I wonder what went through John’s mind as he sat in prison. He’d answered the call of the Lord in the wilderness, proclaiming the kingdom of God and baptizing the repentant (Luke 3:1-22). He’d prepared the way for the Messiah, introducing the Christ at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry (John 1:29-36). He’d faithfully stood for righteousness in the face of Herod’s immorality (Matthew 14:4). And yet he found himself imprisoned. The crowds he once taught left him to follow Jesus (John 3:26). While John found joy in humbly playing his role in the bridegroom’s story (John 3:27-30), he seems to have struggled with doubt while in prison, for he sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask an important question.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John, the one who had baptized Jesus and who had spoken with certainty about his identity as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), appeared uncertain when he considered the situation from the inside of a prison.
I’m not sure what John wondered then. Maybe he, like many in his day, imagined the Messiah would come to establish an earthly kingdom, overthrowing the Roman government to set up a perfect political reign. Maybe he thought that he would play a continuing part in the Messiah’s story, working with him in ministry as “the friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29). Maybe he wondered how God could allow such injustice to take place, feeling forgotten and forsaken after serving the Lord so well. Regardless of what his precise thoughts were, he apparently assumed things would look different than the way they appeared to his weary eyes. Reality, it seems, did not match his expectations.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you, like me, detect a difference between your expectations of God’s plan and its reality. Maybe you feel like a failure, unsure how God can use you in this season. Maybe, just maybe, you’re tempted to doubt the one in whom you once placed complete confidence.
I’m learning that success, true success, may not be measured by my standards. For example, I tend to focus on numbers: “How many students regularly show up to Bible study? How many people read my blog posts? How many hours have I studied or prayed or fasted or served this week?” While these may be helpful factors to consider as I try to grow more and more in the image of Christ, numbers aren’t everything. I often can’t control them, and I often become legalistic with them when I can. I’ve also tried to measure success by the quality of the work I do, but I’ve found that standard to fall short as well as I see God work through my weaknesses more than through what I believe are my strengths. As I reflect upon these two considerations, I also recognize that I simply can’t see all of the effects of my effort. I may never see what is truly effective and what is not. I’m learning that the only stable standard for measurement is my faithfulness. I can’t control the numbers or the effects of my work, but I can control whether or not I’m obedient to God’s call on my life. I can follow the Lord in faith, trusting that whether he calls me to plant or to water, he alone gives growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
John, we read, was beheaded in prison. He never saw the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, never saw the kingdom begin to spread like wildfire across the world. When his disciples returned to him, they didn’t return with a straight answer either. They returned with stories of what God was doing through Jesus. But the stories they told gave proof that God was at work in the world. In response to John’s questions, Jesus sent evidence that his work (and, therefore, John’s work) was not in vain.
Matthew records that Jesus spoke to the crowds about John as John’s disciples left, vindicating him before all (Matthew 11:7-15). Though John may have doubted, Jesus did not. He knew the truth, and he affirmed John’s place in the story of redemption. May we, seeing John’s example, serve with faith. May we trust that faithfulness, not circumstance, is the measure by which we are judged. May we be obedient. And may we remember the life of John and find encouragement in his faithfulness.