“And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:1-3).
Jesus was working many marvellous miracles and news of this reached John the Baptist while he was suffering in prison. Here is a short account of part of his life that is full of meaning rather than simply being a historical event. These were John’s final days on earth, and probably being aware that he was not going to leave his cell alive, the gloom had set in.
What is amazing is the fact that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, for in John 1:29 he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” For some reason he now has some doubt about this. How did the Lord react when John’s disciples brought his misgivings to Him? Instead of condemning him for his faltering faith, Jesus reminded him of what he already knew. He told John’s disciples to “shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, 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) [emphasis added].
We might ask what was behind John’s doubts. His own followers were telling him about the miracles and preaching of Jesus, so the evidence of His Messiahship was clearly there. Possibly his belief about the Messiah was based on the tradition of the Essenes rather than Biblical truth. The Jews of that day thought that the Messiah would come as a mighty king and drive our the Romans from Israel. He was supposed to establish a reign of peace on earth, but John was in prison facing the death penalty. He was suffering because he was standing up for righteousness in the land and condemned Herod for his immorality. Jesus on the other hand was only preaching and working miracles; so what was He doing to overthrow the enemies of Israel? Whatever the real reason was, he was feeling sorry for himself and his faith was shaken to its core.
Jesus fully understood why John doubted and so sent word to encourage him, though He did make it clear that he must have faith that God was working to plan. He warned John not to be discouraged, and therefore tenderly rebuked him. “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Matthew 11:6). John’s problem was not with what Jesus was doing, but with his faith in His Lordship. Because of this encounter others might easily gone away with a lower estimation of the Baptist, but Jesus put the record straight. He told the crowd, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:7-11).
The Lord Jesus made it abundantly clear, that despite John’s dip in faith, that he was both faithful in his ministry and profitable to the plan of God. John was a man chosen and anointed by God. He was the greatest of all the prophets because he had the privilege of being the Messiah’s forerunner.
John the Baptist was highly honoured by Christ that day, but there was a fact that needed to be pointed out to the multitude. John was not to be devalued for his shaken faith, and neither ought he be idolised. Yes John was a famous prophet, but even the least known believer is greater than him if he or she has faith. “Notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be compared with any earthly thing. John may have expected a warrior to cleanse the land of the heathen, but God’s Kingdom is greater than that. “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Also the Kingdom of God does not just contain believing Jews but Gentiles too. What a controversial subject in those days! “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).
Few people, not even Jesus’ own disciples comprehended the nature of the Kingdom of God. Their view of the Messianic kingdom was shaped by their national problems under Roman rule. John misunderstood this too. No one realised that the Kingdom first had to be established spiritually in the hearts of true believers before the Messiah would return to set up His Kingdom on earth. Faith and obedience is an absolute necessary in His subjects, then He would come and fulfil the rest of the prophecies. Until then believers are called to fully trust Christ by entering His spiritual Kingdom through the new birth.
Jesus asked, “When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8), and that before He return “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matthew 24:12). We seem to be at that stage today. Christians are doubting the truth about Christ because of the constant bombardment from atheism, evolution and false religion. We all have times when our faith is shaken, yet if we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit He will strength us and anoint us to go on. We must do things God’s way, believe the Scriptures and continue to tell others the good news. Until the “kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ” (Revelation 11:15), it is our responsibility to “seek…first the kingdom of God and all his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Between now and the day of Christ’s return let us have the kind of faith that proves us to be God’s children.