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John the Baptist and the Divinity of Jesus

by Brant Pitre January 31, 2020 0 Comments


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Now in order to put Jesus’s first response in context, we have to go back to the first reading. The first reading for the Third Sunday of Advent is nothing less than the very passage that Jesus is alluding to. So when John says “are you the one who is to come” (Matt 11:3), and Jesus says, “the blind see, the lame walk” and so on (Matt 11:5), he is essentially saying “go read Isaiah 35 and then you tell me.” So let’s do it, let’s go read Isaiah 35 and listen to the prophecy that Jesus is alluding to. Isaiah 35:1–6 reads as follows:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,” Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.

And then the lectionary skips down to verse 10:

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Wow, so what’s that all about? Here Isaiah is prophesying about the future age of salvation and he is saying something very remarkable. He’s describing a kind of new Exodus and he is describing a kind of revitalization of creation too, where he is saying that the very creation itself, the wilderness, the desert, the trees, the flowers, the mountains, they are all going to rejoice. Why? Because God is coming, because the Lord is coming. And when God comes the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, the lame man shall leap and the mute shall speak. Now it’s hard overestimate the significance of that passage because when John asks Jesus, “are you the one who is to come,” he could have said “well, look at this prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.” But in this case he front-loads, he emphasizes, go back to Isaiah 35, the prophecy of the coming of God himself, and these are the signs of God’s coming. These miracles of the blind seeing, the lame walking and the deaf hearing.

If you have any doubt about that you might notice something. You might notice that Jesus adds something. He says that the lepers are going to be cleansed and that the dead will be raised. Now that’s not in Isaiah 35 so why does Jesus say it? Well if you go back to the Old Testament you’ll recall that in the book of Kings, 2 Kings 5, there is a story of the prophet Elisha being asked to heal Naaman, who was a leper. And when the leper comes and sends a messenger to ask Elisha to heal him, Elisha says, “am I God that I could heal a man with leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7). So the assumption was that there are some miracles that only God himself could do. So when Jesus says the lepers are healed, that’s another suggestion that he’s responding to John’s statement by pointing to not just to his identity as the Messiah, but his identity as the divine Messiah, as the God-man.

The same thing is true when he says “that the dead are raised up.” There he is alluding to Isaiah 26. I am not going to read the passage so you can go back and look at it. In Isaiah 26 is one of the two occasions in the Old Testament with any reference to the resurrection of the dead. And when Isaiah says that the dead will be raised, if you read the context, guess when the dead are raised? When Yahweh comes, when God comes, the dead are going to be raised. So here Jesus says that as another criteria.

And then last, but certainly not least, there is one allusion to a prophecy of the Messiah. It is when Jesus says the poor will have good news preached to them. That is a prophecy that alludes to Isaiah 61. I won’t read that to you, but it’s a very famous text that says “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the captives and to the poor” (see Is 61:1). So in a sense then, Jesus is taking these two sets of prophecies, the prophecies of the coming of God and the prophecy of the coming Messiah, and fusing them into one.

So John’s question has a double answer. Are you the one who is to come, meaning are you the Messiah? Well look at what I’ve done, I preach good news to the poor. But are you more than the Messiah, are you the one who is to come, meaning the Lord who is to come? Well look at what I’ve done, the lame walk, the blind see, the mute speak, lepers are cleansed, and the dead are raised, you figure it out. That is what Jesus is saying, he is throwing the question back on them, and he is also reminding them, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (see Matt 11:6). Now why would he have to add that caveat? Why should anyone be offended by the coming of the Messiah? The Messiah is just the anointed king of Israel. But if Jesus is saying he’s not only the Messiah, he’s also the divine son of God, he is God come in person, then there are going to be a lot of people who take offense at that. In fact, that is what he is going to be executed for, under the charge of blasphemy. So this is a powerful, powerful moment. In a sense, on the third Sunday, what we are getting is one of the first revelations of the divinity of Jesus in his answer to John the Baptist.

