When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” – Matthew 11:2
This seems like an odd question for John the Baptist to ask. John had been especially appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus. He had been one of the first to recognize Jesus, even as a baby still in his mother’s womb. He recognized Jesus again when Jesus was baptized. John’s whole life was about pointing people to the Messiah, and he knew that Jesus was the Messiah.
Well, at least he was pretty sure. It’s possible that Jesus didn’t quite meet his expectations for who the Messiah ought to be. George Eldon Ladd makes the case that John was expecting a Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of God as political power. But if that was the case, why was John in prison? When John heard about all the miracles Jesus was doing he was encouraged, but still possibly confused. Maybe his question could be rephrased – “I see you doing all these Messiah-like things, but are you the one who will usher in the fullness of the Kingdom of God right now?” Or, perhaps more personally, “if you’re the Messiah, when am I getting out of this prison cell?”
I’m strangely encouraged that someone as great as John the Baptist, one who Jesus referred to as “the greatest among those born of women” (Matthew 11:11), still had some doubts about Jesus. Jesus didn’t meet his expectations. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t always meet our expectations, either. Perhaps we began following a certain sort of Jesus, one we had constructed in our minds or from our culture, and the Jesus we actually experience isn’t measuring up. When the real Jesus doesn’t seem to square with who we expected him to be we ask the same question as John. Are you the one or should I be expecting some other Savior? In these circumstances, what should we do?
First, it’s good to bring your questions to Jesus. Jesus was not harsh with John. He simply said, “go back and report to John what you hear and see.” (Matthew 11:4) God is not harsh with us in our honest doubts. He invites us to come to him whenever we lack wisdom. He doesn’t scold, instead he “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).
Second, look at the evidence Jesus gives you, not what just for what you want to see. Jesus’ response was to point to the evidence: “ The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:5-6). John was probably looking for that bit about the prisoners being set free (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1) or possibly a promise that an overthrow of all evil earthly forces was coming soon. He didn’t get that, but he did get plenty of powerful evidence. Who else could perform those miracles? Only the Messiah.
Third, don’t stumble on account of who the Messiah turns out to be. There were many who wanted to crown Jesus as an earthly king but when he revealed that he had a different mission they left him. He is a King (The King, actually) but not in the way people expected him to be. When Jesus went to the cross, he was deserted even by his closest friends. They did not yet understand that his “defeat” was actually conquest. When Jesus fails to meet your expectations, your gut might say to abandon the cause. Don’t. He has some greater victory in store.
Fourth, trust in God’s timing. John’s expectation that Jesus would bring about the complete earthly reign of God wasn’t wrong, it was just premature. His expectation that the Messiah would proclaim freedom for prisoners (including John) was also correct. But in this life John never saw that redemption. He never got out of prison. He was, in fact, beheaded! But Jesus had not lost.
Perhaps Jesus had a prophetic word for John after all. He may have omitted the phrase “freedom for prisoners” but he did remind John that “the dead are raised.” I wonder if these words formed some of John’s final thoughts as he walked to his execution.
We live now in the reality of the already-not-yet kingdom. Already Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah. He has already conquered evil and death through his death and resurrection. But we don’t see the fullness of that victory. Not yet. For that we will have to trust in his timing.