John the Baptist was Slandered

Those of you who know me, or who have been reading the earlier entries of my blog, know that I’m a Messianic Jew. One of the most exciting things for me is being able to really understand the Bible. Most Christians read the Bible from a 21st Century American mindset (or European, South American, Asian, etc.). With our cultural and personal biases, we read meanings into the scriptures in our effort to understand them. Unfortunately, those meanings are quite frequently wrong.

I remember listening to sermons as a kid and thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.” When I would ask questions, pastors and teachers would try to give answers, but they still didn’t ring true with me. As a Messianic Jew, I’ve learned that to understand the Bible, we need to understand the language, culture, history and politics OF THE TIME to know what the writers were talking about. The writers were writing for their contemporary audiences who KNEW what the mindset of the time and place was because that’s when and where they were living. And because the Hebrews had passed down their culture, stories and such for thousands of years, they assumed that would continue to be done after they were long dead and gone so they didn’t worry that subsequent generations of readers wouldn’t understand what they meant. Alas, that is not the case. We don’t understand the Bible because we are reading it out of historical and cultural context. The writers of the Bible could have never imagined 21st Century American culture and politics so it’s not possible for us to read their words in our context and ever hope to project the correct meaning on the scripture.

One of my favorite “Aha!” moments in learning the scriptures from a Messianic Jewish perspective came when someone finally cleared John the Baptist’s reputation for me. You see, I had always been taught that everyone’s faith waivers at times. The example they cited is that even John the Baptist wavered in his faith when he was imprisoned and sent his apostles to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-10) That didn’t ring true to me. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah, the guy in the camel hair calling for repentance because the Messiah was coming, began to lose faith just because he was in jail? I know prisons of the time were pretty bad, but to be honest, jail didn’t seem like such a hardship for the John the Baptist I saw in the Bible.

So here’s the truth. There wasn’t one Jewish religion (then or now). They had at least 12 different sects of Judaism just like Christianity has different denominations. Each sect had differing opinions about the fine points of theology and each sect would debate among themselves and each other trying to find “the truth”. Just like today.

The prophets in the Bible painted two pictures of Messiah: one as the suffering servant (pierced, bruised, despised) and one as the reigning king (who would deliver Israel from her enemies, destroy all unbelievers, bring everlasting peace). No one knew how to reconcile these two Messiahs. Now, you also have to understand that some sects like the Pharisees believed in resurrection – the dead could become alive again – and some sects like the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. So it was debated ad infinitum as to whether there would be two Messiahs – one who would be the suffering servant and one who would be the reining king – or whether there would be one Messiah who would die as the suffering servant and rise again and return as the triumphant and vanquishing king.

When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we look for another?” In other words, he was saying, “Hey, Jesus, I know you’re going to die as the suffering Messiah. Are YOU being resurrected and coming back again or are you fulfilling the first part of the prophesy and someone else is coming back as the Messiah King?” He was asking a theological question, not doubting or wavering in his faith. Jesus’ response was to quote Isaiah 35:5-6, 26:19, 61:1 and Malachi 3:1, “Go and tell John what you are hearing and seeing – the blind are seeing again, the lame are walking . . . the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised, the Good News is being told to the poor . . .” Jesus was saying, “I am the one coming back!”

Incidentally, the reason Jews don’t believe in Messiah is that he didn’t (yet) fulfill the prophesies of coming as a conquering king and establishing everlasting peace. Just like many churches today which tell only of God’s prosperity and love and don’t talk about suffering trials and conviction of sin, the Jewish priests wanted to fill their “pews”. So they tended to focus on the picture of Messiah as vanquishing king instead of the suffering servant. The Hebrews were under tyrannical rule of the Romans (and others throughout history) so the religious focused on the “happy” picture of Messiah instead of the “suffering” picture of Messiah because that “feel good” message was what the people wanted to hear. Which goes to prove that things haven’t changed a lot in 2000+ years!

So, NOW you know that John the Baptist was not losing his faith in Jesus.  He was merely asking an important theological question.

P.S.  Don’t forget to send your name and address to:  seewhykinsman@yahoo.com to register to win a free copy of Nancy Twigg’s book, From Clutter to Clarity:  Simplifying Life from the Inside Out.  The drawing will be next Wednesday.

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