“WHY should I be treated like this?” Much as I regret to do so, I have to confess that this has been the sort of question which from time to time has simmered within me when I have been under pressure. I have no doubt that many other Christians have had similar controversies with the Lord. For this reason I draw your attention to what happened to John the Baptist. It may throw light on our problem. At least it may comfort us to know that he also had good cause to pose the same question.
The Baptist’s Complaint
For him everything had gone wrong. He who had lived a completely open-air life from his childhood was now shut up in an irksome prison from which there was to be no escape. The fearless and faithful herald of God’s Christ was seemingly forgotten by his Master. Everybody else was enjoying miraculous help and deliverances through Jesus, but nothing at all was done for him. No wonder he was despondent! No wonder he sent his disciples to Jesus to enquire what had gone wrong with everything. So to me this question is no surprise. In his place I might well have done the same thing. I, too, have at times felt disappointed with the Lord because of His strange ways with me.
The startling surprise is in the rather astringent reply which was sent back to him by the Lord. It is true that this reply contained a sort of promise of blessing, but it was nothing personal for John, being stated in merely general terms. It certainly gave no encouragement to self-pity. “Blessed is he who is not offended in me”. Is that all that the Lord had to say to His devoted servant in a time of acute stress? Apparently it was. And we may well have to admit that we have passed through times of deep testing and looked for some token of success or encouragement from the Lord to console us but have looked in vain. Just as John’s disciples were given no hint of a lessening of the pressure, so we may be left with little or no indication that the Lord is paying any special attention to us.
Encouragement to the Sinner
In Luke’s Spirit-led arrangement of Gospel incidents, the next section of this chapter deals with the outcast woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story is full of spiritual significance, but in my present quest for comfort, what strikes me is the way in which Jesus went out of His way to voice His praises of her. He spoke very appreciatively of what she had done, gave her a personal blessing of peace and drew Simon’s attention to the fact that this woman, whom he and his kind despised, was outstanding for her great personal love for Him.
He not only did this, but He did it to her face: “Turning to the woman, he said to Simon…” (v.44). “See this woman…?”, He enquired of him. It was as though He wished publicly to vindicate her as well as explain His own behaviour, and was glad for her to hear how she had touched His heart. “Look at this woman”, He urged the Pharisee, “See how she has compensated for all your surly insults. One thing is obvious from it all and that is that she is a great lover of her Lord”. For my part I can conceive of no higher praise. If I could ever hear the Lord telling everybody that He greatly appreciated my service and recognised that I was a man full of love to Him, I feel that I could ask for no greater encouragement. And it is encouragement that I so greatly need.
He gave warm encouragement to the woman but He does not give it to me. Well, He did not give it to John the Baptist. If ever a man needed reassurance and promise of help, John did when he sent his messengers to the Lord. But he did not get any words of appreciation. There was no message of that kind to help this great man, even though he was in danger of losing heart and almost regretting his championship of Jesus.
Testing of the Servant
Some will object, ‘Yes, but the Lord did say some most complimentary things about John. He spoke to the people around Him about the Baptist in glowing terms’. That is true, but I have had my attention drawn by Luke to when He did this: “When the messengers of John were departed…” (v.24). He did not begin His eulogy of John until the Baptist’s two disciples were well out of earshot. It is true that the Lord had some wonderful things to say about His Forerunner, speaking of him in superlative terms, (24-28), but so far as we know John never heard these words and did not know how Jesus had praised him.
Here, then, is an extraordinary contrast. A grateful sinner, just beginning a new life by simple faith in Him, receives public recognition and striking commendation, such as were calculated to thrill her soul, whereas a most loyal and devoted servant who was unique in his faithful obedience to his calling, was only warned that if he wanted blessing he must go on suffering without question or complaint. In terms of human logic, this makes no sense; in terms of divine wisdom, however, it is full of significance.
This is not only how the Lord dealt with John; it is typical of how He treats us all. Are we penitent sinners? Then He has immediate comfort for us. Are we tested servants? He just reminds us that it is not our part to understand, but to obey. At first this may sound harsh, but on consideration we see in it an indication of how He trusts us. If we can only appreciate it, the Lord was paying John the highest compliment of all.
Just as God boasted to Satan about Job – “Hast thou considered my servant Job? …there is none like him in the earth” – so the Lord Jesus glories in the virtues of John – “A reed shaken by the wind? Far from it! A prophet? Much more than that. I say to you, Among them that are born of women there is none greater than John…” – “I’m telling you”, Jesus repeatedly insisted, “this is the greatest servant that God ever had. There is nothing shaky or soft about John. He is magnificent”.
Naturally we think that it was a pity that Jesus waited until John’s two emissaries had returned before He said this. Luke makes it very clear that this is what He did. If only John had known! For that matter, if only Job had known! Come to that, if only we could know. If we could receive some marks of God’s appreciation instead of being exposed to all the winds of adversity, how much more bearable life would be. What a pity! we think, but no, it is not a pity but the greatest compliment that our Master can pay us. If we need pats of encouragement and endearing words of praise, we are still spiritual infants. We must grow up. We must learn to live without immediate vindication and face the present trials or disappointments as those who are the blessed unoffended. It gives me new dignity to realise that my heavenly Father trusts me not to need spiritual petting any longer.
