John acted boldly in a way I encourage everyone to do:
Ask Jesus the toughest honest question, “Are you the one?”
And be prepared for a surprise. Jesus answered: Look what I am doing…
A man sits in prison. He was first to declare astounding claims about Jesus of Nazareth. He is in prison also because he dared to challenge the false pretender king Herod. Now he contemplates the meaning or significance, if any, of his entire life.
He is John, the baptizer. He spent his years crying out his every hope in the severely parched desert of the Dead Sea. All this to disengage from destructive delusions and power plays – all to encourage people to look instead for the coming of God’s promised one. So he baptized people in the Jordan river, an ancient symbol of spiritual dying and rising into new life in God. One day, Jesus came to be baptized. And John declared, this one is the lamb of God, in whom we fully receive God’s gracious gift of life (John’s Gospel, chapter 1).
Now, from the perspective of prison bars, it seems all is not playing out as expected. When John spoke of God’s kingdom with astounding boldness, they asked, is John finally the one to come? (John 1) God’s believing people expected this Messiah for centuries – they had come to put all their hope in this ultimate promise. And in the several decades before and after Jesus’ time, many leaders were said to be the Messiah. But all those other flashes in the historical pan flickered out feebly as they strutted their brief hour upon the stage…
John earnestly denied being the Messiah – but he announced, this one is indeed here. His declarations of Jesus cannot be mistaken: This Jesus, he is the one, the Messiah – God’s anointed true king of hope.
Then John made his big “mistake.” With faith God’s true Messiah-king is here, John confronted the false king Herod for his corruptions. It is crucial to notice that it is this controversy over true kingship that lands John in prison (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 14). There, John writes no letters, he makes no more proclamations, and his life hangs in the balance.
Coming to the Question
Meanwhile, Jesus travels the land with a dozen motley fishermen, shameful tax collectors, no-name commoners, and “sinners,” in Galilee of the Gentiles no less. In the eyes of everyone’s expectations, Jesus just will not get on with it: Cry “revolution,” raise an army, and destroy their enemies, once and for all! Jesus did not do the violent conquest they expected – John included it seems. So John wonders in prison, was he confused, did he hope in just another lame “leader,” did he declare the wrong one?
They soon served up John’s severed bleeding head on a dinner plate at king Herod’s lude (R-rated?) birthday party (Matt. 14). But before that, John’s prophetic voice cries out once more. Either Jesus is God’s promised Messiah, or John is about to die for nothing. So John sends his followers to ask what turns out to be the second-most-important question: Is Jesus indeed the one? The response John is given reveals the most important question…
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples… “Are you the one who is to come…?”
Jesus answered…, “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, …the poor have good news brought to them.”
– Matthew’s Gospel, 11:2-5 (NRSV)
Signs of the Time
Jesus’ answer is all-telling: It’s in what Jesus does! And the key to grasping this reality is how Jesus’ earthly acts fulfill Isaiah’s cosmic vision – the cornerstone of John’s declarations. “On that day,” God will enact the hope of renewal, healing, joy, justice – when “the deaf shall hear” and “the eyes of the blind shall see.” With such signs, God will turn the desert of suffering into a paradise of joyous singing and springs of life, where “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (See Matt. 3; Isaiah 29:17-24; 35; 42-43 [NRSV].)
This parallels Isaiah’s prophecies of God’s new kingdom reality to come in the Messiah: To fulfill God’s redeeming reign; the reign of everlasting goodness; built on the “cornerstone” of justice; a new creation of peace; a time of surpassing joy; the hope of God’s cosmic victory that resurrects life beyond death; to demonstrate God’s compassion (Isa. 6; 9; 11-12; 26-30; 32-33; 35; 45; 51; 54-55).
To help us grasp how God’s kingdom comes through peaceful love instead of violent conquest, Jesus emphasizes his “good news,” for the poor and suffering, and for all who know their deep need for God’s greater hope and life. This is Isaiah’s “good news” of God’s kingdom. (See Matt. 4:12-17; 5:3; 9:35-38; 11:5; Isa. 40; 52; 61.) And in Isaiah, this kingdom comes in the Messiah – and God’s servant.
This is the servant empowered by God’s Spirit to heal the brokenhearted, set captives free, and share God’s favor. This servant brings God’s light of compassionate justice to all peoples, to heal the cultures. This is God’s suffering one who sacrifices himself to offer God’s mercy, healing, and life to all. Ultimately, this reality to come through God’s messianic servant will fulfill all God’s promises in a fully renewed new creation!(See the servant songs of Isa. 42; 49; 52-53; 61; with Isa. 65; Matt. 8; 12.)
So is Jesus this promised one to come, in whom we can put all our hope?! Jesus’ connecting and fulfilling all these radical wide-ranging promises throughout Isaiah’s prophecy is a short-hand-genius way of enacting Isaiah’s whole vision together. By fulfilling the cosmic scope of these promises, Jesus’ is enacting God’s new-kingdom new-creation reality. Jesus is God’s promised true Spirit-anointed servant-king, the Messiah, because this is what Jesus does! This is how Jesus reveals and enacts God’s new kingdom reality of full-life-renewal for all of us.
Why It Matters
The eye-witnesses of Jesus’ work tell us “There are [so] many… things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, …the world itself could not contain [those] books… These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,” so that “you may have life” in its fullness (John 21:25; 20:31; 10:10). Trusting our hope into Jesus is receiving God’s gift for the full renewal of life.
All of that is what Jesus Messiah did for us on earth. This resurrected Jesus lives among us through his Spirit, so all this is what Jesus continues doing to make God’s renewal a reality in our lives and world. This is what Jesus will do one day ultimately to bring God’s new creation reality to perfect completion. Jesus and what he does is the hope – past, present, future – we can believe, live in, and hope for. So also now the question becomes a passionate living prayer for God to continue doing all this in Jesus by his Spirit among and through us: “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven!”
Readers are also encouraged to explore other posts in this series: Vintage Jesus.
God so loved the world… God is love!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…
and the tree of life…
at the middle of the great street of the city…
and the leaves of the tree
are for the healing of the cultures.
John 3; 1 John 4; Revelation 21, 22