This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, lectionary cycle A, and again John the Baptist features prominently in the gospel text. Previously we considered the question John sends along with his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Yesterday we looked at Jesus’ response. Today, we can ponder how Jesus understood John the Baptist’s role.
John’s preaching had created a sensation (see Mt 3:5), and the movement into the wilderness had been a remarkable phenomenon. Jesus examines its motives, to show the real significance of John. The series of three questions and answers suggests motives progressively closer to a true understanding of John. A reed shaken by the wind is a metaphor for a weak, pliable person; John was not such a person, and the implied answer is ‘Of course not’. It was John’s rugged independence which attracted a following. Nor was he dressed in fine clothing; far from it, as 3:4 shows. It was as a man conspicuously separate from the royal palace that attracted them. (There may be an ironical reference to his present residence in a ‘royal palace’—as a prisoner of conscience in Herod’s fortress) His rough clothing in fact points to his real role, as a prophet (see 3:4), and the crowds would gladly have accepted this description of John. But even that is not enough.
Tucked into the discussion of John the Baptist is an intriguing composite OT quotation. The disciples of John have left the scene and returned to their imprisoned master with Jesus’ answer to their question about his identity. Jesus takes this occasion to comment on John to the crowds (11:7–19). He dispels the notion that John was a weak or pampered figure (11:7–8), declaring instead that he was a genuine prophet, “and more than a prophet” (11:9). In language reminiscent of earlier testimony concerning John (see 3:3), Jesus explains, “This is the one about whom it is written (a standard way of referring to Hebrew Scripture),
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; (Exodus 23:20)
he will prepare your way before you.’ (Malachi 3:1)
The first clause quotes Exod. 23:20; the second, Mal. 3:1. In context, Exod. 23:20 refers to God sending his angel to guard the Israelites, as they proceed from Mount Sinai, to prepare the way for them to take possession of the promised land. But in both Greek and Hebrew, the same words can mean either “angel” or “messenger” (and angels typically function as messengers), so an application to a human messenger in a different context follows naturally.
The language of Exod. 23:20 recurs in Mal. 3:1. Malachi’s prophecy may in fact deliberately allude to the Exodus text. This time, however, the messenger seems to refer to a human being who will prepare the way for the Lord to come suddenly to his temple, a messenger who in Mal. 4:5 is equated with Elijah and described as one who “will turn the fathers’ hearts toward their children” (4:6), an example of the reconciliation that results from the kind of repentance for which John the Baptist had been calling.
The primary function of the composite citation is to answer the question of John’s identity. As in Mt. 3:3, he is viewed as a great prophet, preparing for the arrival of the messianic age. His ministry overlaps the beginning of the Messiah’s ministry, but he will not live to be part of the new covenant inaugurated by Christ’s death. But if the forerunner is here, then the Messiah must be near.
Indeed, John is the greatest of all pre-kingdom humans (“those born among women”), but because of the greatness of the coming age, all of the kingdom’s citizens will in some sense be greater even than John (11:11; cf. 11:13).
And a Messiah who can so solemnly pronounce John the greatest of all mortals to date (11:11) sounds like someone who thinks that he himself is more than a mere mortal. This suspicion is reinforced when we realize that Jesus is substituting his coming for the day of the Lord (i.e., the coming of Yahweh) in Mal. 4:5.
Image credit: The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter), c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain