I’ve heard many different ideas about why John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was “The One” or should they look for another, see Matthew 11:2-3. The context of this passage is that Jesus has sent out His twelve disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God by healing the sick, casting out devils, and, well, preaching, Matthew 10:7-8, 11:1. John the Baptist is in prison and hears about the works of Jesus, probably because of the widespread fame due to the twelve out preaching in different places all at once.
I believe the answer to why John asked his questions lies in the response that Jesus gave both to John’s disciples and to the multitude as they departed. John’s expectation must have been one of a fiery Messiah ready to judge those who needed judging, including the religious in the nation of Israel, see Matthew 3:9-12. Instead of fiery judgment, Jesus came and began preaching to people, healing the sick, raising the dead; and this was to all classes of Israelites, rich and poor, religious and non-religious. Because of the manner of Jesus to attend parties where He preached the gospel, sometimes by means of a funny story or parable, people gave Him the nicknames of “the glutton” and “the drunkard” since He always seemed to be eating and drinking, Matthew 11:19. Also since he seemed to hang around those Israelites who were not religious, He got another nickname, “the friend of sinners”.
I believe it was this manner that caused John to wonder if Jesus was just another forerunner like John. Perhaps John was to introduce this Jesus person, who in turn would introduce another. Perhaps the preaching of Jesus was to set the stage for another Messiah who would come and turn the world upside down with fiery judgment. But God had specifically told John that upon whichever person the dove descended, that was the one, I mean, The One, John 1:32-34. He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and since John knew that the same one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit is also the one who baptizes with fire, Matthew 3:11, therefore Jesus is the One who will baptize with fire since the dove descended upon Him.
Jesus takes great care to treat John the Baptist and his legacy with great respect. First, in the response He gave to the disciples of John, there is no castigation. Jesus very plainly points to the works that He has done, Matthew 11:4-5. The blind receive sight, the lame can walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have the good news preached to them. These works were testifying in those days as to the identity of Jesus. But then Jesus adds the phrase, “And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” The idea is that Jesus had been doing things contrary to how many thought that the Messiah should act. Would the Messiah come and take time for common, ordinary people with broken feet, skin diseases, and eyesight problems? Wouldn’t He have better things to do? Jesus adds the phrase to pronounce a blessing upon those who didn’t take exception to His ministry. It was like Jesus was saying, “Blessed is he who is not offended in the way I am ministering.”
Jesus refers to Malachi 3:1 when referring to John, Matthew 11:10. This would have validated John’s point of view that the Messiah was to bring fiery judgment. The entire chapter of Malachi 3 indicates a messenger preparing the way of the LORD which would bring a cleansing type of fire to purify the sons of Levi. Since John is the messenger in Malachi 3:1, then Jesus must be bringing some type of fiery judgment. Jesus also stated that it was with John that the beginning of the kingdom of heaven began to be apprehended by men, Matthew 11:12. The law and prophets proclaimed their voice, but when John came, he preached the next step, the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 11:13. Jesus also points out that the preaching of John was a fulfillment of the prophet Elijah, Matthew 11:14.
What is powerful here is the challenge that Jesus gives to the crowds in Matthew 11:16-19. He likens the crowds to children in the marketplace. Some days, the children would be singing, dancing, and making music in an attempt to get the crowds involved, hoping they would throw a few coins their way for the entertainment they brought to the business center of town. On other days, when it seemed like excitement and merriment would not persuade the crowds to part with a small donation, they would switch tactics. Instead of a happy song, they would sing a dirge, which would require lamenting. This would remind the crowds of some sad event, perhaps a recently passed away loved one. Perhaps mourning would get the reaction they desired.
On that day when nothing would work, not music for dancing, not singing for merriment, and not even mourning for lamenting, the children had a saying that they called out to one another. “We have piped for you and you have not danced. We have mourned for you and you have not lamented.” The idea here is one of frustration. It’s like they were saying, “What is it going to take to get some kind of reaction out of you people? We’ve been playing our hearts out and you just sit there like bumps on a log!”
Then Jesus brings His parable home. The ministry of John the Baptist had been strictly serious. There was no laughing or joking around with John. He wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and preached fire and damnation. There wasn’t anything fun about the ministry of John the Baptist. But many Israelites did not respond to this grim preaching. Then along comes Jesus. He’s the exact opposite. He is eating and drinking with the common folk. He is telling funny stories and parables. He is spending time with those who have afflictions and healing them. It was such a contrast that John had to send two of his disciples to make sure he hadn’t been mistaken with his forecast of Jesus as The One. These who had rejected John because of his overly serious manner, did not respond any more favorably toward Jesus. Those who had labeled John as demon possessed, they labeled Jesus as “the glutton”, “the drunkard”, and “the friend of sinners”.
Jesus’ words should have challenged that generation. What is it going to take to get some kind of reaction out of you people? John came preaching his heart out. In the middle of the desert. Without any luxuries. And you just sat there like bumps on a log. I come eating and drinking with you. Healing your diseases. Raising your dead. Preaching to the poor. And you just sit there like bumps on a log.
We in the church are blessed to have a variety of styles of preaching, worshiping, and fellowshipping. Don’t be like the Israelites in their day who had one excuse after another to dismiss the different styles. Remember the frustration of Jesus in His attempt to reach that generation with different means. The excuses in Jesus’ days are echoed in our own. The excuses not to enjoy contemporary music, or the older hymns; the excuses not to appreciate a sermon with too much levity in it, or not enough; the excuses not to enjoy a large gathering with little time for fellowship, or the smaller gathering where you feel on the spot; all these are just excuses to dismiss the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
What is it going to take to get some kind of reaction out of you?
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman