Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

72. The Vindication of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-34)*

The imprisonment, and later the beheading, of John the Baptist is attributed by Josephus (Ant.18.5.2) to Herod’s fear “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion”. This shows that Josephus knew little about John personally or he would have known how far out such an assessment of the prophet’s character was. The gospels are unquestionably much more accurate when they attribute John’s imprisonment and death to his rebuke of Herod’s evil union with an evil woman.

A very persuasive case can be made for believing that all the details about Herod, even to his plans and motives, were supplied to the gospel writers by Manaen “which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch”(Acts.!3:1; “Acts”byH.A.W.).
The tidings of the latest marvels wrought by Jesus, and carried to John the Baptist in prison, are described by Matthew as “the works of the Christ”. Thus he supplies beforehand his own emphatic answer to the uncertainties about to be raised in the next paragraph of his record.

The fact that contact with the prophet in the castle of Machaerus was possible suggests that the conditions of his imprisonment were not too rigorous.

John’s Problem

John’s reaction, after pondering the news for a while, was to entrust two of his own followers visiting him in prison with a special enquiry to Jesus: “Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?”

The view is often advanced that John did this not to set at rest doubts of his own, but for the benefit of his disciples. This explanation - a kind of half-apology for John-is set aside by the Lord’s answer: “Go your way, and tell John...”

Yet it is not difficult to understand why John was perplexed. He had proclaimed Jesus to the nation as the Lamb of God who should take away the sin of the world (Jn.1:29). Hehadalso bade them see him as the Messiah coming in
judgment on a nation in need of repentance “whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor” (Mt. 3:12). The initial cleansing of the temple had looked as though the second of these roles was to emerge with full authority.

But now more than a year had gone by, and no further sign of judgment from heaven. Nor was there even a hint that in some mysterious way Jesus might become, either directly, or in some secondary fashion as Hezekiah and Jeremiah had been, a bearer of the sins of the nation before God.

Instead, it had been a year of preaching, preaching, interspersed by many a breathtaking miracle. Jesus was on the crest of a wave of popularity-a popularity quite impossible to harmonize with the Baptist’s other Bible-founded expectations.

So John might well be puzzled: “Art thou the Coming One? or look we for another?” He knew that his own mission, as forerunner preparing the people of God for Messiah’s advent, had been ultimately a failure. The leaders of the nation remained unaffected, and so far as positive reformation went, so also did the mass of the people. There didn’t even seem to be any sign of Jesus fulfilling the role John had foretold for him of baptizing believers in Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11). Then was it because of failure that Jesus appeared to be content with a less dramatic role than that which had been expected of him?

In comparable circumstances Jeremiah had verged on bitterness: “O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived...I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me” (20:7). But with John it was puzzlement rather than despair.

Doubtless he had also a personal difficulty. Part of Messiah’s work was to be: “proclaiming liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”. Why then did Jesus go about performing such wonderful works as to set the whole country talking, and yet leave his best friend and helper languishing in the power of an ungodly princeling? Could it be that both of them-John and Jesus-were forerunners of one yet greater than either, as the days of Elijah and Elisha had led on to the stirring days of Hezekiah who had sought to complete the reformation of the Northern Kingdom?

So John was uncertain. “Art thou he that should come, or look we for another”-one different in character from yourself?

“He that cometh”

The expression “He that cometh” or “the Coming One” was sufficient in itself to make John’s meaning clear. No further definition was needed, for this description of Messiah was familiar to every Jew. It was the highest common factor of many precious prophecies. Ezekiel foretold that sceptre and mitre should be taken away from Israel “until He come whose right it is, and I (God Himself) will give it to him” (21:26, 27). That prophecy in its turn, leaned on Jacob’s well-known prophecy concerning Judah: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah... until he come whose it is” (Gen. 49:10). The Psalms greeted Messiah with: “Hosanna! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (118:26). They spoke of his self-dedication: “Lo, I come: in the volume of the Book it is written of me: (40:7). In a highly important scripture for John the Baptist (as it turned out by and by), Isaiah acclaimed him: “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense”-or, just possibly: “your God will come, raised up (from the dead), even your God rewarded” (35:4). Another prophecy, specially relevant to the Baptist’s enquiry, comes in Malachi: “And the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple” (3:1). Yet other Scriptures were to take on a greater fulness of meaning before long: “Behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zech. 9:9); “One like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days” (Dan. 7:13).

