Earlier today, I was taking a group of 8th graders through the story recorded in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 11, verses 2-6 - 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?” And Jesus answered them, “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.”
I have taught this particular story as a part of my 8th grade Bible class for the last 7 years. As I was making my usual comments about it today, however, I began to think...really think about the details of the story and their implications. I was struck in a new way by the absurdity of John's question and the austerity of Jesus' response. I found the entire episode to by intriguing and challenging in a manner I hadn't experienced before. This really is a rather revealing and thought-provoking story that Matthew is sharing. Below, I have included some of my questions and ideas as they have been whirling in my head throughout the day.
1. In most cases, there is much more going on in the lives of those with whom we interact each day than what we can see. To do a topical study of the Gospels on the life of John the Baptist is to study a man who appears to be rock-solid in his commitment to God. Time and time again, John responds correctly when faced with the opportunity to take glory or prestige for himself. Time and time again, John gives unshakable witness to the true character of Jesus of Nazareth. From casual observation, it's easy for us to conclude that John had his life and his heart in perfect order before Jehovah. After all, this is the man who stood at the river's edge and shamelessly proclaimed, "This is the Lamb of God!" To conclude this about John is a gross miscalculation. Even a man of such spiritual stature as this was, at times, held captive as a prisoner of his own doubts and questions. Granted, his stumble came after nearly a year and a half of unwarranted imprisonment at the hands of an immoral dictator. I think, however, the point should be well taken. Everyone, and I mean everyone has their demons. Everyone has their moments of darkness--including those whom we hold in highest esteem as spiritual leaders. Perhaps some will find this to be a bit of a jaded or cynical observation. Some, perhaps, are resistant to the idea of frank honesty among Christians about our weaknesses. I don't agree. I believe honesty and transparency to be needful, healthy, and biblical (see James 5:16). I don't think we ought to become cynical at all. I do think, however, that we should bear firmly in mind as individuals cross our path each day that many, maybe most, (should I say all?) of those we meet are facing battles that we may never see or know about. Casting Crowns begins their song "Stained Glass Masquerade" with the question, "Is there anyone that fails? Is there anyone that falls?" The answer is--Yes!
2. The moment when God transgresses the boundaries of our expectations and beliefs is a critical moment in the journey of faith. Of course, I am referring here to those times when God exceeds our expectations in a way that we perceive as negative, wrong, or unjust. I read John's question in these verses, and I am taken aback at the absurdity of it. "Are you the One?" How could John even ask such a thing after all he had seen and heard and said? It's almost offensive that he would even wonder! Of all people, John the Baptist ought to have known with certainty that Jesus was the One! I pose the question to my students each year--What caused John to doubt? Although the Bible does not specifically give us the answer, I think we can safely conclude. Jesus' ministry was, in some way, failing to meet John's expectations. Maybe John thought that Jesus would take a more aggressive approach in ushering in the Kingdom or that Jesus would have been more politically active in opposition to the Romans or maybe even that Jesus would break him out of prison. Whatever his expectations were, it seems obvious that they weren't being met. As he sat alone in the darkness of his prison cell, John faced an unsettling dilemma--Will I continue in my belief that Jesus is the Christ even though things aren't unfolding the way I thought they would? This was indeed a critical moment for John. The fact is, we all have self-made boxes into which we put God and His dealings with us. We expect Him to do or not do certain things based on our devotion to Him. The plethora of Christian literature and other Christian media available today serves mostly to feed these pre-conceived yet often unbiblical notions about our Creator. How unsettling it is, then, for us to discover that the gulf between our perceptions of God and the reality of God is deep and wide. The Apostle Peter told us not to be surprised when faced with trials, suffering, and persecution. All believers will, at some point, face their own prisoner's dilemma. God is much bigger and, in a way, much scarier than we often give Him credit for. What we do when faced with the reality of God is of utmost importance in our pilgrimage. Speaking of that, here is my final observation...
3. We must allow our understanding of God to be molded by the reality He presents us. John and Jesus were cousins. I've always imagined them to be close friends--even before either one of them became famous. They had a unique relationship, I believe. This wasn't just anyone asking the question, it was John. Bearing this in mind, it is a bit surprising to read the terseness of Jesus' response. He simply pointed to the fact this His ministry was indeed a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. He closed with a mild rebuke, "Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me." (That's my paraphrase.) That's it. There's nothing more. No personal touch. No apparent effort on Jesus part to soothe the fears or calm the doubts of His friend and fellow-servant. He left John with the decision as to whether or not he would believe in spite of the darkness around his soul. I think the lesson here is clear--those who come to God must do so by faith (Hebrews 11:6). This faith, however, must conform to reality as God presents it. He does not conform reality to meet the requirements of our faith. Despite what the books and movies portray, things don't always get better. Bodies and minds aren't always healed. Miracles don't always occur at the last moment. Good doesn't always win. (At least, in the short term!) When we are left reeling with confusion and doubt, God stands firm, confident, and unchanging, "Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me." What a concept to think that we can stumble over God! This can and does happen, however, when we are unwilling to relinquish the idols we have created in the name of Jehovah. This austere perspective of God may be repugnant to you. You may not like the image of Him that I'm painting in these lines. This, my friend, is exactly my point. These truths are just as much a part of God as are His love and grace. God is a complex and multifaceted being. We have to take Him for what He is, not just for what we want Him to be. No one relishes the suffering. No one enjoys the darkness of doubt and pain. Yet, as Jon Foreman, in his song "The Cure for Pain", so aptly puts it, "It would be a lie to run away."
What choice did John make in the face of such a dilemma? We are not given a direct answer. Yet, based on Jesus' statements about John in the following verses (see Matthew 11:7-15), I believe that John chose correctly. He chose to believe in spite of everything. This was not blind faith, but genuine faith. Faith that persisted in spite of the emotion of the moment. This is the kind of faith each one of us must beg God to build in our hearts so as to prepare us for our own moment in prison.