John the Baptist was having a crisis of faith. His ministry had started well as large crowds responded to his call to be baptized for the repentance of sins. He had seen Jesus and recognized him as the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus had come to be baptized by John, and John saw the heavens opened, heard the voice of God say that Jesus was his Son whom he loved and with whom he was pleased, and saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21,22; John 1:32).
Then things had taken a turn for the worse. John had criticized King Herod for marrying his brother’s sister (Matthew 14:1-15; Mark 6:14-20). So Herod had John thrown in prison, which is where this morning’s story begins. We can imagine John in prison, thinking that this was not how things were supposed to work out. The Kingdom of Heaven was supposed to get rid of the bad guys and Jesus was supposed to make things right again. Instead, John was in prison and facing an uncertain future. So John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one whom God had promised. Surely, if Jesus was the chosen Messiah the Jews were waiting for, John wouldn’t be in prison facing execution. John wants to know: is Jesus really the one John was waiting for? Or should he look for someone else?
Jesus replied to John quoting Isaiah 35 when he said:
“Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen – the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” (Matt 11:4,5 NLT)
Jesus pointed to what was happening in people’s lives through him and asked John to come to his own conclusion.
In the ups and downs of our faith, when we begin to wonder where God is in the middle of our struggles, questions and doubts, how do we understand Jesus’ answer?
There are three main ways we can understand what Jesus said. The first is that, from a historical point of view, we have the accounts of witnesses who saw what Jesus did which pointed to him as God’s chosen Messiah. John never saw what Jesus did from his prison. He had to trust the eye-witness accounts of those who were healed, cleansed, raised to new life, and given hope through the gospel. In the same way, sometimes we are asked to trust what the original followers of Jesus witnessed and have passed on to us in the words of the Bible. This is why Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who believe without seeing me’ (John 20:29b NLT).
A second way we can understand Jesus’ answer is that he is still active through miraculous healings. While this perspective might not fit with our modern view of the world, there is evidence to point to God still working in people’s lives through miraculous healings. Just because we don’t experience them, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen. If we believe that God can do anything, then maybe we need to be open to the idea that God’s kingdom is still at work in the world in miraculous ways.
A third way of understanding Jesus’ words is that Jesus sometimes used physical miracles to point to deeper, spiritual truths. For example, he healed a person lowered to him through a hole in a roof to show that he has authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26). Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people to point to himself as the one who gives eternal life (John 6). He healed a man born blind to show how he can open our eyes to see him as the one who brings God’s goodness and life into the world (John 9).
In Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist, we can hear him pointing to the spiritual blessings Jesus brings. He opens our eyes to see him as God’s Chosen One who has come to establish his kingdom of peace in the world. When we are crippled by fear or guilt in our lives, Jesus comes to make us strong in faith so we can walk into the future with boldness and confidence. When we are infected with the disease of selfishness that breaks down relationships and isolates us from others, he makes us clean so we can live in restored relationships with God and with each other. Jesus opens our ears so we can hear his promises of grace and new life, and receive them in faith. When we are dead in our sin, Jesus, who was crucified and risen again for us, brings us life as he takes our sin and death on himself and exchanges it with his life and love which is stronger than death. This is the good news that Jesus speaks to all of us who recognize our spiritual poverty and need for God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and healing.
I wonder how John reacted when his disciples brought Jesus’ reply back to him. Was he able to trust in what Jesus promised, even though his imprisonment would eventually lead to his death? What about us? Will Jesus’ words and the witness of the Bible open our eyes to give us the strength to walk into the future, to make us clean, to give us open ears to hear God’s promises to us, to raise us up to new life every day of our lives, and to give us the riches of God’s grace through the gospel?
More to think about:
- What are some ways in which your faith in Jesus can be challenged? How might John the Baptist’s question to Jesus help you in your doubts?
- In which way are you more inclined to understand Jesus’ answer: historically (Jesus’ miracles are recorded in the Bible to help us trust him), literally (Jesus still does miracles now through the Holy Spirit) or spiritually (Jesus gives us spiritual strength and healing through his Holy Spirit to trust him)? How can your understanding of Jesus’ words help you when your faith is challenged?
- Do you think that practising the spiritual disciplines of reading the Bible and prayer can help you in your struggles of faith? How might reading about what God has done through Jesus and listening to his promises help you to trust him?
- Which are you more in need of: open eyes to see God’s goodness, strength to walk through life in God’s grace, cleansing from sin or shame, ears to hear God’s promises, new life in Christ, or any other need? How can Jesus give you what you are lacking through the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit?
- John the Baptist relied on others to bring him Jesus’ reply. How might being part of a group of people who read the Bible and pray together help you hear what Jesus wants to say to you?