Getting the Story Wrong (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 19)

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.


By now it should be clear that two years into his ministry, Jesus was failing to live up to John’s expectations of the Messiah. Remember, those expectations did not come out of thin air. They came out of a deep grasp of Scripture and the plans of God. They came out of a powerful personal faith. John trusted God, and he knew what God’s Messiah—his Anointed One—was supposed to be and do.

And those expectations had shaped John’s identity too. In many ways, he was the person he was because of his faith in God to act, in his lifetime, in the way he expected.

When Jesus first came on the scene, John was certain he’d found the One. After all, he personally saw the Holy Spirit come out of heaven like a dove and rest on Jesus. He heard the voice of God thunder out of heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” Remember Psalm 2?

I will declare the Lord’s decree:
He said to Me, “You are My Son;
today I have become Your Father.
Ask of Me,
and I will make the nations Your inheritance
and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
You will shatter them like pottery.”
(Psalm 2:7-9)

But as time passed, Jesus began to look less and less like the one John was waiting for. So John pushed the issue. He forced the question. He needed to know; the people needed to know.

And this was Jesus’s answer. We’ve read it before, but let’s read it again—this time with all the Old Testament prophecy we’ve read still at the forefront of our minds:

Jesus replied to them, “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. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Initially this doesn’t look like an answer at all. And in one sense, it’s not. Jesus could have said “Yes,” or “No,” which is what John apparently wanted him to say. Instead he offered a riddle. But the riddle does have a fairly clear inference. The passage Jesus quoted here is Isaiah 61. And of course, there’s more to it than what he quoted.

Actually, all of Isaiah 61 is important, but let’s zoom in on its first three verses:

The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and freedom to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of our God’s vengeance;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair.
And they will be called righteous trees,
planted by the Lord
to glorify Him.

To the crowds, Jesus only quotes the part of the passage that highlights the works of healing, proclamation, and deliverance. These things are being done, he’s pointing out. The captives go free. The poor hear the gospel preached to them. But John knows the Scriptures. So do his disciples; so do many of the people in the crowds. So they know the identity that goes with those works, and they know the year that goes with those works.

The identity is Messianic: “The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me, because the Lord has anointed Me.”

(Again, for John, those words must have reminded him of his own vision; he personally saw the Holy Spirit come upon Jesus.)

The year is the Jubilee. It is the “year of the Lord’s favor”—of Yahweh’s forgiveness and grace, and of his vengeance upon his enemies. The word translated “liberty” here, Hebrew deror, is not the usual word meaning “freedom.” It’s the word used in Leviticus and elsewhere specifically to speak of the Jubilee release.

If John is willing to put two and two together, Jesus is telling him: My works will tell you who I am and what is happening. I am the Messiah, and the time of the kingdom has come. John was presumably among those who believed the 490 years of Daniel were ending in his time. The effect of Jesus’s words was to say: You are right.

So why, we might wonder, was Jesus so oblique about it? Why not come right out and just say “Yes, I am the Messiah”? (We might wonder the same thing about our own doubts sometimes. Why are you so hard to pin down? Why don’t you just answer me? Why don’t you just show up and make this obvious?)

After all, knowing all the background, you can easily read Jesus’s answer and see that he’s claiming to be the Messiah.

On the other hand, if you want to, you can easily read it and say he’s not claiming any such thing.

It’s a deliberately evasive answer.

The pragmatic reason Jesus would answer like this may be that he lived in a revolutionary hotbed where declaring oneself to be the Messiah would bring serious problems with the ruling authorities and with those of his own countrymen who had an agenda for just what the Messiah should do, when, where, and with whom.

But the pragmatic answer has a spiritual side too, an incredibly relevant side for all of us. You see, the reason some of Jesus’s countrymen had an agenda he needed to avoid was not that they didn’t know the Scripture or trust in God. They did, on both counts. It was that, through no fault of their own, they had gotten the story wrong.

John had gotten the story wrong.

Even though it was based in the Scriptures.

Even though he could have read his version of events right off the pages of Isaiah, David, and Daniel.

Even though he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, walking out a life of radical obedience, doing exactly what he was supposed to do.

He still had the story wrong. He was missing pieces, and he didn’t know it. As the saying goes, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Or as the book of Job puts it, That which I see not, teach Thou me.

So Jesus, with his oblique, frustrating, easily misinterpreted non-answer that was in fact an answer, was calling John to do something radical. On the one hand, he was challenging him, through his clear allusion to the Messiah and the Jubilee in Isaiah 61, to renew his faith. Yes, John, I am the Anointed One. No, you didn’t get it wrong. Yes, the time has come. The kingdom is here. Take all this up and believe it again.

But on the other hand, he was calling him to be willing to not understand for a moment, to lay down his old certainties, and to step into a bigger story. He was asking John to realize that as much as he had the bones right, he might have had the body wrong.

In our doubts, we too have a choice to make. We can question God. (We should question God—actively, in prayer, and to his face.) But we can also, and should also, question ourselves. If and when we feel that God has let us down, that he is defaulting on his promises and failing to come through in the way we rightly expected, we can step back and reexamine the story.

It’s just possible there’s something we’re missing.

To be continued …


This is Part 177 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 Sayla Brown on Unsplash




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