John Questions Jesus

2When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3to ask Him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

4Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

In chapters 11 and 12, Matthew presents episodes in Jesusí life where Jesus begins to assert His authority as the Son of God. For example, in these chapters, Jesus will pronounce woe upon cities that do not respond to the message He brings (Matt. 11:21ff), He will boldly proclaim that "no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Matt. 11:27), He will proclaim Himself as Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8), and He will predict His death and resurrection (Matt. 12:40).

In the passage we are looking at in this issue, John the Baptist, through his disciples, questions Jesus about who He is: "When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask Him, ĎAre you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?í" (vs. 2). One might well wonder: was John losing his faith in Jesus as the Messiah? During his ministry, John boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. He said of Jesus, without equivocation: "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (John 1:34; see also John 1:15; John 1:26-35; John 3:26-30). Yet now John asks Jesus: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (vs. 2).

We can only speculate at this time about Johnís thoughts, attitudes and motives for asking this. I would guess that Johnís imprisonment had a lot to do with Johnís lack of certainty about Jesusí mission. First, who knows how Jesusí ministry was being misrepresented to John? There must have been all sorts of rumors, myths, exaggerations, etc. concerning Jesusí ministry. And John, being in prison, had no way to verify for himself the truth. Second, it may well be that John himself had misapprehensions about what Jesusí ministry was supposed to entail. It seems that John, during his ministry, emphasized the judgment the Messiah would bring. John said of Jesus: "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (vs. 12). "Perhaps John was simply puzzled. He had prophesied such great things about Jesus, and specifically he had spoken of judgment (cf. 3:11-12). But there was no sign of the judgment he expected (it would have been very human for John to have looked for judgment on those who had brought his ministry to a close and made him suffer so many things in jail)" [Morris, 275]. "Jesus was not turning out to be the kind of Messiah the people had expected. Even John the Baptist had doubts" [Carson, 260]. Third, it is quite possible that Johnís imprisonment had a depressing effect on John, which led to these doubts about all that God was doing. Given the importance of his ministry before he was imprisoned, John must surely have felt frustrated that he was not out and about preaching. "As Elijah sometimes got sadly out of heart, so John, who in many respects closely resembled him, would be likely to grow despondent, in this season of enforced idleness and uncertain danger" [Broadus, 235]. "Dark thoughts may come to the bravest when pent up in a narrow cell. It was well that Johnís question was put, that it might receive a distinct reply; reassuring for himself, and instructive for us." [Spurgeon, 134].

"Jesus replied, ĎGo back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of meí" (vss. 4-6). Jesusí reply to John was effective in a number of ways. First, Jesus dealt with any false accounts that John might have heard about Jesusí ministry. Jesus told Johnís disciples to "go back and report to John what you hear and see." So, Jesus was telling people that John trusted to personally report about Jesusí ministry. Their personal account would serve to counteract any false rumors that John might have heard. Second, Jesusí reply reflected His own confidence in what He was doing, that what He was doing was Godís will. Jesus did not try to reinterpret His actions for Johnís sake. Jesus told the disciples, simply, to "report what you hear and see." Third, Jesus implicitly presented evidence from prophecy that He was the Messiah. Jesusí words, "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor", are similar to language used in well-known, prophecies about the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied: "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy" (Isa. 35:5-6), and, in the voice of the Messiah, he wrote, "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Isa. 61:1). Jesus answered Johnís questions with evidence from His life, acts that fulfilled prophecy. Through these acts are demonstrated not only His miraculous powers, but proofs that what He was doing was what the Messiah was prophesied to do.

Significantly, the Messianic passages that Jesus was implicitly referring to are nearby passages that speak of judgment by the Messiah. Isaiah wrote: "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you" (Isa. 35:4), and also, he wrote that the Messiah was sent to proclaim "the day of vengeance of our God" (Isa. 61:2). So, Jesus was, in effect, telling John that there are two aspects prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. John knew well the aspects of the wrath and vengeance that the Messiah will bring. Jesus was reminding John of the grace and salvation that the Messiah was prophesied to bring. We know now that these two aspects of the Messiah would be manifested in two separate comings. It seems that John did not realize this. John (we presume) expected the wrath of the Messiah to be manifest in Jesusí first coming.

We must all be careful that we do not get locked stubbornly into an interpretation of prophecy in the Bible that may turn out to be inaccurate or incomplete. There are many passages in the Bible about which godly people disagree, especially passages of prophecy. We must be open to growth and evolution of our understanding of the Bible, as the Holy Spirit chooses to reveal His Word to us. Strange as it sounds, people were "falling away" from the faith because Jesus, the promised Messiah, did not act according to their interpretation of the Bible. Thus, Jesus added to His reply: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (vs. 6).

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