Q&A: Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus?

“So, perhaps the best conclusion is that John was not looking for encouragement, but giving encouragement. In effect, he was saying, ‘Get on with it, cousin!’”

The nature of the texts of the Bible is just like the spoken words God gave to Adam. A great deal remained unsaid, and Adam was to “read between the lines” based upon God’s revealed character as his Father. However, Adam let somebody else fill in the gaps with some conflicting information about God’s character, somebody who was very likely jealous of Adam’s commission and had an ax to grind (and even here, we are left to fill in the gaps as to Satan’s motive based upon later scriptures!)

The record of John the Baptist’s question to Jesus similarly doesn’t give us all the information. All the texts are written to make us think very hard and very deeply, and to call to mind things we have read in previous texts. Some Christian writers fill in the gaps concerning the reason for John’s question with a view to helping Christians who experience doubt (here’s an example). There are certainly other texts that speak of doubt which could indicate that this was what John was experiencing.

And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)

But is this what is really going on here? Or is this interpretation one that shows both our ignorance of the Old Testament and of the Bible’s fundamental “Covenant” structure? What if the question asked by John had nothing to do with doubt, but simply his expectations of Jesus based on the roles in the Triune Office? (See The Triune Office.)

Unlike Adam, John would have had no doubts about Jesus’ Divine character. James Jordan observes that John would have seen his cousin at least three times every year at the regular feasts, which John would still have been required to attend even after he moved into the wilderness as an adult to begin his ministry.

John knew that Jesus was the Great Priest because he referred to Him as the lamb of God, who had come to take away the sins of the world. John also knew that Jesus was the Great King because he had then seen Him anointed directly by the Father (in the Old Testament, the prophets who anointed kings were often referred to as “father.” Likewise, Joseph is referred to by Pharaoh as “father.” See Peter Leithart’s book on 1 and 2 Samuel, A Son To Me.) James Jordan suggests that John’s question was about Jesus being the Great Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), the one about whom the priests and Levites had questioned John himself (John 1:21). Priests do not do miracles. Neither do kings. Only prophets do miracles, and John was simply wondering if the Triune Office would be fulfilled in a single Adam. Was Jesus doing the kinds of things that prophets like Elijah and Elisha did, things that John himself, as “Elijah,” never did?

And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ ” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:20-23)

This also makes sense of the final sentence concerning “offense.” Historically, the prophets were killed because the Covenant-legal message they brought was offensive to the Covenant breakers.

So, perhaps the best conclusion is that John was not looking for encouragement, but giving encouragement. In effect, he was saying, “Get on with it!”

Moving from deduction by logic to literary structure, do we see this conclusion supported in the shape of Luke’s text? I believe we do. (Thanks to Albert Garlando for his initial work on the structure of this passage.)

Covenant structure of Luke 7 – 8

Creation: The God-fearing centurion (“mighty man”) recognizes Jesus’s authority. (Genesis)
Division: The Jewish widow’s son is raised (Exodus)
ETHICS 1 – Law given (threefold house of silence)
Ascension: John’s ears are open: Jesus’ miracles of healing the ceremonially unclean (Leviticus)
1 Priest
2 King
3 Prophet
ETHICS 2 – Law opened (harlotry in the wilderness reversed)
A sinful woman anoints Jesus (Covenant Head) (Numbers)
Disciples and women accompany Jesus (Covenant Body)
ETHICS 3 – Law received (threefold house of song)
Jesus’ mouth is opened: (Deuteronomy)
1 Parable of sower (seed/Priest)
2 Lamp under a jar (light/King)
3 True sons of God (nations/Prophet)
Jesus calms the storm (Laver) and casts out the demons (Atonement) (Joshua)
Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter and the woman with an unclean discharge (12 years motif). His “judicial” robe has a healing outflow (see Healing in His… Tassels?) and His word changes the nature of “rest” from death to sleep. He is personally the New Jerusalem, a Tabernacle which is not a house of death but a shelter for the faithful (Judges)
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7 Responses to “Q&A: Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus?”

  • Al Garlando Says:

    And here’s my follow up to the discussion…

    Any chance you can do the same for 9:18-9:50 before this Sunday?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Nice title! Wish I’d thought of that. And your fractal rundown is really good, too.

    I’ll give it a go.

    Am currently reading this book again – must have!

  • Mike Bull Says:

    The next cycle seems to be 9:1-45…

    Creation – Authority – the twelve sent out (Transcendence)
    Division – Herod hears and seeks to see (Hierarchy)
    Ascension –
    Jesus feeds the 5000
    Jesus will be raised on the third day
    Testing – Take up your cross / The kingdom of God
    Maturity – The transfiguration / the cloud / two witnesses
    Conquest – Demon-possessed boy returned to his father (Isaac/Abraham – Atonement)
    Glorification – Understanding withheld from the twelve (judgment concealed)

  • Al Says:

    Joel’s book no longer available?
    Be good to get a Kindle version.

  • Al Says:

    Scratch that.
    It’s on LOGOS. Even better.

  • Tim Nichols Says:


    Jesus came to set the captives free, and said so in His preaching (see, for example, His preaching in Nazareth in Lu. 4). John had to be aware of what Jesus was preaching.

    One of the prevailing messianic theories at the time was that there were two OT-prophesied messiahs, a suffering servant and a conquering king. I’m very sure John never doubted that Jesus was Messiah. I wonder whether he might have been asking “Are You all of it, or is there another one who fulfills some of the other prophecies?”

    And I suspect very strongly that he is reminding Jesus “Hey, I’m a captive! If freeing the captives is your thing, how about getting *me* out of jail?”

    I believe the final line in Jesus’ response is meant to encourage John not to be put out when Jesus fulfills all the prophecies, but it doesn’t look like what John was hoping for in some of the more personally significant details.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi Tim
    Well, John knew that Jesus was going to be “sacrificed,” and he knew the history of Jerusalem’s treatment of the prophets. So perhaps his expectations were based on that. There seems to be a baton-passing ministry of “binding and loosing.” John is bound that Jesus’ ministry (and those ministered to) might be loosed. Jesus is bound that the apostles might be loosed. The apostles are bound that the church might be loosed, etc. Saints in chains unleash the power of God.