Jesus’ own townspeople in Nazareth mistook who he was, as did Herod, Mary Magdalene, and even Peter. But did John the Baptist misunderstand Jesus?
In this excerpt adapted from the September/October 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine, Joseph R. Dodson, associate professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, explores why John’s the Baptist’s expectations of Jesus weren’t wrong—they were just incomplete.
A person experiencing homelessness approached me as I was thumbing through books at the public library. Leaning over me, he said: “Hey man, I know you’re Bruno Mars.” Taken aback, I responded: “Sorry, friend, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong guy.”
I figured that would be enough to close the case, but he retorted: “It’s alright, man, I know you’re Bruno Mars.” I couldn’t help but chuckle as I insisted, “I’m really not. I’m just a basic white guy.” In response, he leaned in even closer and whispered, “Don’t worry, man, I ain’t gonna tell nobody.”
At that point, I figured the best course of action would be just to give in, so I whispered back, “Oh OK, thanks.” My new friend’s eyes sparkled, and his smile overcame his face. Beaming, he slapped my hand and boomed, “My man!”
His exclamation carried across the library. A security guard dashed over to escort my new friend out. As they left, I heard him begin to reason with the guard: “Come on, man, I was just tryin’ to talk to Bruno Mars!”
The wrong guy?
As you know, when it came to Jesus, people often got the wrong guy. In Nazareth, the townsfolk mistook him for “the carpenter’s son.” That is to say, they thought the Holy One of Israel was Joseph’s illegitimate child. They knew Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph tied the knot. Since Joseph did not send her away like a righteous man surely would have, they presumed, then he must have been the father. Because Jesus’ neighbors relegated him to the boy next door, they failed to recognize him as the long-awaited prophet of God (Matt 13:54–58).
In contrast to the Lord’s neighbors who declined to give him any respect, Herod got the wrong Jesus because he was so terrified.1 His extreme superstition drove him to think Jesus was John the Baptist— whom Herod had recently beheaded—now risen from the grave (Matt 14:1–2). Like Herod, others wrongly identified Jesus as John the Baptist, and some mistook him for Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other Old Testament prophet (Matt 14:14).
Peter, of course, goes on to give the right answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). But as the narrative unfolds, we see that although Peter may have had the right titles for Jesus, he didn’t have the right theology behind them. Not fully understanding who the Lord is led Peter, the son of Jonah, to brazenly rebuke the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:22).
Mary Magdalene also got the wrong guy. She initially mistook the Resurrection and the Life for a cemetery gardener, who for some curious reason must have decided to move Jesus’ corpse from its tomb (John 20:14). And it wasn’t just at the tomb that one of his followers thought Jesus was someone else. 2On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas deduced that Jesus must be a visitor to Jerusalem who remarkably had missed the trending news of their Lord’s death (Luke 24:18).
To be sure, it is unsurprising that Herod and other outsiders got the wrong guy. As for Peter, when we take into account his shaky theology throughout the Gospels, it’s also not too shocking that he thinks Jesus should be someone else. And we can surely excuse Mary’s wrong assumption at the tomb since she was so grief-stricken. Trauma is a powerful lens. We can pardon Cleopas, too, because, in addition to his grief, he was divinely “prevented from recognizing” Jesus (Luke 24:16 NASB).
John the Baptist’s crisis of faith
Yet of all the people who mistook the Lord for someone he’s not, the most incredible example is John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ hype man. He was God’s very instrument, born to prepare the way for the Lord, to make straight his paths, and to announce him to the world. Set apart in the womb and filled with the Spirit, John the Baptist surely would get it right. Right? But at least at one point in his life, even John seemed to think Jesus was someone he’s not. Sitting in prison and facing execution, John had his own doubts about the Lord and sent his disciples to make sure he didn’t have the wrong guy. To clarify, he instructed his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt 11:3).
