Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me. (Luke 7:23).
Have you ever wondered how John took these words from Jesus? I have.
The message from Jesus came to him some time after he had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas. Antipas was part of the Herodian dynasty. The Herodians embodied Lord Acton’s adage that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had tried to locate and kill Jesus after He was born. When thwarted in his attempt, he ordered the execution of all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2). In addition to this, he also had one of his wives and three of his sons put to death. What was great about Herod was his wickedness!
Antipas, while not given to the violence of his father, was nonetheless as calculating and manipulative. Jesus referred to him as a “fox” (Luke 13:31-33), and refused to speak to him when He was brought before Herod prior to His crucifixion (Luke 23:7-11). He divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, who divorced Antipas’ brother in order to marry him. This was in violation of Jewish law (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21), and John spoke against it as well as “the other evil things he had done,” (3:19). Antipas’ response was to imprison John (probably at his fortress in Machaerus).
Here’s where the Herod’s fortress was. You can see the remains of it on the right side of the summit. The Dead Sea is in the background.
Yet Antipas was a conflicted man. Herodias, who had been the driving force behind John’s arrest (Mark 6:19), wanted him executed. If the matter had been that simple, Herod probably would have complied, but he feared the response of the general populace who held John to be a prophet (Matthew 14:5). Furthermore, despite his actions, he personally regarded John as “a righteous and holy man,” (Mark 6:20), and though condemned by John’s message, he nonetheless liked to listen to him (Mark 6:20). After John’s death, Antipas heard of Jesus’ activities in his region and showed signs of a guilty conscience as he concluded it was John who had risen from the dead.
Returning to John, it’s not hard to imagine that during the time of his imprisonment, he would become restless and impatient (for a person used to roaming the countryside confinement would be especially difficult). Or perhaps there was a darker reality at work. Perhaps John had heard rumblings that he wasn’t going to leave there alive. Maybe Herodias had even paid him a visit with a message to that effect.
Whatever the case might have been, the question they asked Jesus on John’s behalf (“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”), sounds extraordinary in light of all that we know about John and Jesus. He was the one who initially resisted baptizing Jesus, protesting that he had need of being baptized by Him, not vice versa. After John baptized Him, he saw the heavens open, watched the Spirit descend as a dove on Jesus, and heard the voice of God. Had he forgotten this? The next day, he had pointed Him out as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. What could make this bold proclaimer ask a question that made it sound as if he doubted everything?
It’s quite possible that John had a different idea of what the Messiah was to do and be, something along the line of that of the apostles (see Matthew 16:21ff). If you look at John’s message about the Messiah, it was about a coming wrath, the ax being at the root of the tree, unquenchable fire—some pretty potent stuff that may have suggested to him an immediate overthrow of the existing power structures. If that’s what he thought (remembering that inspired messengers don’t necessarily have complete understanding of their message—see 1 Peter 1:10-12), then the failure of this to happen combined with his imprisonment could have caused him to rethink things. (He chose the route most of us would have taken—rather than trying to reconfigure his thinking about the Messiah and His kingdom, John decided that maybe Jesus wasn’t the Messiah after all).
If this is so, then Jesus’ answer is quite plain: I am the Messiah and the proof doesn’t lie in a takedown of Rome, it’s in the lifting up of the oppressed (the lame, blind, deaf, etc.). And, blessed is the one who doesn’t stumble over that.
John might well have well been feeling that his life and work had been for nothing— that the people of Israel were no closer to the Messiah or His kingdom than before. If those were his thoughts, Jesus assured him he was wrong. The Messiah had indeed come as had His kingdom and blessed was the one who could see that.
It’s one thing for a man to die, it’s quite another for him to know that his life was given for a worthy cause. Jesus lets John know that his life stood for something. In the time of John’s ultimate testing, He speaks to him of blessing.We can only imagine the hard times that John must have experienced during his imprisonment. We can only guess what it must have been like when they came to execute him and he knew he wasn’t leaving alive. I’d like to think some of his final thoughts were about Jesus the Messiah and how his life would be given for the One who would give His life for all.