In Matthew 11 we read the story of John the Baptist in prison.
John heard about the things Jesus was doing so the Bible tells us he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus what may seem to us a very strange question. “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting or should we keep looking for someone else?” How could John ask such a question?
This is the same John who is described in John 1:6-8 as the man sent by God “to tell about the light so that everyone might believe of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.”
This was the same John who recognized the Messiah while they were both in their mothers’ wombs. Remember his mother Elizabeth proclaimed that the baby leapt within her.
This is the same John whose father was given a prophetic word that “he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God…He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.” (Luke 1:16-17)
This is the same John who was confronted by the Jewish leaders about his identity. He replied quoting Isaiah in John 1:23, “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’”
This is the same John who identified Jesus when he saw Him saying “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! He is the one I was talking about then I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for He existed long before me.’ I did not recognize him as Messiah, but I have been baptizing with water so that he might be revealed to Israel…I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him. I didn’t know he was the one, but when God sent me to baptize with water, he told me ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that He is the Chosen One of God.”
So, what happened that would make John send his disciples to Jesus to ask if He really was the One?
His entire ministry had been based on declaring that very revelation. What brought such doubt to his mind?
What expectations might he have had? Did he expect Jesus to work a miracle and get him our of prison? Surely Jesus would at least come to see him. I am sure his mind was working overtime …..”maybe Jesus really isn’t who I thought He was.” His circumstances may have been causing him to doubt what he absolutely knew to be true.
Historians tell us that John was in prison for about a year and a half. This man who lived outdoors was now imprisoned with very little light, very little fresh air, very little company. He was definitely in quarantine!
Science tells us that prolonged social isolation can actually change the shape and function of our brains. The region responsible for learning and memory can shrink in response to long-term isolation and the part that regulates fear and anxiety goes into overdrive.
Unexpected circumstances, isolation and distancing can cause us to doubt what we know to be true! This was definitely a time of isolation for John. Even though John said “He must increase and I must decrease,” I don’t think he had counted on ending his life in prison.
As we enter another month of isolation and distancing, we must not let our minds “shrink” away from what we know to be true. In times of isolation and stress, we too can begin to doubt. We can begin to wonder where God is in the midst of this pandemic when economies are shaking, when our whole world changed in a matter of days. We might ask, “Where are you God?” or “Why aren’t you doing something about this? We can’t even go to church! People are dying!”
Jesus’ answer to John might seem strange to us.
There is a message in it for us too. Did Jesus even answer the question? Jesus sent His answer, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
It may seem to us that Jesus’ answer was obscure, but it would have been clear to John who would have recognized that Jesus was quoting Isaiah 35 and 61, prophetic scriptures describing the ministry of the Messiah. John also probably recognized the portion of the scripture that Jesus didn’t say: Jesus did NOT say the phrase from Isaiah 61 that “prisoners will be freed.” What was the message Jesus was sending? “Yes, I am the Messiah, but you will not be getting out of prison.”
Jesus also added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” Some versions say “those who are not offended by me.” Basically Jesus was saying to John—“Don’t turn away from me, don’t doubt what you know to be true because I don’t do what you expect me to do! You know who I am. Trust me even in your current difficult circumstance.”
I believe the Lord is saying the same thing to us today. Our desire is for Him to intervene and stop this virus. Perhaps we have an unmet need for which we have been praying. The message Jesus is sending us is, “Don’t fall away, or don’t be offended by me because I am not doing what you think I should be doing.” It is time for us to stand firm on what we know to be true!
An encouraging part of this story is that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we have some fear and doubt in these difficult times. In Luke 7: 28 Jesus said, “I tell you of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.” If the greatest one who ever lived (besides Jesus, of course) can have moments of doubt, so can we.
We may have those moments, but the key is not to stay in that place of doubt or fear. Remember what the Word of God says. Remember who God is. Remember that He is a good God and His character has not changed. After hearing the report from Jesus, I think John faced his situation with confidence, and we can do the same. Jesus reminded John what the Bible said about the Messiah, and I believe Jesus’ response reminded John what he himself had seen and heard.
In times of difficulty, we must hang on to what we know to be true and not give in to doubt. God is still God, and He is working in ways that we may not yet see, but that does not mean He is not working. It is a time to stand firm in the Lord and the power of His Might!
“In conclusion, be strong in the Lord [draw your strength from Him and be empowered through your union with Him] and in the power of His [boundless] might. Put on the full armor of God [for His precepts are like the splendid armor of a heavily-armed soldier] so that you may be able to [successfully] stand up against all the schemes and the strategies and the deceits of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this [present] darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (spiritual) places. Therefore, put on the complete armor of God, so that you will be able to [successfully] resist and stand your ground in the evil day [of danger], and having done everything [that the crisis demands], to stand firm [in your place, fully prepared, immovable, victorious]. So stand firm and hold your ground having tightened the wide band of truth (personal integrity, moral courage) around your waist and having put on the breastplate of righteousness (an upright heart), and having strapped on your feet the gospel of peace in preparation [to face the enemy with firm-footed stability and the readiness produced by the good news]. Above all, lift up the [protective]shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. With all prayer and petition pray [with specific requests] at all times [on every occasion and in every season] in the Spirit, and with this in view, stay alert with all perseverance and petition [interceding in prayer] for all God’s people.” Ephesians 6:10-18 (AMP)
Sue Priebe is Associate Pastor at City of Hope Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, a Chaplain for Marketplace Chaplains and serves on the Board of Directors for Women of the Word. She is passionate about teaching the Word of God in ways that are relevant and applicable to daily life. She also has a deep love for Israel and travels there frequently connecting with believers there and teaching God’s Word on location.