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1. John In Prison (verse 2a)
2. John In Doubt (verse 2b-3)
3. The Truth about Jesus (verses 4-5)
4. The Blessing of Belief (verse 6)

Once again, we return to Matthew's gospel. We will be looking at Matthew 11:2-6. I want to begin by reading the passage of our second course this morning.

Matthew 11:1-6
Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples, and said to Him, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" And Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me."

In chapter 11 we get a glimpse of John the Baptist. The first thing that we find out about John is that he is in prison (according to verse 3).

1. John In Prison (verse 2a)

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that John was imprisoned in the fortress of Macherus which is located about 5 miles east of the Dead Sea (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5.2). It was John's preaching that landed him in prison (see Matt. 4:12). John was put in prison because he was boldly speaking out against the immorality of Herod, the King. Herod had married his half-brother’s wife named Herodias. According to Lev.18:16; 20:21, this was clearly wrong. In Matthew 14:4, we are told that John was telling Herod this directly to his face. The tense in the Greek is the imperfect tense which could easily be translated, "John was repeatedly saying to [Herod], ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’" Obviously, such a preacher was not a good thing for Herod’s public relations. Furthermore, John was seen as a political revolutionary who was preaching about a kingdom that was coming. Herod did the best thing that he could do to help his own political image; he imprisoned John. A parallel would have been in the Clinton days of scandal. Suppose a minister of the gospel had arisen to stand face to face with Bill Clinton and to tell Him that he was wrong in what he did, and that he ought to confess his sin. And this message came loud and clear again and again and again, so that he was put in prison to be silenced.

John the Baptist may not have been one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. He may not have heard Jesus’ instructions to His apostles (in Matthew 10). But, he spoke with boldness just as the apostles were encouraged to do in Matthew 10. As a result, he was hated by the religious leaders and was brought before governors and kings, just as Jesus had predicted would take place (Matthew 10:17, 18). This is why John was imprisoned by Herod. His prison term ultimately ended in his death. When we get to Matthew 14, we will dig into the details of how this took place.

In some ways, John is a model of what we might expect if we, too, might be bold in proclaiming our faith in Christ. Jesus said that it would come upon His disciples. In the persecuted church today, there are many who are facing such a fate. Many are in prison today for their faith. As much as John was a model for his boldness, he did not quite understand Jesus’ ministry. Before his death, I am sure that John was somewhat confused. We see in verse 2 here that John even had doubts.

2. John In Doubt (verse 2b-3)

Matthew tell us, "Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples, and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’" (Matt. 11:2-3). The text says that John had heard news of the works of Christ. What kind of news was he hearing? We just need to look back at Matthew 8 and 9 to find an account of all the things that Jesus had been doing. We can assume that these are the types of things that John had heard. I've compiled a quick list of some of the things Matthew recorded in chapters 8 and 9:

  • Matt. 8:1-4 - Lepers being cleansed and presented clean to the priests.
  • Matt. 8:5-13 - Paralyzed servant-boys cured from afar.
  • Matt. 8:14-15 - Feverish women instantly cured with a touch.
  • Matt. 8:16 - Many spirits being cast out from the demon-possessed.
  • Matt. 8:16 - Healing all who were ill.
  • Matt. 8:23-27 - Raging seas being calmed at His rebuke.
  • Matt. 8:28-43 - Out of control, demon-possessed men being tamed.
  • Matt. 9:1-8 - Paralytics being brought, and walking away.
  • Matt. 9:18-26 - Dead daughters being raised to life.
  • Matt. 9:20-22 - Hemorrhaging women being cured in an instant.
  • Matt. 9:27-31 - Blind men being enabled to see.
  • Matt. 9:32-33 - Dumb men being enabled to speak.
  • Matt. 9:35 - The healing of every disease and sickness.

