John the Baptist – Doubting Prophet or Provocateur


During my study prep for a sermon from Luke 7, I had a bit of to and fro with Mike Bull about the structure of the passage and where it fits in both the flow of Luke’s narrative and the unfolding covenantal history of the New Testament history books (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts).

The literary structure of the Bible works like a fractal. Layers within layers or if you prefer to use the language of Ezekiel, wheels within wheels. And just like those funky 3D pictures from the 90’s, once you see the pattern you can’t un-see it. God is the greatest architect and the Bible is his handiwork. God also is a covenant maker. He reveals himself, explains how he will relate to men, gives his word (law, commands, promises), explains the consequence of accepting/obeying versus rejecting/disobeying it (blessings, curses, rewards) and then provides for the means for the next generation to inherit the promises and blessings.

Covenantally that looks like this:


So what? Structurally, the first part of Luke’s gospel (4:14-9:50 after the intro and preamble) concerns the identity of Jesus. Who is he? Covenantally, that’s a role of hierarchy – i.e. how will the God who reveals himself relate to men, how and in whom will he visit his people to help them? So throughout this section of Luke, there are accounts of people interacting with Jesus and determining the answer to “Who are you?” Using a variety of mostly miraculous acts, Luke demonstrates Jesus is the one who has come from God and is the one to follow. The narrative has an interplay between these acts and the reactions and responses of the crowds and more particularly the leading disciples who will (later) become the primary witnesses of Jesus to the Church.

Luke used John the Baptist in his introduction (1:1-4:13) to act as an announcer (A.K.A. a prophet!). Now, midway through the next section, John shows up again, (7:18-35) in a similar role, with a slightly different approach – so it seems. Often described as doubtful and struggling, in a way similar to his Old Testament counterpart, Elijah; I think John is acting in that way, but, there’s a lot more to his role than merely a doubter that the modern reader can identify with and get some sort of consolation or excuse for their dissonance.

John’s role in sending the questions to Jesus helps fill out the answer to the “Who are you?” of this section of Luke. John is already convinced that Jesus is the Priestly King (i.e. the Messiah who will anoint his people with the Holy Spirit of God.) What remains is to confirm that Jesus is also the prophet who is going to inaugurate the new covenant. Jesus’ answer to him makes this plain and Jesus uses it as a teaching opportunity to awaken the crowd to something that John already understands but they don’t. When it comes to “Who is Jesus”, John sees him as King, Priest and Prophet. The people, with their fascination in his miraculous acts, are only seeing a powerful King. If they are going to commit to following Jesus, they need more than a King. They need the anointing empowerment of a priest and the direction of the prophet. John helps clarify the threefold role of Jesus. Jesus, proceeds in chapter 8, to lay down the prophets directions to his people: those that follow Jesus are those that put his words into practice.

When you ‘get that’ John becomes a provocateur among the Jews to agitate and incite them to realise Jesus full identity. It follows that if Jesus is really God’s final prophet, then why aren’t you listening to him and putting his words into practice? He who has ears to hear …

Hail! Mary?

Petrus Christus, The Annunciation (c.1450, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Petrus Christus, The Annunciation (c.1450, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Petrus Christus’ c.1450 depiction of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to the virgin Mary places her at the threshold of a gothic church building guarding the door as a protective mother and teacher with the right of veto over any who would enter to instruct God’s people. This elevated perspective of Mary represents a widely held view of her importance and sanctity in Christian history. Whilst there are strong differences between Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainstream protestants about the extent of veneration or honour Mary ought to receive, she still occupies a unique place in redemptive history as the earthly mother of Jesus. So much so that the chronicler Luke, gives her a significant emphasis in the introduction of his narrative about the things Jesus did and taught before the day he was taken up to heaven.

As a protestant Christian I don’t venerate, worship or pray to Mary. Much that has been written and believed about Mary in tradition and depicted in western history’s greatest artwork is not from the Bible. However, I also don’t go to the opposite extreme of ignoring her completely. Mary is an exemplar in how she responds to the news about the arrival of Jesus. Luke invites us to compare her story and reaction to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Where Zechariah was disbelieving and doubtful of God’s intention and ability, Mary is receptive and embraces the news. When Mary is mentioned in the Bible, the emphasis of the scripture is always on Jesus the Son of God, not Mary his earthly mother. By God’s grace, let us aspire to be like her in how she responds to this good news of God’s Son.

Mary is blessed among, not above, women. She is the beneficiary of grace not the bestower. God’s purpose with her is to fulfil his promise that a woman would have a child who will save sinners. Gabriel explained that Jesus will be born by a creative act of the Holy Spirit, not via a physical sexual encounter and not through virgin veneration. Gabriel also explains that Jesus is the Son of the Most High and Son of God, not, by title, office or status, the Son of Mary.

Mary responds magnificently 😉 confessing her trust in God as the greatest promise keeper in all generations. This is a God who does the opposite of what is expected, scatters the proud thinkers, brings down rulers (like the evil Herod), lifts up the humble and fills the hungry.

God is the starring actor in this story. All the other players mentioned, Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John and Mary serve as a supporting cast to emphasise the central role Jesus will play as the Saviour who will inaugurate the kingdom of all of God’s promises.

This is a God whose agenda is to reveal himself in his glory of fulfilling his promise to bring salvation to sinners and fulfil his covenant promise. To rest in God as Mary does is to know him as holy, merciful, mighty and a reverser of fortune. One who is the absolutely reliable sovereign.

Mary has much to teach us about God’s character, on this Petrus Christus was right. When we read her story in Luke’s Gospel we are both introduced and reminded of a God who mercifully saves and that is worthy of a “hail,” a “hello” and maybe even a “hooray”.

You can read the story of Mary in Luke 1:26-56.