Now if you have any doubts about what I’m suggesting—I always like to say that, but it’s fun because you see how the readings link all this up together—you can look at the theme for the Responsorial Psalm. Guess what the Responsorial Psalm is all about? It’s Psalm 146 and the refrain for the psalm is “Lord, come and save us.” So the whole Psalm is about the coming of the Lord. It’s about the coming of, not just God in a general way, but when you see the words LORD in Hebrew, L-O- R-D in all caps, that’s a reference to Yahweh, the personal God, the God of Israel who is going to come in person to save his people. So if you look at that Psalm it begins by saying:

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul!

and in verse 7 it’s referring to the Lord, it says:

who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners,
he upholds the widow and the fatherless;
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The LORD will reign for ever...

So notice, the things that Jesus says that he’s doing, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, healing the sick, are the things that the Old Testament says Yahweh does, the LORD does. So this is another one of those examples where Jesus reveals his divinity, not in an explicit way by saying, “hey everybody, I’m God,” but by alluding to Old Testament prophecies and Old Testament Psalms that he’s fulfilling in his own person, in his words and in his deeds.

And then finally, if we look at the second reading for this week in the Letter of James, after hearing all of this about the coming of the Lord, about the coming Messiah, about the coming of God, the Church exhorts us to be ready for the final coming of Christ, for the second advent of Christ, with a reading from the Epistle of James. So if you look at the Letter of James it says:

Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Notice what James is saying here. Christians are called to have patience. He uses two analogies to explain this. We need to be patient like a farmer is patient with the fruit. Having just planted some fruit trees in my yard I know what this is about. I panted these fruit trees thinking that in one year I will have some fruit. No, no, no, it is going to take several years before I even get a single fruit that I can eat from them. So we want to be patient like a farmer waiting for his crops to come in. We also want to be patient like the Prophets, who didn’t just have to wait one or two years, but who had to wait centuries before their prophecies are fulfilled. So that’s the mindset that we should have during the Advent season. That is the posture of heart we need to have. It is one of expectancy, but also one of patience, for God will come because, as we know, he already has come in the incarnation and the coming of Jesus Christ. And just as he fulfilled the prophecies of his first coming at the time of John the Baptist, so too he will fulfill his prophecies of the second coming at the final judgment at the end of time.

Again, I would like to close with a reflection from the tradition of the Church. This is from a 16th century Jesuit priest and commentator of the Bible, Cornelius à Lapide. He wrote a commentary on the Gospels and he has a very profound insight into the greatness of John the Baptist, and that’s really who the Church is calling us to reflect on during this week. Cornelius wrote this:

Christ here calls John the greatest of all men. This must be understood of the worthies of the Old Testament, that is to say of all the time prior to Christ. John was sent by God to be Christ’s precursor and the friend of the bridegroom, so that he might show him to the whole world and testify that he is the Messiah and the only son of God. This office and dignity of St. John the Baptist far surpasses all the offices and the dignities of all the other prophets.

He’s the one who gets to herald, not just this or that act of deliverance, but the coming of God himself. That’s why in the liturgy one of the most powerful moments in the Mass is during the communion rite, when after the consecration the priest takes the host and lists it up and elevates the Blessed Sacrament and says “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” At that moment in the Mass it is important to remember that the priest is taking the words of St. John the Baptist on his lips, because that is an allusion to the Gospel of John 1:29, where John the Baptist said of Christ, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Although throughout the Mass at every other point the priest is primarily speaking in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, at this key moment in the communion rite, the priest takes on another persona. It’s the person of John the Baptist, and he utters the prophetic words of John the Baptist, “behold the Lamb of God,” and at that moment turns all of our focus away from himself and to the Blessed Sacrament, to the Eucharist, so that we can prepare for the one who has come in the Eucharist itself, his body, his blood, his soul, and his divinity. In that sense, the prophetic role of John the Baptist, heralding Christ at his first advent, continues at every single Mass as he prepares us to meet the one who has come in the Eucharist.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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