5th February 2011

Dear John…

“When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is 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 cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”
Matthew 11:2-6 (NIV 2011)

“Dear John” letters are famously sent to end a romantic relationship. Here, of course, there is no romance, but John and his disciples are considering breaking the connection with Jesus and looking for someone else.

Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, had been on fire for the truth from early childhood. He had preached the baptism of repentance, and he baptised Christ in whose baptism we all share. Also, John did not mince his words when he chastised the adulterous King Herod. He was in the frontline of ministry. And now he found himself in the palace prison. If Jesus really is the Messiah, why doesn’t he get on with it?

Typically “Dear John” letters explain “I’m sorry, but”, and, in one way, Jesus’ words to John are similar. “I’m sorry you’re in prison but I am not going to do anything about it. And, by the way, the gospel is being preached. Just hang in there and don’t get upset”.

I wonder how John felt. He was pretty sure that Jesus was the Messiah. This Jesus would go on to perform miracles, raise the dead and drive demons into pigs. He had legions of angels at his command. Why, we may ask, could Jesus not send one to rescue John?

Interestingly, in his message to Jesus, John does not ask for anything for himself. The modern Christian relates faith to being rescued from difficulties. Some see that having a god who delivers us from, or at least softens, trials as the main reason for having faith in the first place. What’s the use of a god who does not deliver?

You get the impression that John the Baptist did not entertain such thoughts.  His faith went beyond the present moment. The work of God took priority over personal concerns. Jesus’ words would have brought him comfort and re-assurance. “Dear John, don’t worry. The work has begun. Our gospel relationship is in tact.”

As John’s disciples were leaving Jesus, did they hear what Jesus said? “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (11:11). I like to think they did, and that they told John those words. Maybe John would have smiled, with a glint in his fiery prophet’s eyes. He knew better. Jesus, the Messiah, had come.

Father, help me to focus on the work of Christ, and not mainly on my personal circumstances. In Jesus’ name.

Study by James Henderson 

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