Lamb of God, I am not worthy to loosen Your
sandal straps. You take away my sins and invite
me home to heavenly glory. May my spirit be at
peace and rejoice in Your mercy.
John the Baptist was the first to recognize Christ (though he didn’t see Him) as he leaped in the womb at His coming (Luke 1:41). In his leap, he pointed his mother to Jesus who, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in homage to the mother of our Lord. In a way, the unborn John was the one who made this introduction. It was a role he was born to play—literally. He would point many others to Christ.
John was a family relation of Jesus.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived… (Luke 1:36)
John knew of his role as the herald of the Lord. He knew prophecy and his place in it.
So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said:
“I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,
Make straight the way of the Lord,”’
as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:22-23).
John spoke of Jesus.
John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27).
When Jesus came to be baptized, John pointed Him out to the crowds.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
John tried to reverse the roles and have Jesus baptize him instead.
John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him (Matt 3:14-15).
John saw the heavens descend upon Jesus at His Baptism.
John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).
What can we make, then, of his seeming doubt from prison?
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7: 18-19).
It may be that John recognized the Spirit of God in Jesus but did not see Him as God-in-flesh. We recognize that God Himself came from Heaven and took on our humanity as His own. Jesus is one body and one spirit undivided in humanity and divinity. Is that what John expected or did he anticipate someone like himself who was a man imbued with the Spirit? If the latter, it would explain his question… will Jesus fulfill all of prophecy or will there be another with His Spirit to come? This conjecture is my own and shouldn’t be construed as official teaching of the Church. It does explain a few things for me, though.
What was expected of the Messiah? On one hand, He was expected to be a mighty ruler whose dominion covers the world.
“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until He comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is His” (Genesis 49:10).
I see him, though not now;
I observe him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel,
That will crush the brows of Moab,
and the skull of all the Sethites,
Edom will be dispossessed,
and no survivor is left in Seir.
Israel will act boldly,
and Jacob will rule his foes (Num 24:17-19).
The one enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord derides them,
Then he speaks to them in his anger,
in his wrath he terrifies them:
“I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the decree of the Lord,
he said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask it of me,
and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.
With an iron rod you will shepherd them,
like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them” (Ps 2:5-9).
On the other hand, the Messiah was expected to be a man of perfect peace.
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out, nor shout,
nor make his voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench (Is 42:1-3).
John saw the suffering servant (Is 53 & Ps 22) in the Lamb of God and pointed Him out to the people.
It may have been difficult for John to reconcile all of these prophecies in one person. The disciples of John shared with him the miraculous healings and resurrections Jesus performed just before John sent them with his question. In his question, we may see him trying to understand if Jesus fulfilled all messianic expectations or just part of them. Is He the King, the Prophet, or the Sacrifice? If one of these, then should they wait for other fulfillments?
Jesus’s answer to John’s disciples calls John back to prophecy.
And he said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:22-23).
Isaiah saw the day of the Lord and gave us a song of deliverance (Is 35). Amidst the rejoicing, the blind seeing, and the deaf hearing is the triumphant declaration…
Here is your God, He comes with vindication (Is 35:4).
Jesus’s reply to John is this song of triumph where God Himself is in their midst. There is no one else to expect. Rejoice that God is here! If you were looking for a king, there is no greater King than God Himself. If you were looking for a prophet, no one knows the counsels of God as He Himself does. If you are looking for a spotless victim to serve the will of God, there is no one as righteous as He is. In our Lord’s reply to John is validation and vindication that the day of the Lord has come.
The Kingdom is here and now!
In His reply, our Lord also calls John back to Malachi, chapter 3. In this chapter, we read of the messenger, Elijah, who is to come in preparation for the day of the Lord. John didn’t see himself as Elijah. That may have been part of his confusion. He was asked directly and denied it.
So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not” (John 1:21).
Our Lord saw something more in John than John saw in himself.
“This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Matt 11:10-14).
John is the greatest among the prophets… yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than him. How can this be? Perhaps the answer is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church…
By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ (CCC 1026).
This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” [1 Cor 2:9] (CCC 1027).
In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him “they shall reign for ever and ever” [Rev 22:5; cf. Mt 25:21,23] (CCC 1029).
It’s not in our greatness—as we understand it here—that we are great in Heaven. Our union with Christ is our greatness. We are called to have the trust of a child in our relationship to Him to be raised up by Him to heavenly glory.
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3-4).
I can not earn Heaven by my merits. I am not worthy—as John was not—to even loosen our Lord’s sandal straps no matter my efforts. It is only by the mercy of God that I have the hope of Heaven within me. I trust in His love for me and seek to reflect that love back to Him. All that I have to give Him was first given to me by Him. I will walk humbly in this life—at peace in the promises of our Lord who came into this world to bring me home with Him to a joy that is beyond comprehension.