MATTHEW 11:1–6; MARK 6:14–29
Jesus had a reputation for performing miracles. Several times, the Gospels record that when people heard he was in town they brought ALL the sick to him to be healed. And he healed them all. From fevers to demon possession to raising the dead, Jesus performed the miraculous in a variety of ways and for anyone and everyone.
John the Baptist (Jesus’s cousin) was in prison. He knew of Jesus’s reputation, the things he was doing. Yet here he is, sitting in a jail cell for calling out the immorality of Herod taking his brother’s wife. The forerunner of the Messiah, stuck in jail for doing his job.
It’s from his cell, and in confusion, that a fundamental question formed in John’s mind. A question that needed an answer. The answer carried life-altering significance. John sent his disciples to ask Jesus a simple yes or no question: “Are you the one, or should we expect another?”
Up to this point John seemed to know better than anyone who Jesus was. He had made an out-of-the-blue statement about Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world when he (John) baptized him (Jesus). John even demurred from baptizing Jesus saying that Jesus should baptize him. This indicates that John thought Jesus was at least a more significant person than he was. It’s possible that John innately knew Jesus was the Messiah. While he was in his mother’s womb, fetal John seemed to react to the approach of the embryonic Jesus; John’s mother exclaimed that the baby in her belly “leaped for joy” when Mary (pregnant with Jesus at the time) greeted her.
Yet despite this seeming certainty, when things go afoul of expectations John sends his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the Messiah. The confidence that caused John to say, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” had devolved into questioning confusion. Why was he confused? Why the question?
With John’s amazing statements about Jesus, and given the incredible things John was hearing that Jesus was doing, it’s not difficult to imagine that his hopes had reached dizzying heights.
In Israel, the idea of the Messiah carried with it a variety of notions and ideas—who he would be and what he would do. Jesus’s disciples certainly had specific ideas. Every Israelite seemed to have an idea of what Messiah meant.
Messiah was supposed to usher in God’s kingdom, to set things right for Israel. The least part of that was Israel would be her own again: political independence.
John may have been thinking: How am I sitting in a Gentile ruler’s prison? Others are getting their miracles. The things Jesus does sound like Messiah, but it doesn’t make sense that I’m here. If he is who I think he is, the kingdom should be coming back to Israel . . . and I shouldn’t be sitting here in prison. Not unreasonable questions—if Jesus was the Messiah. Something didn’t seem add up.
Here he is, sitting in a jail cell for doing God’s work, and the one bringing God’s kingdom was here! To top it off, all these others are getting what they want and need from Jesus. The kingdom seemed to be coming and everyone was getting in except him. Have I missed something? Is the Messiah not who I thought he was?
How does Jesus respond? Not with disappointment that John had to ask. There is no note of sadness that a once strong believer and supporter was now asking a basic question. (It may have even been encouraging that John was asking, given that others were assuming a different identity for Jesus.) Instead, Jesus’s response embraces the question, validates John’s confusion, and offers encouragement to those seeking answers. “Tell John what you see. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news.” These were signs of the coming of the kingdom of God, the arrival of the Messiah. Translation, The kingdom and good things are coming. Yes, I am the Messiah and I am ushering in the kingdom of God.
But John was hunched in his prison cell—which is even more odd when we remember that Jesus started his ministry by reading about freedom for prisoners (see luke 4:18–20). John never got his miracle. Others were released from prison. Peter was escorted out of his cell by an angel and an earthquake set Paul and Silas free. Yet not only did John remain in prison, he was killed and his head offered as a gift to a young girl and her mother.
Sometimes we wait and wait for something that never comes. And so we ask questions about Jesus because what we are experiencing doesn’t seem to add up. Our understanding and expectation of Jesus doesn’t fit with our circumstances and our confusion leads to questions. And sometimes the answers lead to more questions.
But that wasn’t all Jesus said to John. After Jesus told John’s disciples to tell their imprisoned, confused, and suffering leader that the hopes and longings of others were being fulfilled, he ended with “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Why would anyone stumble because such good things were happening? Perhaps this message is intended solely for John, but it may be helpful for us too when we face the confusion of missed expectations. Jesus is telling John not to give up hope in the kingdom or the Messiah because others were experiencing the miraculous—and he wasn’t. Jesus’s encouragement was (and still is) this: Even though you don’t get what you want, even though this may not be exactly what you were expecting, it doesn’t mean I am not who I am.
When life leads to confusion, it’s ok to ask questions of Jesus, to want to understand who he is and how he works. Jesus can meet us in that confusion, even when the confusion undermines what had once been bedrock certainty. Whether we have known Jesus for a long time or are still trying to figure out the first pieces of the puzzle, questions and confusion are accepted and engaged.
John had to learn a hard lesson. It’s difficult to accept good things for others when we want—when we need—some good to come our way too. We can become bitter; we can lose faith; we can decide that we are better on our own. God is still God, even when we are confused, frustrated, disappointed, and just waiting. Don’t lose faith when others receive a blessing and you feel left in the cold and dark. The fact that others are receiving is evidence that Jesus is Jesus, even if the way he works is not exactly what we expected.