Miracles always teach us something about God. If we look for miracles simply because it is a miracle, then we have missed the point. God does all things to teach us to trust in Him, even when things seems hopeless in the world. From the parting of the Red Sea to the healing of those who were sick to even the resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself, God performs miracles to bring us closer to Himself in all things. We don’t have to look for our own miracles, because we know through what God has already done that He will do what He says. Mark 7:31-37
Repetition is the mother of all learning. Three times our Lord predicted his betrayal, his sufferings, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. (Luke 9:21-22, 44, 18:31-33) This repetition clearly conveys importance. Elisha was twice told that Elijah will be taken up from him (2 Kings 2:3-5). St. Paul prayed three times to have the thorn in his flesh removed but was told, “My grace is sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) The risen Lord grieved Peter with his triple, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17)
Sadly, though, the third repetition of our Lord’s passion and resurrection yields no better result than the first. If anything, things have only gotten worse. The triple prediction yields only a triple lack of understanding: “They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (Luke 18:34)
Their lack of understanding puzzles us who live after the resurrection. Why do they not understand? Could he have explained it better? Did he misspeak? Were they ill prepared?
Rather than finding fault with the Lord we should invoke the reality of the mystery of his rejection. Attention to the title used in the passion predictions is fruitful for meditation on the disciples’ lack of understanding. Jesus employs the title, “the son of man,” without fail in the passion predictions as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
What do we know about the son of man? Most generically the phrase can simply be the equivalent of, “human.” (Psalm 144:3, Ezekiel 2:1 et alia) A son of Adam is one who is like his father. Fully man. But there are key passages that employ the phrase in more exalted terms. Psalm 8 speaks of a son of man who is Lord over every last detail of creation. Sheep, oxen, beasts, birds, fish, and every last sea creature are all under his sway. Daniel 7 fills out the title even more fully as the prophet sees in the night visions, “one like a son of man,” who is presented before the throne of God and given eternal dominion over all things, including what had previously belonged to the beastly kings of the earth. We may conclude then that “son of man,” is a title of cosmic majesty and everlasting dominion.
But on the lips of Jesus the regal title takes a mysterious path. He will be betrayed. Suffer. Be crucified. And only then, almost as an afterthought, arise. Certainly Isaiah spoke of, “my servant” who would suffer as the representative of and bear the sins of the people. But can that suffering servant be the same as the son of man?
Mysteries such as these can be put into words but not always explained. The lack of understanding in the disciples should not be construed as a failure on their part any more than we would fault our children for not being able to understand the full explanation of our love for them. There are some mysteries that can be expressed but not fully grasped until they are experienced. The passion of the Christ is chief among these.
That the son of man and his cosmic kingdom and eternal dominion must pass through the crucible of the passion is too much to comprehend. It is a mystery to be believed and only in the light of the resurrection can it be understood. Even then, on the road to Emmaus the Lord must explain and open the minds of his disicples so that they might understood all that was written.
This brings us then to the connection of the cryptic saying about the son of man’s suffering and the miraculous healing of the son of David. While even the twelve do not understand Christ’s clear words about the son of man’s passion, a blind beggar calls out to the son of David for mercy. What words cannot communicate perhaps works can.
The crowds announce the arrival of one they title, “the Nazarene,” but the beggar has a better confession: “son of David.” The son of David is a title reaching back to 2 Samuel 7:14. The confession overlaps with “son of man,” in that it is a royal title. The son of David is prophesied to be an eternal king whose rule will reach as far as the river and the sea (Psalm 89:25). He will be as a son to God and God as a father to him (Psalm 2:7).
But it is the plea for mercy connected to this title that comes to the fore from this blind beggar in Jericho. The eternal king is a merciful king. What Christ was explaining to his disciples in clear and explicit words is now shown in a healing. His kingdom will be a kingdom of mercy, healing and salvation which is received by faith. None who trust in him will be put to shame (Luke 18:42). Subsequently he will pass through Jericho and bring the day of salvation to the house of Zachaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:9). Once again, through his actions he is showing what the son of man’s suffering, death, and resurrection will accomplish for all. “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
Son of man and son of David are not competing titles. Rather they are titles that converge in the one man, Jesus Christ. While his passion predictions may remain concealed and hidden for a time, nothing is hidden except to be made manifest (Luke 8:17). The result of his suffering, cross, and resurrection will be mercy, sight and the salvation for all who call upon his name. (Acts 2:21)
Everything that is written about the son of man will come to pass. And it will be understood, but only after the fact. “And now I have told you ahead of time so that when it does take place you may believe.” (John 14:29) Good teachers lay a foundation for future learning even when it can’t be grasped in the moment.
