Did John the Baptist really know that Jesus was the Messiah?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Concerning John the Baptist understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, in the first chapter of John, John the Baptist said he knew him not several times (referring to Jesus being the Messiah). Yet in other Gospels, he says that he didn't want to baptize Jesus...rather that Jesus should baptize him. Also, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Three of my commentaries and my study Bible say that he didn't know. Yet Elizabeth and Mary knew. Can you help?

Answer: Of all the people who were Jesus’ contemporaries, no one knew better than John the Baptist that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, it is evident that he also did not know. If that is true as it stands, then the Bible is in contradiction. But for now, let’s just call it a paradox while I unwind it.

It’s a little hard to get used to the fact that key players in God’s prophetic program often had no idea what was going on. For example, it was absolutely necessary for the plan of redemption that Judas betray Jesus… but Judas wasn’t planning that… not from the beginning anyway. He was probably just a national zealot and saw in Jesus the possibility that Israel might be restored to some importance. But I’m sure that Judas performed honorably as a disciple by and large (and indeed, nobody knew who the traitor was at the Last Supper) — yet he fulfilled his treacherous prophecies perfectly. So in a way, he too was a paradox… a disciple and a traitor. But can you see how it is not a contradiction to be both? When it comes to Jesus, we all live somewhere along that line.

John the Baptist lived along that line, too. He was absolutely sure that Jesus was the Messiah here and there… but he wasn’t sure, end to end.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41, NIV)

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2–3, NIV)

John was one of those people who played a part in prophecy without understanding the big picture. On one hand, he had the testimony of the Holy Spirit in utero, he understood that he was the forerunner of the Messiah and he saw the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus as a sign. But on the other hand (and right before his death!) he was not sure that Jesus was the Messiah. Why is this?

Jesus — and in no small way — met no one’s expectations of the Messiah! Nobody… and I mean nobody… “got” Jesus… and this was true right through his ascension. Why was this? Because they needed the Holy Spirit to interpret Jesus’ life… but in the absence of Jesus himself.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26, NIV)

That’s true for today, too. Nobody “gets” Jesus without the Holy Spirit… although they may accent to his historical veracity, his great teachings and his impact in the world. Nevertheless, one must yield to the Holy Spirit’s witness that Jesus is God the Messiah (Mat. 12:31).

So, I agree that John the Baptist is a bit of a spiritual enigma — and unless he heard Jesus’ rebuke that he should let his signs and wonders speak for themselves (and the Bible does not tell us whether or not John got the message), he died doubting.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4–6, NIV)

Now, if John died doubting, that would be a shame… but it would not be a biblical crisis. The Bible is the story of people battling against faithlessness… and even the good guys lose one or two. So, make no mistake: John the Baptist was God’s man… but so was Sampson… and so was Saul… so was Solomon… and so am I. I’m sure we will see him in heaven.

When John said things like “I knew him not…” that was just the narrative setting us up for the revelation, “but I know him now.” John is telling us that he didn’t know Jesus personally — the cousins never hung out. This also reinforces the prophecy that there would be nothing special about Jesus’ appearance. The text below does not show John saying that he was not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah; this is John saying that he had no idea who this guy was until he was revealed. (Are you still reading the KJV primarily? You seem to have tripped over simple sentences here… and the KJV will do that.)

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” (John 1:29–34, NIV, emphases mine)

The reason that John pushed back about baptizing Jesus was also straightforward: after he understood who Jesus was… he did not feel worthy! (Would you feel worthy to baptize the Lord of glory?) The one who baptizes is symbolically higher than the one who was baptized; that’s why John tried to flip roles — this was the Messiah! There is nothing in that story that shows John dismissing Jesus’ Messiahship. The pushback was all about humility.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3:13–16, NIV, emphasis mine)

Let me wrap up this little teaching with the story of Peter because Peter was just a more optimistic version of John the Baptist.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. … Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13–20, NIV, emphasis mine)

Please note that Peter did not have the right answer because he was the top kid in the class; he had the right answer because the Father revealed it to him. So Peter did not “get” Jesus’ Messiahship more than anyone else. It’s just that God had to put it out there… and he used Peter’s mouth to do it! But then look at what Jesus did: the truth was finally revealed… but he told the disciples not to tell it on the mountains! What was that about? Here’s what that was about.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
(Matthew 16:21–25, NIV, emphases mine)

At the risk of sounding redundant, nobody — and I mean nobody — understood the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. Even Peter — the guy the Father used to declare the fact that Jesus was the Messiah — began telling the Messiah how to do his job! That’s why Jesus didn’t want them to spread this revelation around. What good would it do? Nobody expected the suffering Messiah; they were looking for the victorious Messiah… but he wasn’t coming this trip… and disappointment would increase upon the land.

So, don’t think too badly of John the Baptist. Nobody understood this revelation of the Messiah in Jesus’ time. Just because God chose him to be a key prophetic player does not mean that he had more than the occasional moment of supernatural knowledge. Furthermore, since John too was just a man, the fact that he prophesied does not mean that he was extra clever or faithful.

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