John preached a message of imminent judgment:

Luke 3:7-9

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

The way to escape judgment, according to John, was through good works and service to others:

Luke 3:10-14

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

But Jesus had a different understanding of salvation:

Mark 10:45

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

John 3:16-17

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Even though John seemed to recognize who Jesus was at the beginning:

Matthew 3:13-14

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

He apparently later had some doubts:

Matthew 11:2-6

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

So was John confused about what kind of messiah was about to appear?

  • 2
    Interesting question. +1. To be fair, Jesus didn't himself write John 3:16-17. Also Matthew 5 and 6 don't seem too far apart from Luke 3. In fact, I had to verify that these were attributed to John and not Jesus. But Matthew 11 sure suggests that John was taken by surprise. Feb 8, 2012 at 21:02
  • 1
    In regard to John's perception of coming judgement, this aligns with the preterist view of the coming judgement on Jeruselum in 70AD, in which "all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah," [Matthew 23:35] would fall upon them (that generation, as pointed out in Matthew 23:36). Jun 19, 2014 at 21:18
  • You seem to be comparing apples and oranges. The quotes from John the Baptist (that you have provided) resonate perfectly with countless sayings of Jesus (which you have not referenced), and the quotes from Christ (that you have provided) are a perfect match for certain sayings of John the Baptist (which you have not referenced).
    – Lucian
    Aug 9, 2018 at 1:39

2 Answers 2


Judaism of the time expected two messiahs to come. One of them was called Messiah ben David, and he was to be a warrior king who would run the foreigners out of Judea and Galilee. Messiah ben David would restore the kingdom to the Israelites and reign from the throne as God's right hand. The other was Messiah ben Levi (sometimes called Messiah ben Joseph), and he would be a priestly messiah who was to restore the temple to purity. He would also heal the people and free those in bondage. This is how Jesus announced His own ministry by reading from Isaiah:


It was expected that the Messiah ben David would come first to judge. Once he had established independence, the Messiah ben Levi could come.

When John announced the Messiah in Luke 3, he apparently had the Messiah ben David in mind:

Luk 3:16-17 John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." [NASB]

The imagery John uses is that of judgment. The Messiah will come in judgment to separate the righteous from the wicked. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit (the righteous) but also with fire (the wicked). He comes to clear the threshing floor. The wheat will be placed in a barn (the righteous) but the chaff will be burned (the wicked).

The idea of two Messiahs comes from their reading of the Tanack. There are prophecies that speak of the Messiah coming in wrath and judgment and others which show Messiah serving in mercy, proclaiming liberty to the captives and restoring health to the suffering, and even himself being smitten. It was assumed that one Messiah could not do all of this, so they postulated two. However, the Scriptures show one Messiah with two comings.

If you include the Dead Sea Scrolls, then the two Messiahs comes even more into focus. In War Scroll, the Messiah is a prophet who takes no part in the war between the children of light and the children of darkness. But in other works, he is clearly ready for war. John shows several signs of being familiar with Qumran. He dresses like the Essenes and some of his preaching material is almost straight from their documents. However, when he tells the soldiers to "be satisfied with their pay" and "deal harshly with no man," we know that he has not imported the Essenic theology wholesale. If he had, the answer would have been "Resign your commission and become a proselyte, then you will be accepted by God." The Essenes believed that the full blessing of God was available to Essenes only, but Jews (both of birth and of choice) would be blessed also. John doesn't go that far.

The two messiahs theory is even made explicit in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, an apocalyptic work which was expanded upon in Qumran.

My children, be obedient to Levi and to Judah. Do not exalt yourselves about these two tribes because from them will arise the Savior from God. For the Lord will raise up from Levi someone as a high-priest and from Judah someone as king. He will save all the gentiles and the tribe of Israel. (Testament of Simeon 7.1-2)

To me [=Judah], God has given the kingship, and to him [=Levi], the priesthood. And He has subjected the kingship to the priesthood. To me He gave earthly matters and to Levi heavenly matters. As heaven is superior to the earth, so is God's priesthood superior to the kingdom on earth. [Testament of Judah 21.2-4a]

And in the Damascus Document.

[...] during the time of ungodliness until the appearance of the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel [...] [Damascus document 12.23-13.1, emphasis added.]

I would say that John expected the Messiah ben David, the warrior king, to come first. The Greek word used for "another" in Matthew 11:3 is eteros which means "another of a different kind" or "the other of two." Jesus is not acting like a warrior king. Jesus is acting like the Messiah ben Levi, the healer. His reply to John in Luke 7:22 is that His works declare who He is.

Luke 7:21-22 "At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind.

Luk 7:22 And He answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. [NASB]

He is pointing out to the disciples of John that He (Jesus) is doing the work of the Messiah ben Levi. He isn't saying that He isn't the Messiah ben David (in fact, many people call Him "son of David" in His ministry and He never corrects them), just that the time for Levi's ministry comes first.

  • Assuming (as some do) that John was at some point associated with Qumran, it makes a deal of sense that he would be at least sympathetic to a two-messaih theory. (I hadn't heard of it before this, but it does make sense and you have good textual evidence there.) But which messaih was John expecting Jesus to be and how does Jesus' answer resolve the issue? Would you mind expanding on your final sentence to make a good answer even better? Feb 10, 2012 at 17:08
  • Thanks. The latest update clarifies things for me nicely. (By the way, are the quotations NASB?) Feb 10, 2012 at 18:29
  • You're welcome. Added NASB to the answer.
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 10, 2012 at 18:52
  • In Matt 22:42-46, Jesus corrects people who call him the Messiah Ben David.
    – brewpixels
    Sep 18, 2015 at 14:58

The text says nothing about confusion or doubt. John knew from his infancy that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He knew from Jesus' baptism that He was also the God's Son, the King. But kings, messiahs, never do miracles. As Frank says, many Jews interpreted the prophecies to mean that both a new David and a new Moses would come. But was Jesus also the new Moses, or would there be somebody else?

So Jesus' answer concerns His miracles. He is also that Prophet. Controlling wind and waves, He is Moses. Raising the dead He is Elijah and Elisha.


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