John himself had appropriated the same terminology: “One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose” (Lk. 3:16). And again: “After me cometh a man which is preferred before me” (Jn. 1:30). “The true light, which lighteth every man, was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). Jesus also took up the familiar idiom: “I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not” (Jn. 5:43). The common people had the phrase in their familiar speech: “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (Jn.6:14). Paul used it, speaking of Adam as “a figure of him that was to come” (Rom.5:14) And Hebrews is specially emphatic: “He that shall come will come, and will not tarry” (10:37).

What an answer!

It was not the Lord’s way to give a brief categorical answer to John’s plea for doubt to be set at rest. Far better to leave the ultimate answer to the judgement and faith of the one who now cried for help. So “in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight.” What an hour to remember! Those two disciples of John would talk about it to their dying day. They were bidden to talk about it to their leader: “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard”. Besides the signs which they saw, they heard also a great deal of excited talk about recent impressive miracles they had not seen-the centurion’s servant and the son of the widow of Nain.

The relating of these experiences was intended to remind John of his own commission in earlier days: “Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1:33). Here was breath-taking evidence that the Spirit did indeed abide on Jesus. His earlier works were no flash in the pan. So all doubt could be put aside.

What a circumstantial tale these disciples would have to tell! They had seen blind men describing with astonished happiness the colour and movement and loveliness they had not known. Lame men threw away their crutches and leaped with the exuberance and agility of schoolboys. Before their incredulous gaze the foul and rotten flesh of lepers grew to the smooth firmness of robust health. They marked in the faces of those stone deaf the dramatic change from impassive woodenness to the wonder and ecstasy of suddenly experiencing a whole new world of sound. Even those in that vicinity who had died that day they now saw restored in perfect health to their families delirious with delight. Besides all this, the message John had proclaimed was now made known more persuasively than ever to a pathetic and oppressed people in desperate need of good news: “to the poor the gospel was preached”. The shape of this sentence (Lk. 7:22) requires the meaning: “To the poor wealth is given”. Here is an instruction to social reformers that the best blessings to impart to the poor are the riches of the gospel. Isaiah’s phrase is: “the poor among men rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (29:19); (cp. Mk. 12:37). There is no higher contentment.

All these wonders, and the very phrases in which Jesus had recapitulated them, were an echo of one of Isaiah’s most gracious Messianic prophecies: “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God.. . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing... sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (ls.35:4-6, 10). The primary reason for the allusion to this prophecy was, of course, its exhortation to John himself; “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees” (v. 3). Whatever else, John must keep on praying.

“Hold on to faith”

Jesus added his own personal encouragement: “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me”. When it is realised that the word “offended” means “to trip over a stumbling stone”, the allusion to another familiar element of Isaiah’s message is more evident: “Neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary, but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence... and many shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken” (8:12-15). When the background to the prophecy is understood, there are seen the alternatives of either accepting Messiah as an altar of sacrifice, or else stumbling to destruction over his claims. Thus the concluding words of the Lord’s message to John bade him prepare to see Jesus as an altar of reconciliation-this first, before ever he should be manifest with authority and power.

“Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me”. Jesus meant his word of encouragement specially for John, but also for more than John. He knew that over the years ahead the same access of doubts and problems would beset the minds of thousands of his disciples. This is human nature. And in effect the Lord’s present answer to such crises is: “Hang on, regardless”. It is a lesson for all to learn thoroughly in times when faith burns bright and clear, against the day of difficulty and discouragement when intellectual doubts or hard circumstances make loyalty to Christ a strain so that one’s first love falters. Jesus promised a special blessing to those who maintain a fighting faith in him no matter what the odds.

