John the Baptist and Sanctification

There is this opinion, however pious, that John the Baptist enjoyed a higher degree of sanctification than your average believer, and so could not possibly have been asking Jesus for his own sake if He was the One who is to come or not (as if he was above such a need for comfort and validation). After all, John leapt in his mother’s womb, confessed Jesus as the Lamb of God, saw the dove descend from heaven, etc. Certainly he was not in doubt about the identity of Jesus.

I will not argue that John enjoyed a very high degree of sanctification, since Jesus himself says that John was “the greatest of those born among women.” Who am I to argue with Jesus? But Jesus also says that the citizens of the kingdom, even the most insignificant, are greater than John (“He who is least in the Kingdom of the heavens is greater than him”). So, I do not believe that it is the case that John was greater than me or any other Christian, since I cannot argue with Jesus on this point either.

But to say that John’s greatness in some way diminished his need for the words of Christ is to say that the Pharisee was greater than the Tax Collector, or the Syro-phoenician woman, or the blind beggar. Isn’t it a consistent theme of the Gospels that the greatest people in the kingdom of heaven are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus makes an example of little children, and calls them the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.

John’s question is not surprising, given the fact that the coming of the Messianic age was supposed to mean release for the captives and breaking down the walls of prisons. If it was his disciples who were weak in faith, surely it was because they, like the disciples of Jesus, needed to know that John’s imprisonment was not a sign of the failure of the kingdom to come, or a sign that John was a fraud. John needed to know that his faithwas not in vain, that his preaching mattered, that he was not in prison for nothing (much like I need after six weeks of preaching to a handful of people during Lent!).

If John the Baptist enjoyed a higher degree of sanctification than us average Christians (what are we, “Baptists” or something?) then surely it would mean that John was more hungry and thirsty for the grace and comfort of Christ’s Words. Indeed, we could all learn from John that we can rejoice in the midst of unpleasant circumstances, knowing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Kingdom of the Heavens has come and is coming.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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6 Responses to John the Baptist and Sanctification

  1. Rev. Mueller says:

    “…John was more hungry and thirsty for the grace and comfort of Christ’s Words” as in the last paragraph.

    I would take this, at the time of the imprisonment, that, though his degree of Sanctification being “higher” (at least that it was identified to him who Jesus was), he still yearned for and wanted to hear the blessed news that Christ offers him in Luke 7:22-23, that the prophecies are being fulfilled. John, perhaps, needed to hear again that this is THE CHRIST, for don’t we also yearn to hear the Gospel of Jesus the Christ and the work He has done- to save us!

    Your conclusions follow well.

    I still want to hash out the question “What did you go out to see?” in Luke 7, in the context of the preaching of the Word and being “dressed up” like John… what did they go out to see, according to Jesus? What do we go out to see today? What do many people go out to see? I suggest ponder over this question as we are in a world yearning to be entertained… but that’s just a thought from a “young-un”…

  2. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    If they expected to see someone who was “driven and tossed by every wind of doctrine” then they would be disappointed. If they expected to see someone who enjoyed the finer things of life (like the Pharisees) then they would also be disappointed. If a prophet, then they would certainly not. I’d have to think for a while on the exegetical implications of these words, but homiletically I think you could speak perhaps of misplaced expectations. The same happened with Christ himself. Many expected the Messiah to be a political hero, or at least someone like the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, highly exalted. Few expected to see the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, humiliated on a cross for the sins of mankind. Perhaps it is also true that people have unreal or misplaced expectations of what a pastor and preacher is supposed to be. “Did you come here to have your ears itched? Did you come here to hear the latest “new ideas”?” If so, you’ll be disappointed. Perhaps the same could be said for the Divine Service? What did you come here to see?

    People are offended today by the Word and the Gospel if is not “dressed up” the way they would like it. No doubt some were turned off by the appearance of the Word in the person of John the Baptist. Maybe this is also why Jesus says: “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized because of me.” Could this “because of me” not be taken to mean, “because of my humility, my lowliness, my cross, my suffering?”

