In chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to inquire, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John seems to be wondering whether or not Jesus really is the Messiah, the Christ, who was promised so long ago.
Well, that seems odd, doesn’t it? For John was the one who previously pointed people to Jesus, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But, now he seems confused – is Jesus really the Christ? Is he the one who was promised, or should they continue to look for another?
Perhaps the reason for John’s question was because he was expecting the Christ to bring God’s judgement with him at this time. When John was baptizing in the wilderness, he had said: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
In John’s message, he seemed to be expecting Jesus to pour out the wrath of God on the unfaithful and evil. And yet not only does that not happen, but rather the righteous are tormented by the unrighteous. God’s elect seem to be under attack by evil. John himself was cast into prison, later to be executed. Jesus has but a small band of disciples about him – nothing like the large heavenly host that might be expected at the judgement. So, John wonders if Jesus really is the Christ. Maybe Jesus is just another prophet who has come to continue to point to a future Christ?
So, that’s why John sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In response to the messengers’ question, Jesus tells them: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4-6).
In his answer, Jesus is, in part, referring back to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the promised Messiah in Isaiah 35 as well as in Isaiah 61. Jesus is basically telling John’s messengers: “Look at the acts I am doing. Do they not fulfill the prophecies that had been foretold of me? Are they not acts that God said the Christ would do? Indeed, are they not acts that only God can do?”
Oftentimes we hear people argue about who Jesus is. Many deny that he is God incarnate – some say that he is a prophet and some say he’s just a good man. To support these denials, they say that Jesus never claimed to be God in the Scriptures. They’re essentially asking him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In response, Jesus says, “Look at my works. Are they not works that only the Christ, the anointed one of God, can do?” Who else can give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, cleanse the lepers, make the deaf hear, raise the dead, and preach good news to the poor? For Jesus did all of these things in his ministry on earth. He healed people. He raised the dead. And he preached good news to the poor in spirit, those who trusted not in their own righteousness, but in the righteousness of God revealed through Jesus Christ. And just as he healed the sick and raised the dead during his ministry, so too will he heal us and raise us up at the resurrection. His earthly ministry of restoration is the first-fruits of what he has in store for all creation.
So, Jesus is giving a positive “Yes” to the question of whether or not he is the one who is to come, and “No” we should not look for another. For only Jesus is God incarnate, he is truly “God with us”- Emmanuel – the one in whom all of God’s promises find their “Yes.” He doesn’t give John’s messengers a long and involved theological argument about who he is. He doesn’t present an ontological proof of who he is as the Son of God. Rather, he boils his answer down to: “Do I not do the things which God had said through the prophets that I would do, and that only God can do?”
So, we can figure that John’s messengers leave satisfied with Jesus’ answer. They received a “Yes” to their question of whether Jesus was the one who is to come. He is the promised Christ. And although the Christ is not fulfilling their expectations of bringing God’s imminent judgement, they trust in him. We likewise ought to rest content in the revealed Word of God and not trouble ourselves with discerning His hidden will.
So, after the messengers leave with his answer, Jesus turns his attention to the crowd. He asks them of John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (Matthew 11:7-10).
John the Baptist spent his ministry preaching in the wilderness of Judea. He wasn’t someone who would agree with every passing fancy and waver in his proclamation of God’s word. He wasn’t like a reed shaken by the wind. He stood on the sure Word of God and proclaimed it. And he didn’t do so to gain worldly success for himself, wearing fine clothes and jewelry. He did it because he was called by God to do it and was being faithful to his calling in pointing people to the Christ who had come. For he was more than a prophet, he was the one of whom the prophet Malachi spoke when he wrote:
“Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:1)
As Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:11-15).
The prophet Elijah in the Old Testament was the quintessential prophet who had been sent by God to call Israel to repentance when they had gone astray after false gods and idols. John has been sent by God to fulfill this same prophetic office that Elijah had held. For John’s purpose is to preach God’s Law to bring people to repentance. His hearers are to see that they are unrighteous before God through their own efforts. We cannot earn a seat in the heavenly kingdom through our own merits.
So, through this preaching of repentance, John was to prepare people for the coming of the kingdom of heaven – the proclamation of God’s unmerited grace through Christ and received by faith. John was the last in the long line of prophets who pointed towards the coming of the long-promised Christ. He straddled the transition between the Old Testament prophets and the one to whom the prophets had pointed, for God was now here in the flesh to usher in the kingdom of heaven; the Christ had come.
The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is at hand. Salvation has come through the reign of Jesus Christ. And yet, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. The kingdom of heaven – the Church which is gathered together by God’s grace – is persecuted, maligned, and ridiculed. The Church is laughed at because it seems to possess nothing but a promise. At the same time, the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force. They rush to God’s throne in the arrogance of their own sense of self-righteousness to declare to God that they have every right to be there. The violent believe that God owes them salvation because of their great works or because they’re “good people” or because they decided to be there.
But, this is not the way to enter the kingdom of heaven. We cannot approach God’s throne through our own merits. When the prophet Isaiah was brought before the Lord while serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, he feared for his life, because he felt his sins, and said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ (Isaiah 6:5).
He knew that he had no standing before God and that he as a sinful person could not survive in the presence of the holy Lord. But then, the Lord atoned for his sins. He sent one of his flying seraphim to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar of the Temple. The seraphim touched the coal to Isaiah’s lips and declared: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). The Lord took away Isaiah’s guilt and atoned for his sins. This atonement was done outside of Isaiah and the declaration of “not guilty” rested on a promise – God’s promise.
And although the Church often seems small and weak, it too trusts in God’s promise. For He has taken our guilt away and atoned for our sins through the fulfillment of all His promises in Christ.
The disciples once asked Jesus: ”‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, [Jesus] put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:1-5).
Jesus uses a simple child as the example of what the redeemed look like. Rather than the kingdom of heaven belonging to those who try to take it by the force of their own works and sense of self-righteousness, Jesus says that salvation belongs to those who are like humble children. For young children know that they must rely on their parents for all good things and that their parents love them freely, without them having to earn their love. Likewise, Baptized believers know that we must rely on God for all good things and that He loves us freely for the sake of Christ, apart from any works or merits of our own. God in Christ loves the unlovable, for we were dirty with sin and yet he loves us still, due to the work of Christ on the cross.
When Jesus came the first time, he appeared weak when he bore our sins upon the cross and was subjected to mocking ridicule. This is what confused John the Baptist. Wasn’t the Christ supposed to bring God’s judgement with him? Wasn’t he supposed to bring the fires of judgement against the unrighteous?
In truth, Jesus will bring the judgement with him, but not yet.
For first, he came to redeem us from the power of sin, death, and the devil through his death and resurrection. He has called us as his own – his Church – and then charged us with proclaiming the Gospel to all people to bring them to faith through the reign of God – for God has promised to work through His Word and Sacraments to bring us to faith. Isaiah, after the Lord had taken away his guilt and atoned for his sins through the coal that was combined with God’s Word of promise, was then sent forth to proclaim the Word of the Lord. He writes: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, Here am I! Send me. And he said, Go, and say to this people…” (Isaiah 6:8-9).
Thus, we see a pattern. God uses His condemning, killing Law to show us our sinful nature and to bring home our utter dependence upon Him. As we encounter the Holy Lord through His Holy Law we realize that we cannot stand before Him through our own efforts or merits. Like Isaiah, we cry, “Woe is me!”
However, the Lord turns to us and tells us, “I have taken away your guilt and atoned for your sins through the blood of my Son on the cross.” He justifies us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He makes us right before him through the righteousness of His Son which is delivered to us through His Word and Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Then, He sends us forth, working through us in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of salvation by God’s grace through faith for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Christ truly is with us until the end of this age. He is in His Word and Sacraments; He has sent the Holy Spirit to us through these means of grace whereby he builds us up in faith in him for our salvation and sanctifies us for the work he sends us forth to do.
He will continue to do so until he comes again. And upon his return, he will no longer be the suffering servant and will no longer be veiled in humble bread and wine. He will come in full, visible glory as the conquering king who has defeated our enemies for us and who will bestow upon us the crown of victory – everlasting life – which he has won for us on the cross. He will also bring judgement to those who opposed him and his people and complete what John the Baptist and all the other prophets foretold.
Thus, we truly live in the Last Days. For up to the time of Christ’s incarnation, it was not the Last Days. For Christ had not yet come to accomplish our salvation on the cross. The Old Testament prophets patiently and faithfully pointed to his coming. And then he came – God in the flesh. And now we look for his coming again in glory, and are to remain patient and faithful while we await that day. Christ’s crucifixion is the center point of all history. The Old Testament prophets pointed forward to it, and the New Testament apostles point back to it. The universal Church throughout history, both the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church, God’s people Israel, is centered around the crucified Christ. And the Church looks forward to the day when the Last Days are completed and the Last Day has arrived, when Christ returns in power and glory.
Thus, we look to the horizon for Christ’s coming, and we have St. James’ admonition when he says:
”Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:7-11).
James mentions the steadfastness of Job. Job was faithful to the Lord and yet endured much suffering. Through all his trials and doubts, though, he continued to trust in the Lord’s righteousness, even though he did not have answers for why he was undergoing all these tribulations.
Likewise, we too will endure many trials and doubts on this earth in this life, and we will not have answers for why we are undergoing these tribulations. For the answers are not given to us. We too will sometimes, in the midst of our distress, like John the Baptist, ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Yet, as we await the coming of the Lord and the resurrection and eternal life that he will bring us into, we can, despite all hardships we encounter, confidently confess our faith in the words of Job as he contemplated the one answer that God revealed to him:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27)
We too will see Christ our Redeemer face to face and behold his full glory when he comes to us at the end of this age, on the Last Day. He is the answer, the “Yes” to God’s promises. Therefore, let us keep our eyes ever focussed on the hope of his return when he will complete all things.