the apparent kidnapping of a Jew and, having been flogged publicly before the inhabitants of the fortress, was the stimulus which prompted them to surrender to the Romans when certain sureties of their safety were agreed upon which the military commander, Bassus, honoured - the Gentiles perished, however, for the Jews only made a pact which guaranteed their own safety.
Therefore, the impregnable might of Machaerus was largely left untested by the Romans and, having secured the fortress, they turned their attention to Masada which fell in 73AD. Zondervans notes that excavations in the early summer of 1968 (under J Vardaman) showed that the pottery record ended abruptly in the first century AD, an indication that, once the siege had been broken, the Romans largely ignored the site even though it must still have represented a defendable position from which another Jewish revolt could have occurred. After this archaeological excavation, work again resumed under the late V Corbo from 1978-81 under the auspices of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and, more recently, during 1992-3 by A Strobel on behalf of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (presumably the Jordanian one as the site is now located within the boundaries of that nation).
A cited Byzantine record confirms that only the village of Machaberos was in existence at the time of writing and, even today, the name is preserved in the Arabic village of Mukawer which lies to the north in front of the fortress on the sight of both Roman and Byzantine ruins - but there appears to have been christian activity in this area, probably because the site was positively identified with the last habitation of John the Baptist - the explorer Duke de Luynes identified a church among the ruins of the village in 1864 and recent excavations in the village of Mekawer, according to Piccirillo
‘...have unearthed three Byzantine churches built in the sixth century. The central church was mosaiced at the time of Bishop Malechios’
From Machaerus, the strongholds of Herodium (25 miles) and Alexandrium (35 miles) on the west bank of the Jordan were also visible and, should there have been a Jewish uprising, these fortresses would have taken the immediate brunt of the attack allowing for a decision to be made either of flight or fight. With the additional presence of hot springs close by, the stronghold was, no doubt, a palace which afforded all the comforts which a king could desire without feeling endangered by a residency in the midst of the Jews who were always regarded as being potentially rebellious.
It seems right, therefore, to accept Josephus’ testimony that John the Baptist was held in this stronghold and that Herod Antipas was usually resident here, a place which afforded great potential should there be an attempted overthrow of Roman authority and sovereignty or an unexpected attack from enemy armies to the east.
‘Prison’ (Mtw 11:2) was not always something which mirrored the type of judicial punishment that we tend to think of nowadays where the convicted person is sentenced to a time away from the public to serve some kind of sentence.
In NT times, ‘prison’ had various forms and could be simply a place where undesirables were kept either before being put on trial or, as in the case of John the Baptist, just to be kept out of the way. Exactly what the set up was in Machaerus and in how much confinement he was restricted is impossible to determine but it is certainly true to say that his wasn’t an imprisonment which cut him off totally from the outside world for here, in Mtw 11:2, we read of John hearing about Jesus and of his sending of two of his disciples. Luke 7:18-19 expands the scene better when it notes that his disciples were coming to him and feeding back the reports of Jesus and that, eventually, he sent for two of his men and ordered them to go to Jesus to ask Him a question.
While it’s quite possible that the confinement in prison could have been one in which John was being either tortured or physically restricted in stocks or with chains, Mark 6:20 observes that
‘...Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe...’
indicating that John was more like a guest in Machaerus than a prisoner, even though, I’m sure, he received no special treatment from Antipas’ hand. That Herod called him to speak before him on occasions (Mark 6:20) would also demonstrate to us that Herod’s main intention in his arrest was to restrict his voice to the people who were gathering together to hear him in greater and greater numbers (with the point which needs to be noted that, immediately prior to his arrest, it would appear that Jesus was drawing people away from John to Himself - John 3:25-30) and that, although he desired to kill John (Mtw 14:5), there was still some fear of God (and, perhaps, of man, too) in the king which restricted his hand from doing such a thing.
1. Question and Answer
Mtw 11:2-3 begins the passage with the minimal of words as we would almost expect from the writer of Matthew seeing as we noticed throughout chapters 8 and 9 that whenever there was an abbreviation possible, he seems to have opted for it (though this statement is far too all-inclusive to be absolute!).
However, the parallel passage in Luke 7:18-20 is interesting for it’s first sentence which states that
‘The disciples of John told him of all these things’
That is, John’s question comes as a response to the eye-witness accounts and reports which have been brought to him by his disciples who seem to have been following the expanding ministry of Jesus with great interest and who most probably had been present during some of the things which were transpiring in Galilee (Mtw 9:14).
But what were ‘all these things’ which John was being told? If we follow the account in Luke’s Gospel, we may safely believe that it could have been all or most of what has been recorded as having occurred from Luke 4:1 onwards - for the sake of argument, I shan’t use Matthew’s record of the healings and deliverances in chapters 8 and 9 as we noted there that they weren’t placed strictly in chronological order and may have occurred even after the incident recorded from Mtw 11:2 onwards.
So, what sorts of events had John the Baptist been told about? Excuse me that I’m being selective in my list compiled here, but the previous Scriptures in Luke tell us that He had made the lame walk (Luke 5:18-25), He had cleansed a leper (Luke 5:12-16), had raised the dead (Luke 7:11-17) and preached good news to the poor (Luke 6:20-49). I’ve no doubt that the report which the disciples of John brought to him went far beyond these but, so that we can be certain what could have been reported, we need to limit ourselves just to these. There is the possibility that the fact that Jesus had mixed company with the unclean (Luke 5:27-32) and that He had not been encouraging His disciples to fast as the Baptist’s did (Luke 5:33-39) was such that he also found a direct cause for being offended at what was transpiring in Galilee.
But, all that we can say for now is that John the Baptist was doubting for whatever reason and that the reports and examples that had been told him didn’t help him grasp the fact that Jesus was the One who was not only promised to Israel but who he had announced to Israel as being the One (John 1:29-34).
And yet, for all his doubts, Jesus only presents his disciples with more of the same evidence which they’d already relayed to him! Luke 7:21 records for us that, at the time of their question
‘...He cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind He bestowed sight’
so that He can say to those who’ve come as messengers (as Mtw 11:5) that they should answer the Baptist’s question by telling him of their eye-witness accounts that testify that
‘...the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’
In other words, Jesus is giving John simply more of what he already knows and allowing nothing new to be demonstrated before the messengers which they can bring back to their master (I guess that the sky being drawn back, the heavens being opened and God’s glory being made visible might have been what they had been looking for - but nothing like this happens).
It seems, therefore, that Jesus is simply saying to John
‘You have all the evidence you need and nothing new will be shown to your disciples to make you believe’
Whether this was sufficient for John or not is impossible to know and we can’t even be sure if the messengers made it back to Machaerus before John’s execution took place (Mtw 14:1ff). But, what is apparent is that doubt seems to have begun to surface in John’s mind that he was trying to allay and put down and, therefore, was seeking some confirmation from Jesus that he hadn’t been wrong in his previous pronouncement to Israel.
2. Why did John doubt?
Why should John the Baptist have doubted?
Mattask comments (my italics) that
‘It is not...surprising that when he was confined to prison in the fortress of Machaerus by the Dead Sea after his arrest by Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, denied access to reliable information and forced to form his judgment upon what was happening in the world outside from such fragments of garbled information as might reach him, he was becoming impatient and beginning to wonder why Jesus was not asserting His messianic claims more forcibly and more openly’
The problem with this statement is that Luke 7:18 (previously quoted) specifically states that his disciples told John all the things that Jesus was doing and we shouldn’t think that the information relayed to him was either ‘garbled’ or ‘unreliable’. John knew in prison what was transpiring in Galilee through Jesus and it’s difficult to accept that his disciples had kept him ill-informed or in the dark about the events which had the entire land talking about Him (Mtw 5:23-25).
We have to find a different reason - if there is one - to explain the doubt in John’s mind and which was answered by Jesus doing ‘more of the same’ rather than demonstrate something which was so conclusive that it hadn’t been done before and which John was expecting.