Doubting Thomas was to prove a shining example of how stumbling faith may receive the reward of tenacious loyalty. The moment came when all the apostles except himself were now fully convinced that their Lord was risen from the dead. In this most vital item of faith he was now completely out of step with the rest. A serious rift in fellowship between himself and the others was inevitable. Nevertheless-well done, Thomas! --he persisted in meeting with these his brethren who were his brethren no longer. And in their company he found again the faith he had lost: “My Lord and my God!”

Blessed indeed is the man whose perplexities and doubts do not prove such a stumbling block that he falls headlong into his own Aceldama.

What an amazing gospel is this when not taking offence is accounted a great blessing!

Funeral Oration

It is the way of men to praise an individual to his face and then be free with criticism behind his back. But with Jesus it was the opposite. Even whilst John’s messengers were going away Jesus addressed the multitude in a sustained encomium of the imprisoned prophet, lest they should assume any kind of rift between the two preachers or draw the mistaken conclusion that John was to be denigrated. It was, so it turned out, John’s funeral oration, for within a short while he was devilishily done to death.

First, Jesus reminded the crowd of how in earlier days they had flocked in their thousands to hear John’s preaching: “What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” Would such multitudes follow a weakling? Was John no better than a bamboo growing by the waters of Jordan? -- slender, insubstantial, blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine. They knew that was not John’s character, neither formerly nor now in prison.

“But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that are gorgeously apparelled...are in kings’ courts”. The Lord’s irony intensified. All remembered the primitive simplicity of John’s way of life. They hardly needed the pointer given them by Jesus to make contrast with the Herodians. This party included in their ranks scribes who out of self-interest tried to reconcile in their own practice the study of the Scriptures with the sycophancy and self-indulgence of courtiers. Instead John had had the courage to rebuke openly the licentiousness of the king, and was now paying the price of his loyalty to the law of God.

“But what went ye out for to see?” Here the tone of Jesus changed dramatically. “A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet”. What did he mean? It was the prime function of the prophets of Israel to communicate the will of God to the people, and especially to teach concerning the promised Messiah-’the sufferings of the Christ and the glory that should follow.” In this John, the subject of prophecy as well as its vehicle, surpassed them all, for he was the personal forerunner of Christ, the one who prepared the way with an imperative message of repentance, the one who baptized him in Jordan, and who announced him to the nation. No other prophet could match John for importance. By his personal contact with Christ, John had rivalled even Moses’ outstanding role: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee” (Mt. 3:1; cp. Ex. 23:20 LXX). There is a delightful pun here in the original: “Not malaka (soft raiment), but malaki (my messenger)”-and the Lord then quoted from Malachi.

Details to be noted in this Malachi quotation are: (1) its context: “the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple”- “Art thou he that should come?” John had asked; (2) the change of pronouns-words originally spoken with reference to “me”, Jehovah, are now applied to “thee”, His Messiah; thus indirectly Jesus reasserted what John had heard at Jordan: “This is my beloved Son”.

None Greater

The Lord’s eulogium came to its climax with the words: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women (Job. 14:1; 15:14) there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist (cp. Lk. 1:15? Contrast Mt. 3:11): notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.

What other servant of God has ever merited such high approval? John was no “minor character” of the Bible. The meagre appreciation accorded to his work and personality nowadays is a poor tribute to his worth compared with the warm and generous words spoken publicly by Jesus.

But who is the “lesser one in the kingdom of heaven” to whom Jesus gave even higher status? An explanation often canvassed is that here Jesus made indirect allusion to himself (the “greater” in the kingdom being the Father Himself). This interpretation is not impossible, though it has been much pooh-poohed by many commentators (because of their trinitarian prejudices?).

To say, alternatively, that any glorified disciple in the age to come will be greater than John preaching or John in prison is to turn the words of Jesus into an irrelevant platitude. Such a reading also ignores the present tense of the verb: “is greater”.

There is a better alternative. John was a forerunner. His personal contacts with Jesus were only occasional and brief. By contrast, the humble believer then in the crowd following Jesus was vastly better off-seeing his miracles, hearing his teaching, and even enjoying his companionship! It had been said concerning Moses: “With him will I speak mouth to mouth...and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold.” yet this highest experience of Moses hardly compared with the superlative privileges of a disciple in the company of the Son of God in Galilee.

