In the Shadow of the Christ (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 17)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. To start from the beginning, go here and look for the Refiner’s Fire section at the bottom.


The post-wilderness John was a recognized type in his own time and an almost incomprehensible one in ours. Even in his own day, though, he was controversial—and he made enemies. The Jewish religious leaders were afraid to confront him openly because of his general popularity, but they were not the only people John rubbed the wrong way. He made a far more powerful enemy in the local king, Herod Antipas.

The Herods are regular villains in the gospels, beginning with Herod the Great, who ordered the killing of infants shortly after Jesus was born, and continuing on to Agrippa II, who heard Paul preach the gospel but failed to believe.

Ethnically they were Idumeans, descendants of the ancient Edomites, who had been forcibly converted to Judaism a century before. The Herods were client kings of the Roman Empire, instated as kings of the Jews by Rome and sharing power over Judea with Roman governors.

For the most part they were immoral, paranoid, and insecure, and the New Testament depicts them as regularly coming into conflict with the true king of the Jews and his followers—Jesus, his herald John the Baptist, and his later disciples.

According to the gospel of Mark, Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias, and John—tactful as ever—publicly rebuked him for immorality. At this point, the story takes on eerie echoes of Elijah’s ongoing antagonism with Ahab and Jezebel—Herodias developed a grudge, much like Jezebel had done with Elijah centuries before, and applied pressure to her husband over it.

This combined with Herod’s weakness and paranoia over possible insurrection, strongly reminiscent of Ahab’s vacillating personality, led to him arresting John and throwing him in prison.

That is where John was, in fact, when he developed doubt, owned up to it, and sent his disciples to Jesus to ask whether he really was the Messiah or not.

In the Shadow of the Christ

Even with all these background details in place, John the Baptist remains an enigmatic figure. We know little about his life, and we have only a few highlights from his messages. Although he started a movement of revival and repentance that galvanized Galilee and Judea, earned him the enmity of the local political powers, shook the religious establishment, and even managed to spread around the world, he remains in shadow—eclipsed, as he said he would and should be, by Jesus.

But all of this, what we know about John and what we don’t, leads to an inescapable realization: When it came to Jesus’s identity as “the Messiah” or “not the Messiah,” John had more than a dog in the fight.

His entire identity rested on being right about Jesus. He was the messenger of Yahweh and the preparer of a nation for the Messiah, whom John believed had come at last. It was John who used all the respect and authority given to him as the leader of a mass revival movement to launch Jesus into ministry by publicly declaring him to be the preexistent Messiah—the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” the “Son of God,” and the “Bridegroom,” to whom the Bride, the purified remnant of Israel, rightly belonged.

It was John who said that the Spirit had descended from heaven and identified Jesus as the heavenly man. It was John who moved many to believe.

And yet, at the end of this journey to rock-solid convictions and beliefs that would be insane if they weren’t true, we arrive at John’s question in Matthew 11:

“Are you the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Bitter and blunt, his question is an admission of potential failure on his own part and an accusation of misrepresentation on Jesus’s.

The question also contains a barely veiled threat. Because it was asked in public, while Jesus was actively ministering to the crowds, it was meant to catalyze a response not only from Jesus but from the crowds. If Jesus didn’t answer satisfactorily, the crowds should feel free to go elsewhere.

For us too, doubt can be so awful and so destructive precisely because it hits at our identity. If we have really believed, or we’ve thought we have, then we have built an identity around that belief. We don’t just “believe in Jesus”; we are Christians, or Jesus freaks, or Presbyterians, or Catholics, or whatever our particular lane may be. We have participated in community centered on our beliefs. We have seen ourselves through faith’s lens. When we doubt, it’s not just an intellectual exercise. It rocks our sense of what the world is and most of all, of who we are.

John’s question is painful for us too.

We thought You were the One. We built our lives on it. But …

“Should we expect someone else?”

The Greatest Born of Women

If John had hoped to force Jesus to reveal himself, he was disappointed. Jesus’s answer, which we will explore in more depth in the next chapter, gave John very good reasons to keep hanging in there, but it did not definitively answer his question (or, by extension, the question of the crowds). Jesus simply quoted Isaiah 61:1:

Jesus replied to [John’s disciples], “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

He then tacked on a curious charge: “And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.”

Having publicly answered John’s question, however, Jesus then turned to the crowds. His next words were quite defensive—but not on behalf of himself or his mission. He became defensive of John. John, after all, had publicly exposed his vulnerability and weakness, and Jesus had his back. He made sure that in the eyes of everyone present, his cousin’s honor remained fully intact.

At the same time, he offered more mysterious insight on the historical significance of his own ministry and that of John:

As these men went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Look, those who wear soft clothes are in kings’ palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;
he will prepare Your way before You.

“I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!” (Matthew 11:7-15)

The messenger of Malachi present and accounted for. Children of the kingdom of heaven, whose greatness somehow eclipses that of the greatest of the prophets. The end of the law and prophets. Violence taking the kingdom by force. Elijah arrived, but imprisoned and doubting—and declared by an apparent Messiah who refuses to declare himself.

All of these strange and enigmatic concepts are a clue as to where John’s expectations may have begun to go awry. Although he had a clearer understanding of Jesus’s identity and mission than any prophet before him had ever had, the story of the Messiah as it actually began to unfold in the real world still challenged him with its unexpected shape.

It may challenge us too. And so it is to that unexpected shape that we now turn.

To be continued …


This is Part 175 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash




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