July 26 2009 John the Doubter


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"John the Doubter."


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Luke 7:18-23 (ESV)

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 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?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ ” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “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. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

This week, we want to take a second look at John the Baptist.  Most of what we know about the life of John the Baptist is contained in a few Biblical snapshots of him in the gospels.  Last week, we looked at the picture of him announcing that he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness--the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah by humbling the Jews through his sharp, prophetic preaching as they came out to the wilderness to hear him. The next snapshot Luke gives us is in what we read earlier in chapter seven. Although Luke doesn’t mention it, Matthew tells us that at this point in his ministry, John is in prison—arrested by Herod for condemning his sinful affair with his own sister-in-law.  And it’s from that prison cell that John sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look to another?”

          This question John asks in verse 19 is nothing less than stunning when you place it in its larger context.  When you think about what the gospels record of John’s previous relationship with Jesus and what he himself had testified about Jesus, this seems like a ridiculous question coming from John.  Let’s recall the context by reviewing the history Jesus and John have with one another up to this point.  In the first recorded meeting between Jesus and John in the gospels, we read in Matthew 3:13, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answer him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then he consented.”  It’s clear that at this point John recognizes Jesus and acknowledges his supremacy.  That’s saying a lot because as we saw last week because John knew very well that he was a prophet—the first prophet to appear in over 400 years. 

We can assume from this exchange that John recognized that Jesus was indeed the One for whom he was preparing.  Matthew goes on to tell us in 3:16, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  This is very significant because here we see that John personally witnesses a profoundly important confirming sign that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.  In texts like Isaiah 11:2 and 61:1, the Messiah was prophesied to be the One upon whom the Holy Spirit would come and rest.  That is, He would remain on Jesus indefinitely. No one else had that kind of anointing—not even John. This was a clear, unmistakable confirmation from God that Jesus was the Messiah and John was within a few feet of it and saw it all.  What’s more--he heard the voice from heaven, which a prophet would have immediately recognized as God, giving his explicit seal of approval on this One he calls his “beloved Son.”  Again, this was clearly a unique designation for the Messiah and John is a direct participant in this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life and ministry.

          If that weren’t enough, in chapter one of John’s gospel in verse 29 we read, “The next day he [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!   That is an earth-shattering statement because embedded in that phrase “the Lamb of God” is a ton of very weighty truth that, as we’ll see, not even John himself understood.  At the very least, this phrase means that John recognized that Jesus was sent by God as THE Lamb of God.  So this is an indication that John knew the absolute uniqueness of Jesus.  John continues in verse 30, “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”  That is a transparent statement revealing that John knew with certainty that this was the man to whom his entire life and ministry had pointed.

Verse 32 says, “And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”  These verses only amplify what we saw in Matthew.  That is--not only did John see the Holy Spirit remain on Jesus, but God had specifically told him by personal revelation, “You will know the Messiah because he is the One on whom I will send the Spirit who will remain on him.”  That’s like the exchange in John 13 at the Lord’s Supper when Jesus announces to his disciples that one of them will betray him. Peter signals to John the apostle to ask Jesus who it is and Jesus whispers to John, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.”[13:26] When he gave the bread to Judas, the apostle knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was Judas. God uses that same kind of confirmation with John about Jesus.  God told John that the Messiah—the One who baptizes with the Spirit and for whom he is the forerunner--is the One on whom the Spirit will be given permanently.

John concludes this triumphant expression of faith in Jesus as the Messiah in John 1:34 saying, “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” With utter prophetic certainty John testifies that he has personally witnessed and now asserts that Jesus is “the Son of God”—a designation exploding with Messianic significance. John KNOWS beyond doubt that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. But if that weren’t enough, in John chapter three the apostle records a discussion between John and his disciples when Jesus’ newly inaugurated ministry was increasingly drawing people away John’s from John’s ministry.  His disciples resent this, but John refuses to indulge their jealousy of Jesus but instead says, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase I must decrease.”  Not only does John re-affirm Jesus as the bridegroom Messiah, but he says that now that he is on the scene, his joy is complete.  He also understands the implications of his appearance—it meant the sun was setting on of his own ministry—he must decrease.

          So we see all this iron-clad evidence and John’s repeated, joyful testimony of Jesus of Nazareth as THE One—the Messiah they had all been waiting for.  Yet, into that context from his prison cell, we see John, not merely wondering to himself about Jesus in a moment of private uncertainty.  He actually goes to the trouble sending messengers to Jesus to ask him the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  You read that question and in this context you wonder, “How could those words come out of this man’s mouth—this great prophet of God who KNEW the truth and who had spoken this truth to countless Jews as a prophet of God, yet here asks this question of fundamental importance riddled with uncertainty and doubt.  This is such an unlikely question, some scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to rescue John from himself here, but the text is very clear.  John is showing genuine doubt here.  The fascinating thing is that Luke doesn’t tell us what is behind this doubt.  We are left to speculate as to what caused this decay in John’s faith in Jesus.  Although we will engage in a bit of speculating, we must know that—the cause of John’s doubt is obviously not very important to either Luke or Matthew’s because they don’t go there.  But, since we have exposed the tension here between John’s doubt and his earlier faith about Jesus, let’s do some educated speculation. Why this astonishing admission of doubt after such repeated and powerful evidence to confirm it?