“The kingdom suffereth violence”

The next saying of Jesus was, if anything, even more problematic: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” The most popular reading of these words is to take them as a picture of the unrestrained popular enthusiasm with which first John and then Jesus had been received by the multitudes.

This is hardly satisfactory. For, in the first place, as an interpretation it simply does not fit the facts. Every indication supplied by the gospels, ouside their earliest chapters, points to the conclusion that John’s mission was essentially a failure-as the ensuing words of Jesus at this time go to emphasize.

Also the Lord was to repeat the same saying (Lk. 16:16) at a time in his ministry when it was manifestly not true that the nation was demonstrating an overmastering eagerness to take hold of his teaching! In any case, to read the words in this way is to give them a highly unnatural flavour.

The key phrases imply a bad meaning. For example: At Sinai “let not the people break through to come up unto the Lord” (Ex. 19:24), forcing themselves unwarrantably into the divine presence. Peter has the same idea, but not the same word, when he warns that “they that are unlearned and unstable wrest” the epistles of Paul (2 Pet. 3:16).

Therefore, far more likely is the opposite view that Jesus was reminding his hearers of how after the early days of success the message proclaimed by both John and himself was steadily losing its power to command real loyalty. Popular enthusiasm was superficial. Repeated efforts (some of them successful) had been made by “the establishment” to erode the high idealism of their teaching. Herod and the Pharisees were now openly hostile. And the word “failure”, already appropriate to John’s mission, was soon to be equally applicable to the appeal of Jesus.

After the first flush of enthusiasm, and in a true fundamental sense, the nation had not been willing to receive the message of John. Otherwise, they would not have needed his witness to Jesus, and Herod would not have dared flout public opinion by throwing the prophet into prison. All of this the Lord now underlined with the ominous words: “If ye are willing to receive him, this is Elijah, the one who is to come”. The AV reading here: “if ye will receive it”, is clearly incorrect. It is not the people’s understanding of the Malachi prophecy which is in question at this point, but the vindication of John. Nor, in any case, was there any doubt about their willingness to believe this Scripture, as Mt. 17:10 makes very evident.


At this point in Luke’s record there is a short section (v. 29, 30) which reads as though it is not a continuation of the words of Jesus but a parenthetic comment by Luke. Even though the words at the beginning of verse 31: “And the Lord said”, have no adequate support from the manuscripts, they evidently represent the understanding of the early church that the two preceding verses are not the words of Jesus. This seems to be right. The passage reads more naturally as part of Luke’s report than as a continuation of the Lord’s discourse.

Thus, “having heard, all the people and the publicans justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John”, corresponds to Christ’s reminder, just spoken, of their early enthusiasm: “What went ye out for to see?”. And the antithesis: “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him”, has its counterpart in the words: “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence” (cp. Ps. 107:11).

The common people “justified God” in the sense that by receiving baptism they acknowledged themselves unrighteous and that God is the only righteous One, especially in His Condemnation of sin, which condemnation the rite of baptism openly declared. But more than this, that baptism also brought them a justification which was all of God’s providing.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, by their refusal of baptism as good as asserted that they had no need of it. Thus they set aside the counsel of God which came to them through their prophets and especially through John: “All flesh is grass”.

The same is true to this day. When a man thrusts aside or deviously evades the obedience of Christ in baptism he is rejecting the counsel of God - though, in that case, there will one day be another counsel of God against himself which he will in no wise be able to shrug off. Why are men such fools as to prefer the society of self-justifying Pharisees to that of obedient baptized believers?

Children in the Market Place

Jesus forthwith summed up this wilfulness in a parable straight out of life. There are some children who will not join in the fun of a good game, no matter what it is, simply because it is not their game. “We have piped unto you”, say the others, “and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not wept”. Be it weddings or funerals, these sulky ones hold aloof because instead of being assigned the leading role they are asked to follow the lead of someone else. No co-operation, no jollity, only petulant selfishness! Yet even here the mind of Jesus could not come away from the Old Testament. Michal despised the dancing of David (2 Sam. 6:16-23). And now the same attitudes regarding the Son of David. Yet weddings instead of funerals were a dominant theme of the Messianic prophecies Jesus had just alluded to (ls. 61:1, 3, 10; 62:4).