I believe we should look at John the Baptist’s expectations of the Messiah for, in these, we will be able to see that Jesus didn’t appear to be the One whom John had expected - that is, the function of the Messiah which John was proclaiming was a whole lot different than the actual Mission which Jesus was fulfilling in Israel at that time.
While John began and continued his ministry to Israel with the declaration (Mtw 3:2)
‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’
a word which Jesus was also to declare (Mtw 4:17), his recorded warnings to all Israel were such that you couldn’t have helped thinking that the Coming One was going to sit in judgment over His nation and sift them out, the good from the bad, before committing them to either everlasting torment or into the presence of God (Mtw 3:7-12). John spoke of the ‘unquenchable fire’ (Mtw 4:12), of the tree of Israel that’s chopped down to be thrown into the fire (Mtw 4:10), of the wrath which was to come (Mtw 4:7) and, even when the Holy Spirit was in view, he continued to use the fire theme which would have been coloured by his previous usages of the word in the hearing of the people (Mtw 3:11).
Therefore, it may be that John had seen the need to come out to Israel to proclaim to them the need for the forgiveness of their sins following individual repentance but that he saw it in an imminently important way in the context of the final judgment when God would come into their midst and judge the nation before establishing a Kingdom in Jerusalem throughout the earth.
We shouldn’t think of this as being a wrong understanding of the purpose of God. As I’ve shown on my web page which deals with the entire concept of prophecy and, further, in the context of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapter 24, that Jesus was to come in judgment within the lifetime of the present generation was expected. Even in Mtw 10:23 (which we discussed here) we saw how the natural way to read such words was that the Kingdom was about to be visibly set up with Jesus as King over it and, therefore, as a consequence, a time of judgment was about to fall upon the nation which both Jesus’ and John’s preaching should have prepared them for.
After all, in Is 35:4 where the prophet assures those fearful of heart that they’re to
‘...Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’
the words are immediately followed by the declaration (Is 35:5-6) that
‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy’
Though the latter was being performed by Jesus, the former action of vengeance and deliverance from what read initially like a physical oppressor wasn’t taking place at the hands of Jesus and, as John’s declaration to Israel was predominantly concerned with the former concept, questions began to arise in his own mind.
Similarly, when Jesus stood up to proclaim of Himself in Luke 4:18-19 in a paraphrase and interpretation of Is 61:1-2 which read
‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’
He omitted the following phrase
‘...and the day of vengeance of our God...’
because His ministry was aimed solely at reconciling the nation with God at that time rather than as acting as an instrument of judgment and vengeance throughout the land. Although these two concepts of the Messiah are necessarily joined in the One person of the Messiah, the time for each to be fulfilled is different and, first, the ministry to Israel was to be spread abroad throughout the land before any judgment from God was to be sent.
Mattask, therefore, observes that, in the reports which had been coming to John the Baptist
‘...there was no evidence that men were being subjected to a messianic fire of judgment, nor any sign that the mighty were being put down from their seats or the proud scattered in the imagination of their hearts!’
It was just such an eschatological expectation, then, that made John the Baptist begin to doubt whether he’d been wrong to declare Jesus as the One who was to come (John 1:29-34), even though you can’t get a much more demonstrable and certain sign than the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove and alighting upon Him. After all, God had already shown him that this was to be the sign which would mark out the One who he’d been sent to prepare the way for - how many others could it be said of that such a manifestation had happened?!!
Therefore, the very signs of the healing of the sick and the Good News being preached to the poor were, for John the Baptist, not a confirmation that Jesus was the one but a point of bewilderment which his question was attempting to clear up. In other words, we could paraphrase the intention of John’s heart as saying
‘I was expecting you to judge and rule over Israel but you’re healing and speaking to the people about acceptance before God. Your ministry isn’t what I was expecting - is this right?’
and Jesus’ command to John’s disciples that they should report back to him what they see Him doing at that time as a gentle rebuke (but no more than a gentle rebuke) saying
‘This is the ministry I’ve been given and which I’m continuing to fulfil. You need to re-evaluate your concept of what the Messiah is to do when He first comes to the nation’
Jesus’ response with more of the same, therefore, was only a mild rebuke and a call to John to make Him realise that, although He was the One promised as he himself had announced, what the Father was wanting to do through Him was, at that time, a whole lot different to what he’d seen was His future function.
Matmor considers Jesus’ use of the healing miracles as a prompt to John’s mind towards the Scriptures previously quoted above to show him that His ministry was indeed a fulfilment of prophecy. But this seems unlikely simply because, if John had already known the Scriptures and heard the reports, why hadn’t he already made the connection? And, if it was just the connection that needed to be made, why didn’t Jesus simply cite a Scripture and send it back to John with the messengers?
Very simply, perhaps, we could summarise the problem as being that John looked towards the end of the age while Jesus still had the cross to be experienced (though that judgment was expected to fall upon the nation was a teaching of Jesus as well - see especially Matthew chapters 24 and 25).
3. Final Verse
Jesus concludes His announcement of the things which were transpiring with the words (Mtw 11:6)
‘...blessed is he who takes no offence at Me’
or, perhaps even better
‘Blessed is the man to whom I am not a stumbling block’
which becomes the tenth of the beatitudes after the nine spoken in the Sermon on the Mount (Mtw 5:3-12). The Greek word is the same one used in Mtw 13:57 where Jesus comes to His own country (the country in which He was presumably brought up - that is, Nazareth) and the people, although astonished at His teaching (evidence that He hadn’t spoken much - if anything - about the Kingdom until His water baptism) find themselves offended by Him, the inhabitants failing to witness great miracles in their midst through the unbelief which had come about as a product of their offence (Mtw 13:58).
Although the saying in Mtw 11:6 can be used to speak concerning Jesus as a stumbling block to all the Israelites and all types of men and women (as we noted in the Introduction to this web page), the context of the words have them applied directly to John the Baptist and we should first think about their application in context. Mathag summarises the situation correctly when he notes that their implication is that
‘...not everything will work out in accord with John’s expectations. If Jesus is the Messiah, He is not the kind of Messiah awaited by John and the populace at large’
After all, as we saw above, the very reports that had caused him to doubt were the very same reports that Jesus offered his disciples as proof of Him being the One promised, against the perception of the role of the Messiah in John’s own mind, tied up, as it was, with the judgment of the wicked.
Therefore, John the Baptist is encouraged to believe that he was right in identifying Jesus as the One promised to them but he must also grasp that, for the time being, the judgment of the wicked will not take place and that Jesus will not sit as ruler over the nation in the same way as John apparently thought would happen.
A warning exists for believers here also within the Church for, supposing Jesus to be Someone who is different to what He apparently is, we fail to grasp His work in a multitude of situations, even, as the inhabitants of Nazareth found out, failing to see God move in our midst because we take offence at the type of Person we eventually discover Him to be.
Jesus will be the kind of Person He is or else not at all - He will choose to do a work in a person’s life regardless of what that person thinks should be done for them - He will move in the world in areas that we would least expect Him to and we’ll get annoyed because He’s accepted the people we’ve rejected from being part of the Church. But, in everything, Jesus will be the type of Person that He chooses to be and do the type of work that He chooses to do - what the believer must make sure that they come to terms with is the offence which can so easily arise in their own lives when we witness it taking place. As Matmor points out
‘Jesus is...speaking about the person who trusts Him...and does not take offence at who He is and what he does’
It’s probably true to say that each believer has hang-ups - whether we like to think of them as such or not - and that Jesus moving in certain sections of society or amongst different nations of the world or, even, in a different and unusual way to what we’ve experienced, is offensive to us. We may, just like the Pharisees, fail to accept the work which God does and so oppose it strongly (Mtw 9:34 and most of chapter 12 still to come), but we must come to terms with Jesus’ work lest we find that we’re opposers of the next move of God.
GO TO MATTHEW PAGE