This is Jesus' reply to some disciples of John the Baptist, who came to visit Jesus:
"John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?' " (Luke 7:20)First we must ask: Why were John's disciples asking this and why was Jesus so quick to give them a report to send back to John?
John and Jesus
We must realize the relationship between John and Jesus. Were they peers? No. John baptized Jesus. What does this mean? It means that John was Jesus' teacher. How do we know this?
Besides having traveled many miles to hear John the Baptist preach by the river Jordan, and then having received baptism from John, once John was imprisoned, Jesus began to teach precisely what John was preaching before him. How do we know this?
Consider these three verses:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt. 3:2)
From that time on [after Jesus had heard of John's imprisonment] Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt. 4:17)Jesus instructed his own disciples to teach the same teaching:
"Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.'" (Matt. 10:5-7)(Note: The above verses are from the 1984 New International Version 1984. The 2008 NIV changed "is near" to "has come near." Both are translated from the Greek word ἐγγίζω eggizō, which means "to bring near" and "to draw or come near to" - the meaning is discussed here.)
While this is simply an element of their teachings, it illustrates that Jesus was carrying on John's teachings, and he asked his students to pass on the same teachings. The takeaway point is that Jesus was passing on John's teachings, and Jesus' students were also passing on John's teachings.
This illustrates that just as Jesus' disciples were students of Jesus, Jesus was a student of John the Baptist.
So why did John send his students to ask Jesus this?
"John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?' " (Luke 7:20)On its surface, this translation seems to imply that John the Baptist was awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, and sent his disciples to find out whether Jesus was the Messiah - despite the fact that John supposedly already knew this when he baptized Jesus.
Jesus' answer seems to affirm this notion, as Jesus mentions his miracles performed.
But is this really what the question was, and what the answer was? Was John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus prior to this - and thus should already have known - really wondering if Jesus was the Messiah?
Let's consider what is written concerning John prior to this event:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)The assumption here is that John is speaking of Jesus. But read this again. Are we sure this is Jesus? Note that it concludes with, John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
In reality, John is speaking of the Supreme Being here. How do we know this? John was only a couple of years older than Jesus, so Jesus had already "come" at the time John spoke this. John was not predicting the appearance of Jesus, because Jesus was born some 30 years prior.
John is speaking of something that would occur in each person's future. John was speaking of the fact that each one of us will die and meet our Maker - the Supreme Being.
But why then does it say "John answered them" after it talks about people wondering if John was the Messiah?
Because the real Messiah is the Supreme Being.
Only the Supreme Being can baptize someone "with the Holy Spirit and fire." The Supreme Being engages His Holy Spirit to reach out to us. It is an extension of Himself.
Now let's consider another description of John:
John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, "This is the One I spoke about when I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' " (John 1:14-15)This line is put within the preamble concerning John, and it is assumed this is speaking of Jesus. Yet because we know Jesus was born after John, this cannot be referring to Jesus. It can only refer to the Supreme Being - who existed prior to John, and will exist after John.
Here are some other verses:
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.' " (John 1:23)Is John speaking of Jesus here again? Certainly not, as Jesus also came to hear John preach in the wilderness. Why would John want them to make their way straight for someone who was there to be baptized with them?
Certainly the phrase, 'Make straight the way for the Lord' is speaking of the Supreme Being. John is warning them of the time of death and how they needed to prepare to 'face their Maker.'
Besides, the word κύριος (kyrios) - "Lord" is refering to the Supreme Being, just as Jesus used it when he said:
"For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'" (Matt. 4:10)As is convention between spiritual teacher and student - while Jesus' students sometimes referred to Jesus as "Lord," John the Baptist - Jesus' teacher - did not refer to Jesus as "Lord."
Now consider this event, seemingly referring to Jesus:
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him [John], "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"
"I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands One you do not know. He is the One who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."" (John 1:25-28)So this has to be Jesus, right? Hold on. We find in the very next verses:
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:28-29)So it is clear from these verses that Jesus did not arrive until the next day. This means that John was not referring to Jesus as "but among you stands One..."
