Matt 11:2-7 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
"Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?"
John the Baptist's Question
In reading John's question it almost seems as though he was confused about the identity of Jesus while he was contemplating things in the prison at Machaerus. This is a very interesting question posed by John, the messenger and herald of the Messiah, who no doubt spent countless hours examining the Scriptures concerning the One to whom he was to point the people to, as well as the Scriptures regarding himself, probably as it was with the Essene sect at Qumran where history testifies in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the smudging in the "messenger" texts of the Isaiah Scroll (Isa 40:3 in the Bible).
John was no doubt certain about Jesus' identity for he himself said "Behold the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sins of the world" (Jn 1:29). A brief look into ancient customs and the Hebraic backdrop of the time period can certainly help us to understand this question.
Ancient Hebrew Tradition
Though Jesus condemned the traditions of the religious leaders of His day, it is important to realize that all tradition was not bad, for God was the Author of the Torah Shebichtav, the written Law, and God was also the Author of much of the Torah SheBa'al Peh, the oral law, traditions in Judaism. It was when they put their traditions above the written Word of God and misunderstood their significance that Jesus made accusations. Tradition was a method, in God's infinite wisdom, for Him to tie a "spiritually dead" people to something that is spiritual, Himself. He established feasts and festivals, prayers and holy days, and many more traditions so that they would remember who it was that they were in a marriage relationship with. Daily reminders where they would have to realize that they were connected to a living spiritual God. They were reminded every day (morning and evening sacrifices), every week (Sabbath), every month (new moons), every year (harvest feasts), every 7 years (Sabbatical year), and every 50 years (Jubilee year).
Even when men went to the bathroom they were reminded daily of the Covenant that God cut with them through circumcision. Tradition was indeed an essential ingredient that connected a physical people to a God who was not of their 5 senses, until the day that Messiah would come and breathe the Holy Spirit into them and to all believers known as "the church" who would be not only Jews, but gentiles as well, "born from above" as the Scripture says.
Hinting and Giving Understanding
According to ancient rabbinic tradition there were various modes of interpretation for understanding and teaching the Torah (Old Testament). The most common was "Pardes," meaning "garden of the Torah," which was an acrostic for the four modes of interpreting the Torah. The "R" consonant in Pardes stood for "remez" which means "to hint at something obvious." For example when Jesus referred to Himself as "the Son of Man," the remez understanding would be that He was identifying Himself with the apocalyptic Redeemer of Dan 7:13-14 where the Jewish prophet Daniel spoke of a man called "the son of man" who would be given an everlasting kingdom that would never pass away.
In fact just by saying "Son" or "My Father" Jesus was making blatant statements about Himself to anyone that was familiar with the Torah, since words like "Son" are scattered throughout the entire Hebrew Scriptures in identification with the Messiah.
Throughout the entire ministry of Jesus he was fulfilling prophecy, in every Word He spoke, every place He went, and every thing that He did. There was nothing that Jesus said or did that was not in direct fulfillment to some passage or Scripture in the Hebrew Torah. Even when "He spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle" He was literally screaming the message that He was the first born Son of the Father according to rabbinic Judaism.
The Coming One
Many times Jesus would make one statement and be quoting or hinting at four or five different verses in the Old Testament, especially when He was being attacked by the religious leaders, he would answer their questions with another question or statement that would allude to the Scriptures that they were presuming to know so much about and following so closely. There are numerous examples but for now we will examine John's question and Jesus' response.
John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "are you the coming one?" If we examine the Old Testament we would find a multiplicity of statements about the Messiah being regarded as "the coming One" in Hebrew its "haba" which means "to come." One of the most popular Messianic Scriptures where this word is used is in one of the Psalms:
Ps 118:26 "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!"
Another Scripture in the Psalms that was regarded in Judaism as Messianic is in Psalm 40 where it contains the word "haba" spoken by Christ Himself through David before Jesus was born:
Ps 40:6-8 Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened;
Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, "Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart."
Another example is found in the last book of our English Bible:
Mal 3:1 "Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming," Says the LORD of hosts.
The knowledge and expectation of the "Coming One" was prevalent during the time of Christ as we can see from a couple of examples:
John 6:14 "Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world."
John 11:25-27 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?" She said to Him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world."
Jesus Answers John the Baptist
One of the difficulties for the rabbis in interpreting the Torah was that some of it could really only be understood in the light of the New Testament and the Holy Spirit's revelation to the church. Many priests and prophets of the Old Testament were puzzled with questions concerning the Messiah, since the Scriptures were only filled with bits and pieces of a much larger puzzle.
In Judaism there were different streams of Messianic thought. There is good reason for the confusion, since there are places in the Bible that said Messiah would come and reign as king and others that said Messiah would come and be rejected by His own people and murdered as a criminal.
So John asks "are you the Coming One or do we look for another?" Since John the Baptist knew Jesus would lay down His life and die, he was essentially asking whether or not Jesus was the same person who will also come and set up a kingdom. I am sure John was wondering also about his own fate since there is no mention about the fate of Messiah's forerunner in the Old Testament.
Jesus answers the question brought to him by John's disciples:
"Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
It is interesting that Jesus responded in this way. By hinting at many Old Testament passages regarding the Messiah's first and second coming He essentially answered the question and answered it entirely. Lets look at a few of the verses that Jesus was hinting at:
Note: These are all passages regarded in ancient Rabbinic Judaism as Messianic, and are still held today in Jewish circles.
The Blind See and the Sick are Healed
Isa 29:18-19 "In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness. The humble also shall increase their joy in the LORD, And the poor among men shall rejoice In the Holy One of Israel. "
Isa 35:4-6 "Strengthen the weak hands, And make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, "Be strong, do not fear! 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 shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert."
Isa 42:6-8 6 "I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. I am the LORD, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another."
The Poor have the Gospel preached to them
Isa 61:1-2 "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God."
Blessed is he
Ps 32:1-2 "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity."
Who is not offended (stumble or be ashamed) because of Me
Ps 118:22-26 "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD's doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O LORD; O LORD, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!"
Isa 28:16 "Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; Whoever believes will not act hastily."
Isa 45:17 "But Israel shall be saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation; You shall not be ashamed or disgraced Forever and ever."
These are just a few examples. As I said, Jesus' whole life was a fulfillment of what had been spoken about Him by the Lord through the Old Testament prophets. Therefore, every word He spoke was already spoken about Him.
I say with no hesitation that that the study of Jesus' words and His life, to me, is more rewarding than any other study, and any other pursuit in life.
Written by Rusty Russell (Bible History Online)
Bibliography on Ancient Customs
The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised by Robins, 272 Pages, Pub. 2008