When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 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.” (Matthew 11:1-6 ESV)
One of the things I find neat about the Bible is that there are real people in it. By that, I mean that the human authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, didn’t whitewash people or their stories. If someone had a flaw or question, it was there for all to see. Take for example Moses as a murderer and David as an adulterer and murderer. And, also, take for example John the Baptist. What did John the do wrong? Well, it wasn’t what he did wrong, it was that he asked a question.
Remember, John the Baptist is Jesus’ earthly cousin and did a Holy Spirit inspired leap in his mother’s womb when Mary, with baby Jesus insider her, visited his mother. This is the John the Baptist that was used by God to prepare the way for Jesus by his preaching of a message of repentance. This is also the same John the Baptist that baptized Jesus in the Jordan at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Yes, this is that John the Baptist.
As this passage notes, John is now in prison. And despite all of the things he’s done and seen and felt, he now has a question:
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
When I would read this question earlier in my Christian life, I have to admit I would sneak in a condescending thought about John. “What? You are John the Baptist! You baptized Jesus and told people to repent! And now you’re having doubts?” But now, as an older Christian, I read this with a lot more empathy and it now strikes me as one of the saddest verses in the Bible.
John is in prison and not the cushy federal kind where he gets to play cards and golf all day. No, he’s in a prison and in the not too distant future, he will beheaded based on the whim of a leader. He’s in prison. He may be all alone or he may be in the company of his society’s worst and meanest. The conditions are probably deplorable and at best he’s separated from friends and companions. And it’s in this dark moment that he sends a question to Jesus: “Are you the one?”
To someone with an accounting background (like me), a more succinct answer may have seemed the better option. “YES!” Instead, Jesus answered in a different way. Instead, He said this:
“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 didn’t answer like an accountant, “Yes, John. The Holy Spirit told you in the womb! You should know this!” Instead, He gently reminded John of the truth. Jesus told the messengers to go and tell John what they had seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news.
Can you see how this message and the delivery of this message would be an encouragement to John’s faith? The messengers would go and say, “We’ve seen these things!” And John would likely tell himself, “Yes, and I’ve seen them to.”
John asked the question even though he knew the answer. John wanted to hear again the answer to the question, “are you the one?” Jesus, are You the messiah? Are you the One who was promised?
Jesus’s answer to Him was essentially the Christmas message. Yes, Jesus is the One. Jesus, God’s Son, has come to us. He is God with us, Emmanuel. And no matter who we are or where we are, we need to hear this Christmas message too. If we are long-term followers of Christ, we need a reminder of the gospel. Or, if we’re that lost soul staring at Christmas, we need to hear the message.
As James Macdonald reminded his listeners this week, during this time of year, the gospel message is being pumped through malls and stores and through radio stations and through music services! The world is being told that Jesus has come! Every year, regardless of how crass or over the top with consumerism the Christmas season seems to be, God is blessing us by using this holiday madness to prime others to hear the gospel. We have the opportunities to either ask the question “what does this mean?” or we have the opportunity to be the ones who explain what we’ve seen and head.