When Circumstances Cause Our Faith to Stumble

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Luke 7:18-23 ESV

All the while Jesus was traveling throughout Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, John the Baptist was locked in a dungeon, the prisoner of Herod Antipas. John had gotten himself in hot water with the Tetrarch of Galilee for having boldly confronted him about his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife.

Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias (the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip). John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet. – Matthew 14:3-5 NLT

During his imprisonment, John’s disciples had been keeping up with the activities of Jesus and relaying to their master all that they had seen and heard. Evidently, they had been in Nain when Jesus raised the dead man back to life and they delivered a full report on this unprecedented miracle to John. They probably included the reactions of the crowd.

“A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” – Luke 7:16 ESV

But this news left John in conflict. He had clearly believed that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. He had declared Jesus to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). After his baptism of Jesus, John had confidently proclaimed, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34 ESV). Yet, now John found himself locked in a prison cell and he must have wondered about the prophetic promises regarding the coming Messiah. He had plenty of time to think about how his own circumstances seemed to contradict what Isaiah had said would happen when the Messiah appeared in Israel.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. – Isaiah 61:1 ESV

As John looked around at his less-than-ideal surroundings he must have begun to have second thoughts about Jesus’ identity. During his confinement, he had become conflicted and his former confidence in who Jesus was had begun to weaken. At one point, John had boldly proclaimed his unwavering belief in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and the Son of God.

“I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

“He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” – John 3:28-36 ESV

But as John languished in prison, his certainty was shaken. So, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus with a message.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Luke 7:19 ESV

You can sense John’s confusion and concern. He is not denying the supernatural nature of Jesus’ miracles. But he is simply trying to reconcile what he has been told about Jesus’ activities with what he had been expecting of the Messiah. There was little doubt that Jesus had been doing Messianic-like miracles. He had fulfilled all of the prophetic predictions concerning the anointed one of God.

In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 29:18-19 ESV

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. – Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. – Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV

It is easy to understand John’s conflicted state. While he knew that his role would greatly diminish with the coming of the Messiah, he had never considered that it would include his imprisonment. Like every other Jew, John was looking for a Messiah who was going to re-establish the David dynasty and return Israel to power and prominence. John was looking for the Kingdom of God on earth. And while Jesus’ miracles were impressive and provided undeniable evidence of God’s power, John seems to have been waiting for proof that Jesus was the Warrior-King who would put an end to Roman rule and reinvigorate the fortunes of God’s chosen people.

Luke indicates that when John’s disciples arrived and delivered his question to Jesus, they were treated to a demonstration of Jesus’ miraculous power.

At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. – Luke 7:21 NLT

Jesus seemed to be answering John’s question with visible, tangible proof. But just to make sure that the two disciples of John understood what they had seen, Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—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” (Luke 7:22 NLT).

Jesus provides John with a list of miracles He had performed that clearly demonstrate His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. All of these things were meant to provide evidence of His Messianic role. But it seems clear that John had been looking for something more. He had a clear expectation that the Messiah would come in judgment, delivering the wrath of God against the enemies of Israel. But Jesus would later clarify the nature of His first advent.

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” – John 12:46-48 NLT

Like most Jews of his day, John had conflated the predictions concerning the Messiah’s first and second comings. He had been expecting Jesus’ miracles to be followed up by military action against the Roman occupiers of Israel. He had been hoping that Jesus would use His growing popularity among the people and His divine power to lead an insurrection that would finally put an end to Israel’s misery.

But Jesus encouraged John to remain patient and not lose hope.

“…blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Luke 7:23 ESV

Jesus could sense that John was beginning to have doubts. So, He encouraged Him not to be offended by what he saw. The Greek word translated as “offended” is skandalizō, which carries the idea of stumbling over a rock or impediment. John was not to allow his unfulfilled expectations concerning the Messiah to trip him up. Jesus was fully aware of John’s predicament and most likely knew that John would never leave the prison alive. But He did not want John to lose heart. John was allowing his personal circumstances to determine his belief in the Messiah. And Jesus was encouraging him to do just the opposite. John was to examine his circumstances based on the clear evidence of Jesus’ Messianic power and authority. No, John had not personally experienced deliverance from the dungeon in which he was imprisoned but that did not negate the fact that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Not every lame person in Israel had been healed. Not every blind person had received sight. There were still countless people suffering from deafness and leprosy. And it’s unlikely that John was the only occupant of Herod’s prison.

Jesus was not yet done. His ministry had just begun. And all those who would continue to believe would not be disappointed. In fact, they would be blessed. In time, they would find that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. But for now, they were going to have to trust and believe, regardless of the circumstances.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson