Looking to the Future Again (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 12)

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.


As Jeremiah had predicted, after seventy years of exile in Babylon the Israelite people did begin to return home. Under the Persian king Cyrus, they were granted permission to return to their own land and even to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple in its midst. Cyrus, in fact, commissioned them to build the temple to Yahweh—an incredible turn of events, one foretold in Isaiah with emphasis on its extreme improbability in human terms.

But it quickly became apparent that Daniel’s longer timeframe would also hold true. Although the exiles returned and rebuilt their city and temple under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, other pivotal aspects of the restoration prophecies were not fulfilled. The enemies of the nation were not destroyed. Its pagan overlords continued to rule. Zerubbabel, a leader among the community of returning exiles who was a direct descendant of David, did not become king—while he was chosen by God, it was clear he was not the Messiah. The renewed Golden Age seemed as far away as ever.

Most importantly, the rebuilt temple lacked the glorious presence of God. Isaiah and Ezekiel, among others, had clearly declared that Yahweh would return to his people and dwell among them, with such a powerful presence that the knowledge of God would “fill the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, KJV). Ezekiel, who witnessed the presence of God leaving the first temple in a vision and described it in Ezekiel 10, also wrote of a day when God’s presence would fill and even overflow a glorious new temple in Jerusalem:

He led me to the gate, the one that faces east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice sounded like the roar of mighty waters, and the earth shone with His glory. I fell facedown. The glory of the LORD entered the temple by way of the gate that faced east. Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the inner court, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. (Ezekiel 43:1–2, 4–5)

Certainly, when the Jewish community under Nehemiah and Ezra returned to the land, they hoped this prophecy would be fulfilled in the temple they rebuilt. But just as their Davidic contemporary Zerubbabel became a respected leader of the community but never ascended the throne, so the temple became the respected center of Jewish worship of Yahweh again and yet lacked the presence of God in the way it had formerly dwelt there. As the returned exiles regarded the temple in the process of being rebuilt and felt the sting of its strange emptiness, Haggai declared the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:

“Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and to the remnant of the people: Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it seem like nothing to you? Even so, be strong, Zerubbabel”—this is the LORD’s declaration. “Be strong, Joshua son of Jehozadak, high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land”—this is the LORD’s declaration. “Work! For I am with you”—the declaration of the LORD of Hosts. “This is the promise I made to you when you came out of Egypt, and My Spirit is present among you; don’t be afraid.”

For the LORD of Hosts says this: “Once more, in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations so that the treasures of all the nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the LORD of Hosts. “The silver and gold belong to Me”—this is the declaration of the LORD of Hosts. “The final glory of this house will be greater than the first,” says the LORD of Hosts. “I will provide peace in this place”—this is the declaration of the LORD of Hosts. (Haggai 2:2–9, my emphasis)

And so, a Daniel 9-like strain can be heard echoing in the writings of the post-exilic prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. As N.T. Wright has pointed out, they recognize that although the seventy years have been fulfilled and the people have come home, the exile is not yet over. It will not finally end, in fact, until the Lord himself comes home.

Malachi encapsulates the promise of this future day, but with the promise comes a warning. Just as Israel did not listen to the Lord when he warned them against destruction so, when he comes, they might not be ready. A way will need to be prepared before him—a way not over rough and uneven ground but through rough and impure hearts.

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD as in days of old and years gone by. (Malachi 3:1–4)

What John Believed—Reprise

When John the Baptist arrived on the scene early in the gospels, declaring the arrival of the kingdom of God and calling on people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, he was clearly driven by deep convictions about what God was doing. There was a scripturally rich content to his faith. And although we cannot know all the nuances of what he thought or understood to be true, we can and do know what the Scriptures before him had said.

Whatever precisely John expected from the Messiah, his faith found its contours in the Scriptures we’ve just read and reviewed from ourselves. All of this is what John believed. The expectations set by the prophets were therefore the ground in which his doubts took root and his struggle took place.

But doubt is never purely an intellectual exercise. It grows up in a context not just of what we think but of who we are and what we are experiencing in our lives.

So the next question to explore in our quest to understand the story of John’s doubts is this one: Who was John?

To be continued …


This is Part 170 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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