When we think of heroes of the faith, there are many names that come to mind.
Abraham, Noah, David, Peter, Paul.
But one man who doesn’t get enough credit is John. No, not John the disciple. I’m talking about the other John, the original John, the first John (okay, not, like, the first John ever but the first John in the story of Jesus):
John the Baptist.
The man was a rock star even before his conception. In Luke 1, an angel visited Zechariah, John’s soon-to-be father, and foretold the kind of man his son would be:
“…he will be great in the eyes of the Lord…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of their righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (verses 15-17)
Even after his conception but before his birth, John was a faithful force to behold.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb…” (Luke 1:41a)
The first person to recognize the coming Messiah was a fetus inside his mother’s womb. John, still being knit together, and yet already rejoicing at the presence of the Lord.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Even after he was grown, we see John out in the wild, boldly fulfilling the role for which he was born. He calls for people to repent, rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees, and even denies the Christhood for himself when others tried to pin it on him (something that may have been tempting for a man living off locusts and wearing clothes made of camel hair).
In Matthew 3, we see the worlds of John and Jesus finally collide, as John stood in the Jordan River baptizing his followers. It was then that Jesus approached him, asking to baptized as well.
“But John tried to deter him, saying ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let is be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whose I love; with him I am well pleased.'” (Matthew 3:14-17)
After a lifetime of faith, John is able to witness the miraculous unveiling of God’s Son. All his days had led up to this point, where he was finally able to pass the torch to the One he knew would change everything.
And change it did. But, at least in John’s case, not for the better.
Shortly afterward, John was thrown in prison by Herod at the behest of Herodias, his sister-in-law, with whom he had begun an affair. John boldly and bravely spoke truth over the matter, telling Herod the relationship was a sin, and he was punished for it.
The Messiah had come. Jesus now traveling the countryside, preaching His message and preforming miracles….all while John, the one who had paved the one for His ministry, sat in prison.
Although Scripture doesn’t say for sure, I can imagine John sitting in his prison cell, retracing his steps and playing the past over and over in his mind trying to make sense of his circumstances. He’d known his calling from birth, had been faithful to it, and had eagerly awaited–and witnessed–the beginning of His Messiah’s public ministry. He knew who Jesus was even before he was born and, through the Old Testament Scriptures, he knew the things the Messiah would achieve. And yet here he was, isolated, tortured, and discouraged.
Despite everything–the faithfulness he’d displayed even before his birth and the miracle he’d witnessed in the waters of the Jordan River–John the Baptist began to doubt.
He began to doubt so much, in fact, that when some of his disciples came to visit him in prison, he sent with them this message to pass along to Jesus:
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3b)
Questions such as this one are prone to creep in when Jesus fails to meet our expectations. Jesus proclaimed freedom, but John was a captive. The Messiah was to bring about judgment and a new kingdom, and yet the Romans remained firmly in control of the land. Jesus was supposed to be God Incarnate, all powerful and loving, but He had done nothing to help get John out of prison.
Haven’t we all been there? Perhaps not in prison at the behest of an evil ruler, but we’ve all had times in our lives where Jesus has not responded to our situations in the ways in which we think He should. And in those moments, if we’re being honest, I think most of us can admit that we’ve begun to doubt.
What’s most interesting about John’s story is the way Jesus responds to his doubts.
“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 cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.'” (Matthew 11:4-5)
Jesus doesn’t immediately come to John’s aid. Nor does He acquiesce to John’s expectations. Instead, Jesus pointed John back to Scripture. Using phrases from the prophet Isaiah, He described the work He had been doing, knowing John would recognize the reference and understand that yes, Jesus was indeed who He said He was.
At the end of the day, John was still stuck in prison. His challenging circumstances had not abated; in fact, he would never see freedom again. And yet, from Jesus’s words, John the Baptist found comfort. His mission and his calling had not been vain. Jesus truly was the Messiah, and His purpose would be fulfilled.
In our own challenging times, we too can find comfort in the truth of the Scriptures. We have the benefit of being able to look back over God’s faithfulness through the centuries, as well as remembering His steadfast love in our lives. When we find ourselves blinded by our doubts, we must remember that–like John–our perspective is limited. We look at the world through the standpoint of the here and now; God looks at things things through the framework of eternity. It’s easy to lose hope and feel our faith waiver when we look at the state of the world around us. It’s only by keeping our eyes on Scripture–and the promises both fulfilled and those yet to come–that we can remain hopeful in seasons of hopelessness.
No matter what your life looks like–how hard, how broken, how confused–remember this one simple truth: Jesus is Who He Says He is.
And He will do what He says He will do.