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Matthew 11:2-6 “The Confused Baptist”

“Now, when John heard in prison the work of the Christ, he sent through his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One or might we expect a different one?’ And answering, Jesus said, ‘Go proclaim to John what you hear and see: Blind men look up and cripples walk, lepers are cleansed, and deaf men hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are evangelized. And blessed is he who may not be scandalized by Me.’”

 

Given that Jesus’ final words to His apostles emphasized unity and solidarity with Him (10:24-42) with both warnings of dire consequences (vv. 32-33, 37-39) and encouragement with eternal rewards (vv. 41-42), this initial section of the following narrative is intriguing. Jesus’ conclusion sets the reader up to wonder if Jesus will be welcomed or rejected by the people of Galilee. The preceding narrative (chapters 8-9) along with Jesus’ warnings (10:16-23) makes one somewhat certain that there will be doubt and rejection, likely from the corner of the scribes and Pharisees. But what of those one might think are stable and the fiercest of Jesus’ supporters? In John the Baptist, we see not only a representative of repentant Israel, but specifically the very first individual mentioned by Matthew to connect himself with Jesus once He had begun His ministry. And yet, there is doubt in John’s mind. This doubt does not bode well for Jesus or His disciples. If John doubts, what should one expect of the people of Galilee?


Matthew uses John’s doubt to begin this wider narrative section which focuses on the overall doubt of the people regarding both Jesus and John. This doubt primarily is centered in people’s misconception of Jesus’ agenda, something that Jesus is quick to correct. Specifically, this scene is comprised of a two-part question and answer format. John’s questions of doubt are pacified by Jesus’ assurance of His true agenda.

 

John’s Confusion (vv. 2-3)


"Now” introduces a new section.[1] As John sits it out in prison, he has heard reports of all that Jesus has said and done. This report does not seem to mesh with John’s own expectations of what Jesus “should” be doing and so he quickly dispatches some of his own disciples to ask Jesus what’s going on. This doubt is real and should not be taken lightly.[2] And yet, it also needs to be understood in its proper context.

 

John’s Context (v. 2)

Now, when John heard in prison the work of the Christ, he sent through his disciples.


John is far removed from Galilee where Jesus has been operating since John’s arrest. While still in the domain of Herod Antipas, John is stuck in a jail cell in the desert region east of the Dead Sea. Any report John receives about Jesus is from secondhand sources at best.


What he hears is recorded by Matthew as “the work of the Christ” (τὰ ἐργα τοῦ Χριστοῦ). This is an interesting phrasing for two reasons. First, the reference to Jesus’ “work” in the singular is broad enough to include the total gambit of Jesus’ activity since 4:17. By “work”, Matthew means Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing (4:23; 9:35). In short, John has heard reports of everything Jesus has said and done.[3] Second, Matthew does not often refer to Jesus as “the Christ” in narrative fashion, preferring His proper name “Jesus”. Yet here, this work is designated as being Christ’s work, the work of the Anointed One, or (using the Hebrew equivalent) the work of Messiah. While John hasn’t quite connected the dots, it is essential to Matthew that his readers understand everything John heard in prison was perfectly consistent with biblical expectations of the coming Christ. John, on the other hand, has doubts. Being stuck in prison, John sends his questions to Jesus through[4] his disciples.

 

John’s Question (v. 3)

And said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One or might we expect a different one?’


The singular verb “he said” (εἶπεν) assumes John’s voice through his disciples. His question contains two parts. First, John asks Jesus to either flatly confirm or deny that He is the anticipated Messiah. The “coming one” (ὁ ἐρχόμενος) is a well attested reference to the promised coming seed of the woman, Abraham, and David (Gen. 49:10; Ps. 40:7; 118:26; Is. 59:20; Dan. 7:13; Hab. 2:3; Mal. 3:1) who will redeem Israel, save the world, and destroy the wicked. John has already used this same language to refer to Messiah (3:11), the one whom he presumed to be Jesus. Is Jesus truly this coming one or should John and his disciples seek out another.[5]


This is clearly a heavy and loaded question, one that many have sought to answer in various ways in order to relieve some of the obvious tension brought by the fact that John seems to be questioning Jesus’ credentials.[6] (1) Some seek to acquit John of any doubt by making him speak for his disciples rather than through his disciples. This view insists that it is not John who doubts but that his disciples are wavering and so he asks not for his benefit but for theirs. This was the view of the medieval church and held on to be propounded by the Reformers. Yet, this view flies in the face of any straightforward reading of the text, ignores the grammar and syntax, and jettisons all exegetical insight. (a) Matthew specifically states that John spoke through his disciples in v. 2. (b) John’s disciples clearly speak on John’s behalf in v. 3. (c) Jesus’ answer is directed at John in v. 4, not John’s disciples. Though it makes us uncomfortable, John is clearly asking this question on his own behalf.


