The Bible tells us about some extraordinary acts of faith and obedience exhibited in the lives of ordinary people in the face of adversity, hardship and persecution.
It also tells stories of the encounters of prophets that many in modern society have sought to emulate, but very few have actually experienced, despite their claims.
There is something strangely comforting about making ‘others like us’. Elijah, we are told, was a man like just like us. He encountered the same struggles as us, the same hunger, passion and longing. Such assertion gives us hope, strengthens our resolve and helps us focus on the task at hand – serving God in-spite of the painful hardships we may face and encounter.
Small wonder that we quickly make John the Baptist also a man, just like us!
It is often taught that after seeing the power of God in a most remarkable way, and testifying to the fact that here, in front of the nation, was the very lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, that now, locked up in prison, John the Baptist has second thoughts, doubts. The kingdom which he anticipated was not coming in a way that he thought. He sends disciples to Jesus to ask for reassurance, “Are you the One to come – or do we look for another?” Is that how you read it? It’s an argument that we have spoken into the silence of Scripture – and John Calvin was not convinced of this either!
I suggest that if you consider the wider evidence of Scripture you might see things differently. I’m not going to answer all of your questions here, but I do think there is enough here to begin to see things differently.
We have a lot of information to hand about John and his fiery ministry. We know about his parents encounter with God, his very unusual conception, his Nazarite lifestyle and upbringing. We know nothing directly about his childhood, but we do find him emerging suddenly from the wilderness almost like a lion, roaring with the message of the imminent coming Christ. And as soon as he comes into His presence John knows that this is the One. This is the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. The river Jordan becomes a national pulpit to which thousands would gather.
Something remarkable has happened off of the pages of the New Testament that few people give time to consider. Sometime before John’s encounter with Christ he has an encounter with God, and God sends John to baptize people with water with one remit, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’
This commission was not based on a dream, vision, impression or encouragement from friends. God SPOKE to him – an audible voice. When what God had spoken to him happened, he knew it. No convincing was necessary. John was a prophet who heard God, could see into the realm of the Spirit, discerned the condition of men’s heart and knew intimacy with God.
At this point in the history of Israel, for the first time ever, God and prophet are ministering in full view of mankind. It was far greater than the encounters of Israel with Moses. God had arrived, and the only person telling everyone to get their hearts right in deep repentance for their sin, was John, the prophet.
Immediately John starts to close down his ministry and references Christ at every level. The Pharisees and Romans had not escaped John’s lion-like ministry. John was articulate and the crowds loved him – but they would love Jesus more.
Your opinion matters
What do you say of John? A man that doubted just like you? Christ asked the crowd what they expected when they went to the desert to see John: a reed swaying in the wind, a man dressed in fine clothes, or a prophet? When Christ asked the crowd if they expected to see a swaying reed, he was referring to the firmness of John’s conviction and message. John’s message did not depend on his audience. He had the same message for tax collectors, religious leaders, and rulers: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is a hand. John was not politically correct. He never altered his message to accommodate an audience. He was a straight reed that did not sway from of his convictions; thus, his imprisonment and death.
The truth is, Jesus referred to John as the greatest prophet. And there you have it. Not a doubting prophet, a frustrated prophet or even a prophet needing a little encouragement.
So what about the the thing that is in your mind right now – John’s question from prison?
- -3 John, having heard in the prison, the works of the Christ, having sent two of his disciples to Him, said to Him, “Are you the coming One, or are we to look for another?”
- And the disciples brought word to John concerning all these things; and having called two certain disciples, John sent them to the Lord saying, “Are you the coming One or are we to look for another?”
The answer to interpreting this correctly may be found at the beginning of those two verses; having heard about the works of Christ…
John has heard the stories that are being told across Israel about a man who could raise the dead, heal the sick, cast out demons.
The ambiguous question that emerges is one that maybe has to be seen in its full context.
John is in prison and sends his disciples to go and ask the Messiah if He is the One, and if not, should they look for another. The disciples are waiting for the Messiah. John was the friend of the Bridegroom, delighting to hear His voice. He had seen the Spirit come on Him, by revelation he knew who Jesus was. Crowds had been baptised under a baptism of repentance and John knew that Jesus was the absolutely sinless one. Now, days from death he sends disciples to go to Jesus and see, and ask questions. A ministry decreasing, focused on raising awareness of another.
John doesn’t need to be convinced, but the disciples do – and they go and see, hear and experience the most astonishing outpouring of grace, compassion and kindness the world has ever seen. First hand.
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.
Who is the question really for? And if the answer goes back, isn’t it something that places a call on the hearts of the disciples that are about to lose a prophet mentor and gain a Messiah?
We don’t have to believe that John was doubting Jesus. Nothing critical to our salvation is at stake here. There is no gentle rebuke here from Jesus, or admonishment for John not give up hope. John the Baptist is on fire, and everyone lavished the ministry of the prophet that came as one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord!”
John the Baptist was an awesome prophet of God, and I daresay if his ministry had been in the days of Samuel or Elijah, that legends would have been told about him in the journals of Israel. As it is, the focus swiftly moves from John the Baptiser, to the lowly, humble Lamb of God that came from Nazareth that was Himself our magnificent substitution, taking away our every sin, paying for it with his own life and imputing to us all of His own righteousness. This is the One who would be raised by the Father from the terrifying grip of death and be crowned as the eternal King of Kings, and Lord of all Lords, sovereign over every rule, throne and principality.
And John was the one that made way for Him to be revealed to Israel, and to the World.
I suggest to you that John wasn’t wavering – his question was to clarify things for his disciples.
Maybe we need to apologise to John the Baptist.
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples (ESV)
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (ESV)