When Bad Things Happen to the Greatest Disciples


Did Jesus fail John the Baptist?  John was identified as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”[1] prophesied by Isaiah.  John publicly announced the coming of Jesus, and soon baptized Him, then watched the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and heard the voice of the Father declare Jesus as the Son.[2]  Was testifying publicly about Jesus and His miracles John’s mission in life?  If so, why did John find himself in prison, unable to preach in the open?  As Matthew’s Gospel records, Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee and Perea, had John arrested for criticizing Herod’s immoral relationship with his brother’s wife.[3]  While under arrest, John began to have some doubts about Jesus and sent messengers to Him, saying “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?[4]  To John, his circumstances didn’t make sense and he reached out to Jesus for an explanation.

Matthew, in preparing his gospel message, intentionally placed this question from John to Jesus after a long section about followers of Jesus meeting opposition and persecution in the world. If you have time, read Matthew chapters 10 and 11 now, or keep reading here and I’ll quote key verses and ideas as we go, starting with these:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” – Matthew 10:24
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.” – Matthew 11:11

I think Matthew was making several points, starting with this: living like Jesus does not mean Christians will avoid uncomfortable circumstances, including criticism and/or persecution.  Circumstances are not always a sign we’ve done something right or wrong. In Matthew 10, when Jesus said “a disciple is not above his teacher” the context tells us that what He meant was that His perfect life and obedience led to the cross, and if we are like Him we can’t expect to be treated better than He was.  Still, we may be tempted to think that if we live the right life, if we preach the truth of the gospel perfectly, if we do everything we should, then we will not be like “sheep in the midst of wolves,”[5] but loved and admired by the world.  By moving right to the story of John in the next chapter, and saying “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist,”  Matthew is saying that not even the greatest disciple of Jesus who ever lived was exempt from the warnings of chapter 10, including “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” – Matthew 10:17-18

Even the very best lives and preaching meet opposition, perhaps even more opposition from those who have no interest in the kingdom of God.

Second, by placing these stories side-by-side, Matthew shows that John the Baptist is an example for us when we have doubts[6].  In prison, John had doubts, but did not give up on Jesus.  If Jesus was who he said He was, then not only the warnings of chapter 10 apply to John and us, but also the assurances and instructions:

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” – Matthew 10:19
What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” – Matthew 10:27
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” – Matthew 10:31

John sent disciples to Jesus not to ask for rescue or to complain, but to confirm whether He really was the Messiah.  When we have doubts, we can also seek and find comfort.

Third, there is always more God is doing than we are aware of.  Instead of commenting directly on John’s prison situation to John’s messengers, “Jesus answered 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.[7]  In other words, Jesus was doing everything the Messiah should be doing, and even with John sidelined from public ministry, the kingdom of God was advancing spectacularly.  John had the information needed to believe and should not be “offended” by his unexpected circumstances. God remained in control of the situation.

Lastly, the circumstances of our lives may be what inspire others to better follow Christ, although it may be invisible to us.  Therefore, our patience and faithfulness in those times, or even the way we express and deal with doubt, can be a powerful witness.  As “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John saw his audience as those coming out to see Him and be baptized.  From this perspective, being in prison made John feel useless or like a failure to his calling. What had he and/or Jesus done wrong?  But God (see related post on these two words), through Matthew’s Gospel, saw John’s audience as all future generations, who could be encouraged that even the “great” John the Baptist faced criticism, persecution, and even doubt.  John may have thought his purpose was to keep preaching publicly, but instead his example benefits other believers in ways that his freedom couldn’t.

Faith Over Circumstance
Don’t let circumstances determine your faith and willingness to serve Christ.  In Matthew 10, Jesus said political and religious leaders, and even our own families, will resist Christ in us.  Often, they will appear to succeed.  Also, some will tell us that when things aren’t going our way, we need to “have more faith”, “pray harder”, “go to church more”, and convince God to improve our situation.  They argue we need to fix something we’re doing and our circumstances will improve.  But this is not the message of John’s story, and Matthew made sure of that by the way he wrote it.  There is no record of Jesus or Matthew telling John the Baptist why he was suffering and in prison, or that he could do anything about it.  Jesus only asked him to trust.  However, when John was ultimately beheaded[8], he met Jesus face-to face again, but fully glorified, and I believe John understood.  There is always more to our circumstances than we can see or comprehend, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[9]

If even John the Baptist was not exempt from the warnings of Matthew 10, neither are we.  But also, if John could trust his Lord and Savior to love and provide for him, we can too. Odds are that nobody reading this will face what John the Baptist faced, but his story helps in whatever circumstance God asks us to glorify Him in.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”” – Matthew 10:38-39, 42


[1] Isaiah 40:3, quoted in Matthew 4:3.
[2] Matthew 3:16-17
[3] Matthew 14:3
[4] Matthew 11:3
[5] Matthew 10:16
[6] Also, I recently posted an example from the life of Jeremiah the prophet.
[7] Matthew 11:4-6
[8] Matthew 14:10
[9] Romans 8:28

Author: Todd R

I read; I think; I write. I consider how to stir up my readers to love and good works. If the Lord wills, I will continue to write and do this or that. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted. All other quotations are also in the standard English version, unless otherside noted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: