The John the Baptist Experience
Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger
Deeper Dive #2:
Jesus’ Message to John
in Matthew 111
Copyright © 20222
In the first Deeper Dive we introduced the “Mnemonic Trigger Principle.”4 We saw that for ancient peoples, educated through the discipline of rote memorization, the quotation of a line of text could elicit the entire context of the quote from memory. But our familiarity with Scripture, the Old Testament in particular, is not as great. Thus to grasp the full contextual message of an Old Testament quotation, we need to free ourselves of our verse-and-chapter shackles, return to the original passage, and ask, “What’s the context?”
So let’s consider the context of each of the two quotations Jesus makes in Matthew 11:5. Jesus’ message for His servant John the Baptist was much greater than our usual simple takeaway. Here’s the quotation:
- 4Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
- Matthew 11:4-6
The words in small capital letters indicate the direct Old Testament quotations. This first of Jesus’ two quotations…
…the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up…
…comes from Isaiah 35:5, so let’s explore that chapter just a bit and imagine how John the Baptist might have received the passage.
God’s opening words in Isaiah 35 are promises of blessing and blossoming and glory:
1The wilderness and the desert will be glad,
And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom;
Like the crocus
2It will blossom profusely
And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
The majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the glory of the Lord,
The majesty of our God.
No doubt John had seen the desert blossom repeatedly in the period of his wilderness wanderings. When the rains came, something magical happened — parched, dry ground yielded green, growing things and flowers overnight. Once John’s two disciples had made their report to him and departed, the imprisoned prophet could ponder their testimony and the message Jesus had sent to him. The opening lines of this passage in Isaiah might have temporarily freed John’s imagination from the monotony of his cell to a vista of budding springtime. And then, in reviewing his memory of the passage, he might have focused on…
They will see the glory of the Lord,
The majesty of our God.
The glory of the Lord! Yes! That’s what “his” prophecy in Isaiah 40 had promised! All of his careful, thorough preparation of “the way of the Lord” (40:3-4) was “in order that the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (40:5). That would have come as an encouragement to John.
And speaking along lines of encouragement, imagine how John would have savored the next lines of Isaiah 35:
3Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble.
4Say to those with anxious heart,
“Take courage, fear not.
Behold, your God will come with vengeance;
The recompense of God will come,
But He will save you.”
Yes, yes, his faith had become exhausted and feeble, his heart had been anxious. He needed the “bucking up.” In the dark night of his soul, he needed to embrace the Joshua exhortation: “Be strong and courageous.”5 John knew he faced execution, almost certainly, so he wouldn’t have taken false hope in the phrase “He will come and save you.” But to know that he had fulfilled his mission, to be reminded of the recompense that he would receive, and the vengeance and judgment of God on His enemies… yes, there was a measure of comfort and encouragement in that, too.
Now for the passage Jesus had actually quoted from Isaiah 35, the fulfilled prophecy which John’s two eyewitness disciples had reported to him with awe and wonder, the active, on-earth outworking of “He will save you”:
5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened
And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
6Then the lame will leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy…
These words weren’t just the prophet’s poetry; Jesus was fulfilling these lines quite literally! The blind were seeing clearly. The lame were walking.6 The deaf could hear. Through Isaiah God had promised that the mute would speak. Charles Wesley sums up verses 5 and 6 so masterfully:
Hear Him, ye deaf! His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!7
Jesus also says to John’s two disciples, “Now you be certain to tell John that the list of promised blessings has been expanded — lepers are being cleansed and the dead are being raised as well.”
John pondered those words, wishing he could have been there to see some of the miracles his two disciples had witnessed that day. His soul longed to see God move in such power; he thirsted for it. Thirst! In his reverie, John lifted the clay water jar from the cell floor to his lips for a sip. His afternoon ration of stale water was nearly gone. As the warm liquid touched his lips he remembered Isaiah’s next words:
…6eFor waters will break forth in the wilderness
And streams in the Arabah.
7The scorched land will become a pool
And the thirsty ground springs of water;
In the haunt of jackals, its resting place,
Grass becomes reeds and rushes.
All those healings just mentioned in the passage — he was beginning to understand the prophet Isaiah differently. Those healings weren’t like the flowers that spring up overnight after a desert rain, only to fade away from the heat the next day. The healings were the result of a desert transformed — waters “breaking forth,” streams, pools, springs of waters. “Reeds and rushes”? Those don’t grow in torrent-today-dry-tomorrow wadis! Those are standing-water plants, found at the edge of ponds and lakes. And these healings, this abundant-water landscape being described — they’re the result of a landscape, a spiritual landscape that’s being transformed!
He leaned his head back until it touched the cell wall, then closed his eyes. He remembered his father, Zechariah, reading the Isaiah 35 passage aloud. What came next? What were the words that finished the passage? Ah, yes…
8A highway will be there, a roadway,
And it will be called the Highway of Holiness.
The unclean will not travel on it,
But it will be for him who walks that way,
And fools will not wander on it.
9No lion will be there,
Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
But the redeemed will walk there,
10And the ransomed of the Lord will return
And come with joyful shouting to Zion,
With everlasting joy upon their heads.
They will find gladness and joy,
And sorrow and sighing will flee away.
At the thought of those words, John’s head, which had been resting on the wall, bowed in worship and adoration. He smiled as he offered his berakhah: “Blessèd art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe!” In all his preaching and praying, he had sought to clear and make a straight, smooth, level way in the hearts of the people, all for the Lord whose arrival he had heralded. That way, yes, was a “Highway of Holiness,” because the Holy One Himself would travel that path.
But here — here was a new thought! If the Lord could travel that way, that Highway of Holiness, to His people, the prophet’s words seemed to make clear that “the ransomed of the Lord,” “the redeemed,” His people, could travel that Way, that high Way, that holy Way, back to God. And there would be nothing to hinder them, for there would be no spiritual “lions” or “vicious beasts” anywhere along the Way. He thought his experiences of walking in the happy pilgrim caravans thronging up the dusty roads to Jerusalem for the three annual festivals. But Isaiah was certainly describing a destination greater than Jerusalem, and a joy — an everlasting joy — far beyond the fleeting happiness of the holiday crowds.
This Isaiah 35 passage from Jesus’ message brought much comfort as John reflected on the context. Yes, John had cleared the way in the hearts of his countrymen for the Lord to come to them. Now he savored the new thought: by preparing and clearing the way of the Lord to God’s people, the Way had been opened up for the people to return to spiritual Zion, to the presence of God Himself. And while on that line of thinking, the heat conspired with his drowsiness, and he dozed off.
The sound of the key in the door-lock awakened him. The guard had brought his evening meal — bread and water. John offered another berakhah and broke a piece off the barley loaf. But while he was going through the motions of eating, his mind and heart were chewing on the rest of the message that Jesus had sent back to him:
…and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
John knew the context well — the “Spirit of the Lord God” passage! In his memory he unrolled the Isaiah scroll from which he had read so many times, and a longing moved within him as he remembered its weight and balance. Scrolling, scrolling… he must scroll nearly to the end of Isaiah’s sacred text. Almost lost in reverie, his loaf only half-eaten, bread crumbs in his beard, he closed his eyes and recited:
1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor…8
John had wondered in times past if those words spoke of him and his preaching ministry. But then had come an oracle of God to his heart. The Blessèd One had spoken directly to him: “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”9 So he had faithfully continued preaching, exhorting, warning, and baptizing, wondering how one could see the Holy Spirit, but certain that God’s word would come to pass.
And what a fulfillment John had seen on the fateful day when his distant cousin from Nazareth, Jesus, had waded into the Jordan to stand before him. Such an awkward situation! John remembered his overwhelming sense of unworthiness in Jesus’ presence, his desire to switch places and to be baptized by this man. He relived the moment of Jesus’ gentle, loving, but very firm, persuasion to the contrary.
But it was when he had immersed Jesus, then was raising Him from the flowing Jordan, that he heard Jesus pray and… for a moment heaven shined onto the earth! Out of that Light had come a dove, circling gracefully in descending spirals. John held his breath at the memory, just as he had held his breath on that day of baptism when the Dove fluttered onto Jesus’ shoulder. It was then that he, John, heard the Voice speaking again: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” The Spirit of the Lord had “come upon” Jesus, quite literally. This was no anointing administered by a man for the priesthood or for kingship. No, God’s Messiah, God’s Christ, God’s Anointed, was just that — the One anointed by God Himself, without human intervention!
John had wanted to speak with him further that day, but Jesus had purposefully walked off into the wilderness without a glance back. John hadn’t see Him again for at most six weeks, and after His reappearance, it seemed He was everywhere in Galilee preaching, mostly to the poor and needy, the people and social class among whom Jesus had been raised.
And the healings which had followed Him! Yes, this Messianic “Spirit of the Lord” passage had prophesied that, too:
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…
As more news and rumors had come to John about the healings — just like the enumeration Jesus sent back to him through his two faithful disciples — the number of those coming to John for baptism at the Jordan had dwindled, slowly, at first, and then rapidly. Finally, he had been left with a handful of his faithful followers. (Some of the most promising, like Andrew and John, had left him to follow Jesus.)
Yes, John reflected, the poor were experiencing liberation — from demon possession, from long-standing debilities, from congenital deformities, and from life-threatening illnesses. John broke off another piece of bread, and as he brought it to his mouth, his hand stopped while he examined the shackle on his right wrist. He smiled at the irony. There were worse bondages than chains and imprisonment.
2To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…
The acceptable year of the Lord — the Year of Jubilee! How many centuries had passed since Israel had followed God’s calendar, restoring the inheritances of God’s people every fifty years! John sighed. About as many centuries as Israel had been content with a pro forma religion, destitute of God’s presence and glory. But Jesus certainly wasn’t preaching land reform and debt cancellation; He was declaring a higher, deeper jubilee, for Israel’s true inheritance was God Himself.
