Weekly Meditation: 11th November 2016
John the Baptist had put his full faith in Jesus. He had foretold Jesus’ coming, heralded him as the Lamb of God, and sent his own disciples to follow him. But John’s faith had not been rewarded with a life free from trouble, and he found himself in prison for speaking out against Herod.
It appeared that John’s faith and ministry had been misplaced. He had heard news of Jesus, but it did not seem to be fulfilling his hopes. Nor had John’s faithfulness protected him, and so from prison he sent a question. ‘Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?’ (Matthew 11:3).
It was a blunt question, casting doubt on Jesus’ messiahship, expressing disappointment in his performance. Perhaps he was implying that Jesus should gain a higher profile, present more proof of who he was, and even release John from captivity.
Jesus’ answer was simple and direct – ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised’ – quite a catalogue of works to prove himself. Furthermore, ‘the good news is preached to the poor’ (Matthew 11:4-5). There could be no reason to doubt Jesus’ credentials, but it still left John in prison. Jesus knew the way ahead for his followers would not be easy, and his next words are a warning to John and to all of us; ‘Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me’ (11:6).
In referring John to the evidence of the blind seeing and the deaf hearing, Jesus was looking back to the prophecy of Isaiah who himself foretold a time when ‘the eyes of the blind [would] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped’ (35:5). These words of Isaiah are preceded with assurance for those whose hope, like John’s, has worn thin; ‘Steady the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come’’ (35:3-4). We all need reassurance like that; we all have moments of doubt and dread. Isaiah originally wrote for those who were facing deportation into Babylon, so that he could give them hope for their future. They faced a terrible ordeal, but it was God’s purpose that they should endure and prevail, because from his nation of Israel would come the Messiah. Prevail they did, and returned to their homeland to see God’s promises fulfilled (35:10). The writer of Psalm 146 speaks in the same way of the God who ‘gives sight to the blind’ (146:8) and who also sets free the prisoner (146:7). John certainly had evidence of God’s actions through Jesus, but he had to continue to suffer and endure his imprisonment which ended only with his death (Matthew 14:6-12).
James wrote about enduring. He called on his Christian brothers to ‘be patient until the Lord’s coming’ just as a farmer has to wait for his crops to grow after all his toiling in the fields (James 5:7-8). James refers to the example of Job – the epitome of patient suffering – and of the way in which God brought about his vindication by compassion and mercy (5:11).
It appears that John the Baptist had serious doubts about Jesus, and – for all his fearless preaching and his faith in the Messiah at the start of his ministry – had fallen into despair. Jesus compared him to Elijah (Matthew 11:14) who was similarly once fearless yet who also developed fear and doubt (1st Kings 18:21-46; 19:1-14). The Bible does not tell us of John’s response to the message that Jesus sent him. We can hope, though, that he prevailed over his captivity and that he drew strength from the God ‘who lifts up those who are bowed down’ and who ‘loves the righteous’ (Psalm 146:8).