(2) Being in prison for at least a year at this point, some suggest that John is beginning to crack, and, in a state of weakness, he doubts his calling as well as Jesus’. Before dismissing this explanation out of hand, it is worthwhile to note that there are several parallels between John and the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Not only are they presented in similar physical fashion (Matt. 3:4 vs. 2 Kings 1:8) and are linked by none other than Jesus himself (Matt. 17:10-13), we might also note that both John and Elijah were persecuted by weak kings manipulated by evil women and had a tendency to become despondent when idle and in danger.[7] While such a scenario is certainly understandable, it requires too much reading in the white spaces. There is simply nothing in the text itself that would demand such an explanation, much less suggest it.


(3) Drawing nearer to an explanation from the text, some suggest that John’s patience was being tested more than his faith. Rather than expressing doubt, this statement is meant to goad Jesus into action and “get with the program”. The idea is that John is growing impatient in prison while he hears of Jesus wandering around Galilee doing nothing (from his perspective) to bring in the kingdom. This view would understand v. 3 as something close to a rebuke in the sense that John is telling Jesus to stop fooling around and get to work. Unfortunately, this view does more discredit to John than it does to defend him. What would the implications be of John rebuking Jesus? What would that say about John’s faith? How could John go from seeing himself as unworthy to even untie Jesus’ sandals (3:11) to a position of moral superiority from which he can rebuke the beloved Son of God (3:17)? Granted, this is the best answer thus far, and yet it still creates more problems than it solves.

 

It is best to seek an answer from the context surrounding John and from the text which Matthew provides. John came preaching repentance because of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (3:2). His area of operation was in the south, near the Jordan River and not far from Jerusalem (3:5-6).[8] His message focused on the coming judgment and wrath that will accompany the kingdom’s arrival (3:7-10). The “coming one” (whom John anticipates) will be the executor of this judgment as He will thresh Israel as so much wheat (3:11-12). In preparing the people of Israel for their coming Messiah, John preached repentance in light of Messiah’s wrath and judgment that comes before the kingdom.


Yet, the reports that John heard in prison regarding Jesus’ activities reveal nothing of this wrath and judgment. No fire and brimstone rained from heaven. No Pharisees were being turned to pillars of salt. Kings continued to take their stand against Yhwh and against His Anointed One. Jesus is preaching the same message (4:17), yet His focus is on blessing (5:3-10) rather than cursing. Jesus is restoring (8:5-13) rather than destroying and forgiving (9:2-8) rather than judging. This is not an expression of doubt in the sense that John no longer believes that Jesus is God’s Christ, but a question stemming from utter confusion. Is there something that John missed? Is Jesus the “coming one” who will usher in His kingdom via blood, fire, and vapor of smoke (Joel 2:30)? Or is there perhaps a second, a different one who will accomplish these things?


As an inspired prophet, John is still a man with all the limitations inherent to humanity. John has his own preconceived notions of what Messiah will accomplish and when. Like many of his contemporaries, John’s focus on the kingdom blinded him to something that needed to happen first; namely, Messiah’s penal, vicarious, substitutionary atonement. John’s question does not express doubt as to who Jesus is but confesses confusion as to Jesus’ agenda.

 

Jesus’ Assurance (vv. 4-6)


Of all the ways Jesus could have answered John’s question, Jesus opted to show grace while correcting John’s confusion with laser-like precision. This answer not only assures John that all is well, it also calls on John to trust the One whom he has already faithfully proclaimed.

 

Jesus’ Answer (vv. 4-5)

And answering, Jesus said, ‘Go proclaim to John what you hear and see: Blind men look up and cripples walk, lepers are cleansed, and deaf men hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are evangelized.’

 

That this message is for John and not the disciples through whom John speaks is evident by Jesus’ response. There may be more going on in v. 4 than at first meets the eye. In a very real sense, Jesus is taking over John’s disciples. They came to Jesus from John speaking John’s message. Now, they return to John from Jesus speaking Jesus’ message. In and of itself, this action confirms that Jesus is the one whom John foretold. John spoke openly of one who would be mightier than himself (Matt. 3:11) and personally told his disciples that he must decrease so that Jesus might increase (Jn. 3:30). In sending John’s disciples back to him with this message, Jesus is fulfilling, and thus affirming, what John has said.


Jesus also ensures that John will have the most accurate of information. No longer will he hear secondhand reports of what Jesus has said and done, but these men will bring back their own eyewitness testimony from what they have both heard and seen. Jesus is meeting confusion with grace filled revelation.

 

There are numerous observations to be made regarding what Jesus proclaims in v. 5. First, Jesus replies by alluding to and sometimes quoting from the Old Testament. In v. 5 are close ties to no less than 5 texts from Isaiah (26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1), the same prophet who prophesied the coming of John as the voice crying in the wilderness (Is. 40:3). John’s understanding of Messiah or “the coming one” is exclusively based on the Old Testament prophets and Jesus responds in kind.

