Friday, August 5, 2011

Are You the One?

Jesus sent out the Twelve Disciples on their first mission, to convert the Jews, with a lot of instructions. In summarizing those instructions, He reminded them to do good in order to not lose their reward. With those Twelve Apostles gone, Jesus continued on His mission to spread the good word.

Are You the One?
Will the true story of Jesus ever be known? It is unlikely, especially when there are points within each of the four Gospel accounts which disagree with and discredit each of the other Gospel accounts. We will see a shining example of this conflict, and grab one more piece of that puzzling character, John the Baptist. Buckle up, this very detailed study is a bumpy ride.

While the Twelve Apostles were on their first mission, Jesus was busy teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee (Matthew 11:1). John the Baptist had been put in prison when he angered the ruler, Herod (Luke 3:19-20), but John the Baptist's own disciples were ministering to him and keeping him informed of the events in the world while he was in prison. Those disciples told him about what Jesus was doing (Matthew 11:2), which prompts John the Baptist to send messengers to Jesus to ask, in Matthew 11:3:
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” NIV
If you remember our study of the baptism of Jesus, you may remember that God had opened up Heaven and proclaimed in the hearing of John the Baptist, and others, that Jesus was the Son of God. So this question becomes a bit of an enigma to determine its motivation. The classic Bible commentaries yield a myriad of possible reasons:
  • The question was on behalf of John's doubting disciples.
  • This was just a tool to better acquaint John's disciples with Jesus.
  • Because John was having a lapse of faith in Jesus in prison.
  • Because John was getting impatient while in prison waiting for Jesus' promised judgment and deliverance.
  • Possibly John was wondering if someone else may be scheduled to bring in the events associated with the Second Coming.
  • Because John, like the majority of Jewish scholars at the time, thought that the Messiah would rule a temporal kingdom, and was wondering why He had not yet seized power.
John the Baptist was human, subject to all human faults, so all of these explanations are at least plausible, but they are not likely. You have got to keep in mind John's character according to the Gospels. From within the womb John the Baptist had recognized Jesus (Luke 1:39-45), they had grown up as cousins (Luke 1:36), John had devoted his life in service to God as a prophet while wearing camel hair and eating bugs (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6), he recognized his role to prepare the way for God (John 1:23), and he recognized that the one coming after him was worthy of absolute and unquestionable respect (Matthew 3:11, Matthew 3:13-14, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26).

All of that circumstantial evidence could be swept aside in a moment of human weakness, if not for one more tidbit. John 1:29-34 testifies that John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was, and what His purpose was. John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and take away the sins of the world. John the Baptist identifies the source of this information as none other than God Himself. To question Jesus, to doubt that Jesus was the one, was to doubt God's own word; an action which simply does not agree with his character.

Now, add to that the passage of John 3:22-36 where John the Baptist rejoices that his mission is now complete, explains that God put everything in Jesus' control, and ultimately explains that Jesus will bring Salvation including eternal life. You have the picture that John the Baptist fully understood that Jesus was here to establish the eternal Kingdom of the afterlife, and that Jesus would do things whatever way that He wanted to do things. This again makes John the Baptist's question unrealistic, and thus makes the accuracy of the Gospels doubtful.

From the skeptical perspective, there is an easier fit for John the Baptist's question than any reason suggested above. What if this episode comes to us from a time which was earlier in the construction of the overall legend of Jesus; a time before John the Baptist was identified as Jesus' cousin, a time before the anecdote of Jesus' baptism was a part of the story, a time before John had heard from God that Jesus was the one and the Son of God? If the recorded story of Jesus involves fabrication, and this episode is an artifact of its construction, we would expect to find a tie made to prophesy by the author to bolster the credibility of Jesus' story.

In Matthew 11:4-6, we find Jesus' reply:
"Go back and report to John[ the Baptist] what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me." NIV
So basically Jesus says to tell John the Baptist about all of the good things He is doing, and blessed is the man who does not lose faith because he thinks that Jesus is doing the wrong things. That reply supports the ideas that John the Baptist was asking out of impatience, or out of expectation for Jesus to set up an earthly Kingdom, which, again, appears to counter the perspective given within the Gospel of John. It also supports the theory of John's question being an artifact of fabrication.

John the Baptist's disciples were not just supposed to be relaying words, but rather their actual experiences. This implies that in their presence, Jesus was preaching to the poor, performing these healings, and raising the dead. It seems odd that no accounts outside of the Bible speak of a man, Jesus or otherwise, performing all of these healings or raising the dead at that time.

Note that Jesus' list of good deeds is not arbitrary. At least three of them are tied to prophesy regarding the Salvation of the Messiah; giving the blind sight, hearing to the deaf, and preaching the good news to the poor.

