Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Herald Questions the Heir

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:1-15)

It seems more than just a little strange to us that Jesus' cousin John would be the one to broach this subject. After all, wasn't it John who declared to all present on the shores of the Jordan River, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" And yet now he sends two of his disciples to ask, "Are you the one? Or should we look for someone else?"

And yet, there is something oddly comforting about it as well. Who among us has not wondered, especially when things seem to be going badly, if maybe we got it all wrong. I'll be straight with you dear reader, there have been more than just a few times when I have faced stiff opposition, especially well-read, articulate opposition, that I have found myself wondering if it might not all be just some great ancient legend after all. Yes indeed, I have!

And before you get out the candles and Holy water let me say that not all doubt is the result of demonic influences and the workings of the evil one. To doubt oneself, to question the validity of one's own beliefs is all too much a part of what it is to be human. This is most often the case when things don't play out the way we expect. And prophet though he was, walking and preaching in the spirit of Elijah, John was one other thing as well -- human.

He had his expectations of the Messiah just like anyone else. When he read the prophecies found in the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, he looked for the conquering Messiah who would bring into reality the long awaited Kingdom of God and "if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord!" (Jeremiah 12:17 ) But that is not what he sees happening. There is no fire, no brimstone, no nations being brought to their knees for disobedience. What else is an old school, campaign weary, fundamentalist baptist going to do but ask questions?

And how does Jesus respond? Is he frustrated? Angry? Does he throw his arms up in despair and rend his garments?

No. He answers the question, gently but authoritatively reminding John of what else is written among those prophesies. "Go back" he says, "tell John what you see and hear." (Remember John's been in prison since chapter 4) "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, (can you see him counting these off on his fingers?) the deaf hear (Isaiah 35:3-6 ), the dead are raised (Isa 29:18-19 ) and the poor receive the good news (Isaiah 61:1-3 )" Jesus knows full well that in John's present situation he doesn't need rebuke because he's harbouring a doubt or two; he needs reassuring that what he saw that day at the Jordan was no hallucination. That Jesus is indeed The One.

Then, after the two men leave to take Jesus' message back to their teacher, he turns to the crowd. You can bet that those nearest to him heard the two disciples ask John's question. It would have spread through the crowd in a matter of moments - I can picture them all looking to see what Jesus will say about his cousin's "unbelief." I can also picture the looks on their faces when he asks two satirical, almost sarcastic questions.

"Who did you go out to see? A reed swaying in the wind?" Hmmpf! Hardly! John was no reed! A thorn in the side of Herod and the Sanhedrin maybe, but no reed. I mean, John was a tough man, and not afraid of anyone. He stood up to Herod time and time again; why do you think he's in prison?

"Okay, then maybe you went out to see a man dressed in fine clothing?" Oh come on, Jesus! A camel hair tunic and a leather belt? Eating locusts? Okay, the wild honey's not too bad, but locusts! Get real!

Finally Jesus gives them the answer that likely sprang into their heads the moment He asked the question - A Prophet! "Yes," says Jesus, "and more than a prophet!"

We don't really know if John tried to play down who he was or if he just didn't realize the full scope of his role in history, but Jesus makes it clear that despite his denials, John was indeed the Elijah that Israel had been waiting for; the empty seat at the Passover table was John's!

But that is not all he says. He pays John the greatest compliment that anyone had likely been paid up until that moment. John, son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, cousin to Jesus, baptizer of sinners, and conscience of puppet monarchs, is declared to be the greatest human being that has ever lived since Adam and Eve! "Among all those born of a woman, there is none greater than he..." Remarkable! But even more remarkable is the last half of that sentence, "But the one who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!"

There are many who will tell you that this is an indication of just how great Jesus thinks you are! It's a very egocentric and arrogant way to interpret this passage and I will admit that I fell into the trap myself for a while. But I have come to realize that it is really a far more remarkable statement than that. It is not about Jesus' opinion of me, or you or anyone else. In fact, it's not even really about John. It's about the Kingdom!

The kingdom of God, the kingdom that the Heir will establish when he takes his rightful place upon his Father's throne, will be so unlike anything that has appeared before, there will be no comparing it. Everything that has gone before, from the day when Creation was finished until the present moment, will seem like Nothing compared to the Kingdom founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It will be so great, so mind boggling, so far and above all that we could imagine, that the smallest, most insignificant citizen of that kingdom will be greater than John the baptist simply by virtue of the fact they are invited to be there at all!

