If Jesus came to us today, would we recognize him?
It’s nice to think we would. We’re not like those clueless people described in the Prologue to John’s gospel, right (1:11)? The ones to whom he came home, but who rejected him? The ones who should have known better?
Don’t be so sure.
When a delegation of Jewish leaders came to interrogate John the Baptist, they thought he might claim to be the Messiah. But he didn’t. Instead, he told them, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:26-27, NRSV). They didn’t know: no one expected the Messiah to be the son of a Galilean carpenter, nor did they expect the Messiah to do some of the things Jesus did.
Surprisingly, though, even John the Baptist himself seems not to have known. Having exposed the ignorance of his interrogators, he admits, “I myself did not know him” (John 1:33), until the Holy Spirit descended and remained upon Jesus at the time of his baptism. Up until that moment, John says, “Even I didn’t recognize him” (CEB).
And I don’t think he means that Jesus was walking around wearing a disguise.
Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine that John didn’t know, at least at some level. He and Jesus were related through their respective mothers (Luke 1:36). In Luke 1, we read of a pregnant Mary’s visit to a very pregnant Elizabeth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth cried out in praise because she knew that Mary would be the mother of the Messiah (vss. 42-43). And they spent the next three months together (vs. 56).
Surely Elizabeth must have told the story to her son? “You know, sweetie, I remember the time when you were still in the womb, and your Aunt Mary paid me a surprise visit. As soon as I heard her voice, you leaped for joy inside me.”
I think it would probably be too much to say that John knew nothing about any of this. But there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing. Even John, apparently, needed a little confirmation from God.
Does that mean that John lacked faith? Hardly. Let us say instead that faith isn’t a matter of being smarter, or better educated, or more insightful than the next person. Nor is it something your parents simply bestow.
It’s a gift from God. As is the Holy Spirit.
Again, if Jesus were to appear bodily on my doorstep today, I hope I would recognize him. But if I did, it wouldn’t be because I have a seminary education.
It would be because God had graciously given me the eyes to see. More on that in the next post.