·       Blind receiving sight: Is. 29:18; 35:5; 42:18

·       Cripples walking: Is. 35:6

·       Deaf men hearing: Is. 29:18; 35:5; 42:18

·       Dead raised: Is. 26:19

·       Poor evangelized: Is. 61:1


Second, these passages are not selected at random. Each of these passages are either explicit Messianic texts (Is. 61:1) or carry implicit Messianic connotations (Is. 26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18). Because Messiah is clearly linked with the restoration of Israel, Jerusalem, and the kingdom (Ps. 2; 72; Hos. 3:5; etc.), texts that speak of restoration implicate Messiah or “the coming one”.


Third, the arrangement of Jesus’ list is most interesting. For the most part, there is nothing odd about a six-part list that connects each miracle to the preceding one with “and” (καὶ). Yet, there is no “and” (καὶ) linking the cleansed lepers with the preceding cripples who are made to walk. This gives the indication that this sixfold list is arranged in three sets of pairs (blind + cripples, deaf + lepers, dead + poor). This indication is strengthened by the strong connection Is. 35:5-6 associated with the blind and then the deaf. The emphasis on the blind and deaf echoes what Jesus commanded John’s disciples: to proclaim what they hear and see. While it is error to allegorize Jesus’ miracles in that He has given spiritual insight and hearing to those who are spiritually blind and deaf,[9] there may very well be something else going on. With so much emphasis on Isaiah, it is impossible to forget that Isaiah was commissioned to speak to those were cut off from sight and hearing (Is. 6:9-10). The enthroned Lord of the earth told Isaiah that his proclamation would continue until the land is empty of people and the land is desolate (vv. 11-13). Or, that they are dead and destitute. Thus, the raising of the dead and the good news preached to the poor is the climax of this list as it seeks to undo and reverse the condition of Isaiah’s day.


Fourth, this description is also a summary of Jesus’ activity as recorded in Matt. 8-9. Jesus restored the sight of two blind men in 9:27-31. Jesus made a paralytic walk in 9:2-8. Jesus cleansed a leper in 8:2-4. Jesus healed a mute/deaf (κωφός[10]) in 9:32-33. Jesus raised a dead girl in 9:23-26. And Jesus has been preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the poor (5:3) as summarized in 4:23 and again in 9:35. In other words, Jesus points to Isaiah then back to Himself as if to say, “I’ve been doing all that the prophets have expected Me to do…and more”.


Fifth, there is no prophetic prediction regarding Messiah and the cleansing of lepers. What Jesus did in 8:2-4 is completely without precedent because no one has ever cleansed a leper via physical touch. In adding this statement to the list, Jesus is advancing beyond the Old Testament texts that prove who He is to state that He is even better than anticipated.


Finally, every single one of the allusions to and quotations from Isaiah contain judgment within their contexts. The vast majority of Old Testament prophecy concerning Messiah’s kingdom and the restoration of Israel involves both blessing and cursing. The blessing of the kingdom for the faithful comes in tandem with curses and death upon the wicked (Ps. 1; 2; 72; etc.). To focus upon the blessing of the kingdom and ignore the coming judgment is a modern evangelical problem shared by many of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Yet John seems to have the opposite problem of focusing upon the judgment at the expense of the blessing. By pointing to these specific passages and tying them to His own ministry, Jesus is assuring John that (1) he is not wrong in understanding that judgment comes before the kingdom and (2) Jesus’ agenda is still perfectly in keeping with that ultimate program.

 

Jesus’ Affirmation (v. 6)

‘And blessed is he who may not be scandalized by Me.’


The choice to conclude His message to John with a beatitude (μακάριος – 5:3-10) betrays a tender note. In reality, this is something of a rebuke, yet a soft one that at the same time promises blessing. Jesus tells John that the one who is blessed is the one who is not scandalized by or stumbles over Him. The term σκανδαλίζω can mean (1) to cause to be brought down (literally – stumble, fall. Or figuratively – caused to fall into sin) or (2) to cause shock through word or action (to give offense, to anger, to scandalize). Here too is an allusion to a passage in Isaiah. In Is. 8:14 the prophet writes that Yhwh will become a sanctuary and yet to both houses of Israel (northern Israel and southern Judah) He will become a stone to stumble over and a snare to trap them. The message is clear: there is blessing for those who trust Jesus and destruction for those who fail to grasp His agenda. Jesus provides John with all the tools he needs to be assured that He is in fact “the coming one” and that He is doing the work in which He is purposed. John’s faith has been well placed so long as he can keep from stumbling over his own preconceived notions of what Jesus should be doing and trust that Jesus will accomplish everything the Father has decreed for Him to do.




[1] Δὲ connects back to v. 1, but not directly. Matthew adds a thought of a different kind to the transition and thus begins a new paragraph.


[2] Turner, p. 290.


[3] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 303.


[4] Διὰ with the genitive here communicates agency.


[5] The adjective ἕτερος indicates one of a different kind as opposed to ἄλλος which indicates another of the same kind.


[6] These views and their evaluations are summarized from Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 274-5.


[7] Broadus, p. 235.


[8] It is almost as if John expected another invasion of the land akin to Joshua’s conquest or David’s triumphant return from exile where Messiah would cross the Jordan and march on Jerusalem.


[9] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 428.


[10] Refer to the discussion on 9:32 and the use of κωφός.

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