The Question from Prison (Refiner’s Fire Pt 2)
NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done. What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1–19.
“Are you the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
The question hung in the air that day, its power arresting. Asked publicly, it must have caused every group present to lean in for the answer.
There were the askers — the disciples of John the Baptist, who had delivered the question on his behalf. John, their rabbi, was in prison, where he was in danger of his life.
There were Jesus’s own disciples, men and women who had chosen to follow him presumably believing that he was “the One who is to come.” The phrase meant the Messiah (Greek “Christ”), the deliverer of Israel, whose presence lay beneath all the prophetic Hebrew Scriptures and yet remained, in some respects, shrouded and mysterious.
Jesus was likewise mysterious. He spoke and acted like a direct representative of Yahweh, Israel’s God, whom he called “Father.” But to this point, he had never openly declared himself to be the Messiah.
His disciples were putting their faith in a man who was strangely cagey about who he really was. But now John’s disciples were forcing the issue.
And there were the others. The crowds — the “multitudes,” to use the classic English wording of the King James Bible. The people who came, sick and crippled, to be healed. The people who came, poor and oppressed, to find hope. Mingled among them were the curious, the questioning, and the outright hostile.
Reasons for Belief
When it came to Jesus’s identity as the Messiah, there were three primary reasons people believed.
To go from the broad to the specific, the first was national expectation within the signs of the times. The Old Testament prophets had pointed to a long period of exile and oppression for Israel, beginning with Babylon and culminating in the iron rule of an empire more powerful than any that had come before it. The dominance of this empire would be followed by the rise of the Messianic kingdom — and the Messianic kingdom, in turn, would crush the iron empire.
By the time of Jesus, the exile had extended nearly five hundred years. For multiple reasons, the Roman Empire was an obvious fulfillment of the iron empire. It seemed, therefore, that the age of the Messiah was at hand.
The second was Jesus’s obvious power and authority. He healed people. He worked miracles. He taught about the kingdom of God, and his words had an unusual freshness and an unusual weight. He was also a descendant of David, a direct heir to the ancient royal line. He was, therefore, a good candidate for the Messiah.
But the third and most immediate reason people believed Jesus might be the Messiah, the reason many had begun following him in the first place, was the influence of John the Baptist. John had come out of the desert years before blazing with zeal, filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and calling people to repentance, faith, and baptism in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. A prophet who seemed to have stepped straight out of the Old Testament, he captured the public imagination and fired their hearts, convincing nearly everyone that he had been sent by God. And John had — very — publicly declared that Jesus was the One.
But now he sent a question from prison calling Jesus to account.
Remember, it was John who had launched Jesus into ministry. John’s entire life work, his credibility as a prophet, and his conception of himself as a man of God hung on Jesus’s answer.
Should We Expect Someone Else?
John’s question possesses a tone that, two thousand years later, we can still hear. It sounds … hurt? Offended? Perhaps demanding? Affronted and affronting?
We may hear in John’s voice a mix of emotions we are rarely comfortable openly expressing toward God: anger and vulnerability.
By the time John sent his question, Jesus had remained noncommittal about his Messiahship for roughly two years. His ministry bore some of the marks of the Messiah, as they had been identified and defined through the Old Testament Scriptures. But it seemed to lack others. In particular, Jesus showed little proclivity to pick up the sword and begin leading the charge against Rome.
Perhaps John wasn’t hurt or doubting so much as he was justifiably impatient: with so much on the line, he simply wanted to know that he’d gotten things right. Perhaps he was simply asking Jesus to stop dancing around the issue and give him a straight answer.
Some have suggested that John was not really questioning Jesus’s Messiahship at all, and that he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question for their own sake. And this is possible. It’s also possible that he was trying to push Jesus into openly declaring himself for the sake of getting the whole show on the road, so to speak.
But when I read this story, I find the issues of anger and vulnerability, confusion and doubt far more compelling.
After all, whether we’re willing to admit it publicly or not, we all deal with questions and confusion at some point in our Christian lives.
Most of the time, if we are people of faith at all, we believe we know what God is doing. There are two parts to that: we believe we know what God is doing. And we believe we know.
Those two certainties — that God is doing what we think he’s doing, and that our understanding of what he’s doing is correct — are pillars we build our lives upon.
But sometimes the pillars shake.
Sometimes God gives us a promise and doesn’t keep it.
(Or so it seems.)
Sometimes we step out in faith and fall flat on our faces.
Sometimes we lose our certainty. New questions arise. Our understanding matures, broadens, and old sureties no longer look sure. Tragedies shake us. Leaders fall away. Friends take a different road. Spouses or children leave. The sick die. Black and white bleed into grey.
Doubts take root.
We start to wonder.
Are you really the One?
Or should we look for someone else?
The Fearful Truth
In all this we feel things we’ve never felt toward God before. Things we are afraid to express. Anger. Unbelief. Disappointment. (So awful it has to be whispered.) We feel a frightening fragility. We are offended. We feel hurt.
Or we feel nothing at all. And that is even worse.
Doubt, anger, disappointment — this is called a crisis of faith.
I’m not sure, in a visible and tangible world where we trust in the invisible and intangible, that crises of faith can be avoided, or even that they should.
Would we really be sane, or credible, if we never had them?
John the Baptist was a forerunner. He came to prepare the way for Jesus. He came to go first. In this one area, perhaps he also went before us. Maybe a crisis of faith is a rite of passage, one every believer must undergo at some point.
More ardently, actively, and zealously than anyone else in his day.
And then, for a few terrifying hours or days — or maybe weeks, maybe months or even years before he ever expressed his fear — he wasn’t sure if he believed anymore.
In these moments, everything we thought was certain becomes open to question. The ground shakes beneath us. Our souls shake.
When John sent his question to Jesus, he was in prison. He had stood up against the corrupt rulers of the day and suffered for it. He’d also heard that Jesus had begun expanding his ministry by appointing and sending out apostles in his name, and that he’d promised his apostles a lot of loss, hardship, and persecution. He hadn’t promised them the victory Messianic Scriptures pointed toward. Instead he had said they would face the loss of everything including their lives but would be rewarded eternally for allegiance to him.
And while we can’t know exactly what was going on in John’s head when he heard these things, his question to Jesus indicates that he was no longer completely convinced he’d been right when he declared Jesus was the Messiah. Something in what Jesus said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do, raised real doubt.
[To be continued …]
This is Part 160 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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