Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it. What do we do when that happens?
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Matthew #36 . Matthew 11:1-6
When Jesus had finished giving orders to His 12 disciples, He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else? ” Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.” (Matt 11:1-6, HCSB)
I believe that one of the first two or three sermons I ever preached was on this text. I really wish I could remember what I said, because I’m sure it was brilliant. Actually, of course what we do here is always to try and listen for what the Holy Spirit has to say to us through the text right now. So perhaps it would be a bad idea to simply go back to something I said 20 years ago.
Let’s get a little background here. As we know, John the Baptist started preaching before Jesus began his public ministry. We saw already in the book of Matthew, that John (the Baptist) believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and pointing people to Jesus was John’s major mission. In addition, we learned that Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins, and while they were both pregnant they spent some time together. At that time, John, still unborn, leaped in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary when she was with pregnant Jesus. So these two have a long history together.
There is evidence that after Jesus came upon the scene, many of John’s followers left him to follow Jesus. Apparently John felt that this was good and right and appropriate. The apostle John (a different individual) records that some of the Baptist’s remaining disciples complained about those who left John for Jesus. But John the Baptist responded like this:
“No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-31, HCSB)
John viewed Jesus as the bridegroom, the man of the hour, and himself as the best man. This was absolutely correct and good. But no one, not even John, knew before-hand quite what Jesus’ mission on earth was really supposed to look like. As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, circumstances caused John the Baptist to wonder.
What happened was this. Sometime after Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist, being the outspoken person he was, criticized Herod Antipas, who, under the Romans, was ruler of Galilee (this was the son of Herod the Great, who had tried to have the Messiah killed as a baby). He chastised him for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own wife. Herod might have put up with this, but Herodias did not, and John was thrown in prison (Matt 14:3).
John, like most Jews of his time, probably had the idea that the Messiah was going to liberate the people of Israel from foreign oppressors like Herod and the Romans. He went into prison believing that the Messiah was his cousin, Jesus. This is just a guess on my part, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable one: I believe that John expected Jesus to liberate him during the course of his messianic campaign. So John went to prison thinking: All I have to do is wait and when Jesus starts the war to drive out the Romans and the Idumeans, he’ll free me from prison, and I’ll join him in the victorious campaign.
Even if John was not caught up in that sort of thinking about the Messiah, he still probably thought: the Messiah is my cousin. I’ve served him and his cause faithfully. Surely he will not let me rot in prison. After all, that’s reasonable. Friends don’t let friends die in prison, if they have the power to prevent it.
At least, that’s what we think.
So after John had been in the dungeon for a while, it was natural for him to become a little bit impatient. After a little while longer, it is clear that he began to wonder if he had been wrong about Jesus being the Messiah; that is, in fact, the reason he sent people to Jesus as recorded in this text.
Now, I want us to observe something very significant. What caused John to wonder? Think about it. John had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, and his preaching about the coming of the Messiah was based upon those Scriptures. But those Scriptures had not changed since John was put into prison. John also knew Jesus personally, and Jesus was still the same person that John had known since before he was born, the same person, in fact, whom John had pointed out to others and said “There is the Messiah. He’s the one I’ve been talking about.” So John’s knowledge had not changed, and the Scriptures had not changed, and Jesus had not changed. What caused John to wonder was that his own circumstances had changed, and Jesus had done nothing about it.
This is tremendously important. Jesus was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not behaving the way John thought he ought to behave. As crass as this sounds, the truth is that Jesus was not doing what John wanted him to do, and that caused him to doubt Jesus.
I have met many, many people who have the same struggle as John. For years, I’ve eagerly looked forward to the day I could meet with someone who was an atheist for purely intellectual reasons. In my imagination, when I met such a person, we would have an engaging, far-reaching, stimulating discussion. It would end with the atheist realizing for the first time that his arguments are in fact illogical and not founded on the truth. With the intellectual obstacles removed, the atheist would become a person of faith.
But the truth is, everyone I’ve ever met who claims to have an intellectual objection to Christianity, in fact rejects faith in Jesus because God has disappointed them personally in some way. It never fails. It sounds noble to have intellectual objections to faith. But the truth is that people reject God because at some level he did not behave according to their expectations, or do what they wanted him to do. At times, I’ve had the same struggle myself.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that what John the Baptist wanted Jesus to do was trivial. It was no trivial thing to be put in prison in first century Galilee. The prisons were generally damp and unsanitary, filled with rats and disease. Nutrition was poor, fights and abuse by guards were frequent. Many people died simply from being in these conditions for long period of time. John had no standing, no patron to plead his case with Herod. His prospects were incredibly grim. It wasn’t unreasonable for him to want Jesus to rescue him. What could be more natural than to expect the Messiah to rescue his own cousin, the same man who had proclaimed him to be the Messiah to many people?
Many of the things that we want God to do for us are not unreasonable either: to save the life of a child, to heal a parent, to restore a marriage, to prevent something that any reasonable human being would call a tragedy.
But we find, like John, that sometimes Jesus simply doesn’t do it.
This fact made John wonder, perhaps it even caused him to doubt. At least John did the right thing with his doubts: he was honest about them, and he took them to Jesus.
Jesus did not chastise him for having doubts. He said this:
Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. (Matt 11:4-5, HCSB)
This little statement from Jesus makes reference to no fewer than five messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Job 29:15; Isaiah 26:19, 29:18, 35, 61:1-2). In essence, Jesus’ reply is this: “You want to know if I’m the Messiah? I am fulfilling the messianic prophecies about healing the blind, healing the lame, cleansing those with leprosy, healing and death, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor.”
To say it even more plainly, Jesus was telling John to remember and rely upon the scriptures. He was reminding him what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, urging him to compare it to Jesus himself, and then to trust.
Jesus then adds this comment: “and blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me,” (my translation). I think Jesus is cutting to the very heart of the matter. He knows that we are sometimes offended or scandalized by the fact that he does not conform to our expectations. Again, in John’s case it wasn’t about social or religious expectations; it was about a personal desire that was entirely good and appropriate, which Jesus chose not to fulfill. In a way, he is saying, “I know you don’t understand, John. But you will be blessed if you don’t let your lack of understanding cause you to be offended by me.”
But Jesus is not only talking to John. His words are for all of us. Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it.
Like John, the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to bring our doubts and wonderings to Jesus himself. We can be honest with him. He did not rebuke John for doubting, or for his honesty. His answer to John is also for us: Look to the Bible, it is the most reliable witness to whom Jesus is. The Bible has not changed. Jesus has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our circumstance, and that is not a reliable guide to truth. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is the same person we read about in the pages of the Bible. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that the Bible is reliable and can be trusted (By the way, if you are not sure about that, I encourage you to go through my 10 part sermon series entitled, “Understanding the Bible.” The first sermon can be found here, and you can go on sequentially from that). We know from all this that Jesus is real, and that he loves us. We know also, that this life is not all there is, and there are many reasons for things that we will never be able to comprehend. Sometimes, we can only see part of the picture, and the rest of the explanation can only be understood in the light of eternity.
And Jesus says to us, “You are blessed when you’re not offended by me.” We are blessed when we allow Jesus to be who he is, even when it doesn’t conform to our own expectations of him. We are blessed when we trust him, in spite of our circumstances.
John never did get out of prison. But Jesus says, later in this text, that while he is alive, John is not as well off the very least individual who is already in the kingdom of heaven. There is a plan. There is an answer. It is just that sometimes the plan and answer extend into the next life, where we cannot see right now. Ultimately, in the light of eterinity, John was better off more quickly because he was not released from prison.
With John, will you hear the words of Jesus now? Will you trust him? Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.
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