Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Our Master said John, the second greatest person ever, was another Elijah. As the Old Testament prophet faltered at Queen Jezebel, John faltered at Queen Herodias, who was another evil Jezebel, thirsting for the blood of another Elijah.
A jail crippled John’s free spirit. It was more than he could bear, having to endure one of life’s heaviest burdens–disappointment and disillusionment. Life was not turning out the way John had expected it to. Something had gone awry.
Jesus is working miracles elsewhere. How about opening a jail cell door for John? The Baptist is in a dungeon. Where is the rescue? Recalling the adrenalin rush of vast crowds that used to come and hear him preach, John probably thought, “If Jesus would secure my release, I could again gather big crowds for the cause.”
As Messiah’s forerunner, John may have thought he would share Messiah’s glory. Instead, he’s in a dungeon. For all his fearless faithfulness, he has nothing to show but suffering and rejection. This dark hour surprised God’s mighty man, caught him off guard. A thought he never expected to think crossed his mind. Maybe he had been wrong about Jesus. Who’s the real king, Herod or Christ?
Fortunately, John chose to put more faith in Jesus than in the mood of his own mind. Trusting Christ, John sent two of his disciples to ask a blunt question.
Matt. 11:3b “. . .Are You he that should come,. . .”
The question was framed from a Biblical term. Coming One was a common title for Messiah (see PS 40:7; 118:26), the anointed one. Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings were inducted to their offices by being anointed with oil, an act symbolizing God’s Spirit descending on them, setting them apart, and empowering them. God’s people long awaited Messiah, “the” anointed one, who would in His person combine all three roles, serving as the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King.
John, having believed and publicly proclaimed Jesus was this long expected one, is wondering if he should continue thinking this. John’s understanding of how Messiah would act did not match what Jesus was doing. Along with most believers of his day, John expected the Messiah to establish a political kingdom.
In his preaching to the multitudes, John had made crystal clear what kind of Messiah he expected. “The axe is laid at the root of the trees. I baptize you with water, He will baptize you with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, He will thoroughly purge the threshing floor. He will gather wheat, but will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire” (see MT 3:10-12).
Uh oh, not much of this is going on. John’s conversations in jail with his disciples would have been predictable. “What is Jesus doing? Has he laid the axe at the root of the tree?” “No, He seems more interested in tending and nurturing barren trees. He eats with sinners, and fraternizes with our enemies, the Romans.”
“Is He baptizing with fire?” “No, He heals the sick, cares for the hurting.”
“Is He purging the threshing floor? “No, Jesus is uniting, not dividing.”
“Is He burning the chaff?” “No, He debates rather than destroys. He preaches of rest and peace. Jesus is meek and mild.”
“Too meek, too mild. Is that all He’s doing, is there nothing more?” “Much more, He receives beggars, respects women and children, and cares for lepers.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Why does He deal with the uninfluential while our nation groans under oppression? He’s not axed, baptized with fire, purged the threshing floor, or burned the chaff. Go ask Him if He is the one we expected.”
John was struggling. He did not fully understand the ways of Jesus. We all can relate. Each of us at times is bewildered at God’s ways in certain areas of life.
I thought I had a good handle on the mind of the Lord when my grandson’s autism produced a controversy with God that blind-sided me like a freight train. It took me three years to regain my bearings. Some days the ballast is still tested.
We can all sympathize with John’s disappointment. Dashed hopes waylay us. The instruments in us easily fall out of tune when a letdown strains our faith.
The controversy swirling around life’s disappointments is not merely academic. It is a daily, real life, issue, assaulting us every time unexplainable, unexpected, or un-fixable suffering invades a faithful believer’s life. If God is love and omnipotent, why does He allow the righteous to suffer, why doesn’t He do something? A skeptic said, either God cares and does not have the power, or has the power, but does not care. According to surveys of prechristians, the problem of suffering is the number one reason unbelievers don’t become believers.
Even believers bog down in this quagmire. When a sorrow or difficulty ambushes us, we set ourselves to praying with faith and expectancy, but as days and weeks pass without desired results, prayers of faith (Lord, You are here) fade into prayers of panic (Lord, where are You?), and can eventually disintegrate into prayers of presumption (Lord, if You ever decide to show up, feel free to come and find me). We are often tempted to stumble due to God’s dealings with us.
Don’t lose heart, dear believing sufferer. The pain you bear now has been borne by God’s truest and best, including His mighty prophet, John the Baptist.
God’s dearest are often among the ones most bitterly tried. Events, people, the world, life, circumstances, and sometimes even God, seem to be turned against the Lord’s beloved. Heaven often seems as impenetrable as brass to our prayers.
In our text, John provides us a helpful example regarding how to respond when we are in the crucible. He did not let his doubts go past two markers.
First, he believed the Bible. In phrasing his question to Jesus, John used the language of Scripture, “the coming one.” Hold to the Bible, it will still be around many generations after its critics are long gone. Holy Writ is infallible, unfailing.
Sometimes our doubts are by-products of our own erroneous, unbiblical thinking. We often have to plow through preconceived notions, wrong doctrine taught by others, incorrect assumptions, etc. Pore over Scripture. Nowhere does it guarantee the particular problem or suffering attacking us would not befall us.
We often have to overcome the blaring cultural message that it’s all about us. If we overstate self-importance, we let our own distresses distort our views of Providence. In troubles we tend to forget it’s not about us. We have our own agendas and plans, but forget there is a huge master-plan that dwarfs our intents.
Second, he believed in Jesus. We can always trust Jesus. We can approach Him, seeking answers for what we do not understand. Learn to debate with God.
This is one of the most valuable lessons I learned years ago from teaching through the life of Moses. The deliverer of Israel talked straightforwardly to the Lord–no sham, no holds barred, nothing held back. Engage God. Talk to Him. Deliberate with Him. Push back. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to question Jesus.
Only once in my life did I sense I came close to crossing a line of propriety. The day my daughter broke her neck in a car wreck, at midnight they turned her over in bed for the first time. As she was screaming out in pain, I was forced to leave the room and told to go to a hotel room down the hall. I laid on the bed, so angry with God that my words were totally out of control. Finally, after a while of venting myself, I sensed a huge black wall come down across my mind. It was as if the Lord had hammered home the truth that I had pushed as far as I was going to be allowed to. He seemed to be indicating He had heard enough, and to go farther would be to cross a serious line, to my detriment. I stopped and pulled back. Other than that one time, I’ve never sensed God was displeased with my blunt honesty before Him. He knows what we are thinking anyway, and can be trusted.
John the Baptist, God’s number two man, knew how far he could go. He drew two lines in the sand, which he refused to violate by crossing them. May we learn from John. Whatever our disappointment, hold to the Bible, hold to Jesus.