When John the Baptist was in prison and heard that Jesus was nearby, he sent his disciples to ask of Christ himself: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).

Why did he ask this question?

Legendary preacher John Wesley explained John’s question as a manipulative teaching exercise. John sent his disciples to ask this question of Christ, Wesley decided, “Not because he doubted himself, but to confirm their faith.”

Huh.

I suppose that contrived explanation could be true; after all John Wesley has been right on many other counts. But it appears that there was really only one (obvious) reason why he asked the question: John wanted to know if Jesus was the one who was to come.

You see, John the Baptist was, in some ways, a victim of his own mistaken expectations. Jews of his time—John included—expected a militaristic Messiah, a political power who would rain judgment down on enemies of righteousness. John himself had preached that the Messiah’s “winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). John’s faith in the Messiah was defined by his expectation of God’s judgment on evildoers—especially folks like Herod Antipas and all his minions. But Jesus didn’t fit those expectations, and meanwhile John sat decaying in prison, waiting for Christ to wreak his wrath.

Theologian George A. Buttrick explains John’s predicament this way: “The waiting fretted his soul…Doubt grew chiefly on the fact that Christ did not fulfill either the hope of the Messiah as nationalistically interpreted, or the picture that John himself had drawn.”

Bravo for John that, instead of stewing in doubt and frustration, he decided to go directly to the source of faith to find out for himself the answer he needed. When he heard that Jesus was nearby, he sent his disciples to ask of Christ: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). I wonder if you and I would have the courage to do the same with Jesus today.

 

Works Cited:

[GSM, 104-106; CBC, 925; IB7, 379]

 

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