Did John the Baptizer Know Jesus or Not?
Early on in Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptizer made one of the most beautiful and powerful declarations in all of Holy Writ about Jesus of Nazareth: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Following this glorious, redemptive statement, however, John makes two claims that have been problematic for some. He said about Jesus:
“I did not know Him [previously—EL] but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water…. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (1:31-33, emp. added).
Some wonder how John could not have known Jesus, if (1) he was a relative of the Messiah (Luke 1:36,57-60), and (2) he tried to deter Jesus from letting him baptize Him, saying “I need to be baptized by You, and You are coming to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Why would John say this if he did not already know Who Jesus was? Furthermore, why did John send disciples later in his ministry to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3, emp. added)? Did John the Baptizer know Jesus or not?
First, simply because Jesus and John’s mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) were relatives (Luke 1:36; see Lyons, 2008) does not necessarily mean that John had ever met Jesus prior to baptizing Him. I have first and second cousins that I never recall meeting, though I have heard my parents talk about them for many years. Just because people are related doesn’t mean they “know” each other. What’s more, when John “grew and became strong in spirit,” he was “in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80, emp. added). Thus, John may have never met Jesus prior to His baptism. But, this does not mean he did not know various things about Jesus.
John obviously knew something about Jesus, or he would not have been hesitant to baptize Him. To “not know” Jesus then, likely had much more to do with not knowing him “officially, as the Messiah” (Vincent, 1997), than anything else. John seemed to believe that Jesus was the Messiah already, but, as J.W. McGarvey noted, “he did not know it” (n.d., p. 107).
His language to the people shows this (John i.26). Many of the people must have known Jesus, but none of them knew him to be the Messiah. Moreover, when John denied that he knew Jesus as Messiah we must not take it that he was ignorant of the past history of Jesus. No doubt he knew in a general way who Jesus was; but as the official forerunner and announcer of Jesus, and as the heaven-sent witness (John i.6,7), it was necessary that the Baptist should receive, by personal revelation from God, as here stated, an indubitable, absolute knowledge of the Messiahship of Jesus. Without this, John would not have been truly qualified as a witness. That Jesus is the Son of God must not rest on hearsay evidence. John kept silent till he could testify of his own knowledge (McGarvey, n.d., 107, emp. added).
Still, since it was “officially” declared to John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that He was “the Son of God” (John 1:34), many wonder why (much later) John sent disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Why would John ask this question if he already knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God? Is this not contradictory as skeptics allege (cf. McKinsey, 2000, p. 73)?
By supposing that John’s question to Jesus later in His ministry (Matthew 11:3) is somehow a discrepancy, skeptics unjustifiably assume two things. First, they assume that all questions are asked in order to obtain knowledge. But that simply is not the case (see Lyons, 2009). Questions can be asked for a variety of reasons. They may be asked to awaken someone’s slumbering conscience (e.g., “Did you do that?”). They may be asked to bring attention to something (e.g., “What are you wearing?”). They may be asked for the benefit of others (e.g., “What is the right answer to this problem?”). Etc. The fact is, we cannot know for sure exactly why John sent disciples to ask Jesus this question, but there are legitimate possible explanations that exonerate John and the Bible writers.
Skeptics also assume that John’s faith never wavered. They fail to recognize (or accept) that, like other great men of faith who occasionally had doubts (e.g., Moses, Gideon, Peter, etc.), John may have asked this question to Jesus out of momentary unbelief. McGarvey appropriately reminded us that John’s “wild, free life was now curbed by the irksome tedium of confinement…. Moreover, he held no communion with the private life of Jesus, and entered not into the sanctuary of his Lord’s thought. We must remember also that his inspiration passed away with the ministry, on account of which it was bestowed, and it was only the man John, and not the prophet, who made the inquiry” (p. 279, ital. in orig.). John may also have wondered why, if Jesus was a worker of all manner of miracles, was he still in prison. Could Jesus not rescue His forerunner? Could He not save him from the sword of Herod? Jesus’ response to John: “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Matthew 11:6). John (or John’s disciples) may have needed to be reminded to stay the course, even if they did not understand all of the reasons why certain things happened the way they did (cf. Job 13:15). Whether having a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) or suffering distressing imprisonment, God’s grace is sufficient. His “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even when, yes, especially when, we are suffering, Jesus reminds His servants, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
Did John the Baptizer know Jesus? Certainly he did. The statements John made that some consider conflicting have simply been misunderstood. John came to know Jesus officially as the Son of God when he baptized Him. John declared this Heaven-approved message throughout his ministry. Though John’s faith in the Coming One may have wavered momentarily during his imprisonment, such questioning by the prophet is in no way evidence of discrepancy. Remember: the Bible writers penned a flawless, inspired book (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21; cf. John 10:35), which includes brief accounts of many faithful, but imperfect, men. Though “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11), even he was not perfect.
Lyons, Eric (2008), “How Were Mary and Elizabeth Related?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=23&article=2532.
Lyons, Eric (2009), “Does God Really Know Everything?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=787.
McGarvey, J.W. (n.d.), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
McKinsey, Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Vincent, Marvin R. (1997), Word Studies in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).