What John Believed: Old Testament Prophecies and Messianic Expectations (Refiner’s Fire Pt 5)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done. What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


When John asked “Are you the One who is to come,” it was clear that he had a specific “One” in mind. From the Scriptures—from what God had said through the written law and prophets—he knew to expect a Savior.

Growing up in Sunday School and piecing together what I’d read and heard from various sources including my parents, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and Bible storybooks, I sketched out a basic outline of what I thought this “One” was supposed to look like. I figured the Old Testament must say that:

  • He would be born of a virgin
  • He would be the Son of God (i.e. one-third of the eternal Trinity, in some way God himself)
  • He would save people from their sins
  • He would die and be resurrected on the third day
  • He would give us—all of us, everyone in the entire world who believes in him—eternal life in heaven

As it turns out, none of this is clear from the Old Testament Scriptures.

It’s there, don’t get me wrong. But it’s certainly not clear or obvious.

In fact, it wasn’t clear from the Old Testament Scriptures that Israel should expect a certain “One” in human form to save them at all, as opposed to God just stepping in to bring a general revival and deliverance of the nation from their enemies.

The fact that they constructed such an expectation is a credit to their careful study of the Scriptures and to the Holy Spirit’s work in highlighting certain key passages. By Jesus’s time, the Jewish people did expect an individual to arise from among them and act as Savior. But they didn’t expect this person to be God, and they didn’t expect him to die, and while they did expect him to forgive them of their sins, they didn’t think of that in the personal and global way we do.

(If that isn’t clear: by “personal” I mean that we think of forgiveness of sins as something individual; that is, every individual human being needs to be forgiven of the specific sins committed by that individual, and Jesus offers us that forgiveness. And by “global” I mean that this forgiveness is needed by every person in every place in the whole world, and Jesus offers forgiveness and acceptance to everyone and not just to people from one particular ethnic group. Both these ideas were somewhat foreign in Jesus’s day.)

Also within my largely Baptist upbringing, besides the above sketch of what I thought the Old Testament clearly said about the Messiah, I acquired a loose understanding of Messianic expectations as they applied to the time of Jesus.

I was told that the Jewish people were waiting for a prophesied Messiah to come and free them from the Romans. I wasn’t really sure if this also entailed a belief that the Messiah would be the Son of God (i.e. a divine being) or not, or whether the prophecies they believed spoke about things like heaven and eternal life too, or if it was purely a matter of political deliverance.

Mostly, I gathered that the Jewish people thought a Messiah would come and set them free from Rome, but that actually the Messiah was coming to set them free from sin, and that their understanding was silly and kind of childish. Very earthbound, when God was really all about forgiving our sins and getting us to heaven.

I had the impression that if they had just read their Bibles a little more carefully, they would have seen the whole plan of salvation clearly laid out there, and there would have been no confusion about Jesus’s obvious identity as the Son of God and Savior of mankind.

I also gathered, from Sunday School, that this expected Savior was called “the Messiah,” and that “Messiah” was essentially New Testament-speak for “Savior.” (As well, I picked up the helpful information that “Christ” is just the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”)

This loose grasp was not entirely wrong, but the operative word is “loose.” To really understand John’s questions, and therefore his doubts, it’s helpful to understand with greater clarity where he got his expectations of the Messiah and why Jesus might have caused him to doubt—or at least qualify—them.

Before we go on, let me state at the outset that John’s expectations—and Jewish expectations overall—were far from superficial, childish, or lacking in biblical grounds. When it came to the Messiah, the Old Testament was both remarkably clear and strong and remarkably, well, unclear and mysterious.

So what is clear from the Old Testament, and how did the Jews arrive at their expectation of a Savior? Why did the term “Messiah” (or Christ) end up applied to him, so much so that the great question of the gospels, and certainly of the gospel of Matthew from chapter 11 onward, is “Are you the Messiah, or should we expect another?”[1]

[To be continued …]

[1] Matthew, writing some thirty to fifty years after Jesus’s resurrection, gives the game away. Speaking of John in prison, he says, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples” (Matthew 11:2). By the time Matthew wrote, he considered it obvious that Jesus was the Messiah. This is why he and the other gospel writers persistently refer to Jesus as “Jesus Christ,” or “Jesus the Messiah.” But at the time these events were unfolding, it wasn’t obvious, and Jesus hadn’t yet declared himself openly.


This is Part 162 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “What John Believed: Old Testament Prophecies and Messianic Expectations (Refiner’s Fire Pt 5)”

  1. […] Part 163: What John Believed: Old Testament Prophecies and Messianic Expectations (Refiner’s Fire… (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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