  3. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    As a follow up, I think that this is why Paul says that “God chooses the foolish things of this world shame the wise,” i.e. so that no man can boast in the presence of God. God purposely clothes His Word in lowliness and humility, be it the lowliness and weakness of a pastor, or the apparent weakness of bread, wine, and water.

  4. Daniel Skillman says:


    I’ve often heard the idea that when Jesus asks if the people went out to see a “reed shaken by the wind,” it is a reference to whether they expected John to be wishy washy. It’s as if Jesus asked, “Did you go out to see someone who wavers?” Jesus uses this opportunity to tal about JOhn’s steadfastness. I think Lenski sees things this way.

    While that may be part of the intent of Jesus’ question and implied answer, I think in the first sense, Jesus is challenging the people’s expectations concerning the coming Messiah, that is, the King (and therefore also the one who goes before him to prepare his way) over and against the house of Herod.

    Consider that Herod Antipas styled himself “king of the Jews.” He was, in his own mind at least, a messiah, that is, one anointed king. Consider also that as “king,” Herod was able to regulate people’s lives to a great degree by the right to mint currency. Consider finally that on that currency (coins) he printed his own chosen symbol, Galilean reeds, swaying in the wind!

    I think that this is what Jesus is referring to, Herod’s coins, and thus to the house of Herod and the throne. “What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind, that is, a king like Herod?”

    Jesus follows up his initial question with another that makes the first even more explicit: “Did you go out to see a man dressed in soft clothing?” In case people didn’t get what he was driving at, he answers with the explanation that those dressed in soft clothing live in king’s houses, like the house of Herod.

    Considering that John the Baptist’s question was about the Messiahship (i.e. kingship) of Jesus, I think that Jesus’ teaching to the crowds had much more to do with answering that question than commentators who jump quickly to the “unwavering” nature of the Baptist interpretation normally recognize. John is indeed unwavering, but I don’t think that’s Jesus’ primary point.

    John sat in prison, waiting for the Messiah (i.e. the king) to act to free captives like himself. But Jesus didn’t do that, at least not in the way that many (all?) expected based on passages from prophets like Isaiah. So John asks, “Are you the king prophesised, or should we look for another, someone who WILL act to free the captives?”

    Many people in JUdea went out to John the Baptist thinking that perhaps HE would be the messiah, the king. He was firey, and directly challenged Herod. John had to disabuse people of the notion that he was the messiah on more than one occasion recorded in scripture.

    Jesus playing on the mistaken identity of John answers, redifining messiahship (i.e. kingship) by challenging current notions supplied in no small part by Herod the Great and those of his house who followed after him. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind, that is, a king like those of the house of Herod? Did you go out to see a man in soft clothing, like Herod?”

    Then Jesus shifts gears, “Ok, did you go out to see a prophet?” He’s walking the people closer to the truth. “Yes, John is a prophet. In fact, he’s the greatest prophet.”

    Then Jesus drops the big news by refering to Malachi: John is the last prophet BEFORE the messiah comes. It’s the big switch, the “a-ha” moment, the revelatory moment: John isn’t the messiah. He’s the one who prepares the way.

    If people get that, then they’re left with the lingering question, “Whose way?” The answer is, of course, starring them in the face. It is the way of the one speaking to them.

    But Jesus doesn’t need to come right out and say that. Remember that he answered John’s question in similar fashion. He didn’t come right out and say that he (Jesus) was the messiah. He referred John to Isaiah and his (Jesus’) work thus far. In like fashion he doesn’t come right out and tell the crowds that he is the messiah. Rather, he aludes to Malachi and John’s work.

    Here, Jesus essentially calls John, Elijah. (In another place, he does so explicitly.) In so doing, He calls himself the messiah, without saying it. Thus, he challenges the crowd to read between the lines (a fine educational technique) and also avoids, for the time being, the full brunt of the political rammifications he would have to face for claiming to be king.

    In Christ,
    Daniel Skillman

  5. maria says:

    I heard an interesting explanation of why John asked Jesus this question, even though one would think he certainly knew who Jesus was: John asked the question for the sake of his followers, so they would hear Jesus’ answer and put faith in Him.

  6. Rev. Tom Fast says:

    Great post, Pastor Beisel.

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