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Did St. John the Baptist Doubt Christ?

The Gospel for our 2nd Sunday of Advent according to the Vetus Ordo, the Roman Mass, has two sections which need to be addressed separately, though they are connected. Firstly, in Matthew 11 John the Baptist is in prison because he preached about Herod’s unlawful marriage. He learned of the wonders his cousin Jesus was working and he sent his own followers to ask Christ about His identity, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Christ sent back an answer. Next, like putting a book end on the moment, Christ then asked questions about John’s identity.

It probably occurs to most people to wonder why John asked this question at all. Did he have doubts about Jesus?  If so, doesn’t that contradict what Christ says about John? If he didn’t have doubts, why did John ask a question for which he already knew the answer? We’ll get to that, but there is some work to do beforehand.

Sticking with the first part of our passage, to our ears today the Lord’s response to John, about His identity, seems to dodge John’s question. However, when Jesus spoke these words in the 1st century, the Jews who heard Him would have known exactly what He meant both by His response and the seemingly non sequitur tag line, a “beatitude,” He attached to His response.

And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.’

The crowbar to pry open this enigmatic response is the Book of Isaiah, which the gathered crowd, Christ’s own disciples, and the messengers from the Baptist would have known well. For example, Isaiah reads:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (35:1-6 RSV).

The blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap; miracles Christ had worked.

What about the good news being preached? Again, Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted (61:1).” This is what Jesus preached in His first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 416-21). His response to John includes a clue to His identity. He is the “anointed” one, the Christ, the Messiah.

But wait. There’s more. John’s question was, “Are you he who is to come?” That certainly suggested the Messiah. Look at the passage from Isaiah 35 again. Who is coming? Not the Messiah, but God Himself: “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Note also the description of blooming and waters in desert. What is described isn’t merely a glorious new and surely indisputable Vatican II springtime, but rather a new Exodus, even a new Creation.

Christ added in His response to John also that the lepers have been cleansed and the dead have been raised. The Messiah could be expected to work wonders, but there are some things that only God does. Remember the panicked reaction of the King of Israel when he received the letter with the obligation that he cure Naman’s leprosy? “As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy?’ (2 Kings 5:7).” God cleansed Naman of leprosy after Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan seven times. As far as the dead being raised, again in Isaiah, the Jews of the time would have known that when God comes, “Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Is 26:19).

Christ had by this point healed leprosy and raised the son of the widow of Nain (cf. Matthew 8).

To sum up a little, the scriptural allusions Christ made answered John’s question: I am not just the long-expected Messiah, I am also God. His listeners, with these allusions, must have reacted sharply. This surely explains why the Lord tacked on that seemingly out of place line: “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” At other times, people accused Christ of blasphemy.

After this, the passage shifts from the answer to John’s query about Christ’s identity, to Christ’s query about John’s identity.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind?  Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.  Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee’ (vv. 7-10).

This is a continuation of Christ’s answer to John. Jesus underscored who He Himself was by talking about John’s role. Yes, John was a prophet, but he was more than a prophet. Jesus said that John was the one foretold by the prophet Malachi, whom He quoted. Again, the Jews present would have caught the reference: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (3:1).

In the verse immediately after this Sunday’s Gospel pericope, v. 11, Christ said that John was the greatest man to have been born of woman. John didn’t simply point to the Messiah, he heralded the arrival of God. Moreover, in v. 14 Christ said that John was an “Elijah.” Again, this is a reference to the prophecy of Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5).

The first reading was from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, 15:4-13. The beginning of the reading exhorts us to have patience. The end of the reading, with the allusion to the “root of Jesse,” signaled to the ancient Romans and also to us to pay attention to Isaiah for insight into Christ’s identity as both God and Messiah.

The episode of Christ with the messengers and John’s burning question smacks of longing and perhaps impatience. How appropriate that we have this during Advent. Holy Mother Church wisely gives us the mighty figure of John the Baptist, the greatest man born of woman, herald not just of the Anointed One, but of God incarnate. As great as he was, John still had to make his own response of faith in Christ. Knowing what he knew, John had to decide what he was going to do about it. So do we.

Buried in John’s question could also be some impatience. John, perhaps sensing that he wasn’t going to get out of prison alive, wanted to experience the fruits of the coming of the long-awaited one. Every generation of Christians through the ages has impatiently waited for the Coming of the Lord, just as we, in a compressed arc of time, explore during Advent the Parousia and await the arrival of the Incarnate Word, both at Christmas and at the End. Think of how the passage of time is perceived by those who have fewer distractions, the young. It takes forever for Christmas to arrive. Paul tells us that we have to have steadfastness, patience.

There is a passage from a sermon by Pope St Gregory the Great (+604) on this episode in Matthew 11 which sheds light on the question of John’s question. Did John doubt that Christ was the one they were waiting for? Gregory explains:

It seems almost as if John did not know the one he had pointed out, as if he did not know whether he was the same person he had proclaimed by prophesying, by baptizing, by pointing him out!

We can resolve this question more quickly if we reflect on the time and order of the events. For when John is standing beside the river Jordan, he declares that this is the Redeemer of the world. But when he has been thrown in jail, he asks whether they were to look for another or whether he had come. This is not because he doubts that he is the Redeemer of the world. John now wants to know whether he who had personally come into the world would also descend personally into the courts of Hell. For John had preceded Christ into the world and announced him there. He was now dying and preceding him to the nether world. This is the context in which he asks, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ But if he had spoken more fully he might have said, ‘Since you thought it worthy of yourself to be born for humanity, say whether you will also think it worthy of yourself to die for humanity. In this way I, who have been the herald of your birth, will also be the herald of your death. I will announce your arrival in the nether world as the One who is to come, just as I have already announced it on earth.’

A longish quote but full with treasures. One gem we can unpack could shed beauty even on those times when we are in our own personal prison, our own anticipation of the “courts of Hell” on earth, when we are racked with suffering or scorched with anxiety, or shame, or sorrow.

Like John in prison, we do not doubt our Savior. We know Him and believe Him. We struggle with patience (from Latin patior “suffer”) because we long for the resolution. We cannot be shaken in our belief in what Holy Church claims and understands about Christ, only Savior of any who comes to be saved. We long for and recognize His coming in the words of Scripture, in the poor and needy, in the person of the priest, in every word and gesture of Holy Mass, in the ultimate union with Him of Communion. In this faith, even when we are plunged in our darkest moments, we need not be shaken. By this faith, even when our trials come from within the Church herself, from her pastors, our faith response is not to doubt but to arise in greater faith, hope and love.

“Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come.”

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