The Unnamed Messengers

“St. John the Baptist in Prison Sends His Disciples to Question Jesus” by Ermenegildo Lodi

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“And John, calling two of His disciples to Him, sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Luke 7:18-19).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elizabeth, Gabriel, John, Mary, Zechariah—these are the usual names we hear each Advent. Their inclusion in the story by name makes our understanding of the Incarnation inseparable from their particular parts in the story.”[i]

But there are others in Scripture who, even though they had a significant role to play in relation to Jesus, remain unnamed. I am thinking, for example, of the shepherds keeping watch by night, the thieves crucified with Jesus on Golgotha, and the owners of the colt Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The biblical authors did not feel compelled to tell us their names, but this does not diminish the significance of their interaction with Jesus. Indeed, sometimes it is the unnamed characters in the Bible who can most help us find our own place in the biblical story.

At the center of this week’s reading from Luke 7 are two such people. “Luke describes them only as disciples of John. He does not tell us their names, but rather focuses our attention on the task they are given.”[ii] John sends these two disciples to ask Jesus a question. Their question is one every thinking Christian asks at some point in life, and the answer they receive from our Lord is ultimately the only answer any of us ever receive. For as you’ve probably noticed, the Lord does not find it necessary to answer all our questions. But He does give us all the information we need to know for salvation, life in this world, and eternal life.

Back to the unnamed messengers… The place from which John sends them highlights its urgency. John has not been mentioned in Luke’s Gospel since 3:20, when he was put into prison. Presumably, he is still locked-up for being faithful, still in danger of execution (which was coming) for doing his job, and still suffering the darkness of sin despite the arrival of the Light of the World. “His question reveals uncertainty about the very message he has been proclaiming. It reveals the challenge of living (and dying) by faith. Luke thinks the question is worth repeating. John tells them what to ask in verse 19, and then they ask it in verse 20, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”[iii]

Much debate has raged over the centuries whether John doubts that Jesus is the Messiah or if it is only his disciples who doubt. Some, who cannot imagine such a strong character as John wavering in his faith, explain that, although John himself never wavered in his faith, he sent his disciples with this question so that they might come to see Jesus as the Messiah and begin following Him.

But what about the possibility that John’s question was personal? Recall how John prophesied that the Coming One would act in fiery judgment (Luke 3:7ff.). Yet Jesus was not doing that. Now, as he faces death for his life’s work, John seems to have been assailed by doubts. That’s natural, isn’t it? People at the end of life often look back and ask, “Did my life mean anything? Have I accomplished what God intended for me?” This is especially true if life has recently taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Would it be so surprising if, under his current conditions, this great man of faith also looked back and wondered?

A straightforward reading suggests that not only John’s disciples but also John himself questions Jesus’ messiahship and that he sends his disciples to Jesus find out the truth. Indeed, in the Gospel, all human observers of the ministry of Jesus struggle with the way in which Jesus demonstrates He is the Messiah.  

In His first sermon, Jesus announced that He was present to set the captives free. Who is more captive than John the Baptist as he sits in prison because of his ministry as the forerunner of Jesus? The scruffy prophet has to be wondering why he’s still sitting there. John was raised up to proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But the progress or manner of Jesus’ ministry has not been what John expected.

Riddled with doubt, John takes his doubts to the right place—Jesus! And Jesus tells the unnamed disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22).

The miracles that are reported to John are significant in that they point to the blessings of the Messiah that come when the new era of salvation breaks in, as Isaiah prophesied. In adding the words, “And blessed is the One who is not offended by Me,” Jesus also takes John and his disciples back to the writings of Isaiah, where the Lord had said of the Messiah, “And He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (8:14–15). Would John, like many others, be offended by Jesus when He does not meet their messianic expectations?

There are, at this point, two possible stumbling blocks that could cause observers to be scandalized. First, the offense could come simply from identifying Jesus of Nazareth as the prophesied Messiah. The miracles and teaching of Jesus identify Him as this Messiah. But not all are willing to acknowledge this. The people of His hometown, Nazareth, were offended because they thought they knew Him too well for Him to be the Messiah (Luke 4:22). Others in Israel wondered if anything good could come out of a hicktown like Nazareth (John 1:46).

Second, the scandal could come because at His first Advent, Jesus reveals Himself primarily as a Messiah of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and not one of vengeance. He has come to serve, to seek, and to save. His ministry now is not to execute judgment, but to absorb God’s wrath for sin.