It is a matter of spiritual growth. John had had his moments of triumph, as we all have. He had been acclaimed by the crowds. He had been thrilled by Christ’s words about fulfilling all righteousness. He had actually seen the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form like a dove upon the Son of God. We, too, have had our thrills. We have seen marvelous answers to prayer. For many of us our earlier Christian service was so manifestly blessed of God that it was almost as though in our case the Lord were going out of His way to vindicate us. Just as long ago He had said: “See this woman? …she loved much”, we felt that He was giving us the public recognition which shows how pleased He must be with us. Well, no doubt He does find pleasure in owning our ministry before men, though in fact He never promised to do so. What He did say was that He would give us heavenly commendation: “Everyone who confesses me before men, him shall the Son of Man confess before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8). If praise is due it will ultimately be given, but not necessarily now or here. With some of His most favoured servants the Lord gave little, if any, evidence of His appreciation at the time. He trusted them to trust Him.
God’s servants must be men and women of faith. They must be spiritually adult, not expecting to be constantly patted on the back or praised to their face, but content to persist in faithful devotion to their God-given task without any outward evidence of the Master’s approval. So I have found it, and so you may now be doing. This, surely, was what Jesus wished to convey to John: “Blessed is he who is not offended with Me”.
Back to the Word of God
I realise that I have passed over the earlier part of the Lord’s message to John which reads: “Go your way, and tell John the things you have seen and heard…” (v.22). For one thing John had already heard of the miracles – that was what provoked him to send his deputation – and in any case it would be likely to aggravate his personal problem to be reminded that Jesus was doing miracles for others and would do no delivering miracle for him, nor even promise one. If it were not the Lord Jesus, I would imagine that this was about the most tactless and unhelpful message that could be sent. How could it help a man in his predicament and with his grim prospect to know that other people were being liberated and blessed?
Since, however, there can be no questioning of the wisdom of our Saviour, I look again to discover what lay behind His words and realise that they were calculated to refer John back again to the Scriptures. It was as though Jesus was saying, ‘Don’t be governed by your experiences but rather by the Word of God’. This is excellent advice to us all. Now in John’s case there is a special sense in which his call and ministry were based on the prophecies of Isaiah, as he himself disclosed (John 1:23). What he had to do was to go back again to those prophecies and in them he would find described the exact events which the Lord Jesus listed. Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1 foretold the activities of the One whose way he had prepared. In them we find mention of the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor. God’s Word, then, was being fulfilled. This seems to have been the point of Christ’s reply to his worried Forerunner. He needed to get back to the Word of God.
The Lord’s servant bases his life on the Scriptures. John did just that, and had no difficulty in identifying himself in them. He was more than a prophet, for he himself was the subject of prophecy. If he could accept that the works which Jesus was doing were exactly according to the revelation given of the will of God, then that would silence his questionings and deal with his personal grievances. What he had to do was to get back to the Word and in it find a sheet-anchor for his storm-tossed soul. The same is true in our case. I know that my soul is more likely to get into a tension if I begin to argue from what is happening – or not happening – in my own case, than if I quietly meditate in the Word. This is especially so if, like John, I see God doing things for other people that He refrains from doing for me. It is then that I am capable of taking offence. The certain remedy, and the only one, is to get busy with the Word of God and there to “feed on His faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3 R.V. margin). May we not, then, interpret the Lord’s words as an appeal to him to reconsider Isaiah’s prophecies and to find comfort in them? This is a lesson which we all need to learn. We can identify ourselves in the Bible, though not in the specific way in which John was described. We can also find there a full revelation of God’s Will in His Son. In fact much more is said about us, and very much more about Christ, than ever John knew. Why, then, do we tend to take offence? Simply because we pay more attention to things and people around us than to God’s speaking to us in the Scriptures.
Strange Answers to Prayer
A further factor in this story, though it is not dealt with by Luke, is that John was suffering because of his own prayers. No doubt he might have considered that his prayers were not being answered, but he needed to go back a little and think again of how he had prayed. Had he not sought Christ’s greater glory? Had he not asserted: “He must increase, but I must decrease”? (John 3:30). It seems reasonable enough to suggest that his personal eclipse in Herod’s prison was the answer to his request that he might diminish in order that his Lord should grow in greatness.
Fancy a man not recognising the answer to his own prayers! Well, is that so very unusual? I, for one, make no claim to be different from him in this respect and I often observe the same phenomenon in others. Is it not a fact that in wondering why events take the course they do we often fail to realise that God is allowing things to happen which represent the answer to our prayers? Filled with love for Him, we have prayed for His glory “at any cost”, only to start complaining when even a little of the cost has to be paid for by us. What a blessing for John to accept this and to determine not to take offence at the Lord’s strange ways with him!
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” “Blessed is he who is not offended in Me.” Perhaps these two Scriptures go together. Perhaps they apply to you and me as much as to John the Baptist. So whatever your present trial may be, don’t be offended!
Blessed is he who is not offended in Me. Luke 7:23
Published in the “Towards the Mark” magazine, 1979.