Fallible prophets, Mormonism, and John the Baptist

February 29, 2012    By: Matt W. @ 8:11 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

Blair Hodges recommended recently the writings of N.T. Wright, and so I recently picked up his latest book, Simply Jesus, from audible.com. While I have a whole list of topics I could discuss from it, today while on my commute home, I listened to a bit about John the Baptist that got me thinking.

In Matthew 11:4, John the Baptist sends his people to ask Jesus. “Are you he who comes, or should we be looking for another?” Wright suggests some interesting context to this. The cultural expectation, as we all knew, was for the Messiah to be the King of the Jews, sent from heaven to free the oppressed and to save the Jewish people. John had been thrown in jail basically for calling out that Herod did not have the right to claim he was the king of the Jews. He was unfit for the role. Now John was being oppressed and called to Jesus to step up and fill the cultural expectation of liberating savior. In response, Jesus calls for these messengers to tell John what he’s been about, blessing, healing, and raising the dead. He states this as evidence that he is the Messiah, and then asks the John not be offended by who he is in actuality. He was not the Messiah that was culturally expected. He was and is the true Messiah.

While I could talk here about what it means to be the true Messiah, and how awesome that is, that isn’t my point. My point is that John the Baptist was a Prophet of God, and he didn’t understand what the true Messiah was. He was bound by his cultural understanding.

So here are a few thoughts:

1. Evangelicals claim Mormons are not saved because we worship a different Jesus. John the Baptist worshipped a different Jesus, it could be argued. Is John the Baptist not saved?

2. Many Mormons become disaffected when the see that someone like Brigham Young could believe something as odd as Adam being God. Why would we have higher expectations for Brigham knowing who God was than we do for John the Baptist knowing who Jesus was?

3. Many Faithful Mormons cling to statements by prophets and church leaders which now sound racist or sexist or homophobic. Can we call these things out as cultural understandings of the time? How do we gain clarity on what was cultural understanding and what was truth that is just now currently out of popularity?

Truly, we see through a glass darkly.

12 Comments »

  1. While I generally agree with your point, where do we draw the line on this? In reference specifically to your third point, how are today’s so-called enlightened any less products of our time than those we frame as sexist or homophobic were products of theirs? The problem with this kind of relativism is that the ground is always shifting beneath ones feet.

    Comment by Tom O. — February 29, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

  2. Exactly right, Tom. Hence my saying, “How do we gain clarity on what was cultural understanding and what was truth that is just now currently out of popularity?”

    I hope the “conservative” examples I gave are not adding too much baggage. I could have just as well pointed to the church’s “liberal” positions on welfare or immigration.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 29, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  3. Possible mistaken assumptions:
    - that John was calling to Jesus to step up and fill the cultural expectation of liberating Savior
    - that “John” specifically not be offended
    - that “John” didn’t understand what the true Messiah was; that “he” was bound by his cultural understanding.
    Talmage views it differently:
    Maybe John was trying to turn his disciples to the true nature of Christ’s Messiah-ship.
    Maybe Jesus wanted them to not be offended because of their cultural understandings.
    Maybe it was what Talmage thought it to be: “We have good grounds for inference that John’s purpose in sending disciples to inquire of Christ was partly, and perhaps largely, designed to confirm in those disciples an abiding faith in Christ.”

    Comment by mondo cool — February 29, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

  4. So, it wasn’t Jesus & John who were out of step, but their disciples.

    Comment by mondo cool — February 29, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

  5. That’s a fair, if very charitable, reading of John’s statement. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as Talmage employs the same tactic when discussing Peter and Mary Magdalene (And I think with great affect and rightly so in the latter case). I can’t argue against such a reading.

    Neal A. Maxwell uses it differently:

    “We see a jailed John the Baptist—and there had been “no greater prophet” (Matt. 11:11)—needing reassurance (see Matt. 11:2–4).” -Oct. 1976 General Conference via scripture citation index.

    In context, I guess that is actually a possible third point of view, where John knew the role of the true Messiah, but was wavering and needed reassurance. (Wow, reading that made me really miss Maxwell. What a noble and great one!)

    Comment by Matt W. — March 1, 2012 @ 8:21 am

  6. I don’t think baptists proper believe we can’t be save because we worship a different Jesus. However they do think heresy can lead people away. They also think that there’s a difference between believing something when the answer wasn’t clear versus later.

    That’s not to say individual baptists may believe something different. I’ve met lots who believe in cheap grace and modalism. I’m just not sure that amounts to much.

    Comment by Clark — March 1, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  7. “In Matthew 11:4, John the Baptist sends his people to ask Jesus. “Are you he who comes, or should we be looking for another?”

    Something fascinating about John the Baptist’s doubt here.

    This was AFTER John baptized Jesus, heard testimony of the Father, and a visual manifestation of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus.

    The Old Testament prophets viewed the coming Messiah like mountains at a very far distance. They saw the atonement but also the Christ in power and glory. Many probably assumed that these were simultaneous events. But like when you travel to the first mountain, you then realized that the mountain behind it is still very far away. I hope that analogy makes sense.

    John the Baptist was like the last Old Testament type prophet, and he didn’t realize that the Christ of power, glory, and dominion was still very far away.

    Comment by Stephen Michael Purdy — March 1, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

  8. Clark, I was thinking more along the line of the “non-denominational” megachurch type evangelicals we have quite a few of around here, and most are of the Calvinist persuasion.

    Stephen, great analogy. I love it.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 1, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  9. “My point is that John the Baptist was a Prophet of God, and he didn’t understand what the true Messiah was. He was bound by his cultural understanding.”

    I think recognizing John’s ignorance deepens my understanding of prophet-hood. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 1, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  10. It really helps to pay attention as we read the scriptures. They are laced through and through with things like this.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — March 6, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

  11. Nice post. I enjoy finding instances in Mormon preaching where doubt, cultural limitations, and other factors are taken into consideration. Here’s an old school one to add to the few others have mentioned, Parley P. Pratt on Peter’s prejudice.

    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2007/11/peters-prejudice.html

    Comment by BHodges — March 23, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  12. For one thing, John the Baptist isn’t implicit in the murder of ~120 people, including 6 year old children. How’s that?

    Comment by Tony Huggins — May 30, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.