John the Baptist is the definition of hardcore. Wandering in the wilderness wearing camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey? Clearly subtlety was not his thing. Jesus often uses the unusual to proclaim Him and John was definitely that. He was loudly quoting the prophet Isaiah and calling people to repentance. He was a black and white kind of guy- no nonsense, straight to the point. It had been prophesied that John would not drink wine but would be filled with the Holy Spirit. He was compared in spirit and power to another slightly “out there” prophet, Elijah. Everything about John the Baptist is resolute, bold, and intrigues me (although in reality I’m sure I’d respond with a, “Seriously man, please take a shower”).
Darla has been drawing detailed pictures of the Christmas story. This week she’s been working on one where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth who is pregnant with John. Looking at her illustration made me pause and consider the familiar story. Even before birth, John knew and acknowledged Jesus’ presence with a kick. He was the son of a priest and cousin to Jesus. He was a miracle himself, born of a barren woman. His story from the beginning pointed to Christ.
John was compelled. He was compelled to respond to Jesus. He was compelled to proclaim Jesus. He was compelled to call God’s people to repentance and to be the forerunner for Jesus. John didn’t aimlessly look for purpose as a teenager or lay around waiting for life to happen. He knew God’s Word. He knew His purpose. He knew God’s plan for saving was in motion.
I’ve always considered John the Baptist to be the unshakable, Spirit filled man that I can’t relate to. (Especially considering I’m a pretty hygienic person, would probably be allergic to camel hair, and would most definitely starve before stomaching locusts.)
This week I found something surprising in my study of Matthew 11 that I’ve never noticed before. John is in prison after preaching, baptizing, and changing lives. He sends two disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
This is John. John who said, “The kingdom of God is at hand”! John who prophesied, who risked it all for Jesus. John, who was faith filled and knew Jesus personally.
I understand his question. John is sitting in prison. It’s not looking promising. Day after day he mulls it over. His mind starts to spin circles. He’s confused. He probably thought back when he was warning people, “He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor” (Matt. 3:12) that Jesus would be mopping the floor with these people by now, kicking the Romans out, and fixing the political scene.
My notes for Bible Study Fellowship study of Matthew have an analogy of a mountain range that gave me context:
“From the lowlands where you stand, you cannot guess that between the near mountains and the far horizon lies a deep valley. Rather than one mountain range, there are two. These… are like the prophesies that relate to the first and second coming of the Messiah… An Old Testament believer could not see the wide plain of more than 2,000 years between the two mountain ranges. People today live in that valley. Behind us tower the peaks of Jesus’ incarnation and the cross. Before us rise the promises of Christ’s return to judge and rule this earth perfectly, as King.”
John didn’t have a timeline. He probably anticipated those two mountains as one, without a valley between. He sat in prison while Jesus was not having the ministry John had pictured. So he sends word that he’s having doubts about this masterful plan. He still believes God. He believes there is a plan. But perhaps… perhaps he got a detail wrong? Perhaps he missed the mark with Jesus? Perhaps that miraculous baptism was… something else? His present circumstances suddenly make what he thought he knew look murky. He has to know. He has to seek clarification.
Reading in my quiet living room I found myself nodding. “I’ve done that! I’ve sat in dark places thinking, ‘this isn’t how I thought things would play out. What am I missing? Is Jesus who He says He is or do I need another out'? John! I get it!”
What John does with those questions is what makes me respect and adore him, stinky camel hair and all. He goes to the source.
He doesn’t turn to the prisoner next to him, “So… I’ve got this strange problem. Hear me out and tell me if I’m off base.”
He doesn’t draw conclusions based on the bars around him, “this looks hopeless therefore it is hopeless.”
He doesn’t seek validation for himself or let self-pity drive him.
He goes to the Word, the One with the answers.
I love how Jesus answers. He doesn’t assure John “everything will be ok”. In fact, it wouldn’t. John would lose his head- literally- for speaking truth.
He doesn’t give John tips on coping. “Buck up, Baptist- count to ten slowly and quit doubting.”
He instead reminds John who He is. “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Matt. 11:4,5)
He assures John, “It looks different from here, from my perspective. But I am still who I say I am. I am accomplishing what I’ve set out to accomplish. Even when all you see are prison walls closing in around you, I am at work.”
It is exactly how He answers me when I come to Him with my questions. I’m more irrational, emotional, and definitely wordier than John but I often pour out similar questions. “Do you really have this under your control? Is there another answer I'm not seeing?” “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
I want consolation. But when I’m looking for “don’t worry- life’s bound to improve” type of help, Jesus responds with, “Shilo, let me show you this about myself. Let me show you that I’m still doing what I set out to do. Let me remind you that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Get your eyes off your circumstantial prison and back to my face.” He brings me to Himself.
Jesus’ plan was so much bigger than John realized, yet to John in prison it looked small. He was waiting for power, a throne, and for people to believe Jesus was Messiah.
Jesus was focused on atonement. He was focused on suffering and the cross, on what was eternal and not circumstantial. There was more to unfold.
I'm reminded to turn to Jesus Himself with my own doubts and questions- to His Word, to Him in prayer. My comfort is in who He is and the promises He gives. There is still more to unfold.
(I’m also comforted that I can in some way identify with John the Baptist yet still wear cotton, brush my teeth obsessively and stick with beef and chicken for protein.)
Just throwing myself out there a bit...