Sometimes, I identify with John the Baptizer. Not in his fiery prime, when he stood against the religious hypocrites of Jerusalem. Not when he prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Not when he called multitudes to repent of their sins and to submit to the rite of baptism. No, I empathize with the man whose faith stood on trembling legs in the squalor of Herod’s dungeon. Undoubtedly bewildered by his suffering, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
What a curious question for the Forerunner of the Messiah to ask. What could have caused this man of almost superhuman faith to question Jesus’ identity? After all, from the moment of his conception, John’s destiny compelled him to prepare the way for the Christ. Even before he took a single breath outside his mother’s womb, the prophet sensed the divine presence of the Expected One (Luke 1:41, 44). Nevertheless, John’s confidence waivered for the same reasons many vocational servants of God struggle today.
First, John suffered outrageous injustice.
Not long after John baptized Jesus—perhaps only months later—Herod Antipas captured the Forerunner and held him prisoner. The despotic ruler of Galilee didn’t much care for the prophet’s message. John openly declared his current marriage unlawful, because it clearly violated the Law of Moses (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Antipas had divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, who had been married to his brother, Philip. Moreover, Herodias was the niece of both men.
The prophet faithfully proclaimed the truth and called the ruler of Galilee to account. In so doing, he stood in the tradition of the authentic prophets who had gone before him. Samuel stripped disobedient Saul of his dynasty (1 Samuel 13:13–14). Nathan confronted David with his sin (2 Samuel 12:7–12). Elijah spent his career naming the sins of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 18:18–19). Jeremiah called an entire nation to account for their crimes and foretold their doom. And most of these men enjoyed the Lord’s protection in response to their faithfulness. John, however, suffered for his obedience. He languished in a dungeon until beheaded on the whim of an amateur belly dancer (Matthew 14:6–12).
Second, John suffered overwhelming disillusionment.
Most people understood the mission of the Messiah to be one of military conquest and political ascension. When Jews thought of the “the Expected One” (or literally, the “Coming One”), they envisioned a kind of super-David figure, a man who would please God perfectly, expel Rome from Israel, unify the offices of king and high priest, usher the nation into unprecedented prosperity, and eventually expand His rule to bring the entire world under subjection. They looked forward to the reign of the Messiah, when power and truth would become allies instead of enemies.
Earnest Jews anticipated a new golden age for Israel because the Old Testament prophets had promised nothing less (Daniel 7:14; Zechariah 9:9–10; Isaiah 9:1–7; 11; 35; 42:1–9; Jeremiah 30–31). But John, the greatest of the prophets who once inspired thousands, now withered in prison, forgotten by all. Clearly, truth and power remained bitter enemies in the realm of fallen humanity. Evil still occupied the throne of Galilee and wore the resplendent robes of religious authority in Jerusalem. The Expected One had come, but nothing appeared to have changed—at least not as expected.
John undoubtedly felt cast aside, which would suit him fine, as long as Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But if not . . .
A Crisis of Confidence
I, like many who have heeded the call of destiny to serve the Lord fulltime, identify with poor John at this low point in his spiritual journey. Injustice and disillusionment have brought me to a low point in my own. Nevertheless, like John, I do not struggle with faith as much as with confidence. And we must be careful to distinguish the two. Faith is a choice; confidence is a feeling. Like the father of a boy possessed by evil, I plead for strengthened confidence, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Like John the Baptizer, whose confidence had been flattened by injustice and disillusionment, I lament the daily triumph of evil and the continued prosperity of immoral people. I freely admit that, at times, the pervasiveness of evil undermines my confidence in the efficacy of the gospel, especially when I see believers behaving no differently than the unsaved.
According to The Barna Group’s latest research statistics, one of every four evangelical adults has been divorced. Expand the population of church attendees to include non-evangelicals and the figure rises to 33%, the same as the general population in the United States. In a space of less than two weeks in 2009, two high-profile politicians revealed extramarital affairs. Both had been prominent evangelical, pro-family voices in national politics, yet as of this writing, neither has resigned and no one appears to be outraged—not at least on the conservative side of the aisle. Based on my experience in church ministry, single adults are not only sexually active, but surprisingly unconcerned about the moral implications of their sin. Christian men, both married and single, regularly view pornography and then soothe their wounded consciences by receiving weekly slaps on the wrist from an “accountability group.” Christian women blame their husbands when neither happiness nor contentment finds them; then they seek consolation in food, prescription pills, romance novels (porn for women), alcohol, and extramarital affairs.
