The Unbelief of the Baptist

As an amateur biblical scholar, I know that you aren’t ever to conflate the various Gospels for a “whole” picture. Yet, as a believer, one does end up trying to reconcile that which appears to be in conflict.

Thus, I have always wondered about John the Baptist. We are told that his sensitivity to the Messiah was so strong that he “left in his mother’s womb” when he sensed Jesus in the womb of his mother Mary. (Luke 1: 39-45)

We are told in Mark that after baptizing Jesus, he was presumably present to see the “heavens torn apart” and a “Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:9-11) In Matthew, John protests that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him. (Mt 3: 13-17)

But in Matthew, (11:2-11) our gospel for today, we learn a curious thing: John sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus if in fact he was the Messiah, the chosen one. Jesus lauds John, calling him the highest of all the prophets and then says, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This all is quite confusing to me. How could John ever doubt that Jesus was the One when he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Jesus appeared still unborn?  Why would he, after hearing of the healings Jesus had done, still doubt? When he saw the heavens rent, and saw the dove descend?

The message, I think should give us all much hope. For we doubt too. We all do. We must. For we cannot and do not KNOW. That is why we have faith. We BELIEVE.

John undoubtedly was aware that Jesus’ so-called miracles were not such things. In fact Mark never calls them miracles at all. Such actions, were not in that day, so fantastic as to be declared miracles. People in that time lived closer shall we say to the dividing line between seen and unseen. All things were from God, so what can be miraculous.

Still, Jesus’ healings were wondrous, and people exclaimed about them, and they can to him to be healed. That did not make him, however, the Messiah necessarily.

Still, we return to that leaping in the womb and we must conclude that John must have seen that as unusual, and predictive. He spoke during his ministry of “one coming after me” one he was “unworthy to untie the sandals of.”

This was a bigger statement than I realized. Rabbis were heard to claim that their disciples owed them every thing, except to untie their sandals. That was taking discipleship too far. Yet John, not only claims that this was not too much to ask from the Anointed One, but that he was unworthy to the task.

Yet John struggled with faith. Imprisoned, he questioned his own eyes and ears, his own instincts.

We, you and me, we who are “modern” have generally speaking no event to recall, of tearing heavens and doves descending. We, most of us, have no shuddering certainty that we are in the presence of something beyond mere human making. Is it any wonder we fail in faith?

And thus we can have hope that our failings will be forgiven, for John’s surely was. Jesus acclaims him the greatest of all the prophets. He is Elijah, and more. And with all that, Jesus can still acknowledge with generosity and tenderness, that even with all that, John is the least of those in the kingdom.

For, Jesus has told us as well, that children come to him with perfect faith. They are prepared to believe in what they cannot see or know. They are willing to suspend human questions, the ones I struggle with. They don’t ask to understand. They simply believe.

And Jesus tells us that if we can come to him in that way, then our faith is perfect. And that will place us before John. Blessed are they who have not heard or seen, but still believe.  Blessed is the centurion, who is a pagan, yet believes with perfect faith that Jesus can heal. These are our role models, the ones that Jesus reminds us to look to as we journey to God.


I am indebted to The Word Among Us, December 12, and Mark: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by William C. Placher (which I will be reviewing here in a few days), for some of the insights here.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Dec 13, 2010 @ 13:47:28

    Sherry, what a superbly thoughtful rendering of this thorny passage you give us! There are so many emotions and circumstances on the loose here–many of them surprising and nearly all unsettling.

    My heart aches for John. His predicament and question suggest he’s a broken man plunged into darkness and silence, confined to wrestle with doubts and fears he failed to confront during his ministry. I don’t believe the question and all its implications are new to him. Even with the supernatural display at Christ’s baptism, would any of us not tremble to think we might have misunderstood and declared Jesus’s divinity in error? John’s humility–which you so eloquently lay out–bolsters the argument that he was no stranger to uncertainty. So does his bravado, I think.

    Even so, I can’t help taking a dim view of John here. He’s also a savvy public figure and he knows that his inquiry will shake Jesus. What’s more, sending it via his followers “puts it out there”–which invariably will cause trouble. (Remember, his disciples have already declared their distrust of Christ–possibly their jealousy–when they rush back to John with reports that the recently baptized Jesus is baptizing His own followers! There most definitely was a competitive edge between the two camps.)

    Yet you get to the nub of the passage, drawing our thoughts back to its core message: belief. I wish we heard how Jesus’s response affects John. Does it reassure him? Does he misread it as dismissive criticism? How does it prepare him for his fate? This troubles me–and your reminder that belief is crucial inspires me to trust what I don’t know, will never know: that Christ is mercy and grace, even when we don’t quite understand Christ’s methods.

    Thank you!



    • Sherry
      Dec 14, 2010 @ 13:05:48

      Tim, your words are so encouraging! It is just so amazing to me that each reading adds more ideas, and every commentary makes me think again. The wealth of inspiration simply is what makes the scriptures inspired. For God brings us to new insights, and hopefully a clearer understanding of the divine. I found your reflection simply so beautiful, yet I found it so lovely that got some very different ideas from the same reading. Thank you so much for being you!


  2. Tim
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 13:43:51

    The wealth of inspiration simply is what makes the scriptures inspired. For God brings us to new insights, and hopefully a clearer understanding of the divine.



    • Sherry
      Dec 15, 2010 @ 15:33:48

      I guess I’m always a bit surprised when somebody suggests that they have no interest in religious/spiritual things. Why, there is nothing but a fount of information about ourselves, our world and our God. Blessings, Tim.


  3. dsuelzle
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 13:18:21

    I’m curious where you got this image of John the Baptist or if you know who the artist is.


    • Sherry
      Dec 03, 2011 @ 13:39:07

      I get all my images by and large from google images. They all carry the proviso that they “may be copyrighted” but I’ve only been asked once to take sometime down or attribute it, and that was a picture I didn’t realize was a art work and not simply a photo of a painting.


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