It is easy to follow Jesus when things are going well in our lives. When our circumstances are the same as our expectations we can easily believe that we are living within God’s will. Doubts move in when circumstances change and our expectations for life are no longer being met. We see this in the life of John the Baptizer (aka. John the Baptist).
As we read the Gospel accounts of John we notice that he understood who Jesus is. First, in Luke 1 we are told about this remarkable story of John leaping in his mother’s womb when Mary, the mother of Jesus, came for a visit (verses 39-45).
Second, when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John at first refuses to do it, because he knows who Jesus is. Jesus has to tell John why it is important for Him to be baptized. Only after the explanation does John relent and baptizes Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.
When Jesus comes up out of the water the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) lands on Jesus, and the Father proclaims Jesus to be the Son. This event leaves no doubt in John’s mind that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Because of his certainty of the identity of Jesus, John tells his disciples:
“Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’ I did not recognize him as the Messiah, but I have been baptizing with water so that he might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:29-34; NLT)
John the Baptizer was very confident that Jesus was the Christ. John willing proclaimed that Jesus was Israel long awaited Messiah. At this time in his ministry things are going well for John and he was certain that he knew what God was doing in the world. That was about to change.
A scandalous situation arose in the Palace. King Herod had stolen his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias (who is also their niece), and John spoke out about the sinful nature of the relationship. Since no one likes to hear that they are doing wrong Herod, at the urging of Herodias, put John into prison. For the better part of the next year John remained in prison.
While John was rotting in prison he heard things about Jesus. Things that John did not expect from the Messiah. Remember, John the Baptizer was a man of extreme piety. He lived in the wilderness and had a diet of wild honey and locusts. Jesus came onto the scene and he spent his time in the company of sinners. Jesus did not follow John’s strict piety, and therefore Jesus didn’t match John’s expectation for the Messiah.
Not only doesn’t Jesus live the type of life John expected the Messiah to live, Jesus is slow in his going to Jerusalem and to declare his kingship. There was no movement, on the part of Jesus, to overthrow the Romans. So John sits, rotting in prison, while Jesus enjoys life, and seemingly ignoring John’s situation. At this point all the certainty that John had about Jesus being the Messiah is thrown out the window.
How does John the Baptizer handle this situation? He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him a simple question. The question John wanted to know was: Are you the Messiah? John wanted to know if he could continue to hope that Jesus would make things right, deliver Israel from Rome and John from prison. This is the reply Jesus sent back:
“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.'” (Luke 7:22-23; NLT)
Jesus’ answer was taken from a well known passage from the book of Isaiah which summarized the work of the Messiah. John expected Jesus to dole out judgment and bring freedom. Instead Jesus reached out to a hurt and dying world. John the Baptizer, even though he received divine truth, suffered from the same problem that his religious contemporaries had: wrong expectations.
In verse 23 we notice that Jesus also gives John a warning. According to Dr. Brad Young, in his book Jesus the Jewish Theologian, this warning in Hebrew is far sterner than it is in either Greek or English.
“The verb ‘to stumble’ [the NLT has “do not turn away”] in the response of Jesus is a strong word for John. It means to sin or fail in a serious matter. John had missed the significance of Jesus’ work. Jesus told John’s disciples to go and tell him what they had observed as eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and caution him, ‘Blessed is he who does not stumble over me.’ In reality Jesus was both defining the messianic task and giving a stern warning. He was earnestly inviting John to accept his mission as it was being fulfilled in the midst of the people.” (p. 59)
According to Dr. Young, John was in danger of missing the point of Jesus’ mission. John was stumbling over Jesus because Jesus didn’t fit his expectations of what the Messiah was to be. Because of his expectations John was being led away from Jesus. This was in spite of the fact that John had been given a huge amount of evidence pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.
I think we run into a similar problem. We expect God to do certain things. We expect our lives, as Christians, to be good and problem free. We expect Jesus to make things easy, and when God doesn’t act in accordance to our expectations, then it becomes very easy to question Him and His very existence.
The point of the message Jesus sent back to John was to base your faith in the Messiah on the words of Scripture and not your personal expectations. Jesus pointed to Scripture and said: “I am doing exactly what the Scriptures say I would do.” When our expectations come from pop Christianity or a systematic theology rather than Scripture there are going to be times when we wonder if the way of Jesus really is The Way for life.
Our expectations must be measured by the truth of Scripture and be prayerfully considered. I have seen too many people walk away from Jesus because things did not turn out the way they expected.
If we expect the Christian life to be about health and wealth we will be disappointed when we loose our jobs or sickness hits. If we expect the Christian life to be about comfort and ease then we will be disappointed when tragedy hits and problems abound. Don’t let your expectations cause you to sin by stumbling over who Jesus really is.
Instead focus on what the Bible says about Jesus and the promises God has made to His people. Make sure you hope is built of the truth of Scripture.
The Chronological Life of Christ: From Glory to Galilee by Mark E. Moore
Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad H. Young
The Barbarian Way by Erwin Raphael McManus