“Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” [Matthew 11:3b]
I do not know about the rest of you but, every time I read this passage and every time I hear it read in church, it strikes me as being so very odd. After all, John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. They knew each other growing up. Saint John leaped in his mother’s womb when the Blessed Virgin Mary approached Saint Elisabeth when Saint Mary was carrying Jesus. And just before he sent his disciples to see if Jesus was the Messiah, John the Baptist had baptized Jesus:
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” And Jesus answering said unto him, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
So, what is going on? I know that humans can be kind of dense at times when it comes to believing what they need to believe in order to be saved, even when it is right before their face. This is why God has called us stiff-necked. But, John the Baptist being this unsure of Jesus seems unreasonable and out of character.
Our Roman Catholic brothers explain this question as a doubt on John the Baptist’s part. And to understand this, one has to understand whom John the Baptist was and his relationship both to the Old and the New Testaments.
First, this Gospel Lesson is historically and theologically the most important and pivotal moment recorded in the Bible. It is the fulcrum whereby we move from the Old to the New Testament, and nothing will be the same.
Last Wednesday, my Fifth Grade class performed in the Winter Program. Usually, it is required that the songs chosen have to be secular because we are a public school. However, at my school, we have always pushed the limits on this requirement. The Seventh Grade this year did “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “O Holy Night.”
Well, my students sung that classic French Christmas Carol “Il Est Ne”. We sang it in French, so the theological words were lost on most of the people. However, the sentiment of one of the verses is appropriate for our lesson for today. In this verse, the lyricist, referencing the birth of Christ, roughly translated, wrote:
“For more than four thousand years,
He was promised to us by the Prophets.
For more than four thousand years,
We expected this happy time.”
This verse is so moving for me, in part, because I cannot recall a verse like this in any of our English Christmas Carols. I do not recall one that specifically mentions the Prophets’ predictions. Yet, this is what we have in our lessons for today.
We have Isaiah predicting the Coming of the Messiah. And we will know He is the Messiah because He will perform the following miracles:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing.
And here is the fulcrum of which I spoke. Saint John the Baptist is NOT a New Testament prophet. He is the LAST of the Old Testament prophets. From this point on, we no longer come to God through the Law, through sacrifice, and through the sprinkling of blood. No, now we come to God through CHRIST!
But because John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets is precisely why Roman Catholic Theologians think this question from Saint John is an indication of doubt on his part. John the Baptist would have recalled these words from the prophet Malachi:
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers ‘ soap. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness. [Malachi 3:2-3]
Roman Catholic Theologians believe that John the Baptist would have been confused by Jesus’ actions. Saint John would have expected the mission of the Messiah to be one of fiery judgment, but it has not been so. Thus, Jesus retorts by pointing out the prophet Isaiah’s predictions, including our Old Testament lesson for today:
Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.”
These passages help support the Roman Catholic position, but the Eastern Orthodox have a different take. They see no doubt on the part of John the Baptist. Rather, they hold that Saint John asks this question in order to guide his own disciples to Jesus.
Remember, John the Baptist is in jail. He knows that his time is over. He knows that he must step aside for the Messiah. And thus, his disciples must become Christ’s in order for his mission to be a success. And the Eastern Church Fathers maintain this position.
Whether or not John the Baptist is in doubt is not as important as the resulting statement. The statement that Jesus has healed the blind and the deaf and has raised the dead all prove who He really is. He is the fulfillment of Scripture; He is the fulfillment of prophecy. He IS the Messiah.
But, Jesus makes another interesting statement:
“Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
What did Christ mean by this? Well, it again hearkens back to the fact that John the Baptist belongs to the Old Testament and not the New.
What Eastern Orthodox scholars would say is that this passage points out that, in terms of the Old Testament Law, John the Baptist was the greatest prophet. However, the New Testament Covenant is of such incomparable value that those who share in the New Covenant are greater than Saint John was without it.
This reminds me of the story that came out of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Kennedy was in San Antonio campaigning against Richard Nixon when he gave an incredible and mesmerizing speech to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Alamo. As you probably remember, the Alamo is where a handful of Texans held off a large Mexican army till their death.
When he was done, Kennedy wanted to make a quick exit. Turning to Maury Maverick, a local politician, he said, “Maury, let’s get out of here. Where’s the back door?” To which Maury replied, “Senator, if there had been a back door to the Alamo, there wouldn’t have been any heroes.”
With the Old Testament, like the Alamo, there was no back door. We had to live by the Law, and as Saint Paul points out, the Law only condemns; it does not save. Yet, with Christ comes our salvation – our back door, if you will. We now can be saved in a way that Saint John the Baptist and all the other Old Testament Prophets and Saints could not be saved until Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
But this brings us back to John the Baptist’s question:
“Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”
This question is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Is Jesus He who was to come, or are we to look for another? Should we look to Jesus, or to Buddha, or to Mohammad for salvation? Or are we to follow some New Age guru or prophet?
Now, we have a very important aside. We know that there are false prophets. We know there are men who claim to be the messengers of God, but who are not. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah had them. And so do we. So, how can we be sure that someone is a true prophet? God Himself in Deuteronomy Chapter 18, verses 21 and 22 tells us how we can discern the true from the false:
And if thou say in thy heart, “How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?” When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Isaiah is a true prophet because his prophecies have come true. And Christ is part of Isaiah’s prophecies. Conversely, Jesus knows He must prove He is the Messiah by showing how He Himself fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. And He did.
What I find with most of the other religions is that, in order to claim that they are the true faith, they MUST dismiss what is recorded in the Gospels as fabrications. Although the Qur’an does not say how Christ died, many of their religious leaders in the Middle Ages held that he did not die on the Cross. Rather, it was Judas who was made to look like Christ so as to punish him for his treachery.
Likewise, others dismiss that Christ fulfilled prophecy by denying what was recorded – “It is impossible for anyone to do these miracles, so Christ could not have done it” is the circular argument given. But if we accept the record, then there is no denying that Jesus IS the Christ and salvation only comes through Him.
So, what does this all mean to us? Well, for us, it speaks on several levels. First, it confirms that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and proved He is the Christ. This reassures our faith.
Second, this passage points out again how fortunate we are to be born after Christ’s birth. We do NOT need to come to God through sacrifice and blood. Jesus did that for us. The curtain of the temple separating us from God has been torn in twain. We now come to God through faith in Christ. And when we accept Christ as our Saviour, we then become the adopted children of God by faith and through Christ. What a joyous event! As our Psalm for today puts it:
PRAISE the LORD, O my soul: while I live, will I praise the LORD; * yea, as long as I have any being, I will sing praises unto my God.
So, let us show our joy. Let us sing praises to our God. Let us celebrate our Lord’s birth. Let us celebrate the new Covenant, a Covenant written in the blood of Christ. And let us vow to be good children of God.