And if that is true, then what can be said of this generation? Or of the one that witnessed John's ministry? We'll look at Jesus comments on that - next time.

Till then - Shalom.



nordn8 said...

Yes, it's all about the Kingdom.
And speaking of the Kingdom, I am wondering if you can, perhaps, shine some light on Luke's account, 7:18-19, where John sent two disciples. In my friend Tom's bible it states that they were Stephen and Ananias. I have also looked at something on that confirms the later. But is there any validity to it?

If Stephen and Ananias were the two disciples of John that he sent to Jesus, how significant would that be? In the martyrdom of Stephen, it is evident to me that Christianity is to exceed Judaism. "And Saul was there, giving approval to his death," Acts 8:1. So what then, Saul undoubtedly goes on to give the best eye-witness account of the risen Lord? And who does Christ Jesus send to Saul in Damascus? None other than Ananias. Again, how significant is this?

Dennis Alan Gray said...

First of all I'd like to apologize for taking so long to answer your question. I'd also like to know what Bible your friend has, as this is the first time I've ever heard it suggested that it was Stephen and Ananias. So I wanted to do some research before I commented.

The only reference I can find to the identity of the two disciples sent by John being Ananias and Stephen is in an old Nestorian commentary. The Nestorians were deeply mired in a heresy about the nature of Christ's divinity and that has thrown a great amount of suspicion upon many of their writings. So that has me wondering about the nature of the commentary in your friend's Bible.

But let's assume for a moment that it was them - does it really make that much difference? Is it truly as significant as we might think?

There is a tendency in church circles to over spiritualize a great deal. We feel there needs to be a deep spiritual significance to everything that's going on, but sometimes, as a teacher of mine once put it, we're trying to measure the temperature of the water 10 feet down in an 8 foot pool - we are looking for depth that just isn't there.

The Bible demonstrates that God uses people who are available, and often that's the only reason.

If Stephen and Ananias were indeed the disciples sent to Jesus by John the Baptist then the most we can surmise from that is the experience led them to stay the course and as a result they were still around when the time came to be used by God once more. And that, in most areas of life, is the larger part of success - just showing up.

I am not going to de-value Stephen's sacrifice in any way. It is a significant event in the life of both the church and Paul. But I do have to suggest that of Ananias was not in Damascus at the time, I'm sure God would have found someone else to use in Paul's life.

After all, what would you do if you had a vision when God told you he had a mission for you, even one as odd as discipling the greatest enemy of the church alive?? I would like to think most of us in that situation would have risen to the occasion.

nordn8 said...

Thank you for responding to my questions, Dennis. I spoke to my friend Tom and his Bible in reference is a King James Bible and that is all he could tell me at the time. So, I'm unsure as to which print it is. He did say that it was his father's Bible before he received it upon his passing.

I do understand about showing up and how important that is as I am a part of a worship team at my church. And even with my understanding I still need to be shown the way.

I always hear Atheists or, more specifically, unbelievers generalize death in martyrdom between Christians of the early church in Acts with extremist Muslims of today. And I try to ignore their arguments because they are not at all objective and they attempt to use fallacies to prove their point that if you die for something you believe in that that doesn't make it true, which is true. Although, their method of getting to this conclusion is illogical.

The temptation to debate with them is overwhelming at times too. And I was hoping that there was more surrounding Paul's account than there is. But I understand I was only searching for more Truth to arm myself with than I already possess or even needed.

Dennis Alan Gray said...

I fully appreciate your desire to arm yourself, it is a temptation that once held me in it's grasp as well. As I grew older in the faith however, I discovered a great deal of peace in the realization that when Paul tells us to be ready to defend what be believe it does not mean we have to know it all. We simply have to be able to explain why we personally believe in Jesus and his work on the cross.

Too many Christians have the mistaken notion that it is our job to convince others of their need for Christ or the reality of the bible. We don't - that is the Holy Spirit's job. Our's is to give the Spirit someting to work with by being the best witness for the truth we can be. The best way we can do that is to siply love those who would argue with us.

We have Muslim neigbours two doors down from us. My wife and I have never spoken to them about the gospel, but I have gone over and fixed their lights, we helped their mother learn better English, and my wife taught the daugther how to drive. As a result of these simple acts of friendship, founded on the love of christ I think we have been the most effective witness we can be. When we put on a Christian play at a local theatre this past Christmas, they family came out to see it. I don't think that would have happened if we hadn't invested toime in deveoping the relationship first by just being good neighbours.