John the Baptist was in prison. You see, he had said some things that Herod, the pretender king, did not like. Herod had taken his own brother’s wife and married her. John the Baptist spoke out against it, so Herod threw John in prison and kept him there.
As John sat in prison, he disciples brought reports about the ministry of Jesus as He traveled around Galilee. And to be perfectly honest, the Lord wasn’t doing what John expected. When John the Baptist read the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, he read about someone that came in wrath and judgment. He saw a powerful warrior who would purge the nation of Israel from her sin and bring victory over her enemies.
That wasn’t at all what Jesus was doing. He was going around healing the sick and raising the dead! He was preaching about love and sacrifice and prayer! He was teaching about how to live the Law as God intended, but he wasn’t purging the nation of those who disobeyed. Where was all the judgment and wrath?
John was confused, and it was a great confusion. The whole purpose of John’s life was set before he was born. It was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. He had been so sure that Jesus was the Anointed One, but Christ didn’t match his vision of what that meant. When would they see the Day of the Lord? So he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question; “‘Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’”
At the time they arrived to ask the Lord, He was surrounded with ministry. There were massive healings, the blind were receiving sight, people were being cured of their diseases, and demons were being set free from demonic powers. It was a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and it was powerful evidence that the Most High God was with Him.
Jesus understood why John the Baptist was confused. He knew about all the Old Testament verses describing a Messiah who would bring the Day of the Lord. He would come as a conquering King. But He also knew that the time for that conquest had not come. There were other verses about the Messiah in the Old Testament. They described the ministry that the Messiah was meant to do when He came to live as a Man on earth. Here are a few of them:
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
“In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see”
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted…
and release from darkness for the prisoners…”
These were the verses that could help John understand what Jesus was doing in Galilee. So Jesus quoted some of them to John’s disciples. He said: “‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
These were the verses that fit the work that God the Father had given His Son for His first coming to be among us. There are other verses in Isaiah about what the Messiah still has to do when He returns. In Isaiah 61 above, it speaks of setting captives free from prison. John was in prison, but it was not going to be the work of the Christ to set him free, even though He could. He had the power, but it was not a part of God’s plan. John would not see freedom until his life on earth ended and he went to perfect joy and freedom in eternity. So Jesus left that section out in His message to John’s disciples.
Jesus also left out the verses about the vengeance of God against the sin of humanity in the cataclysmic Day of the Lord. Though these things will happen one day, there were not the things John the Baptist needed to be looking for to identify the Messiah.
The last of Jesus’ words to John the Baptist were, “Blessed is the man that does not fall away on account of Me.’” The Lord did not want John to get discouraged because His ministry was not what John imagined. He wanted him to be blessed and trust that the will of God was going ahead, just as God had planned.
Nobody on earth understood the timeline of God. Not even John the Baptist. They didn’t know that the Messiah had come first to bring healing and life, and then to suffer and die. Jesus was going to do far more than judge the people of Israel from one generation and come against the Roman Empire. Jesus came the first time to conquer sin and death. It was a far greater victory, covering all of human history with the possibility for grace. He paid the price for us all. And while there were hints of this breathtaking truth in the Old Testament and in the words of Christ, it was still being kept a mystery. And that is His right. He is God.
Jesus also chose not to reveal that the Day of the Lord would not come for thousands of years. We are still waiting for Jesus to come again…and He will. We can eagerly look forward to His return with great hope. We who believe in His death and resurrection have nothing to fear with His return. We belong to Him, and we will join Him one day for everlasting life in Heaven.
As John’s disciples walked away with Christ’s message, Jesus turned back to the crowd that was always with Him in those days. He spoke to them about the wonderful ministry of John,
“‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“’I will send my messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’”
“‘I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”
As the crowd listened to Jesus, they agreed wholeheartedly. Even the tax collectors had gone out to John to be baptized, and they heard his preaching. They had repented and allowed God’s work to flow into their lives. They were certain John was like one of the prophets of old. They knew that his ministry was from God.
But the Pharisees and teachers of the law had not allowed the ministry of John to touch their hearts. As John spoke the word of God, they refused to listen, and they hardened their hearst. They rejected their great chance to repent and be transformed by God’s power, and they refused to be baptized. God was breaking into the world with power in a new way, and these foolish men, in all their religious pride, rejected God’s purpose for their lives! What a horrific violation of all that is right! To reject the Maker of all things! What a horrible tragedy. These men missed the reason for which they were made.
But even their rebellion could be turned by God into perfect goodness. These men would begin to work to have Jesus put to death, and in doing so, they would be used by God to pave the way for the sacrifice that would make the way for salvation for us all.