2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Matthew 11:2-6 ESV
When Jesus had finished giving his pep talk to His disciples, He sent them out. But Matthew provides no details concerning their first missionary endeavor. He simply picks up the narrative with Jesus teaching and preaching. We have to turn to the gospels of Mark and Luke to find any information concerning the disciples. Luke simply states, “they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). Mark provides a bit more detail.
“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” – Mark 6:12-13 ESV
Neither man mentions any form of suffering or persecution. So, was Jesus mistaken? No, He had been speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of what they could expect once He had fulfilled His mission and returned to His Father in heaven. The trials would come, but not until Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended back to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Then, His followers would experience all the things He had described. But until that time, they would enjoy a certain amount of celebrity and popularity from their association with Jesus.
But Matthew maintains his focus on Jesus. Throughout the last 10 chapters, he has consistently presented Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Israel. God, Himself confirmed the identity of Jesus at His baptism, when He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The many miracles Jesus had performed, and Matthew recorded were also meant to validate Jesus as the Messiah. The lengthy message regarding the Kingdom, given by Jesus on the hillside and found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, also points to His unique identity as the Lord’s anointed.
But there was doubt among the followers of Jesus. And these verses reveal that even John the Baptist was having reservations concerning the true identity of Jesus. Matthew records that John sent a couple of his own disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV).
It’s important to note where John was when he sent this message to Jesus. He was in prison. And it won’t be until chapter 14 that Matthew explains just how John ended up as a prisoner of Herod.
Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” – Matthew 14:3-4 ESV
Remember, John was a prophet of God, and his primary message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And John had told the religious leaders of Israel that their repentance would need to be visible and real. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). True repentance was to be accompanied by tangible, measurable life change. And John applied that criteria to any and all, including Herod Antipater, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, who tried to have Jesus put to death as an infant. Upon Herod the Great’s death, his son was placed over the regions of Galilee and Perea. And John the Baptist had taken his message of repentance right to the doorstep of this powerful and influential man, confronting him about his relationship with his wife, Herodias. Their relationship had begun while both were still married. Herod divorced his wife and convinced Herodias to leave her husband, who just happened to be Philip, Herod’s half-brother, and another tetrarch.
But John’s bold indictment of Herod had landed him in prison. And it was while in prison that John began to have second thoughts about Jesus. Remember, he is the one who, at one time, described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).
But now, after having had plenty of time to consider all that had transpired since he had baptized Jesus, John expressed his apprehension and misgivings.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3 ESV
John was looking for verbal confirmation. He wanted to hear Jesus unapologetically and undeniably state His identity. And John’s misgivings must have been based on what he believed to be unmet expectations. Things had not turned out quite like he had anticipated. It didn’t help that he was in prison. And he must have wondered how that unexpected outcome could be part of the Messiah’s grand plan. It is likely that John thought his calling out of Herod should have resulted in the tetrarch’s repentance. Didn’t Herod understand that the true king of Israel had come? Was he not aware that the Romans were on their way out, and the Messiah was going to be cleaning house throughout Israel?
But instead of watching Herod repent, John had been dragged off to prison, where he sat pondering this unexpected turn of events. But Jesus doesn’t answer, “Yes” or “No” in response to John’s question. Instead, He says, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT).
The proof Jesus provides John is in the form of HIs miracles and message. In a sense, Jesus is inviting John to consider His words and works. John was to listen, watch, and learn. You see, John was wrestling with what he believed to be a disconnect between those very things that Jesus was doing and what he had been telling the people the Messiah had come to do. Look closely at the content of John’s message prior to Jesus appearing for His baptism.
Even now, the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” – Matthew 3:10-12 NLT
John wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t winnowing, cleaning, gathering, and burning. He had thought Jesus was going to come in judgment and restore the moral, ethical, and political purity of the nation of Israel. The Herods of the world would either need to turn or burn. But John was the one who was in jail, not Herod. The unrepentant, hypocritical Pharisees were on the outside, while John was sitting behind bars wondering how any of this could be part of the Messiah’s kingdom initiative.
But Jesus wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had come to do. In his gospel account, the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus, where He stated the purpose behind His mission.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17 ESV
There would be a time for judgment, but that time was not now. John the Baptist was attempting to compress the ministry of the Messiah by skipping over the saving aspect of His work and fast-forwarding to HIs eventual role as Judge.
But Jesus had come to bring healing to the nations. He had come to provide sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, a cure for lepers, and restored life to the dead. And that is exactly what Jesus had been doing. All in keeping with His earlier claim to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT
Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 and applied them to Himself. And He wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had been sent to do. But not just on a physical level. In time, Jesus would restore the spiritual well-being of all those who chose to place their faith in Him. And the apostle John records the words of Jesus, explaining how belief in Him as the Messiah will save anyone from the very judgment John thought was coming.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 NLT
John had his doubts, but Jesus wanted him to rest in the knowledge that all was well. Everything was going according to plan, and there were aspects concerning that plan to which John was not privy. And Jesus did not want John to lose hope. The Greek word Jesus used skandalizō, and it means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Jesus knew that John was struggling. This faithful servant was having a difficult time understanding all that was taking place around him and to him. But Jesus assured John that all was well and going according to plan.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.