So who was John referring to: again, the Supreme Being. God stands next to each of us, in the form of the Holy Spirit - as taught throughout the scriptures.
Now let's consider another set of verses regarding John and Jesus:
An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." To this John replied, "A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of Him.' The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for Him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less. The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit." (John 3:25-36)John is very clear here:
"For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit."So is John saying that he was not sent by God but Jesus was sent by God? Certainly not.
We must read the parable about the bride and bridegroom carefully. John said, "The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for Him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete."
Because we know that Jesus is not God - evidenced throughout the scriptures by the fact that Jesus prayed to God and said things like:
"My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me." (John 7:16)and
"For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken." (John 12:49)We can know from this that John is not speaking of Jesus as being the Bridegroom. He is speaking of God - and the "bride" is the loving servant of God.
Note that John - full of humility - never likes to admit that he is God's representative. This is why he said:
"The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for Him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete."John is saying that he is one of God's loving servants, and has heard from God. He is thus indirectly stating that he is God's representative.
So what does this have to do with Jesus? Consider carefully John's last sentence:
"For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.""For God gives the Spirit without limit" indicates there can be more than one representative of God. God can have many representatives. John's students are indicating that Jesus could not be God's representative if John was. But John is counteracting this by saying that there is no limit: God can engage multiple people to represent Him - without limit.
The meaning of Messiah
We must be clear about the word Messiah.
The word "Messiah" in the New Testament is taken from the Greek word Χριστός (Christos) which can mean "anointed" or "savior" according to the lexicon. What is anointed? The Old Testament defines this clearly as being a priest, or representative of God. Consider God's own statements regarding being anointed:
"After you put these clothes on your brother Aaron and his sons, anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they may serve Me as priests." (Exodus 28:41)
"The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments" (Lev. 16:32)
"Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve Me as priests." (Exodus 30:30)
"Anoint them just as you anointed their father, so they may serve Me as priests. Their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue throughout their generations." (Exodus 40:15)
"I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in My heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before My anointed one always." (1 Samuel 2:35)The descriptions of God's representatives such as David, Samuel, Joshua and others who became anointed and served God as His representative is clear from the Scriptures that being anointed - becoming Messiah - is becoming God's servant and representative. It is also clear that someone who is anointed also serves God's anointed. This confirms the succession of Teachers - or here, Priests - each mentoring from and serving their predecessor.
Note that Jesus' disciples were also carrying out baptism:
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. (John 4:2-3)This clearly illustrates the continued process of succession from teacher to student, carrying on the priestly tradition utilized in the Old Testament:
And thus we can see that the term Messiah (anointed one) is not a term that is specific to a single person: It is a role. The role of being God's representative.
We might compare the word Messiah to the word "Lieutenant." Once a person has been commissioned as a Lieutenant, people will then refer to that person as such. They might greet him as Lieutenant, or refer to him as "the Lieutenant" within the right context or group. But to say that the person is the only Lieutenant who ever lived would not be correct. Yet at the same time, a particular Lieutenant would indeed be specific to a single person.
This of course solves the mystery of the centuries-long debates between Jews and Christians regarding the coming of the Messiah. While Jews argue that the Messiah has yet to come, the Christians say that Jesus was the Messiah. Actually both are right. As we understand Messiah to mean God's representative, then yes, Jesus was certainly God's representative. And as we consider a coming person to be God's representative, the same is true. This is because God perpetually sends His representatives - His loving servants - to the earth to try to persuade us to return home to Him.
And certainly any follower of God's representative will certainly see their Teacher as not just one of many, but God's exclusive representative, because for them, this person represents the Supreme Being. So those Christians who see Jesus as the Messiah are certainly correct.
This is also consistent with John's statements about a coming Messiah, yet at the same time, when he refers to "One who is more powerful than I" John quite simply referring to the Supreme Being as coming by virtue of His representative.
And should we think of the term Messiah as meaning "Savior" again we can understand that someone who represents the Supreme Being.