We may draw an analogy between the passion prediction in Christ’s earthly ministry and its reading on this day in the church’s lectionary. Just as the disciples heard the plain details of his cross but needed signs to understand so too the church will pass through the coming season of Lent and in those 40 days will see the signs of the son of man’s kingdom, which ultimately is inaugurated through the cross. Only after the fact, like the Emmaus disciples, will their eyes be opened and their hearts be set aglow (Luke 24:32). Likewise we, by following the Nazarene, the son of David, the son of man, Jesus, to the cross and empty tomb see the glory of the cross which brings mercy and sight to those in darkness and the shadow of death.
John the Baptist began his work of proclaiming the coming of Christ shortly before he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Matthew relates that Herod imprisoned John shortly after this Baptism (Matthew 4:12) over the matter of Herodias (Matthew 14:3). That a prophet should suffer for bringing an unpopular message to a ruler is nothing new. Micaiah had done the same hundreds of years beforehand (1 Kings 22). That a prophet should suffer at the hands of a vindictive woman is also nothing new. Elijah and the prophets whom Obadiah saved suffered the same fate (1 Kings 18). That a prophet should die for his message is also nothing new. From Abel to Zechariah, many of the prophets perished for the sake of the Word (Luke 11:49-51; Matthew 23:34-35).
Much ado is frequently made about whether John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask this question for their sakes or for his own. Whether John had personal doubts or whether he sought to quell his disciples’ doubts is, frankly, a minor question. Jesus’ point in His answer is the same either way. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answers with a general reference to passages like Isaiah 35. In the day of the judgment upon the nations who had oppressed Israel (Isaiah 34), then the Lord will bring back the captives (Isaiah 35). Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself, thereby demonstrating that He is the promised one, the servant of the Lord who suffers on our behalf.
The signs themselves also demonstrate the purpose of the Lord’s miracles. He is not attempting to work wonders for the sake of making men marvel. Satan himself can work such “miracles” (Revelation 13:13-14; also the magicians working by his power in Exodus 7-8). Rather, miracles bear witness about His identity. As John says regarding the miracle at Cana, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). Miracles build up faith and confirm Jesus’ divine identity. The apostles also worked miracles, such as Peter’s shadow healing the sick (Acts 5:12-16), and the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha performed many signs (1 Kings 17:17-24, for example). But in those cases, the miracles also built up faith and demonstrated, not that the apostles and prophets were divine, but that the One who sent them was trustworthy and true. “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Offense at Christ working miracles can be understood somewhat generically, which is offense at Christ’s mercy toward those whom we regard as not deserving mercy. But Christ, judging by similar statements throughout the Gospels, seems to mean something rather more pointed than this. Jesus is a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling specifically for Israel. “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:14). Paul cites this very verse in Romans 9:33, as proof that Israel, despite the promises to their forefathers, have been rejected because of unbelief, and the Gentiles, despite having no such promises, have been accepted because of faith. Therefore, the offense is seeing the promises fulfilled and seeing that righteousness is truly by faith and not by works, something that His own people had failed to grasp (John 1:11-13). The signs of healing, bearing witness that Christ has come, only emphasize this, because Jesus continually says to those He heals, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).
After John’s disciples leave with His message, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds regarding John. His first two questions seem to be essentially rhetorical. The crowd did not go out seeking a reed shaking in the wind, nor a richly dressed man. John is not one to be blown about, nor soft and effeminate. But John is a prophet, or as Jesus says, more than a prophet. Referring to the majestic prophecy of Malachi, Jesus identifies John as the messenger who prepares the way before the coming of the Lord. Who can endure the day of the coming of the Lord? “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Malachi 3:1-4). Because John is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14), he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6). John prepares the way for the coming of God’s mercy upon His people, a mercy shown in His Son. John’s call to repentance, therefore, is not empty or merely rhetorical. The one who refuses will find God’s wrath stored up for him on the day of wrath (Colossians 3:5-6; Matthew 3:7-10). But the one who repents will be spared as a man spares his son (Malachi 3:17).
Jesus thus identifies Himself as the coming Christ by testifying that John is the messenger of God. But His reason for doing so is not a generic “Here I am!” Those who should have received Him did not need generic identifiers. They knew that He had come, and yet they suppressed that knowledge in unrighteousness. They maligned John and slandered the Son of Man, “yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). Therefore, it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, whose wickedness was done in ignorance, than for those who reject the One whom they recognized (Matthew 11:20-24). Jesus identifies John as Elijah who is to come, and Himself as the One who is to come, not merely to make this truth clear, but to highlight the guilt of those who sin knowing the Law.