Perhaps John had not heard of all of these miracles in their detail. Maybe he heard of some works that were not recorded in the Bible. But certainly these are typical of "the works of Christ" of which he did hear. From other gospel accounts, we could gather other works of Jesus that John might have heard about. Perhaps he heard about how Jesus had made water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). Perhaps he heard about the zeal of Jesus who came into the temple during the Passover, made Himself a whip, and drove out the moneychangers (John 2:13-22). We know that John would have heard about the widow’s son who was raised at Nain, because John’s disciples had reported this to him (Luke 7:18). On top of that, John had certainly heard of Jesus’ masterful teaching. Jesus was so unlike the scribes, "teaching with authority" (Matt. 7:29). On top of that, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan river, only to behold "the Spirit of God descending as a dove ... upon [Jesus]" (Matt. 3:16; John 1:32). John heard the voice of God saying, "This is My Beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased" (Matt. 3:17). John had even given testimony that Jesus "is the Son of God" (John 1:34).

You can add to that the testimony of Elizabeth, John’s mother, who certainly told John about how Mary had spent three months visiting with her (Luke 1:56). Elizabeth identified Mary as "the mother of my Lord" (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth heard Mary speak her Magnificat and certainly would have talked about what great things "the Mighty One" had done for her (Luke 1:49). John had heard all of these things, witnessed all of these things, and proclaimed these things. Yet, he still doubted. He sent two of his disciples (see Luke 7:19) to Jesus and said, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" (Matt. 11:3). This title, "Expected One" is clearly a title given to the Messiah. Most other translations translate like "he who should come" or "the one who is to come." I like the way that the New King James has translated it: "Are You the Coming One?" (NKJV). That is a good translation. It is probably an allusion to Psalm 118:26, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD." John had already used this terminology to refer to the Messiah in Matthew 3:11, "He who is coming after me is mightier than I".

Here is the thing that has stirred in my heart. You find John in prison. Having heard and experienced all of these things that were true about Jesus, why does John ask such a question?

In response to this question, some commentators have noted several factors that might have influenced John's thinking. John MacArthur notes that John was in difficult circumstances being in prison. He was working with incomplete revelation. That is, he did not have the Bible like we have today. He only had the Old Testament and the works of Christ. Another factor was worldly influence, particularly the influence of the Jewish Messianic understanding. One more factor was unfulfilled expectations. Jesus was not being everything that John had expected of Him. Others note that prison may have had a depressing effect on John. Perhaps John's patience (but not his faith) was failing. Or maybe John was puzzled. Other commentators, like Calvin and Ryle, say that John did not really doubt at all. Instead he was asking this question for the sake of his disciples. Yet, the question comes from John himself (Matt. 11:2).

I do not think that there is a simple answer to this question. Some say that the physical difficulties that he faced in his prison cell were taking their toll on him. The prison was certainly very hot and uncomfortable at Macherus. Certainly, John was suffering greatly, which may have affected his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But I believe that the overriding issue was that He did not fully grasp the character of the Messiah. John came preaching judgment, but judgment was not taking place. John had said, "the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:10). Yet, in Jesus ministry, the axe had not yet struck the tree. Fire was not coming from heaven which was an expectation shared even among Jesus disciples (Luke 9:54 - When the Samaritans did not receive Jesus, James and John asked, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"). The injustices in the world were continuing to occur. Jesus was not proving to be much of a Messiah at all!

"Jews tell the story of a New York City rabbi who was told by a witnessing Christian that Jesus was the Messiah. The rabbi walked to his window, looked out at the city, unchanged in all its corruption, and returned, shaking his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘when the Messiah comes there will be justice.’" (James Boice, Commentary of Matthew, p 190). John didn't see justice, and that probably caused him to wonder.

Furthermore, Jesus’ ministry did not seem to be having much effect at all. Jesus was hardly being accepted as the ruling Messiah. In His hometown of Nazareth, Jesus was rejected and despised (Luke 4:16-31). The religious leaders were turning against him. The governments, which were supposed to rest upon His shoulders (Is. 9:6), were not submitting to Him at all. Jesus did not seem to be going after the governments at all. In fact, after John had been taken into custody, Jesus withdrew into Galilee (Matt. 4:12), seemingly to get away from the heat.

John saw the miracles of Jesus. John saw the wondrous things that Jesus was doing. Those things were great, but that was only part of the picture. John was not seeing the ruling, reigning, justice-pursuing Messiah, that was in His mind. For that reason, he sent his disciples to see what Jesus would say to his question.

3. The Truth about Jesus (verses 4-5)

Rather than simply saying, "Yes" or "No," Jesus sends John quotes from Scripture. Jesus said, "the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keep from stumbling over Me" (Matt. 11:5). He quotes three Scriptures to John. The first of these passages from Isaiah speaks about how God will restore Zion. The second speaks about how God will deliver Israel. The third is clearly a prophecy of the Messiah. Listen to Isaiah 35:5, 6, "Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy." Listen to Isaiah 26:19, "The dead will live; Their corpses will rise." Listen to Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted." By quoting these Scriptures, Jesus was implying that He was fulfilling these messianic prophecies. He was showing that the new age had indeed dawned. Oh, perhaps the age was a bit different than John was thinking. John's thoughts had to change. The age was indeed dawning.

Notice the words I skipped in verse 4, particularly how Jesus prefaced His quotations. He said, "Go and report to John what you hear and see" (verse 4). John’s disciples heard the Scriptures describing what will take place when the Messiah comes to deliver Israel. John’s disciples saw those things taking place. John’s disciples saw great miracles of healing. John’s disciples heard Jesus interpret those miracles using the Scripture. In effect, Jesus said, "Match the scriptures (what you hear) to my ministry (what you see) and you will find that they will match." Essentially, Jesus was telling John to believe the Scriptures. The Scriptures testified of Him. John had heard of the works of Christ (verse 2). Jesus interpreted His life in light of Biblical revelation. Jesus answered John's question by saying that he was beholding the works of Christ.

There are similar situations in the Bible with other individuals. Remember when the Ethiopian Eunuch was sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:27-28)? He did not quite understand it. But Philip, "preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35). Philip connected the Scriptures with Jesus. Remember when Saul of Tarsus was first converted (Acts 9)? He immediately began "to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, .. proving that this Jesus is the Christ" (Acts 9:20, 22). He was certainly doing this from the Scriptures. He was matching the Scriptures with the life of Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the gospel that he delivered to the Corinthians. He said, "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3, 4). He took the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ and used the Scriptures to interpret these events. In 2 Peter 3, Peter describes the mockers who will come in the last days saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:4). This sounds a lot like evolutionists today. Peter points out that their fundamental problem is that they do not interpret their experiences today in light of the Bible. He says, "For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water" (2 Pet. 3:4-5).

For John’s disciples, Jesus is linking their observations with His interpretations. You must come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah! Unlike John, and his disciples, we cannot verify by sight and sound that Jesus’ ministry matched the prophetic anticipation of the Messiah. But, we do have the eye-witnesses, who have given us the testimony for us to hear and believe. We ought to hear the truth and believe it.

Until this point in the gospel of Matthew, it has been the burden of Matthew to put forth Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Matthew has informed us that Jesus had a kingly lineage (Matt. 1:1-17). Matthew has instructed us of Jesus’ miraculous birth (Matt. 1:18-25). Matthew has repeatedly demonstrated how Jesus was the fulfillment of many prophesies including the following:

  • the manner of His birth was of a virgin (Is. 7:14)
  • the place of His birth was in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)
  • the Messiah was called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1)
  • the Messiah would be called a Nazarene (Matt. 2:23).

When Jesus was baptized by John, even God Himself had confirmed that Jesus was His beloved Son (Matt. 3:17). As Messiah, Jesus overcame Satan’s greatest temptations to make Him sin (Matt. 4:1-11). In the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), Matthew puts forth the teaching of the Messiah, to which "the multitudes were amazed" (Matt. 7:28). Unlike the scribes, Jesus taught with authority, because He had the authority (Matt. 7:29). In chapters 8 and 9, we see Jesus beginning to perform His work as Messiah, healing many people. In Matthew 10, we have seen Jesus instruct His disciples to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, as He would soon come to preach. And with chapter 11, we see that Jesus is culminating Matthew’s entire argument of His gospel. Jesus is the Messiah! His works and the Scriptures match!

The Jews ought to have embraced Christ. John ought to embrace Him also (verse 6).

4. The Blessing of Belief (verse 6)

Jesus finishes His instructions for John with these words, "And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me." (Matt. 11:6)

I believe that this is a direct message for John the Baptist. Jesus is saying to John, "You are asking about me and you are doubting. You will be blessed if you believe these words I have testified concerning Myself." This same blessing comes to you as well, if you believe Jesus to be the Messiah.

This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on May 18, 2003 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.