John the Immerser often receives very little attention. Of course people talk about him as being important because he was a cousin and forerunner of Yeshua, but otherwise his role is largely reduced to a small mention in the introduction to a much larger narrative.
Hermeneutically, however, the Gospel writers place the greatest emphases on details they deem the most important to the larger story. Interestingly, all four Gospels mention the narrative of John. You can choose to skip over this fact – as most others do – or you can recognize its significance. Not even Yeshua’s birth narrative is mentioned in all four Gospels (it is only recorded in Matthew and Luke). As such, all four Gospel writers considered John’s narrative as having far more relevance to the larger redemptive story of Yeshua than even Yeshua’s birth. Think about that for a moment.
So who exactly was John? In addition to being Yeshua’s cousin, he was a cohen – a priest on both sides of his lineage and groomed from birth to serve in the Jerusalem Temple. Yet, it seems at some point he was either sent out, or banished to the desert.
In this Besora portion, John sends a message to Yeshua asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?” (Mt. 11:3) Jon is clearly asking, “Are you the Messiah?” Yeshua responds, saying:
“Go and tell John what you are hearing and seeing – ‘the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are being raised and the poor hear the Good News.’ (Matthew 11:5 quoting Is. 61:1)”
What is so significant about Yeshua’s response?
It is a messianic quote from the prophet Isaiah. In Jewish thought, talk is cheap. Yeshua does not respond merely with words, but rather with a demonstration that he is indeed the promised Messiah. Yeshua wants John to know for sure. However, Yeshua, knowing John, adds a small detail he knew maybe only John would catch. In his quote of Isaiah, Yeshua adds “the dead are being raised,” a detail not actually found in Isaiah 61:1. The only other place this particular phrasing has ever been found is in the Dead Sea Scrolls (in scroll 4Q521). Because of John’s believed connection to the Qumran community, in my opinion this was a sort of personal nod or wink to John, adding even greater emphasis to Yeshua’s response.
John was the perfect candidate to be a forerunner for Messiah. John was an Elijah-type figure who would usher in Yeshua’s time on earth. As John himself states, “The reason I came immersing with water was so that [Messiah] might be made known to Israel” (John 1:31).
Each of us has a role similar to John. We need to prepare the world for Messiah’s return, and become participants in ushering in the Messianic Age. It is a great task. However, our role has also been divinely selected. G-d has chosen each of us in this particular time for a certain reason. G-d needs you. Only when working together can we experience the long awaited return of our beloved Messiah Yeshua – may it be soon!
*This commentary originally appeared in the Set Table.