One might assume things are getting worse, but they aren’t. Except for rare interludes of uncharacteristic morality, the world has been this way since the time of John the Baptist and beyond. But, like John, I thought Jesus came to change all of that. What happened? Why isn’t the world changing? Why isn’t the church changing? Does the gospel, in fact, work?
When John didn’t see his world changing with the arrival of the Messiah, he felt compelled to ask a reasonable question. “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?”
Jesus reassured John in the spirit of an important Old Testament prophecy. Isaiah reassured his own generation of Israelites by urging a yet future generation to encourage one another with the good news of the Messiah.
Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble.
Say to those with anxious heart,
“Take courage, fear not.
Behold, your God will come with vengeance;
The recompense of God will come,
But He will save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened
And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then the lame will leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.
Jesus said in effect, “Encourage John’s ‘anxious heart,’ for we are that future generation! Report to him the fulfillment of Isaiah’s messianic promise. Blind eyes see. Deaf ears hear. Mute mouths speak. Lame legs leap. Lepers are cleansed and corpses are revived.” (See also Isaiah 61:1–2.) He then concluded His exhortation with a benediction:
“And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:6)
The phrase, “take offence,” is better rendered with the English expression, “come to ruin.” Blessed is the person who does not come to ruin because of Me.
Jesus was not the kind of Messiah Israel wanted. He came to establish a different kind of kingdom, not one founded upon military might or political cunning. He did not come to overthrow Rome, conquer the world, or to establish a Hebrew world empire. At least not yet. Many early disciples fell away because Jesus refused to be the kind of savior they wanted (John 6:66). They died in their sins, or “came to ruin,” by rejecting the Messiah as He had presented Himself.
The true Messiah came to conquer souls first. World conquest, material prosperity, theocratic rule, and the eradication of evil will be accomplished in due time. Before all that, the Messiah came to transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh so they would beat in perfect rhythm with the heart of God (Jeremiah 31:31–33). This would require the conquering King to become a suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:1–11; 52:13–53:12).
Jesus gently reminded John with His benediction that to become a citizen of His kingdom is to become like its King.
I am also encouraged by Jesus’ next response. After John’s disciples carried the Lord’s message to his prison cell, Jesus turned to the bystanders to set them straight about John and his crisis of confidence.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Matthew 11:7–12)
Despite John’s crisis of confidence, Jesus considered him no less than the greatest man who ever lived, and by extension, the greatest vocational servant of the Lord . . . EVER. Why? Because of his effective preaching? His selfless lifestyle? His courageous, tenacious, voracious love of divine truth? Those certainly made John great, but no. Because the man never succumbed to the greatest temptation Satan afflicts upon the servants of God: the temptation to quit.
The Lord chose an intriguing image to describe John. “A reed shaken by the wind” is a double-entendre. On one side, the question can be rendered, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? The foliage?” The Greek construction of Jesus’ question indicates that He presupposed a negative response because the rugged barrenness of the Judean hill country didn’t support much beyond the simplest plant life. In this way, Jesus reminded the crowd that John was accustomed to hardship, which he chose from his earliest days. Herod’s dungeon, as bad as it was, would never break John.
On the other side of the double-entendre, the question can be rendered, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A common reed trembling and barely able to remain rooted?” Again, no. They tramped into the wilderness to see an unusual sight, a man who stood in contrast to the pampered religious authorities in the Temple, and who stood in firm opposition to their puffed up, pseudo authority. They depended upon men for their sustenance and, therefore, nurtured the power of men to maintain their opulent standard of living. John, on the other hand, ate directly from the hand of God and answered to no one but Him. At his lowest moment, John knew which king to seek.
The Lord Is Enough
We hear nothing more from John after this. He continued in prison for several months until beheaded by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee (Matthew 14:1–12). John’s ministry apparently came to nothing as he suffered a cruelly pointless death. At least that’s the view from earth. From heaven’s vantage, the Baptizer remained the greatest mortal who ever died. Regardless, John’s trust in Christ rooted his confidence despite his lonely last days. This mere reed of a man—no different in form or substance than you or I—pushed his roots deep into the stony terrain that was his life and ministry. He drew his nourishment from the Lord and found Him sufficient. Though shaken, he never blew away.
In ministry, there is no defeat save one: giving up.
 The Greek verb translated “take offense” is skandalizō. The main idea carried by the term is “closing on something,” like a spring-loaded rabbit trap. It later became the word of choice for deliberately placing a trip hazard in the path of another to cause them injury or even death.