John’s Faith Seems to Waver
After Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead at Nain, we are not told if Jesus remained there or if He went on to another place. Since the trip from Capernaum was about 25 miles, it would seem likely that He might stay the night in Nain, but if so, the crowd accompanying Him probably would have found few accommodations in such a small village. Most of them probably camped in the pasture under the stars.
It is likely that Jesus’ trip to Nain took place the day after He gave His sermon on the hill of Hermon and healed the centurion’s slave. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Nain was located on the slope of Mount Moreh, which (in later years) was called “Little Hermon.”
If a hidden prophetic connection exists, we might say that on the first day Jesus taught the principles of the Kingdom, and the next day He illustrated them by action, proving that the truth He taught would lead to resurrection life. Mount Hermon was called “Sion” (Deut. 4:48) and is the symbol of the New Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22, KJV).
Luke’s next account, which he links directly to the miracle at Nain, shows John’s disciples coming to Him with a startling question. Luke 7:17-20 says,
17 And this report concerning Him went out over all Judea, and in all the surrounding district. 18 And the disciples of John reported to him about all these things. 19 And summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” 20 And when the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’”
John himself did not come, because he had already been arrested and was languishing in prison. Recall from Matt. 4:12 that John was cast into prison on charges of sedition about the time that Jesus set up His ministry headquarters in Capernaum (Matt. 4:13).
Matt. 11:2, 3 also says,
2 Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples, 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?”
Of necessity, a certain time had passed between the Nain miracle and John’s question. Communication was not as efficient as it is today. Nonetheless, John’s disciples would have heard rumors of this soon after the miracle as word spread “in all the surrounding district.” John’s inquiry either shows a genuine doubt, or he was sending a hint that Jesus might use His power or even His new-found influence to set him free from prison.
The Timing Issue
Matthew seems to indicate that Jesus did considerable ministry before John’s disciples arrived. Though Matthew does not mention the Nain story, he does tell us of the centurion’s slave being healed in Matt. 8:5-13. He then tells us that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14, 15), and later that evening He healed many others (Matt. 8:16). This could hardly have taken place the same day that He preached His sermon and healed the centurion’s slave, and we know that the next day Jesus went to Nain. So when did Jesus heal Peter’s mother-in-law and all the others?
It appears that Matthew’s account is not strictly chronological, but that he decided to recount some of the miracles that Jesus did early in His ministry—even before Jesus had preached in the synagogue of Nazareth. The first clue is that Matthew skipped the story of Jesus’ trip to Nain. The second clue is that after telling of various miracles, one involving a stormy trip across the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:18-27), Matthew tells us finally (Matt. 9:9) that he himself was called to be one of Jesus’ disciples.
The Call of Matthew Levi
Matthew Levi was called while sitting in the tax office, and then set up a banquet for Jesus and His disciples to meet all of his tax-collecting friends.
Luke places the call of Matthew Levi in Luke 5:27, prior to Jesus’ sermon in Luke 6.
The problem is that Matthew himself—who certainly knew the circumstances and timing of his own calling—places it in Matthew 11, not only after Jesus’ sermon but also after many examples of His miracles as He ministered in Galilee. Either these miracles were placed “out of order,” or Matthew’s call was “out of order.”
It seems more likely to me that Matthew decided to recount some of the miracles that were performed prior to his own calling. He chose to recount them immediately after the centurion’s slave was healed, preempting Jesus trip to Nain. In effect, this was a flashback to show the circumstances leading up to his own calling.
We know that six other disciples had already been called quite early as we see from Matt. 4:18-22 and Luke 5:11. Matthew is seventh on the formal list in Luke 6:13-16, which appears after Matthew’s call in Luke 5:27.
Matthew’s list of the twelve disciples is given in Matt. 10:2-4, and he tells of his own calling earlier in Matt. 9:9. So it is a virtual certainty that Matthew was the seventh disciple to be called, for he stands between the first six and the time when all twelve were named.
Matthew’s call, then, came shortly after Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:26). Matthew’s job was to collect taxes (or duties) on the fish that were caught in the Sea. So no doubt he would have been home that same night while the storm raged around him. Suddenly, the storm ceased, and Matthew would have wondered how such a storm could end so quickly. When Jesus returned from the far side of the lake, he would have heard the story from Jesus’ disciples. That would also explain why Matthew was so quick to respond to Jesus’ invitation (Matt. 9:9).
