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Lessons Learned From An Inmate

John the Baptist is in jail. He crossed the wrong political official and his future of freedom is tentative at best. For quite some time, John has urged his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:35-37, but loyalties die hard among the Jewish teaching ranks. John’s faithful disciples continue to visit him in prison and John questions them about his cousin, Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew 11:2-3 tells us that when John heard about the works of Christ he sent two of his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the coming one or should we look for another?”Don’t you think this is an odd question considering what we already know about John’s relationship with Jesus?

Before either of them was born they were connected by the voice of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). John made no bones about announcing Jesus’ destined purpose on earth as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”(John 1:29 & 36) He prepared the way for the One who was mightier; who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire (Luke 3:16).

We could continue to expand on their relationship but the point is it’s hard to imagine that John doubted whether Jesus was the promised Messiah. I’ve heard sermons about John’s “crisis of faith” but this assessment seems wrong. I think there is more to John’s question then what we see on the surface.

Consider this: We know that John was a Rabbi and he had disciples. This means his ability to interpret and communicate Scriptures was beyond what we would consider over the top. He had vast quantities of the Tanach (Old Testament Scriptures) committed to memory.

We also know that all contemporary teachers of Jesus’ day utilized “remez” or “hint” as a conversation / teaching tool. Teachers commonly quoted a verse of text that seemed vaguely applicable to the discussion, although the real meaning of the teaching was embedded in surrounding verses. So when John asked, “Are you the coming one?” we should consider the passage he was referencing.

Zechariah 9:9 says, “Behold your king is coming to you; He is just and having salvation… “ There’s not much doubt that John referred to this passage and asked, “Are you the coming king who was promised?”

But if we consider that throughout his ministry John declared Jesus to be the promised Messiah it’s puzzling why he even asked the question. Furthermore, John’s disciples relayed details of Jesus’ miracles, so what is the true nature of John’s inquiry?

Zechariah 9:11 provides an answer, “As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free.”

Do you see it? A “remez.” It’s as plain as the page it’s written on. I’m not very convinced that John was curious about Jesus’ identity and destiny in life. Nor do I think he had a “crisis of faith.”He asked a simple question, “Are you going to set me free?”

I’m also convinced that John expected Jesus to answer by quoting Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord, that is my name; and my glory I will not give to another.” The reason I expect that John anticipated (or hoped for) that response is found in the preceding verse (v.7) where God said, “I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness in the prison house.”

I believe John was making a request for Jesus to spring him from the predicament of his circumstances. Unfortunately, Jesus answered, “no.” The text tells us ‘that very hour’ Jesus performed many miracles and then said, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see.” He proceeded to address the crowd and noted that people observing all these miracles were blessed if they were not offended by him (v. 6).

How could anyone be offended by Jesus’ healing miracles? The answer is found when you consider that this is two brilliant Rabbis in a hidden discourse of ‘remez’. One beloved cousin asks the other, “Are you going to get me out of here?” and the other answers, “No. I’m so sorry but you’re going to die in prison.”

So let’s draw three short questions from this story:

  1. Are you willing to ask questions that might kill you? When was the last time any of us sat down with someone we really loved and asked, “What do you see about me that is killing the life of Jesus from shining through me?” Do we really have the guts to hear the answer?
  2. Are you willing to give the hard answer that might offend all who hear it? How many times do we shy away from what we know needs to be said because it would cause unusual difficulty in the relationship? Do we really claim to have ‘loving’ relationships and then protect our personal comfort over our companion?
  3. Do we tell people how great our co-ministers are in the midst of their humility and difficulty? Jesus sent the horrible news to John and then told the listening crowd that there had never been a prophet greater than John. How quickly do we hold up a brother that’s on the way down?

People follow those they trust! Trust requires vulnerability. If we are truly in the disciple-making ministry of Jesus, we’re going to have to get vulnerable enough to ask and answer dangerous questions. After all, it’s only when we agree to lose our life for Jesus’ sake that we truly find life.


This article was written by Bill Spencer, President/Executive Director of Narrow Gate Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and empowering Christian discipleship, equipping and training young men, developing business discipleship platforms, and serving local church communities.

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