If you have ever doubted God - questioned if you really knew Him - if you "got it right", you are in good company with John the Baptist. (You might dress funny and eat weird things too!) John was kin to Jesus. He prepared the way for His ministry. He baptized Jesus and saw the Spirit descend on Him like a dove. He wasn't a scratch-everyone-behind-the-ears kind of guy. He pointed out sin and required that it be dealt with. He crossed the line when he publicly spoke out against Herod Antipas. John's actions landed him in prison.
John was locked away in the prison at Machaerus. Mattew 4:12-13a tells us that
"When he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea…" What? Did Jesus not care? One would think Jesus would go visit him, maybe giving John a word of encouragement. Certainly He would take John food. Jesus could spring him with one snap of His fingers! No. Jesus went the other way. Note, the fortress of Machaerus was located 15 miles southeast of the mouth of the Jordan River on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Capernaum on the other hand, was located miles north on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus seriously left His kin - the guy who prepared the way for Him- in prison and up and went the other way. Have you felt like that before? Oh boy! I sure have. But, that's not all. John was in prison. Chained. Not fed unless someone brought him food. Rumor was that if you were in Herod's prison, you didn't see the light of day again. John knew he was likely awaiting execution. He was in the barren desert, alone. Can you imagine the blistering heat? The windstorms? The hike up the hill for his disciples to bring him food. I wonder how often they actually came?
Meanwhile, Jesus has set up His headquarters in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Needless to say, Jesus' view was a bit different than John's.
(This is when I began yelling.) So, John is in prison, starving and awaiting death. Jesus went the opposite way and is sitting under a palm tree. Maybe your blood is beginning to boil. Where has He been in the midst of your trial? Do you feel as though you're rotting away and the Lord is no where to be found? Surely the all-knowing God is aware of your difficult circumstances. But, if He's aware, then why isn't He here; why doesn't He act on my behalf?
In Matthew 11, John sends word to Jesus by his disciples and asks, "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for someone else?" (v3) By this time, scholars estimate that John had been in prison for over a year and a half. His strength was wearing thin, his faith was tired, and the Devil had John trapped in a dungeon of doubt.
John, being the last of the Old Testament prophets, expected a military-type king. One who would come set Israel free from the oppression of the Romans. He was ready for the new kingdom. As John's disciples brought word about Jesus' ministry- healing people, treasuring the trashed, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, bringing rest to the weary and delivering powerful messages like the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus didn't look like the guy John thought would come. "If He really came to set the captives free, why am I still sitting in prison?"
Have you felt abandoned? John certainly was feeling that way. Not only had Jesus left him, it seemed as though the Devil himself had taken His place. John knew the scriptures back-forth-and-inside-out. I'm sure he tried to recall the promises and prophesies. The signs that were once crystal clear, now clear as mud. In the midst of doubt, it's impossible to think straight.
John was aware of the deaths the prophets before him faced. I bet he could handle the idea of dying for justice and righteousness. I think it was the doubt that he was wrong about Jesus that pushed him to question. What if he prepared the way for the wrong one? What if he had been wrong and thus led others astray? What if his life and ministry was in vain? In the dark, dusty cell, you can almost feel the weight John carried with each and every passing question. We really can't blame him for asking. It wasn't so much a lack of faith as it was a lack of understanding of Jesus' eternal kingdom.
Jesus is gracious to John's disciples and doesn't rebuke anyone for the doubt-filled question. He was well-aware of John's hardships, sorrows and grief long before the boys showed up. Unshaken by the honest inquiry, Jesus continues doing what He came to do. John's disciples watch and listen, taking in the miracles and hope Jesus lavishes on the least of these. "Yes, please… encourage the captive, John, who is suffering on YOUR account, and tell him all the great things YOU'RE doing for everyone else!" That's what I thought…
But that's not what John understood. Jesus, moved with compassion for His friend, looked at the curious disciples and told them, "Tell John all that you've seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers and made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." A knowledgeable prophet, John would have recognized that Jesus was quoting the prophet Isaiah. Out of love for His friend, Jesus didn't include Isaiah's phrase "to proclaim liberty to the captives." Initially, I was incredibly frustrated by this. How can Jesus manipulate His own word like that? You and I both know, that's not the God we serve. I don't think Jesus left that little nugget out because He was sealing John's fate as a dead man, rather that He didn't want to cause further doubt. John was looking for more of a military king - one who would free all the captives in Israel. Little did he know that Jesus' purpose was so much more than that. He didn't come just to set the captives free in Israel, He came to set all people free from sin and eternal damnation.
As John's disciples embark on their journey back to their weary friend in the desert, Jesus pays him an incredible tribute. "I tell you the truth, of all who ever lived, none is greater than John…" (v11) And Jesus says this right after John questioned who He was…. I want Jesus to say that about me - in spite of my fleshly doubts.
You, my friend, are in company with the greats. Even the strongest saints have experienced deep darkness, tortuous trial and gut-wrentching grief. Study the lives of Abraham, Moses, David and Paul. Jesus promised us that we would have trouble in this world - none of us is an exception!
Do you feel that God has left you? As though He's heard of your trial and known of your suffering, yet walked the other way? Have you cried out to God, begging for rescue and it seems as though He's only sitting on His hands under a palm tree? Take another look. He's not sitting on His hands. The hands of Jesus have holes in them. Pierced for you.
Jesus cried out too. He begged His father for another way. To spare the suffering. He experienced the true abandonment of His Father for a moment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, His momentary suffering produced eternal glory. Had Jesus not gone to the cross, we would be forever damned and He wouldn't know the joy His bride will one day bring.
Psalm 23:3a, The Psalmist writes, "He restores my soul…" The promise is not that the Lord will restore your health, that friendship, the marriage, finances, career, etc. His promise is that He will restore your soul. It's the only eternal thing, thus it's the only thing that really matters. I pray you come to a place in humility to recognize that sometimes God says "No," but it's always for an eternal reason. Why would you let the Devil rob you of an eternal reward and keep you locked in the dungeon of doubt?
Imagine John the Baptizer, now enjoying Heaven. Yes, he stayed in prison. Yes, he was beheaded. But, I don't imagine that John would change a single thing. Can you fathom his reward in Heaven?! God forgive us when recklessly trade earthly things for eternal ones! Don't sacrifice the eternal on the altar of the immediate.
You and I may feel frustrated - experience doubt - assume abandonment, but we don't know abandonment like Jesus does. He did it to give us abundant life. God always has purpose in the pain. You will be happy again. When you can look back with eternal perspective, I doubt you'd want to change a thing. This life is so menial and so fleeting - it is a speck in light of the glory of eternity. So, I'm sorry you're suffering now, but, one day I may be battling jealousy over your reward in heaven! Stay faithful. Hang on to what you know. Recognize the miracles and the way He's moving in the lives of others. Your day will come and perspective will change.
These hands are active. These hands are marked with love for you.