It was all right to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, still storms, preach righteousness, and announce the kingdom; but where was the judgment? Had the corruptions and cruelties of Caesar been abruptly shut down? Had the hypocritical temple leaders been banished? Had the disgusting corruptions of Herod Antipas been confronted? Why was he, John the Baptist, languishing in the stifling heat of the prison at Machaerus fortress for challenging the morals of Herod, while Jesus the alleged Messiah did nothing about this injustice?
As far as John could see, the world was as wicked as it was before Jesus began his ministry. Isn’t that a reasonable objection even now? Jews believe, “when the Messiah comes there will be justice.”
It is worth noting in Matthew 11 Jesus did not condemn John the Baptist for his doubt, any more than God condemned Elijah for his breakdown after the victory on Mount Carmel. The reason, of course, is that doubt is not unbelief. It is something midway between faith and unbelief. Os Guinness called it being “in two minds.” Doubt is a common, natural state for human beings, who never see the whole picture and whose thinking is often clouded by their physical condition or circumstances. Instead of condemning John, Jesus ministered to him from the Bible, reminding him of the messianic passages that had been fulfilled. Then, when John’s disciples were on their way back to the prison, Jesus praised John to the people.
Jesus’ answer to John is a reference to Isaiah 35.5-6 and 61.1-2, with possible allusions to Isaiah 26.19 and 29.18–19. The best known of these four texts is Isaiah 61.1-2, because it is the passage Jesus took as the basis for His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
All these passages describe physical miracles such as giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, movement to people who are paralyzed, restoring the dead to life, and helping the poor. They are all explicitly messianic texts. But the interesting thing is that all four of these passages also go on to speak of a work of messianic judgment, the very thing John had been proclaiming, but which Jesus pointedly leaves out. This was most obvious in Nazareth where Jesus stopped his reading of Isaiah 61 just before the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Why did Jesus stop at this point? Obviously, because this was not the object of His ministry at this time. One day He would come in judgment and the second half of the prophecies would be fulfilled. But for now, His goal was to teach the Bible, preach the Gospel, and heal the sick. In other words, the days in which we live are to be days of God’s favor, days of grace.
We had better be glad they are! Because if it is judgment we want, it is judgment we will get, and judgment will destroy us. It is not justice we need, it is salvation. We need grace. We need grace to believe on Jesus as the Savior He is and to cling to Him in spite of the evil we see around us and the things we cannot fully understand. This is the point of Jesus’ last words to John, a blessing that was a warning at the same time: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” These words acknowledge John’s good start; he was one who had faith in Jesus. But he must persist to the end, as must all Christ’s followers. The day of God’s judgment will come. We can wait for that. But while we wait we must get on with the job of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior. This is a word for us as well as for John the Baptist.
After John’s disciples had begun to return to their imprisoned teacher, Jesus praised John to the people. He praised him as a prophet, exactly what the people had gone out into the desert to see. But, said Jesus, John was even “more than a prophet.” How so? John not only prophesied about Christ’s coming but was himself a fulfillment of prophecies about the Messiah’s forerunner. Jesus cites Malachi 3.1 with slight changes to make it a direct address of God the Father to himself. “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
What made John so special is that he had the privilege of actually pointing out the Messiah, which none of his predecessors had done. John did no miracles, but he was greater than any of the earlier prophets (or anyone else who had come before him) simply because he had the job of announcing and then actually identifying Jesus as the Christ.
This must have been a startling statement to people who knew of such Old Testament giants as Abraham, Moses, and David, not to mention Elijah, whom John resembled, who did great miracles. However, in the next breath Jesus says something even more startling than this. He said that in spite of John’s greatness, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How can that be? How can the least gifted, least significant, least prominent, least outspoken of today’s believers be greater than this greatest of Old Testament figures, and therefore greater also than all the others? For this reason: because they can point to Jesus and witness to His work more clearly than even John could.