The point is that there is ultimately one Messiah - and this is the Supreme Being. Only God can save us. But He can save us using one of His representatives. This is made clear by John above, as he states clearly that, "For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit."
We can see here that John is referring not to Jesus personally, but to the role of God's representative - His Loving servant (or devotee). This is in fact why John did not personally address Jesus in this statement. If he had meant Jesus exclusively, then he would have simply said "Jesus."
This goes for practically every other statement regarding Messiah by Jesus as well. Jesus always referred to "Messiah" in the third person. This is because again, it is a role. Note also that Jesus didn't want his disciples to refer to him as Messiah:
Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matt. 16:20)This brings us to the reality of how a true representative and loving servant of God sees himself. He sees himself in a humble manner. This is why John was always referring to himself humbly as not very important, always referring to someone more important and greater than he (being God and His representative).
Jesus also referred to his Teacher John affectionately as superior to himself:
"Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11)While many like to emphasize "born of women" here to insinuate Jesus was coyly not including himself, the reality is that Jesus is praising his Teacher as greater than he. We must remember that even though Mary is said to have been a virgin, it is very clear from the Scriptures that Jesus was considered born from Mary. Therefore we can understand that Jesus saw his Teacher John as greater than he.
Note also that in the verse being discussed above (Luke 7:23), Jesus says:
"Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me."Here Jesus is humbly portraying himself to the disciples of his Teacher John. He is not boasting of himself. He is not saying "yes, I am the one!"
Rather, he simply tells John's disciples the results of his service. These miracles - as Jesus himself attributes elsewhere - come from God, so Jesus is not taking credit for these. He only portrays them as evidence illustrating the authority God has given Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus would have said "I am doing all these miracles."
And John saw Jesus as greater than himself as well.
This is one of the characteristics of God's representative. He will never see himself as superior to others. He sees himself as a servant. This is why Jesus called himself υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου - the servant of humanity (incorrectly translated to "Son of man" - see this verse for more information). Jesus saw himself as a servant of God and a servant of humanity. This is why Jesus told his own disciples:
"Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant" (Mark 10:43)We must understand at the same time that God's representative is representing the Supreme Being. God's representative has great authority. But as John and Jesus both confirm - that authority is God-given. This is why Jesus also said:
"If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is Another who testifies in my favor, and I know that His testimony about me is true. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has Himself testified concerning me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form, nor does His word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one He sent." (John 5:31-38)Understanding these points, we can now understand the meaning and context of Jesus' statement to John's disciples in Luke 7:22-23.
First, John's disciples were asking if Jesus should be considered God's representative. This is important, and it also explains why John - who should have already known this based on his previous statements - would have sent them. Remember that being God's representative is a role, and a person can step out of that role just as they can step into the role. The role of God's representative requires being authorized by the Supreme Being, but it also requires the person to be dong God's will - serving God. Serving God might also mean referring someone to God's representative.
We might compare this to asking a government's ambassador if they are truly representing their government. To ask the question is to confirm the desire to communicate with that government being represented.
By John ordering his disciples to go ask this question, he was telling them they need to follow Jesus if he is representing God. This is confirmed by John as he said earlier (above): "He must become greater; I must become less."
John had previously brought other disciples to Jesus - Peter for example, was one of John's disciples. John saw the need of his disciples to follow God's representative. This is critical because following God's representative is a dynamic process that allows us to come into contact with God, and be introduced to God. This was Jesus' role, and why Jesus makes it clear that he has been passing on the teachings of his Teacher, John, saying: "the good news is proclaimed to the poor."
The "good news" refers to the teachings of love of God and serving God. As to the word "poor," this is being translated from the Greek word πτωχός (ptōchos), which can mean "poor" with regard to wealth, but more importantly, "helpless," "powerless," "wretched" and "lacking in anything... in spirit" according to the lexicon. This relates to someone who is in ignorance - as they are bereft of knowledge - poor in knowledge, rather than poor in money.
And what was that "good news"? It was Jesus most important instruction to his students - giving them eternal life:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)