Hearing and sight are a reference from Isaiah 35:5. Indeed, the chapter of Isaiah 35 speaks of God coming back with vengeance to save a people. The wastelands will be transformed into inviting and prosperous lands. God will take His redeemed and ransomed people there. However, as Isaiah 35:10 explicitly says, these people will be returning to this land. Taken within the full context of the Old Testament, this can be none other than the Promised Land, Zion, the combination of the lands of Israel and Judah; and if people are returning to it then that people can be none other than the Jews.

Preaching the good news to the poor is a reference from Isaiah 61:1. Indeed, the chapter of Isaiah 61 speaks of God comforting those who now mourn and endowing them with righteousness. God will make an eternal covenant with them and bless them with everlasting joy. However, Isaiah 61:4 speaks of rebuilding the ancient ruins of cities, Isaiah 61:5 speaks of non-Jews being the source of their manual labor in the restored land, and Isaiah 61:9 speaks of these blessed people having descendants and offspring for generations to come. Obviously this conflicts with the Christian concept of the afterlife.

One final question regarding Matthew's account of this interaction: Who was there to record it? The Twelve Apostles, including Matthew, were off on their First Mission. How could we know that Jesus' words were accurately recorded, or John the Baptist's words for that matter?

Here is where it gets funny. The author of the Gospel of Luke, who was not an eyewitness to Jesus, also happens to record this incident of John the Baptist questioning Jesus. Amazingly, you will find that Luke 7:18-23 records what Jesus and John the Baptist said almost word-for-word with what Matthew recorded, and Luke adds details to the story such as the precise number of disciples which John the Baptist sent to Jesus.

Yet perhaps what is most funny about Luke's account are the circumstances around it. Specifically, according to Luke this happens while all Twelve Apostles are still with Jesus. Luke does not send the Apostles out on their mission until two chapters later in Luke 9.

Neither the Gospel of Mark nor of John record this episode. It is just between Matthew and Luke. If we give credence to Matthew over Luke, Luke is clearly a fabricator of details and someone who appears not to be concerned with the accuracy of what he writes. If we give Luke the priority, then he accuses the actual eyewitness, Matthew, of either being a liar or being someone with such a horrible memory that he could not even recall if he was present for an event in history which he recorded!

And to think, some people still consider the Gospels inerrant.


  1. I think that John was at first convinced that Jesus was the Christ (through the urging of the Holy Spirit), but had been expecting him to expel the Gentile oppressors, create a secular kingdom in Judea, and generally kick butt. Essentially all Jews back then expected the Messiah to do these things. No one expected (or wanted) someone who would be arrested and killed without having fixed what they considered to be their #1 problem (oppression). At this point in time Jesus had done none of the above, and as a result John had been languishing in prison for years! It's not surprising to me that he was beginning to have doubts and wanted to be sure that Jesus was indeed the one sent by God and that there would be no one else.

    You mention that Matthew's account has the Twelve Apostles off on their first mission at this time, yet Luke's account has them leaving later on. As only the gospel of Luke (in 1:3) claims to be in chronological order, I think it's best to use this account if you're wanting a framework for an orderly outline of events. But even in Luke, I don't think that chronology was the most important guiding principal.

  2. Does it not strike you as odd that everybody expected something else? Check out the very next post on this blog for some more insight as to why that may be.

    In regards to the timeline, I was not really concerned about chronology. My points are these:

    - If Matthew the Apostle, the supposed source of Gospel by the same name, was out on a mission at the time when John the Baptist sent these messengers, he would know best whether or not he was there. Matthew claims he was not there.

    - If Luke claims that the Apostles left for their mission later than this episode, then Luke (wrongly) claims that Matthew was with Jesus when John the Baptist sent these messengers.

    - If no Apostles were there, who is the source for what was said and done, and how is it possible that the wording is nearly identical between both Matthew's and Luke's account?

  3. For the record, I'm of the opinion that Matthew was present for this conversation. Matthew 10:5 explains that Jesus sent out the twelve apostles--but it doesn't say when, nor does Matthew claim to have arranged his gospel in chronological order. (If indeed the author of Matthew even *was* Matthew the apostle.)

    Looking forward to your next post about the expectations that everybody had of Jesus.

  4. While I think that there is enough looseness in the text to permit Matthew being present, that is not how it casually reads. Matthew 10:5 says that Jesus sent them out with the following instructions, and those instructions fill up the rest of chapter 10. Then, in Matthew 11:1 we see

    "After Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee." NIV

    The implication is that Jesus continued on through Galilee without the Apostles.