I’ve always taken John’s apparent crisis of faith here as stemming from his imprisonment and imminent execution. I figured Matthew included this story in his Gospel to remind us that, like Elijah who came before him, even the likes of John the Baptist can lose heart and falter in their faith.3But if John had studied the Jewish Scriptures correctly, he would have had good reasons for these doubts. From Isaiah, John would infer that the “Coming One” was supposed to proclaim liberty to prisoners such as himself (Isa 61:1). Didn’t Jesus even promise to set the captives free (Luke 4:18)? Yet here John was—God’s faithful servant, the promised Elijah, the greatest man ever born from a woman—still in chains (Matt 11:10–11). As Craig Blomberg asks, “Why would one who had promised to free the prisoners (Luke 4:18) not get John out of jail?”4
But perhaps there’s more to the story. John the Baptist was a no-nonsense, hellfire-and-brimstone, wrath-preaching prophet. To the unrepentant, he thundered threats in the wilderness:
God’s ax is already at the root of your tree and Christ is coming soon to cut you down. With winnowing fork in hand, the Messiah is going to arrive to clear the threshing floor and to toss the wicked like chaff into unquenchable fire. (Matt 3:12, my paraphrase)
When the Lord came, however, he didn’t—as John seemingly expected—baptize folks with damning fire. Likely for John, Jesus should have promptly exacted vengeance. How long had Israel already waited for him to come and judge the wicked? Instead of throwing his enemies into a fiery furnace, however, the Lord let his own cousin be tossed onto death row.5
In support of this notion, according to Matthew’s Gospel, what spurs on John’s quest is that he had heard of Jesus’ deeds (Matt 11:2). Even though the deeds John heard about likely encompass the Lord’s whole ministry, they probably center on his miracles, like those recorded in Matthew 8–9.6One would think that such wonderful deeds would reinforce John’s conviction—unless, that is, John was expecting another type of works.
For instance, rather than baptizing people with divine wrath as Isaiah 61:2 prophesied, the Lord was immersing them in compassion. Although Jesus delivered his own blistering warnings of coming judgment, he did not cast multitudes of sinners into outer darkness to weep and gnash their teeth.7
On the contrary, he led out with unmerited love and unimaginable mercy. In other words, instead of anger, judgment, and condemnation, the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry were gentleness, goodness, and grace.
A different kind of Messiah?
If I’m right about this, even John the Baptist—the person who knew Jesus the most—misunderstood him. Hence John’s burning question: “Are we to expect a different kind of Messiah?”8
A Coming One who will castigate my enemies?
To be fair, John certainly didn’t have the wrong guy, but he seemed to have the wrong emphasis. Or, as Craig Keener puts it, “John’s expectations of Jesus were correct but incomplete.”9The major thrust of the Lord’s gospel was not “turn or burn” but—to borrow from Paul—the kindness of God leading to repentance (Rom 2:4). Also, what John the Baptist may have missed is that Jesus didn’t come to pour out wrath as much as to absorb it—on a cross. Rather than cutting down Israel’s tree at the roots, Jesus was nailed upon a Roman one, so that his atoning blood would cover the very people and their children who cried, “Crucify him!” (Matt 27:25).
This is what makes the final beatitude Jesus gives to John so beautiful: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matt 11:6). Notice that the Lord makes the blessing general for all people, rather than personal to John. That is, he does not say, “Blessed are you, John, if you don’t stumble on account of me,” but “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”10
I wonder if Jesus might have Jonah in mind when he says this.11
Jonah was a prophet who thoroughly tripped over the mercy of God. Hidden in Jesus’ beatitude is a warning: John and all the followers of Jesus should not (as Jonah did) stumble over the abounding truth that even to our enemies, our God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).12
But it’s easy to trip up. We often want John the Baptist’s Jesus for people who disagree with us. Like John, we want the Lord to escort them out. We expect Christ to cut down their tree, not to be crucified for them.
It’s funny, though. We often want John’s Jesus for our enemies, but we want Jesus’ Jesus for ourselves. When it comes to our conceptions of the Messiah, maybe we’ve got the wrong guy.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
This excerpt about John the Baptist and Jesus is adapted from the original article in the September/October Issue of Bible Study Magazine.
- The Meaning of Baptism—and How It Makes the Gospel Visible
- What Did Jesus Mean by “Gates of Hell”?
- The Incarnation of Jesus: 10 Quotes
- Lexham Geographic Commentary of the Gospels
- The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Craig Keener
- The Gospel of Matthew by John Nolland
- Craig A. Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 291.
- Even in Acts 10, Peter again dares to tell the Lord “no.” You’d think he would have learned not to rebuke Jesus the first time, which caused the Lord to refer to him both as “Satan” and the rock that’s become a stumbling stone. Still, it takes the Lord three times to get through to Peter in Acts 10.
- See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 334. On Elijah, also see 1 Kings 19.
- Craig Blomberg, Matthew (NAC; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 184–85.
- As John Nolland puts it: “Jesus was offering persecution to those who followed him, not the decisive vindication that wouldhave matched better the expectations generated by [Matthew] 3:11–12; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 452.
- Blomberg, Matthew, 184–85.
- John the Baptist did not seem to live long enough to see Jesus overturn the temple tables, which I presume John would have seen as more like what the Christ should be doing.
- The Greek word John uses here (heteron) does not mean another of the same kind, but another of a different kind.
- Keener, Matthew, 335.
- Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 452.
- Jesus refers to Jonah elsewhere in this Gospel; see Matt 12:39-41; 16:4.
- See Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 452.