The saddest words in the whole New Testament have to be John the Baptist’s plea from his prison cell to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (See Luke 7:19-23). Layton Friesen (“Could you lend me some faith?” The Messenger, Nov/13, p. 18)
I resonate with Layton Friesen’s assessment of the sad import of John the Baptist’s question. John had been so sure that God had appointed him to prepare the way for Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, and he had announced that Jesus was the one, in no uncertain terms. But as he sits in prison, John begins to wonder whether he had misunderstood God’s message to him, because Jesus was not turning out to be the deliverer he and other Israelites had been awaiting for many centuries. Nor is the answer Jesus sends back very satisfying. He calls to John’s attention the acts of deliverance which he has been doing, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, enabling the lame to walk and cleansing lepers, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. These were precisely the acts of deliverance which Isaiah had predicted would be done by God’s appointed deliverer (Isa 35:5-6; 26:19; 29:18-19; 61:1), but Jesus does not mention “the release of captives, and the freeing of prisoners,” which Isa 61:1 had predicted. Nor does he specifically assure John that he had been right, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, come to bring God’s deliverance. The message he sends back to John is that those who are not offended by Jesus are blessed.
I find Jesus’ answer almost as sad as John’s question. It sounds more like a rebuke to John for his doubt than it does like assurance that John had been right. Friesen paraphrases Jesus’ message this way: “Take heart, other people are being delivered, healed and raised. If you can believe a Messiah who leaves you in prison but saves others, good for you.” At this point, many of us sympathize with John and understood his doubt, but I am grateful for the lesson Friesen draws from the message Jesus sent to John, and I think his perspective is worth pondering. Friesen writes:
John is being asked to swallow one of the toughest parts of being a Christian, which is that God takes our fellowship with other believers more seriously than we do. If you, my brother or sister, experience a miraculous healing in your life, I cannot say that healings do not happen to me; they do, but they happen to me through your body. You are healed for me.
. . . . Genuine faith in Christ would be no easier if I had actually seen Jesus cooking fish on the beach after his crucifixion. Other people’s written testimony has all the spiritual power—no, it has more power than immediate experience—to sustain real genuine faith in Christ.
If we have doubts about Christ, we need more church rather than less. We believe through each other. Your vision of Christ, your experience of his touch, your knowledge of his manner has been given to you for others to believe with. . . . You are still believing every day with the faith of the apostle Paul (not to mention the faith of Arnie sitting down the pew). Nobody has enough immediate experience of God to sustain faith.
God always chooses a few representatives to see and receive on behalf of the rest. Chief of all, we believe through the experience and vision of Jesus himself, the head of this communion of saints.
This is very helpful, I think, though I don’t find it an easy route to travel. I know a man from whose brain God removed a tumor, and God did an appendectomy on the wife of another friend, when she was just a young child. In that case, no one knew about it until decades later. She had rheumatic fever at the time her appendicitis developed, as I recall, and the doctor dared not do surgery on the appendix because he was afraid it would kill her. Elders of the church went to her home and prayed for her healing. The appendix did not rupture and they thanked the Lord for healing her. But years later, when another doctor was giving her a hysterectomy, he came away from the surgery puzzled. She had had no prior incisions but when he got inside he discovered that her appendix was gone. Her husband could tell the doctor nothing about it when the doctor inquired, but the story of her childhood illness and prayer for healing was then heard from the woman’s parents.
As a “sign and wonder,” that healing fascinates me because God’s method of healing had been unknown at the time, though my friend’s wife was obviously better. The sense of great wonder came only decades later, but I am still delighted when I think of God’s amazing power in that incident. On the other hand, there are people for whose healing a church has prayed earnestly and often, and yet they die. The relatives of James the brother of John might have wondered why God miraculously delivered Peter from prison (Acts 12:6-11) but let James be beheaded (Acts 12:2), and John the Baptist had similar reasons to wonder about his own languishing in prison. After all, Jesus had declared him the greatest person ever to live (Mt 11:11).
I had not thought of Jesus’ reply to John’s question in the way that Friesen suggests, but I find his proposal helpful, and it is a message that we evangelicals need these days. Personal faith is at the core of our evangelicalism, and that is good. But the perspective we may have picked up from Enlightenment thinking has bred individualism, which extends our emphasis on the importance of the individual into an unhealthy selfishness and narcissism. Layton’s column prods us to a stronger sense of our identity as part of the church, the body of Christ in which we are inseparably connected to all other church members. It is with this in mind that Jesus said that what we do to other “members of his family,” we do to him (Mt 25:40). By the same token, what is done to them is also done to us, as part of Jesus’ family and members of the same body. So the kindnesses God does to other believers in Jesus are also done to us, and they should stir in our hearts a similar gratefulness. All God’s acts of deliverance and blessing on his people, whether known through the testimony of Scripture, or through the stories of the church’s history, and our own knowledge of what God is doing today, should feed our own faith. That faith will never cease to be individual but it must also be corporate, and hence not individualistic.