And the day of vengeance of our God…
John nodded to himself as he considered this phrase in the passage. He, too, had warned people of the coming wrath and judgment of God. So many lived as though there would be no final accounting before the Judge of All, despite the testimony of their consciences. And yet John found this line in the passage… what? Oddly placed, perhaps. Normally judgment passages in the sacred scrolls were lengthy, detailed, dire. This one lay oddly juxtaposed between the declaration of jubilee and the tender consolations of God for mourners:
To comfort all who mourn,
3To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness…
The “day of vengeance” — in some way John couldn’t understand, that day and its terrors would also bring comfort and consolation to Israel. Such a contrast! It was like Israel, exiled, rejected, and forlorn in the scroll of Lamentations, suddenly finding itself bedecked and bejeweled for the wedding night in Solomon’s Song. Their national diet would be changed from the dirt and gravel of despair to the milk and honey that God, through Moses and Joshua, had promised would be the daily fare of His people. They would no longer eat the fruit of their own ways.
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.
Fruit! “Trees of righteousness”! Yes, John realized that it all fit together. That had been a major focus and burden of his own preaching: “Bring forth fruit that proves you have repented!” As God’s Spirit had moved in conviction over the crowds who gathered to hear John, how they wept! How they mourned! How they cried out to the Holy One of Israel for forgiveness and cleansing! For many of the penitents, God had granted repentance. Their lives testified to bringing forth a different kind of fruit — righteous deeds, righteous thoughts, and willing obedience to God’s Law! They were like new trees, planted by the Lord, planted by the “water,” each finally “bringing forth fruit in his season.”
“Yes,” John thought, as he drifted off to sleep for the night, “that kind of fruit brought glory to the God of Israel!”
The stirrings in the fortress of Machaerus where John was chained seemed earlier than normal this morning. The noises from the palace were different, too, more… urgent, but a bit more light-hearted than normal, almost… festive. Yes, that was it — festive.
John didn’t feel festive, but he was content. His heart had been encouraged by the words of Isaiah sent back to him by Jesus. The eyewitness reports of his own disciples of the prophecy-fulfilling miracles that the Expected One was performing dispelled his doubts. John rejoiced that the good news was being proclaimed to the poor. He pondered Jesus’ last words to him: “Blessed is he who is not stumbled by Me” (Matthew 11:6). No, he would no longer entertain doubts; Jesus was the Expected One!
Still, there was a sense of disquiet in John’s soul. It wasn’t so much his chains and cell. It was the last word he had considered the night before, as he had thought about the contexts of the words the Expected One had sent back to him. “That He may be glorified.”
What glory was his life bringing to God now, here, in this dismal cell? Gone were the days of satisfaction, of preaching, counseling, exhorting, baptizing — of doing something for God, of bringing Him glory. Perhaps…
The jailer appeared at the door of his cell, carrying the breakfast tray. And the food! A much larger portion than normal. Fish. Wheat bread. Some goat curds.
Responding to John’s quizzical look, the jailer said, “Ain’t you heard? Double rations for the prisoners today. Herod’s orders.”
“Why would the king order double rations on this or any other day? What’s the occasion?”
“You must not hear much down here in the hole. It’s Herod’s birthday. Eat up! Don’t worry. It’s all kosher, ’cuz guests are coming. There’ll be all sorts of music and entertainment. Word is that even Salome, Herodias’ daughter, will be performing a special dance number for the guests.”
Unaware that it was the last earthly berakhah he would ever offer, John gave thanks for his morning repast.
- This “deeper dive” is associated with Book 1, chapter 4: Jesus Reveals John in Malachi ↩
- This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger; copyright © 2022 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org ↩
- Cover: Detail from Mathias Grünewald's altarpiece Crucifixion-scene painting for a church in Isenheim, France (c. 1515). Courtesy of Wikipedia, but copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The Latin phrase in the “crook” of John's arm declares, “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui,” the Vulgate reading of John 3:30 — “He must increase, I must decrease.” ↩
- See Deeper Dive #1: Pulling the “Mnemonic Trigger”. ↩
- Joshua is exhorted by Moses (Deuteronomy 31:6-7,23) and the Lord Himself (Joshua 1:6-7,9) to “be strong and courageous,” a message Joshua internalized and embodied, such that he could impart it to God’s people (Joshua 10:25). John the Baptist, at this point in his meditations, might also have remembered similar exhortations in the psalms:
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.
— Psalm 27:14 —
Be strong and let your heart take courage,
All you who hope in the Lord.
— Psalm 31:24 —
- It’s fascinating to me that when Jesus refers John the Baptist to Isaiah 35:5, He says, “The lame walk,” avoiding Isaiah’s clear wording, namely, “The lame will leap like a deer.” Why? It’s because of another promise that Jesus Himself will make during the last few days of His life. We discover the wonderful reasons for Isaiah’s “leap” and Jesus’ “walk” in Deeper Dive #3: Greater Works Than These. ↩
- This stanza comes from Wesley’ Hymn to Be Sung on the Anniversary of One’s Conversion, otherwise known in its much shorter version as O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing. ↩
- In order to follow the wording “to the poor” and avoid the inconsistency of the nasb (viz., “the poor” in Matthew 11:5 vs. “the afflicted” in Isaiah 61:1), I have reverted to the nkjv. ↩
- John 1:33 nkjv ↩