In the rest of Matthew 9, he records other miracles that also occurred during the early part of Jesus’ ministry. Then in chapter 10 we read that Jesus “summoned His twelve disciples” and sent them out on a mission trip, giving them instructions in the rest of the chapter.
Matthew then omits many events and miracles, but resumes his narrative in Matt. 11:2, 3, telling us that John’s disciples came to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” This, then, is where Matthew’s narrative turns the page and brings us to the time of Luke 7. Jesus has already given His Sermon on the Mount, He has already healed the centurion’s servant, and He has returned from His mission trip to Nain.
John heard about the miracle at Nain from his own disciples, for while he was already in prison, there is no doubt that he had directed his disciples to follow Jesus. So they certainly would have reported the news to him regularly.
We may also see another prophetic pattern emerging here.
Obviously, the sequence of events leading to the resurrection miracle at Nain was meant to show the two great paths of humanity, one leading to death, and the other to life. Second, we see Christ’s death turning Israel into a widow, according to the prophecy in Isaiah 53 and 54. But we now can see a further pattern of prophecy that relates directly to our own time and the second work of Christ.
Prophetic Applications for Today
When Jesus sent out His twelve disciples on this mission trip, as recorded in Matthew 11, I believe that this prophesied of a similar mission trip in our own time. Even as the disciples were sent out prior to Christ’s death and resurrection—which was the focus of His Judah calling to claim His throne rights—so also will there be another occasion by which a few disciples will be sent out prior to the time that He comes to claim the birthright of Joseph.
We have called this mission the Open Door Ministry. Even as Jesus’ disciples were sent on their journey long before the day of Pentecost, so also will we be sent out before the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles.
It is in this context that John poses his question to Jesus. He is in prison and nearing the end of his life. We know that John was executed at Passover of 30 A.D., the first Passover after Jesus’ baptism the previous September. Jesus began to preach more openly after John was cast into prison that winter, and He then chose His twelve disciples. The gospel writers make it clear that Jesus performed many miracles in those early weeks and winter months leading to the Passover where John was executed.
Then perhaps in February or March Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, healed the centurion’s slave, and raised the widow’s son at Nain. He then sent out His disciples to preach and heal the sick. When John heard the news, he sent word to Jesus, perhaps sensing that he was soon to be executed.
John’s execution marked the point where the mantle of high priest passed to Jesus. John was the legitimate high priest in the eyes of God, and when he died childless, his priesthood passed to his cousin, Jesus. This also marked the transition from the last true high priest of Levi to the first of the Order of Melchizedek.
But John was also “Elijah,” who was called to prepare the way for “Elisha.” Toward the climax of Elijah’s ministry, he became fearful of Jezebel’s wrath and fled to Mount Horeb. His complaint in 1 Kings 19:10 seems to express discouragement and doubt. And so also, toward the end of John’s life, we find him expressing the same doubt by his question.
The divine record condemns neither Elijah nor John, but it does show the limits of their calling. At some point they had to give way to a greater calling. Elijah had to give way to Elisha, who received the double portion. Likewise, John had to give way to Jesus, who was the Birthright holder who inherited the double portion. Only the double portion could complete this calling successfully.
On another level, “Elijah” prepared the way for the Messiah (“anointed one”) in His first coming, while “Elisha” is now preparing the way for the Messiah’s second appearance.
Elijah and Moses are also linked together, not only by the prophecy in Mal. 4:4, 5, but also by Jesus’ statement in Matt. 11:13,
13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
In other words, John’s ministry represented both the law and the prophets—both Moses and Elijah—which were ending with the double portion anointing of Joshua and Elisha. This transition from John to Jesus is being repeated in the present time, only on a higher level and a greater scale.
Jesus did not answer John’s question directly, but simply showed the evidence of His calling. Luke 7:21-23 says,
21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He granted sight to many who were blind. 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. 23 And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.”
The contrast between John’s ministry and that of Jesus must have overwhelmed John’s disciples. John did no miracles; Jesus did many. So also today, we have seen relatively few miracles compared to what will soon be. The twelve disciples thus returned with many miracle stories to tell, and I believe this establishes the pattern for the Open Door Ministry that will soon take place, once “Elijah” has passed and “Elisha” has begun the new work under the double portion.