John had appeared, an unconventional but solemn figure with an austere unpalatable message, and these Pharisees, eyeing his camel-hair garment and scorning his diet of locusts and wild honey, gave the nation their opinion of him: “The man’s mad!”

Within a year there was another figure on the scene. Jesus of Nazareth was not ascetic. He mixed with every stratum of society. They saw him at weddings, in the impressive houses of despised publicans, in the humble cottages of the poor. To him it was all the same. Jesus would accept the hospitality of any man. So the Pharisees fastened on this and envenomed their criticism: “Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” (cp. Lk. 5:30). And did not the Law of Mpses command that the rebellious son, a glutton and a drunkard, be stoned with stones, to put away such evil from Israel (Dt. 21:20, 21)? Half of this accusation was absolutely true, the rest a plausible slander cleverly evolved out of a deft perversion of the facts.

It was ever so. The finest and most innocent of men are not immune from the smear tactics of evil-minded critics set on character assassination. “And (thus)”, commented Jesus, not without a sharp-edged irony, “wisdom is justified of all her children”. Those who were true children of the wisdom of God showed it in their humble acceptance of baptism and their ready adherence to Christ. Those who preened themselves on their powers of judgement and turned away in scorn from the God-sent teachers among them, showed, for all to see, the quality of the “wisdom” that was in them. (The A B C C B A structure of Lk. 7:32-35 points to this kind of interpretation).

Notes: Mt.11:2-19

The blind...the lame. who hitherto had also been excluded from the temple: 2 Sam.5:8.

The dead. The word is plural. Yet up to this point the gospels have mentioned specifically only the son of rhe widow of Nain.
Not offended in me. Others who were not: 1 Kgs. 19:10; Jer. 20:7; Lk. 24:21. Those who were: Mt. 13:57; 26:31; 24:10; Jn. 6:53; 15:6; Rom. 9:32, 33; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14.
In king’s houses; eg. 2 Sam. 1:24; 13:19.
Take it by force. For the idea, see Jn. 6:15; 10:12, 28, 29. In Study 138 the same saying (Lk. 16:16) will be found to carry a very similar meaning.
The prophets and the law. Why this inversion of the familiar phrase? Because emphasis here is on John the prophet?
Elias is without the usual Gk. definite article, thus meaning: an Elijah prophet, one like him; cp. 17:10-13. But not Elijah in person: Jn. 1:21. “This is Elias” also carries the implication: “And therefore I am ‘He that should come’ after him”.
This generation. It is sometimes argued that this introduction requires a reverse interpretation of the parable from that given in the text: John and Jesus as the complainers who refuse to conform to the wishes of the others (the Pharisees). But this does violence to the spirit of the parable.
They say. Gk: they keep on saying.

He hath a devil. Soon after this they ran a campaign of this sort against Jesus also: 12:24; Jn. 7:20; 8:48; 10:20.
ls. 28:7-14 has a parallel to this situation.

Wisdom is justified of her children. Alternative interpretations: (a) ‘You will see that John and I (Jesus) turn out to be right, and yourselves wrong’, (b) ‘You may judge John and myself by the quality of our disciples (children)’.

Lk. 7:34

Note how v. 17 prepares the way for this verse.
Another...another. John’s disciples soften the enquiry by switching from “a different sort” to “one of the same sort as yourself”. Does this mean they were inclined to believe that Jesus must be the Messiah?
24, 25
Reed...soft raiment. Rather remarkably these come in the context of the two Isaiah prophecies Jesus had alluded to: 35:7; 61:3, 10 (62:1 = Jn. 5:35). Was Lk. 23:11 intended as a vindictive retaliation for this irony of Jesus?
Rejected the counsel of God. But in this context there is no “counsel of God” spoken against the Pharisees as yet.

Therefore read v. 29, 30 as reference back to Mt. 3:7.

Previous Index Next