I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail. It doesn’t seem quite fair. If anyone had ever lived a self-sacrificing, dedicated life, it was John. God set him apart even before birth. He was not to drink wine or strong drink possibly suggesting a perpetual Nazarite vow (Luke 1:15, on Nazarite vows see Numbers 6). His life was at best ascetic. His clothes remind us of Elijah – camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt (Mark 1:6, 2 Kings 1:8). His food was locusts and wild honey. Even Jesus referenced his austerity: “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Matthew 11:8, ESV).
It was from prison that John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (Matthew 11:3, ESV )? We long for Jesus just to say “yes”. Instead, he answers about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the dead raised, and the poor hearing good news. To this he adds, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6, ESV). The first century world had many who claimed to be the One. False “messianic” uprisings had led some astray. Rather than an easily offered “yes,” Jesus recounted evidence to one in prison who may have been struggling with the purposes of God in the world. Was John’s subtext something like this? If you are the coming King, will you make things right soon… like getting me out of prison?
After John’s disciples left, Jesus acknowledged the greatness of John. John was the “Elijah to come” the fulfillment of Malachi chapter four, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). John prepared the way for the coming King and his Kingdom, yet he would die before the day arrived. Beheading at a tyrant’s whim doesn’t seem quite fair. Like Moses, John the Baptist could only look at the promised from afar.
Life can be disorienting. Pondering God’s ways can leave us questioning. Real life doesn’t always work out the way we think it should. But John the Baptist’s case is also paradoxical. It is in his suffering, sacrifice, and even death that we see the depth of his faith. It is his worst of times that provides us the greatest instruction.
Life can be disorienting, and our questions perplexing. But faith can anchor us to the God who is there, even when life doesn’t work the way we think it should. God’s ways are not our ways, yet it is He who has promised someday to wipe away all tears. I wonder what John the Baptist pondered in Herod’s jail.