Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”(Matthew 11:2-3)
John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, came in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah, preaching a baptism of repentance and pointing people to the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:1-12, 11:11-14). John’s bold preaching against the sin of Herod landed him in prison. While John languished in prison, he began to question whether Jesus was doing the work of the Messiah. John sent word through two of his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?” Some great commentators like J.C. Ryle and John Calvin find this question so shocking that they attempt to place the nexus of the question with John’s disciples rather than with John. “Certainly the great John could not be questioning Jesus’ legitimacy as the Messiah,” they say. “No, John is here trying to assuage his followers’ doubts by sending them to see Jesus.” The only problem with this argument is the fact that Jesus tells John’s disciples to “Go tell John…” (Matthew 11:4). Clearly this questioning of Jesus’ ministry came from John himself.
John the Baptist was disillusioned by Jesus.
John’s disillusionment with Jesus is surprising because of course, John was the one who recognized the voice of Jesus’ mother, Mary, while John was still in the womb (Luke 1:41). John was the man who baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13), who saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove on Jesus (Matthew 3:16), who said he was not worthy to untie the sandal strap of Jesus (John 1:27), who said Jesus was going to baptize with the Holy Spirt and fire (Matthew 3:11), who called Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and who said of Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There is no question that John knew who Jesus was. The question he is asking Jesus is about what Jesus was doing. In effect, John is saying to Jesus, “Why are you are not acting like the Messiah?” It would be similar to hiring a plumber to fix your pipes. When the plumber arrives, he starts checking all your electrical wiring first. You are tempted to ask, “Are you the plumber or do I look for another.” It’s not a question of WHO he is; it is a question of WHAT he is doing.
If we understand John’s question in this way, we begin to grasp what was going on. John had a particular set of assumptions about what the ministry of the Messiah would be like. In John’s words, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12, NKJ). John had read his Old Testament. He knew the Messiah was to liberate Israel and rule over the nations with a rod of Iron (Psalm 2). He was fully persuaded that he would see Jesus doing just this. John could not get his head around the fact that what Jesus was actually doing was traveling around the Galilean countryside ministering to poor people. Jesus’ ministry is summarized in many places as being a ministry of preaching the gospel and healing the sick (Matthew 9:35). John was asking, “Where is the unquenchable fire? Where is the judgment? Why are the Romans not thrown off? Why is Herod still on the throne?” Perhaps, more particularly, John wondered, “Why am I still in this horrible prison?”
It wasn’t that John did not realize Jesus was doing miracles. He did know it. John was in prison when he heard about the miraculous work of Jesus and that is what prompted his question to Jesus (Matthew 11:2). John’s expectations were not being met and that blinded him to the amazing things that Jesus was, in fact, doing – incredible miracles that validated His gospel message. Jesus’ answer was to reference Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1. “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: ‘The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them’” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus had come to begin unwinding the curse. He was reversing the destruction of the Fall. He was beginning the process of renewing all things. John was seeing it happen and yet he did not appreciate it because he was looking for something faster, bigger, stronger, and more impressive.
Jesus is king even when we can't see it.
Jesus has a word for you and me when we look at the slow progress of the gospel in the world, the seeming ineffectiveness of the church, or the lack of progress in our own spiritual growth. He says, “And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Matthew 11:6, NKJ). John did not stumble over Jesus because he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah; John stumbled because he did not accept the methods Jesus was using to advance His kingdom. Jesus continues to build His church in the world through the preaching of the gospel, the means of grace, and the diaconal ministry (2 Timothy 4:2). Our problem is that we are often not satisfied with methods that seem unimpressive and too slow for our tastes. We want short-cuts to personal holiness. We want church programs with guaranteed results. We want to get an adrenaline high every week in worship. We want evangelistic tools that obviate the need for painstaking teaching and time investment. Jesus says to you, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Jesus promises a blessing to those who embrace Him and who trust His methods for building the kingdom. The preaching of the gospel is turning the world upside down. Ask God to help you see what great works the Lord is doing all around you through the seemingly ordinary ministry of the Word.
John did not leave Herod’s prison alive. Sometime after this episode, the executioner was sent at the request of Herod. John’s head was removed from his body and presented as a trophy to Herod’s wife (Matthew 14:11). You and I would never build a kingdom in this way. But we would also not come as king and then allow ourselves to be unjustly accused and falsely convicted by a human court. We would not willingly allow ourselves to be executed by torture as common criminals, and we would not endure the righteous judgment of God in all of its fury for the sake of sinners. Jesus’ way of building His kingdom is unconventional to us, but thanks be to God it is because that is the only way sinners like us can be saved! Embrace Jesus and trust His methods for building His kingdom. Trust Jesus to use the ordinary means of grace to change the world.