When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” -Matthew 11:3
He was born to prepare the way for the Messiah but in this verse, he seems plagued by doubts. Something has caused John the Baptist to question the mission he came to fulfill. As he sits in jail, he suddenly feels compelled to ask Jesus whether or not he is the Messiah. From the womb on, John seemed certain of Jesus’ identity; Luke 1:41 records that he leapt inside Elizabeth’s belly when Mary entered the room. But John’s circumstances have discouraged him enough to question whether Jesus was actually the one he was born to precede. In this scene from John the Baptist’s life, we learn that God makes room for our doubts.
The words John uttered confidently in Matthew 3:14 and John 1:29 have been called into question by the behavior he sees in Jesus now. It is starting to become clear that Jesus’ kingdom is different than John thought it would be. John’s feelings are not unlike ours when we witness the suffering and godlessness in our world and wonder where God is and what he is doing. What we learn from John the Baptist is that we can approach God with these questions—and let God know the doubts that have rattled our belief. What we learn from Jesus’ response is that God sometimes answers our doubt with a different answer than we might expect.
John sends his messenger boldly to Jesus, and as we observe in v.3 above, he doesn’t do much to sugarcoat his question. What is important is how Jesus answers it—and what his response means not only for John the Baptist, but for us. Tell John the blind receive sight, and the lame walk…” Jesus begins, and we imagine John wanted to interrupt with “…and the prisoners are released.” However, Jesus doesn’t include that phrase in his answer, and John discovered in the fact that he wasn’t released that God’s plan was bigger than his earthly life. The kingdom God was building was eternal; and Jesus was a different Messiah from the political leader John had imagined. In order to observe God’s kingdom, Jesus called John to look beyond his immediate circumstances to see God at work.
Our circumstances can look grim, so in order to affirm that God is still at work, we may have to lift our eyes to strengthen our faith. John is huddled in a jail cell, unable to continue his ministry, and his circumstances have clouded his judgment. I imagine he is thinking that if Jesus really was the Messiah, this would not have happened, or at the very least, Jesus would get him out. John sees nothing around him that supports his faith, and now he wonders if it’s all been a delusion. Jesus’ actions have betrayed the faith John had in him, and he would need a different-and bigger- faith in order to proceed. When Jesus sends back the answer that people were being healed and ministry was happening, John has to look past his own circumstances in order to see God at work. This will take a spiritual maturity to trust Jesus in what he is doing, even if it is different than John wants it to be.
We may not see things resolved the way we want them to happen, and we may need to let go of who we think God should be. But Jesus makes it clear that there are places to witness God’s glory if we are willing to look beyond our current circumstances. The story God is weaving together is often different than our immediate vision allows us to see.
When we move away from God in our doubts, we sometimes end up abandoning him. God invites us in this passage to move toward him with our doubts instead. John’s bold question to Jesus gives us courage to ask our own questions and give God a chance to answer them. This opens the door for God to reveal himself in a new way which can reconstruct our perceptions and strengthen our faith.