Many expected the Messiah to come in wrath to execute vengeance upon those they considered to be enemies of God and Israel. Instead, Jesus comes in solidarity with all human sinners and bears in Himself the vengeance and wrath of God against His enemies, including us and our sin. That is why Jesus’ ministry is filled with miracles of forgiveness and release for those who are in bondage. Jesus is the One who comes to bring mercy, compassion, and forgiveness!

“Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John may have been the first to articulate this question, but every follower of Jesus who has encountered difficulty and suffering for their connection to Jesus has asked it at some point. I can imagine a number of profiles: The pastor who faithfully proclaims the commands and promises of God in Christ, and yet sees his congregation diminish in size and influence and viability; the grandmother who returns to the exhaustion of parenthood to care for a grandchild because the parents are unable to do their duty; the single man who channels his love for a family (that God has never provided) toward needy members of his congregation; the young man or woman who, despite the pressures to give into the world’s encouragement to create their own identity, refuses to make God in their own image.

What do these people have in common? They are suffering for doing good, for living and serving faithfully in Jesus’ name. They remain unnamed to most people, and they share the same question asked by these unnamed messengers: “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Jesus’ answer is ultimately the only answer we get. “If you want to know who I am,” Jesus says, “look at what I do and listen to what I say.” The messengers presumably saw these things for themselves. But John did not. When they return to John, they only had a report, only a witness, only a word, only a promise. It doesn’t sound like much—the witness of a couple of unnamed disciples—but it was enough for them. And it still is today.

And so today, the Lord sends you another messenger. His name will never be listed in the history books, but that’s okay. What is important is the message that he brings, in so far as it is of whom Jesus is and His Word and His works.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. What does Jesus do? He performs miraculous healings and proclaims God’s Word with authority. Though equal to the Father, He submits to His Father’s will and remains faithful unto death. Though very God, He humbles Himself under human authority, even when treated unjustly and cruelly. He suffers the scorn and mocking of sinful man and the righteous wrath of God in payment for the sins of the world. On the third day, He rises from the dead, conquering our greatest enemies, sin, death, and the Devil. He ascends to heaven where He lives and reigns on behalf of His Bride, the Church. One day, He will return to judge the living and the dead. He will take you and all who have believed in His name to be with Him forever.

And having now heard this Good News, you go out into the world as His messengers. Equipped to follow in the steps of these unnamed disciples you bring the message of Jesus’ saving work to the people in your lives—your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers. Some of them may have never heard this Gospel before, or at least, have not ever really listened. But many others might be in the same position as John—believers under trial who need some reassurance. Remind them of what the Lord has done and who He is.

Here are some examples:

The pastor who questions his ministry? Remind him of God’s promises. “You are not called to be ‘successful’ by worldly standards but to be faithful. Sow the seed of the Word and trust that God will bring forth a harvest in His own way and timetable. As St. Paul writes: ‘Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2). ‘Be steadfast, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor has not been in vain’” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The grandma who finds herself raising another generation? Encourage her. “What you’re doing is important. Jesus says, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). It is a particularly good thing that you are doing for your family, but it can’t be easy. I will be praying for you. But more than that, I want you to know that I am willing to help. Call me if the kids need a ride. Call me if you’re worn out and need a break. Call me if you just need to talk to an adult for a while. And remember St. Paul’s encouragement to the Christians of Galatia, ‘Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith’” (Galatians 6:9–10).

The lonely single man? Remind him that Jesus was a single man Himself. “Jesus knew loneliness. He knew what it meant not to fit in and not to have a place. He knows what it meant to rely on others. Our Lord understands more acutely than any of us what it means to be single, what it means to be truly alone. His disciples abandoned Him. His own hometown rejected Him. He was tempted by Satan himself. Despite all this, He’s also the one who willing took on all the sin and shame and dirt of the world. And He did it alone.

“He’s also the one who raised you from the dead, the one the grave couldn’t hold, so that you don’t have to be alone. He’s the one who joins you to Himself in Baptism, so that you are always someone’s, always His. He’s the One who places you into a family, a community, His Church. He’s the One who promises never to leave you, never to forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). He knows your loneliness. He understands your fears. He hears your worries. And He answers because you matter to Him.”

The young man or woman who seeks to maintain their own identity and to resist peer pressure? Remind them who they are, whose they are. “You are a baptized child of God, a co-heir of Christ.” Encourage them with the words of St. Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Please be assured. Even if the world does not know your name, the Lord Jesus does! Go in the peace of the Lord and share the Good News of great joy. Christ the Savior is born. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

[ii] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

[iii] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

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