This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, lectionary cycle A, and again John the Baptist features prominently in the gospel text. Yesterday we considered the liturgical context of its use on Gaudete Sunday. Today we begin to look more deeply into the text itself, notably the question John sends along with his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
In our age, especially in Advent, the phrase “Are you the one who is to come…” refers to the long awaited Messiah. There is no OT reference which would lend itself to being used as a Messianic title. However, Isaiah 59:20 uses the same verbal construction to refer to God coming as Redeemer to Zion. Perhaps reading too much into a phrase, but might it be that John’s question reveals an understanding that the promised Messiah would be God Himself. The idea that God would Himself come to rule and shepherd the people is a central and vivid idea from Ezekiel 34. Perhaps John has “put 2+2 together” and has divine expectations of the “one who is to come.”
In any case, the Baptist, whose proclamation introduced Matthew’s presentation of the Messiah (3:1–12), is now appropriately called as the first witness to the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. Yet, how are we to understand the question?
There is one view that holds John’s response as equivocal, positive but uncertain. Nonetheless John understands his role as a preparatory role for the true time of fulfillment. John remains the one who points forward, even if uncertain. Another view holds that there is no equivocation in John, but his disciples are less certain. They are already rallying to the cause of John the Baptist, but there is something that holds them back from transferring their commitment to Jesus. In this view, John provides the direct question for his disciples to ask Jesus so that they can hear it directly from Jesus and then decide.
Either way, John is incarcerated, his arrest having been mentioned in Mt 4:12, yet the full story of his imprisonment will wait until 14:3–12.
Why would John the Baptist have doubts? No doubt he had anxiously followed the career of the one whom he had recognized as his superior (3:14–15) and had probably already taken to be the ‘mightier one’ for whose coming he had prepared (3:11–12). The phrase “the Messiah” is Matthew’s description of Jesus, and sums up the impression Matthew has aimed to convey. Does John share that summation?
In this line of thought, John was not yet ready to be so positive, though he would have liked to be. His hesitation was probably due (as v. 6 suggests) to a discrepancy between his expectations for ‘the coming one’ and what he actually heard about Jesus. The ministry so far recorded does not match up with the expectations of 3:11–12: “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What about the miracles that Matthew has described? Assuming John has heard of them, the miracles, the thing for which we know Jesus, were not a part of the common Messianic expectation in Jesus’ own time. John may also have found it difficult to accept a Jewish ‘Messiah’ who failed to fast as his own followers did (9:14 ff.), and who kept the sort of company which a careful Jew would avoid (9:9 ff.).
The ancient commentaries tend to lean into John holding personal reservations for the reasons given above. And many hold that is how Jesus received the question given he begins his response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Jesus seems to understand that John needs to hear the response. Perhaps the understanding is “both/and.” John needs reassurance as he understand his role as herald is done it is his time to be diminished (cf. John 3:30). In that understanding, and realizing his time in Herod’s prison will not end well, John sends his disciples to Jesus that they may continue to journey the path of repentance and John is reassured.
Image credit: The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter), c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain