Disciples of John the Baptist Come Asking a Question
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Matthew 11:1-6
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- Jesus finished instructing his disciples.
- Jesus went to preach and teach in the towns of Galilee.
- John was in prison and heard about the things that the Messiah (Jesus) was doing.
- He sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether he genuinely was the promised Messiah, or was there going to be someone else.
- Jesus told them that John’s question would be answered if they were willing to tell him what they had seen and heard – referring to the miracles of healing and deliverance.
- The added that this amounted to good news being proclaimed to the poor.
- He challenged John and his disciples not to be offended or forsake their trust in him.
THE MESSAGE OF THIS STORY
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
This is a profound example of the way cultural assumptions can stir fear and doubt. Remember that John was the signpost man. His one job was to prepare people for Jesus and then to identify him. He fulfilled that calling faithfully and forcefully. Just think what it must have been like for him to know that one day soon the Messiah would stand before him. God would give him a supernatural sign – a dove hovering above him. Then one day Jesus stood there, and he knew that his mission was almost over. He could say with great confidence, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” When the crowds started following Jesus rather than hanging around with him, he was even more exuberant. When someone suggested he might be jealous, he could only say, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” No wonder Jesus gives him such a wrap (in the next part of the story).
Remember that even though John was a prophet he was also a child of his generation and therefore fitted in with the traditional teachings that saw the Messiah as a political and military ruler who would kick the Romans out and raise Israel up to be the power centre of the nations of the earth. Not only does Jesus NOT seem to be heading in that direction, but it also appears that he was hanging with all the wrong people and saying all kinds of un-PC things. Even though the religious establishment was more than a little skeptical about John, at least he did keep the kosher traditions. Then something worse happened. Not only was Jesus failing to gather an army and whip the people into a David-looking fighting force, but John was put in prison. And he was left there. No Messianic shaking of the bars and no prison doors opened by angels. Just more of the same. No wonder John sent his disciples to ask a very blunt question. Imagine it, “Are you the one, or should we look for someone else?” Another way of saying that would be, “You don’t seem to fulfil any of our nationalistic, preconceived, self-serving notions of what Israel’s Messiah is like, so are you the real one?” Keep in mind that John the Baptist did not ask this question from the point of view of the religious leaders. He was asking it as a totally committed kingdom seeker. It’s just that his own notions were different from what he saw happening in Jesus’ life.
Here is an incomplete list of the kind of things that Jesus did or didn’t do that were at odds with the traditional ideas people had about the Messiah
- He was born in the right place (Bethlehem), but he didn’t live in the right place (Nazareth)
- He was born in controversial circumstances (Mary pregnant but not yet married)
- He chose disciples from the most dubious of backgrounds (fishermen and tax collectors).
- He challenged traditional interpretations of the law of Moses (Sermon on the Mount)
- He touched people who were regarded as “unclean” (lepers and dead bodies)
- He commended Roman military officers for having great faith (centurion)
- He claimed to be equal with God – granting forgiveness.
- He didn’t keep the traditional fast days.
- He didn’t keep traditional Sabbath laws.
- He didn’t carry out the ritual washings before eating a meal.
- He commended a Gentile (Canaanite) woman for having great faith.
- He refused to give the religious leaders the kind of sign they were looking for to prove his identity.
- He tells many parables that point out the failure of the Jewish religious authorities to remain faithful to God.
- He rebukes the religious leaders for making the temple a place to rip people off when it should have been a place where all the nations were prayed for.
- During his time in Jerusalem, he lists off a series of objections to the way the religious leaders have failed to fulfil their responsibility before God, placing themselves and the people in jeopardy.
- When arrested and tried by the ruling religious council, Jesus refuses to take back his claim as the Messiah.
And this is just a casual list that was compiled by flicking through the chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. It is easy to understand why John might have been sitting in his prison cell having second thoughts. Things just weren’t working out as he had anticipated.
It is possible that John thought the coming Messiah was going to be a supercharged version of Elijah. If John was the forerunner, then Jesus would be like John but would complete the job that John started. Now that he languished in Herod’s prison he might have imagined that Jesus would do a “Mount Carmel” on the morally corrupt and spiritually compromised Idumean puppet ruler. It just didn’t happen. In fact, Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee which was considered a cultural and political backwater by those who lived in Judea (esp. Jerusalem). In our circumstances, it would compare to some political hopeful for Australia spending most of their time campaigning around Birdsville. From John’s perspective, it seemed that nothing was happening and nothing was going to change.
I have come to the conclusion that great godliness is modelled in the way Jesus responds to questions, especially this straightforward one from John’s disciples. What they wanted was a simple “Yes” or “No.” You have to ask yourself the question as to why Jesus didn’t just offer a simple affirmative reply. This is a big issue in the ministry of Jesus and with Christian discipleship in general. There is a process of learning that is based on a simple transfer of information. The one who knows tells the one who doesn’t know. Then the person who has been told tries to remember the answer so that they will be able to show that they now KNOW. But all they have done is hear and remember. They have not made any personal discovery for themselves. They may possess information, but they won’t have experienced knowing. Remembering is not knowing. That’s why the experience of truth from Scripture is of much more value than memorising the verse. If Jesus answers “Yes,” the disciples would have told John what he had said. That would have been Jesus’ information being passed on rather than John and his friends making a discovery for themselves.
This is something of a dilemma for the way we often do church. First of all, we produce a special class of professionals called pastors, ministers or priests. They are called that because they have spent some years at theological colleges or seminaries and have passed all of their exams. By the time they hit the local churches they are way ahead of just about everyone in their congregation when it comes to professional skill and academic knowledge. They preach lots of sermons and teach Bible studies and the like. They expound their knowledge, and it usually helps people to have confidence in what they say. The problem is that this process just offers more and more information and very little growth in experience. When you consider how sermon-proof the average congregational member is these days, the expensive investment will be guaranteed very little in the way of return. We have substituted information at the expense of faith-based obedience. I am not suggesting that sermons have no value. They will always have some value, and God uses everything offered to him. Sermons and teaching sessions are great for inspiration and encouragement, but they are very low on the scale when it comes to heart transformation and genuine growth and change. This system has no place to measure obedience or change, and there is virtually no accountability or the expectation that there should be. Imagine if a preacher started his or her next Sunday sermon by asking how many people put into practice the revelation from the previous week’s message. When only a few, if any, responded he could then say, “Well, I am going to preach last week’s sermon again and continue to preach this sermon until people start to embrace the message with faith and obedience.” What if he asked for testimonies of what happened when people implemented the message?
All of this is involved in this story of John’s men coming to Jesus. Jesus was not going to give them a piece of information. They didn’t need more information as such. They needed to make their own discovery and come to their own conclusion. We need to do the same when we are making disciples. In our self-obsessed systems, when a person doesn’t learn we blame the teacher for their poor skills. Learning has much more to do with the learner than the teacher.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
The response Jesus made does nothing to answer the questions posed by the list of unfulfilled Messianic expectations (listed above) that probably fueled the disillusionment of John the Baptist. I have long admired the way Jesus uses genuine and spurious questions to turn people again to the matter of what the kingdom of God IS about rather than trying to explain why it is NOT satisfying accepted cultural assumptions. The way to look at this is to answer the question, “If Jesus is describing the kingdom of God coming when he points to the things that have happened as a result of his ministry, what kind of kingdom is it?”
To put it simply, the kingdom represented by Jesus is a kingdom where human brokenness is mended and where social disadvantage loses its power to oppress (good news proclaimed to the poor). My suspicion is the “good news … proclaimed to the poor” is a summary of the five previously described acts: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers clean, deaf hear, dead raised. I have to confess that this arises from my conclusion about the Biblical idea of poverty. I don’t think poverty is just talking about economic circumstances. I think “poor” refers to people who find themselves in situations that are so deeply oppressive that no matter what they do or what decision they make; they cannot bring about any relief from the oppression. The blind person is poor because of their physical disability. So to the lame, leprous, deaf and dead. When Jesus came and removed their particular form of poverty, they were free to make choices that could bring about change. The good news for them was that the source or power that held them in that poverty was broken and they were released from its enslavement.
This brings us to the big issue. If John was hoping that Jesus would challenge Herod (and/or Roman rule) to a Mt. Carmel showdown so that they received their judgment and lost their power to oppress the people of God, he was going to be disappointed. Tragically his demise was a result of the moral depravity he accused Herod of in the first place. His stepdaughter took advantage of his indulgence and John was beheaded. No Messianic deliverer and no divine vindication. The kingdom Jesus was establishing was a different kind of kingdom. When Jesus later stood in Herod’s court, he chose to say nothing to the questioning or the ridicule he was actively engaged in building that same kingdom. This was a kingdom John the Baptist didn’t really understand. Later in this chapter, Jesus is going to tell us that even though John is the greatest of prophets, he just didn’t get the kingdom of God. Jesus said the least person who “gets” the kingdom of God is greater than John. A lot of people who connect with the name of Jesus don’t “get” the kingdom. This is a kingdom that takes broken people and destroys the power that locks them into sickness, oppression, sorrow and hardship. It is a kingdom that starts making things right on the inside of a person and then between people. This is the kingdom that will take abuse from a ruler like Herod but will deal with the power that stirs up unforgiveness. It will never be anything like the other kind of kingdom. The sooner we get hold of that the better servants we will be, and we will be better at living it, speaking it and doing it.
The sad reality is that John knew Jesus, but he wanted Jesus to be the king of a more powerful earthly kingdom. Probably the disciples wanted the same thing, at that point. Every day Jesus kept on living, speaking and doing the work of the kingdom. I’m sure they liked what he did. They were probably thinking that this was a warm up act and that one day Jesus would rise from his sleep and start being the king they all expected, building a more powerful version of the kingdom of Herod, of the Jewish religious system or even Rome. It never happened. It never will happen. Jesus did wake up one day and crush the power of the real enemy. He did it using an empty cross and then an empty tomb. That’s the only kind of kingdom he will ever rule over. It is the only way heaven gets to invade earth. This is such a hard lesson to learn, but it is lesson number one in the kingdom of God. Jesus gave that answer to John because he wanted John to gain an understanding of the kind of king he was and the kind of kingdom he was building.
Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
This may well be the most accurate summary statement of the whole of Jesus’ ministry. From the day he stood in Galilee and said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1), the biggest challenge facing the people who heard and saw Jesus was to think beyond that failed to fulfil their set of expectations about the Messiah and what he would be like. I’m sure you are aware that Messiah is a Hebrew word. The root meaning is “to smear” and describes the anointing of a person who will perform a special holy function. Here is a description I found in a contemporary Jewish encyclopaedia about the Scriptural meaning of the Hebrew, “mashiach.”
The mashiach will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). The mashiach is often referred to as ‘mashiach, son of David’. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being. ( http://jewfaq.org )
Not many people I know have difficulty embracing the Jesus revealed in the Gospels because they have been influenced by traditional Jewish teaching. We have any number of substitutes: our ethnicity, our education, our culture, our denomination, our favourite theological system. It goes on and on. It is the reason why we have invented 40,000 different denominations of Christianity around the world. We desperately want to tailor him to suit our own preferences and make sure he will sponsor our selective causes. We will want him to conveniently fit within our preconceived boundaries and comfort zones.
Jesus offers us the same choice as he offered John’s disciples that day. There are many things about Jesus’ life and ministry that challenge our ways of thinking, challenge our priorities and our behaviour. We have to make a choice. We should take a good look and see what sort of King the Messiah is and what sort of Kingdom he has established. We need to be shaped by that discovery and be motivated by that purpose. Jesus said that the happiest people would be those who were not offended by what they saw and heard. As we read the Bible and respond to its message we need to get over the “offences” and get on with following the Jesus we see there.
WHAT IF THIS MESSAGE WAS COMPLETELY FULFILLED IN MY LIFE?
I am a citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia. I gained that citizenship because of my birth. For the first nineteen years of my life that citizenship was unrivalled. When I started following Jesus, I began to experience a new sense of belonging. It grew stronger over time. For a time, I thought there was no conflict, but as I began to meet and work with people from different backgrounds who served and followed Jesus I discovered what it meant to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. That citizenship wasn’t something that I knew would happen when I died; it was current. I found that this new citizenship destroyed barriers of race, language, social status, education, personality, gender and age. I have changed my citizenship. I am a citizen of the kingdom of God. As a citizen, I am also a subject of the King of this kingdom, and I am its ambassador. I am also a soldier in this army. My King has declared war on everything that wants to kill, steal from and destroy people who have been created in the image of God. So I have dedicated my life to fight this battle and represent this King.
I understand that at certain times in history other servants of this King thought they could only fulfil their commitment by withdrawing from the mainstream of the community. Other servants have made the mistake of thinking that this world’s kingdoms can be a tool that will serve the kingdom of God. Both are mistaken. This kind of commitment and this kind of identity means that although I will always be living and working in various expressions of this world’s kingdom, I have no confidence in the ways of that kingdom. In fact, I am an ambassador for my home country. More than that, I am at war with the kingdoms of this world. One of the signs of mission accomplished is when “the kingdoms of this world have …. become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Messiah.” (Revelation 11:15) That’s what Jesus started, and it is the task he has commissioned us to complete. Our message is the good news of the kingdom of God, and its power is pitted against everything that wants to steal from people what God has intended for them.
So if I get this kingdom message I have to take that role seriously. I think I would work hard to see what the kingdom of God might look like if it came to my marriage, household, family, neighbourhood, workplace, groups, etc. I would use the weapons Jesus used and become skilled in using them. I would never confuse the real enemy with anything that had flesh and blood and would keep on laying down my life through selfless redemptive love, and Holy Spirit power, to see the real enemy defeated and broken humanity healed and whole. Whole people can then build whole relationships, and whole relationships can build whole communities. That wholeness only happens when Jesus is honoured as the King of this very different kind of kingdom.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
I love the way Jesus can proclaim the gospel by not answering a direct question. When the twelve disciples and the other people heard John’s faithful followers asking a very sincere question and listened to the response Jesus made, they would have had the opportunity to see the difference between the kingdom presumed in John’s question and the kingdom that Jesus had come to proclaim. Giving them that choice is a gospel presentation. I only hope we will continue to hear this message until we fully “get” it. When we get it, I hope we never lose it.