“The One to Come”Dr. Noel Schoonmaker Matthew 11:2-11 Year A – Third Sunday of Advent
This time of year it is not uncommon to encounter major magazine features and special television programs that feature scholars debating the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
Some regard him as an intriguing Jewish rabbi.
Some regard him as an excellent moral philosopher.
Some, such as the author of a recent New York Times best seller, view him as a political revolutionary.
Others see him as the Messiah, the long-promised Savior.
Some even view him as God in human form.
Few questions over the past two thousand years have garnered more attention or generated more controversy than the question, “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?”
Long before modern-day doubters expressed their uncertainties; John the Baptist voiced a pivotal question about Jesus. After preparing the way for Jesus in the wilderness, John came to wonder if Jesus really was “the One to come.” This title probably traces back to Psalm 118:26, which says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” “The One to come” is a designation for the Messiah. Modern-day Christians might wonder why John would have doubted Jesus’ messianic identity.
But in the first century, different Jewish people had different expectations about the Messiah. In light of Isaiah 9:6-7, many anticipated a Messiah who would literally take the government on his shoulders and become a powerful politician. A Jewish group known as the zealots expected a military conqueror that would dominate Rome and establish a new order. The images of a powerful politician and a military conqueror were widespread, but there were other images of the Messiah floating around.
According to Matthew 3, John the Baptist was expecting the Messiah to execute fierce judgment. Remember the sermon John preached about the axe laying at the foot of the tree and fruitless tress being thrown into the fire? John described the One to come by saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Perhaps Jesus was not executing enough judgment to conform to John’s conception of the Messiah. After all, Jesus’ ministry was heavy on compassion. His acts of healing people, casting out demons, and raising the dead in the backwoods of Galilee did not meet John’s expectations of the Messiah’s fierce judgment. Maybe John was still waiting for Jesus to bring out the winnowing fork. Notice in Matthew 11:2 that John’s question about Jesus arose as he heard what Jesus had been doing. The acts of Jesus caused John’s doubt.
Remember as well that John was imprisoned at the time under the barbaric King Herod. The first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, reports that John was imprisoned at Machaerus, one of three huge fortresses near the Dead Sea that Herod constructed in his own honor. Herod was a megalomaniac, an insane and brutal ruler who had tossed John in prison and would later have John beheaded.
Given that John was Jesus’ dear colleague in ministry, if Jesus was the Messiah, why hadn’t he knocked Herod off of his throne, taken over the land, and set John free? Jesus says in verse 11 that John is the greatest man alive.
If this was Jesus’ sentiment, and if he was the Messiah, why wouldn’t he save John instead of letting him suffer in prison? It could be that behind John’s question lies one of the toughest theological questions of all, the question of theodicy. If Jesus is the Christ and if God is so good, why does evil seem to have the upper hand, and why do bad things happen to good people?
So John dispatched his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the One to come or if they should wait for another. The question could be interpreted as slighting Jesus: “Are you really the One to come or are you pulling the wool over our eyes?
Are you really the One to come or are you just going to continue helping people on the outskirts of society while allowing the political power structures to continue their downward spiral of corruption?” Yet this doesn’t seem to be John’s tact.
It is important to note the element of trust in John’s question. He trusted Jesus enough to ask him if he was the Christ instead of asking a third party to help him determine Jesus’ messianic status. Even in expressing his doubts about the Messiah, John trusted Jesus.
Jesus’ response to the question is intriguing. Rather than providing a direct answer, He offers an indirect reply. He tells John’s disciples to tell John what Jesus has been up to. It seems as if Jesus is saying, “Tell John what I’ve been doing, and it should be clear if I’m the One to come.” The irony is marvelous. It was the acts of Jesus that inspired John’s question and it will be the acts of Jesus that answer it.
Jesus replies that his acts fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 35:5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer.”
Jesus says in Mt 11:4-5: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
It’s almost an exact fulfillment of Isaiah 35, except for the last two items. The part about the dead being raised fulfills Isaiah 26:19: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.”
The part about good news to the poor fulfills Isaiah 61:1: “The Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” The language of anointing signals the Messiah, for the term “Messiah” literally means “Anointed One.” Jesus is claiming that a key function of God’s Anointed One is to proclaim good news to the poor, and he is doing that very thing in his ministry.
In other words, Jesus might not meet the predominant Jewish expectations of the Messiah, but he sees the Messiah as One who makes the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame strong, as One who raises the dead and preaches good news to the oppressed. And therefore, he is doing these things because he sees himself as the Messiah.
The answer to John is encoded in biblical language but lucid nonetheless. In short, Jesus’ response is, “Yes, I am the One to Come. And no, you should not wait for another.”
Which brings me back to modern-day scholarly debates about Jesus of Nazareth? The best historical scholarship on Jesus of Nazareth has been gathering around a few key conclusions.
One of these is that Jesus of Nazareth viewed himself as the Messiah. He preached about the kingdom of God and saw himself as its ruler. Historical Jesus scholars as diverse as the liberal protestant professor at Duke, E. P. Sanders, the Jewish New Testament professor at Vanderbilt, Amy-Jill Levine, and the evangelical Methodist professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, Ben Witherington, III, all agree on this basic historical claim.
Now, if Jesus of Nazareth believed he was the Messiah, the key question for us is, do we ask Jesus about his identity, as John the Baptist did, or do we consult a third party to help us determine if Jesus really was the Messiah? If we trust Jesus the man, we will trust he is the Messiah. If we trust he is the Messiah, then we will look for no other. The One to come has come. And he will come again.
What is more, just before the prophecy in Isaiah 35:5-6, verse 4 says, “God will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,” et cetera. Just as John is more than a prophet, Jesus is more than the Messiah. He is God in human form. He is God come to save the world.
This adds another level of significance to Jesus’ statement in verse 6, where he says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Blessed indeed are those who are not scandalized by Jesus Christ but trust him explicitly.
Blessed are those who trust the servant Messiah instead of waiting for a military conqueror.
Blessed are those who trust the humble Messiah instead of waiting for a political power player.
Blessed are those who trust the Messiah who rides on a donkey rather than a warhorse.
Blessed are those who trust the Messiah who assumed a lowly cross rather than a lofty throne.
Blessed are those who trust the Messiah who rules with a nail-scarred hand rather than an iron fist.
Blessed are those who trust the Messiah that prioritizes compassion over judgment.
Blessed are those who trust the Messiah who brings good news to the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast.
Blessed are those who do not stumble at Jesus’ way of being the Messiah but instead follow him faithfully into the kingdom he proclaimed. Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Noel Schoonmaker is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN. A native of Travelers Rest, SC, he was ordained to the gospel ministry at Churchland Baptist Church in Lexington, NC, where he served as Senior Pastor from 2004-2005. He also served as Pastor of First Baptist Church, Valdese, NC from 2007-2013. Noel is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.), Wake Forest University (M.Div.), and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.). He enjoys making music, playing basketball, reading, and being in the mountains. His favorite thing to do is spend time with his wife, Dayna, and their young daughters, Maggie and Nora.
Scripture and Music
Joy to the World
How Great Our Joy
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Go,Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
How Great Our Joy (arr. John Rutter)
Shepherd s Pipe Carol (John Rutter)
Ubi Caritas (Maurice Durufle)
The Joy of Mary (Don Neuen)
Ave Maria (Franz Biebl)
To Him We Sing (Robert Young)
Joy to the World (arr. Rutter)
How Great Our Joy
Rejoice Greatly (Handel)
In the Bleak Midwinter
O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion (Handel)