In Matthew chapter 11 we learn that from prison, John the
Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus in order to ask a question. John had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas
because he had confronted the king about marrying his brother’s wife. John had announced to Herod, “It is not
lawful for you to have her” (Mt 14:4). So
Herod showed John who was king and who was not.
He imprisoned the prophet.
In prison John the Baptist heard about the ministry of
Jesus. There was talk about miracles and
wonders performed by Jesus. Yet there
remained John, a prisoner of Herod Antipas.
Matthew tells us, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the
Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is
to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3 ESV).
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for
another?” Christians have often tried to
explain away these words. They have said
that of course John the Baptist knew that Jesus was the One. After all at Jesus’ baptism, John had tried
prevent the event as he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to
me?” (Matthew 3:14 ESV). They have explained that John sent the disciples with
this question so that the disciples
could hear the confirmation from Jesus himself.
Yet this is certainly wrong. During
his ministry John the Baptist had proclaimed:
“I baptize you with water for
repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I
am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His
winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather
his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew
John had proclaimed the one who would
bring God’s end-time judgment. This one
would bring the judgment of the Last Day, when God would rescue his people and
destroy the wicked. John knew Jesus to
be this one. Jesus had begun his
ministry and was indeed doing mighty deeds.
However, the Last Day had not arrived.
The chaff had not been burned up.
Instead the wicked Herod Antipas was still in charge and the righteous
John the Baptist was his prisoner. This
was not how things were supposed to work.
John was confused.
John’s disciples brought the question
to Jesus. He replied:
“Go and tell John what you hear and
see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and
the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached
to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus’ answer used words from Isaiah
chapter 35 and 61 – texts that spoke about God’s end-time salvation. Our Lord’s answer to John was: “Yes! I am
he!” But then he added, “And blessed is
the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus acknowledged that things were not happening as John the Baptist
and many others expected.
Jesus announced that in him, the
kingdom of God – the reign of God – had arrived that was driving out Satan, sin
and death (Matthew 4:17). He declared, “But
if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God
has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28 ESV).
He was the presence of God’s end-time salvation.
But while Jesus was mighty and
powerful, God’s plan for this salvation did not only include victory and
success. Instead, it arrived in
suffering and death. The turning point
in Matthew’s Gospel occurs at 16:21 where after Peter confesses that Jesus is
the Christ the Son of the living God (16:16) Matthew goes on to tell us, “From
that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and
suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be
killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21 ESV). Later Jesus says, “the Son of Man came not to
be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew
John the Baptist was wrong about Jesus
… and he was right. He was wrong in that
Jesus did not bring the judgment of the Last Day at his first coming. Instead his ministry was directed toward
suffering, death and resurrection. But John was also right. Jesus was
the coming One. And he will in fact do all of the things that John declared
when he returns in glory on the Last Day (see Matthew 25:31-46).
I find the text about John’s question
to be of great help as we think about the Christian life today. John the Baptist sat prison as Jesus brought
the reign of God through his ministry.
God’s end-time saving work was present, and yet it didn’t seem to be
making any difference for John.
Today the kingdom of God – the reign
of God – continues to be present in our midst through Christ’s Means of Grace.
Through the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar,
Jesus Christ forgives sins. His Spirit
delivers the salvation Christ has won and strengthens us in the faith.
Yet at the same time, those receiving
that reign of God continue to get cancer.
They continue to struggle with anxiety and depression. They continue to experience fractured
families. Like John the Baptist sitting
in prison, it can leave us confused. It
can leave us asking, “Are you the coming One, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus’ answer to us continues to be
“Yes! I am he! And blessed is the one
who is not offended by me.” The “now and
the not yet” of God’s salvation is the great mystery of the Christian
life. In Christ we already have
forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. Yet we also await the consummation of
the Last Day when Christ will transform our bodies to be like his resurrection
body (Philippians 3:20-21) and we will never again be troubled by Satan, sin
We feel like John the Baptist sitting
in prison. The reign of God is here, and yet it doesn’t seem to be doing us any
good. This situation is a call to
faith. Jesus knew how things looked. That is why he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by
me.” We are called to trust in Jesus and
his death and resurrection. It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that
gives us hope. The apostle Peter put it
Blessed be the God and Father of our
Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born
again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is
imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's
power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in
the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)
As we face the challenges of life in this
fallen world we have the assurance that because of Jesus we are already the children of God. We are forgiven, loved and saved. The reign of God is present in our midst through
Christ’s Means of Grace as the Spirit sustains us in this faith. And at the
same time, we know what John the Baptist did not. We know the
whole story. We know of the resurrection of Jesus Christ
and so we have the living hope that sustains us as we walk day by day and
look expectantly for the Last Day.