Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.
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?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Matthew 11:1-6 (NRSV)
I had grown up in church, and yet it wasn’t until college that I actually ran across this passage – the one where John the Baptist questions whether or not Jesus is the expected Messiah. I guess it might be one of those uncomfortable passages. It sort of disrupts our narrative. John the Baptist, the man who so forthrightly declared the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus, is not supposed to question this, have second thoughts, and demand some answers from that same Jesus.
But this occurs during the period of time when Jesus sends his disciples out to prepare towns for his arrival. They are supposed to proclaim the kingdom, forgive sins, heal, cast out demons – basically all the things that Jesus has been doing this entire time.
It is because Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by this that we can sympathize with John’s confusion. First you overthrow the bad guys, then you restore Israel. Jesus, by contrast, seems to be about the work of restoring Israel, but the bad guys are still in power. In fact, John himself is rotting away in Herod’s prison.
What’s supposed to happen, from John’s perspective, is that Jesus brings the judgement with him. He’s supposed to defeat Herod in an epic sword fight, put all Israel’s corrupt leaders to the sword or drive them out, and ultimately break Roman power over the land. When John talks about the coming Messiah earlier in Matthew, it is all in terms of the coming judgement. In fact, when Pharisees and other religious leaders show up, John pointedly asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
And John’s not wrong. The prophetic hopes as well as the established pattern of God working in Israel’s history are that she undergoes a time of troubles, but when she repents and calls to God for help, He destroys the powers that threaten her and restores her to safety. I can’t tell you how many Christian sermons and commentaries I have read that say that the people of Jesus’ day were mistaken to expect this, and I do not agree with this at all. They had every reason to expect this. In fact, if anyone suggested that all these Old Testament events and prophecies were really describing what the coming Messiah would do spiritually, and no one should actually expect God to do what He had done several times up to that point, they probably would not have gotten a favorable hearing, and rightly so.
It is true that the pictures we have of God’s deliverance in the prophetic imagination also have a spiritual component. In these visions, God wants to win Israel back, and she returns to Him in faithfulness and repents of her sins, and He forgives her and restores their broken relationship. But the wrath, salvation, deliverance, and restoration of God always manifests as a historical event; it does not happen exclusively or even primarily within the chambers of an individual Israelite’s heart, even though it certainly includes the changing of that heart.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus continues John’s message; he doesn’t correct it. Jesus, too, will announce a coming calamity that Israel will only survive if she repents of her sins and turns back to her God in faithfulness. The wrath of God is at the doorstep, and everyone needs to deal with this situation right now. There is no time to work your repentance into your long-term planning. Following Jesus does not get added to your Five Year Goals. The building has caught fire and you need to get out now before the boilers explode.
So, we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes. You are a prophet. In your heart burns the message of an imminent judgement that the Messiah would herald, and with it comes your deep compassion and sense of mission to the lost of Israel to help her prepare herself to make it through. And now the Messiah is here! The clock has struck!
But what happens in the world?
This Messiah goes around proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand. Yes, we agree with that. The judgement is near and all must repent and trust in Jesus. Yes, quite so. Jesus has the authority to forgive Israel’s sins and is going about doing this. Ok, that’s a little weird, but God forgives sins as part of delivering Israel, so ok. Jesus is demonstrating that the kingdom is near and that sins are forgiven by healing people and casting out demons. Ok, well…. And now Herod has put you in prison. Ok, seriously, what is going on here?
Where is this imminent judgement? Where is the whole setting the world back to rights? I’m here. The Messiah is here. Israel is responding. What’s the deal? Why am I in prison? Why does Herod even still have his head attached? Where are the consuming flames that burn away the chaff? Where is the winnowing fork the Messiah would wield to eliminate the weeds that have sprung up in Israel? Everything seems to be right about the timing and the circumstances, so what gives?
Well, maybe we got the wrong guy.
What if Jesus isn’t the Messiah? What if I was supposed to prepare the way for someone else? What if someone is out there like that Barrabas guy or that Judas Iscariot who was always making trouble for the government, and that’s who I was supposed to be guiding people to? What if I need to tell my followers to look for the real Messiah so we can get this program back on track?
I hope you can see where this is all coming from. I hope we are not judging John too harshly, looking back on it. Who among us can’t resonate with the idea that God has promised a world that looks a certain way, but when we look around us, it looks very little like that, and we begin to have second thoughts?
Jesus is not in the least upset. In fact, in the next few verses, he can’t say enough good things about John the Baptist. I get my hackles raised when someone questions my decision to get burgers for lunch, but John questioned Jesus’ very identity and mission as the Messiah, and he appears to be totally fine with it. But he also doesn’t leave John where he is.
Jesus quotes a bit from Isaiah 35, and he makes a few additions to the list: raising the dead and cleansing the lepers – both things Jesus has done.
Isaiah 35 comes at the end of an extended description of what God will do for Israel to restore her fortunes. This description spans chapters. Near the beginning, the oppressor is Assyria, but as we get into the neighborhood of chapter 34, Babylon gets identified. These chapters are followed by a huge Assyrian invasion and the faithfulness of the king in the midst of it.
John knows this. John knows that God gave this word to his people while they were in the midst of oppression. He knows that it got a lot worse before it got better. He knows that these promises were intended to give Israel faith and hope that would keep them faithful even when the heat turned up, which it did.
Jesus is bringing Isaiah into his day to help John understand what is going on.
The great things described in Isaiah 35 are happening. The great day of the Lord in this age is imminent! But remember, John, Israel still had to hang on. The worst of her oppression was yet to come, but at no point did that invalidate the promise of God. You may be in a prison cell right now, but Assyria and Babylon are dust. God will do what He said, and the fact that you are seeing the healing and deliverance that you’re hearing about is the proof. Be faithful and steadfast, even though the oppression around you may increase.
We do not know what John’s response to this was. We do not know if he threw up his hands in frustration or nodded thoughtfully and returned to his prayers with a renewed faith and determination. I like to think it was more the latter.
When we hear about John, again, it will be in chapter 14 when he is executed by Herod.
We do not know what John’s last thoughts were as he faced the sword. We do not know if he thought his life was a failure or if he was full of regret. But the author of Hebrews may give us a clue:
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:32-40 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
All these died in faith, seeing the promises far off. For John, those promises were actually very near, nearer than to anyone in the list the author of Hebrews presents. Yet, he would not see the deliverance he proclaimed in his flesh.
And surely, centuries earlier, there would be those in Israel who had received the promise of deliverance, but fell to Assyrian swords or languished in Babylonian slave pens. Isaiah told them to wait upon the Lord, for the great day was near.
Look, John, from the doors of your prison. The blind receive their sight. The lame leap for joy. The lepers are cleansed. And the dead, John? Those who have died in their faith? THEY ARE RAISED.
Deliverance is coming, John. It is coming for Israel. It is coming for those in prison. It is even coming for those who have died. Lift up your head, in that terrible, dark, damp cell, for your salvation draweth nigh.
- What promises do we have from God, today, and what circumstances around us make it difficult to believe them? Can we, like John, take any comfort from God’s promises and actions in the past?
- What things has God provided to help His people remain faithful and hopeful as we continue to wait in faithfulness?