The most Biblically supportable explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t what John expected in a Messiah.  We see a probable cause of John’s doubt by reviewing the text we examined last week.  In Luke 3:9, John speaks of the judgment that is to come saying, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Later in verse 17, he speaks of the Messiah and says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  From those statements, John is expecting the Messiah to bring his axe and his winnowing fork—instruments portraying judgment and wrath. Yet, the Jesus that he has seen and heard about is not fundamentally speaking of judgment, but of blessing.  This is a beatitude/blessing speaking Judge—whoever heard of such a thing?  Though he will occasionally give sharp a rebuke or two to the worst offenders, the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, more often than not, his ministry is marked by lavish expressions of God’s mercy of God, not his judgment.  As a prophet, John knew how wicked and proud the Jews were and how deserving of God’s judgment they were—he had repeatedly told the crowds what God had laid on his heart.  Namely, the time for judgment was at hand.  But up until this point, Jesus of Nazareth had a ministry marked by healings, resurrections, mass feedings and exorcisms.

          If we move a bit further out on the limb of speculation—we could reasonably wonder whether John’s doubt was fueled by the absence in Jesus’ teaching of any talk of deliverance from the oppression of Rome.  This was a common messianic expectation and it’s possible that John could have wondered this as well.  You must remember, for us who have the entire New Testament, its common knowledge that the Messiah appears on earth in two advents—one as the Suffering Servant who inaugurated his kingdom through a humble, sin-atoning death and a second, distinct advent in the future where he will come as the Warrior King bringing the judgment of God on all of God’s enemies when he comes again to consummate his kingdom. 

That two-stage advent is well known to us, but for John and all the other Jews, the Suffering Servant role of the Messiah was far less clear to them and they assumed that whatever was involved in that would somehow be carried out by the Warrior King.  So here is this One whom John thought to be the Messiah, but he hasn’t seen anything of the Warrior King.  That might have fueled his doubt as well. Finally, remember, John is in prison—his ministry, for which he had spent his entire 30 years preparing, lasted 18 months and if Jesus is the Messiah, it’s over—he was done.  God was at this point finished with him.  That dynamic might have caused him to wonder, “Is this it?  Is this what it is to be the forerunner of the great conquering Messiah---to be stuck here in this prison after a very short run, while the “Messiah” is out there healing and feeding people who I thought he would condemning?”  Lord willing, we will look at the rest of this story next time, but for now let me share three points of application for this text.

First, John’s example reminds us that living by faith is hard and we should be honest about our doubts.  In the face of undeniably strong evidence, John here struggles to believe what he had on countless occasions confidently affirmed to others. John’s faith simply fails him here.  Whatever the cause, he doubts what he at one time knew to be true.  At some point, John allows some new information or feeling or his incomplete understanding of Old Testament Scripture to obscure what had at one time been absolutely clear to him.  And we have all done the same thing many times!  We hold certain convictions about God and the Bible and there is not a shred of doubt in our mind about the truthfulness of them.  And then “new information” comes into our faith equation, a wretched physical or mental illness—a few months or years in the wilderness filled with bitter disappointments.  People we trusted let us down—maybe even betrayed us.  What we think are absolutely valid needs go unmet for years.  We thought for sure that we heard God clearly about his will for our life and sacrificially trusted in him to provide for it, but in the end--it never happened.  We missed God…I guess…  Love ones are taken from us.  Maybe it’s the increasing awareness of our own sin that disillusions us—we just can’t believe that a person who claimed to love Jesus could have such gaping holes in their character and do or think such wicked things.  New information comes in and rusts a hole in what at one time was a tank full of faith.

The simple, child-like faith that at one time seemed to come so easy and natural to us is now something we have to really fight to hold onto and frankly much of the time, we don’t feel like fighting.  This happens to everyone and most of the giants of faith in the Bible are no exceptions.  Hebrews 11 is the faith chapter, but if there were a “doubt chapter” in the Bible chronicling those people who, in the face of perfectly sufficient evidence, doubted God--that chapter would be much longer and most of the ones in the faith chapter would also be mentioned in the doubt chapter.  When David sinned with Bathsheba it was in part because in his unbelief, he believed his sin would bring him more pleasure than being faithful to God.  When he had Uriah killed, it was in part because he chose not to believe the promise of judgment associated with sin and in his madness believed that he could get away with it.  His unbelief blinded him to what he knew very well. In Numbers 20, when Moses disobeyed God and struck the rock to get water for the people instead of simply speaking to the rock as he had been told, God rebukes him and Aaron saying, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”  God’s sees the root of this sin as unbelief.  Moses refused to believe that God would provide water by the means he said and in his unbelief, he freelances.[1] 

The disciples are a case study in doubt.  They doubt that Jesus can deliver them in a storm.  Peter doubts God’s ability to protect him and as a result ends up denying Jesus three times. They doubt that Jesus will go to the cross even though he repeatedly told them.  And when he dies on that cross, in spite of the fact that Jesus has repeatedly assured them of his resurrection, their ship of faith is dashed on the rocks.  Doubting Thomas is the infamous example, but none of them believed.  Walking by faith is hard.  It’s hard because faith is necessary for everything we do—it’s a pervasive part of living in a fallen world as a fallen creature.  At the heart of every spiritual choice I make is a choice whether to believe God or not.  At the center of every sin is unbelief.  If I covet or lust after someone or something, it’s because I am not believing that what God has given to me is enough.  If I lie, it’s because I don’t trust God to honor truth-telling.  If I wimp out on an opportunity to share my faith, it’s because often in my unbelief I’m failing to believe in the life-changing power of the gospel.  If I am anxious about anything, it’s because I am doubting the sufficiency and/or the goodness of God.  If I feel condemned and question God’s love for me, I am doubting the gospel.  If I am wondering if I will go to heaven because of a particular sin I committed, I am doubting the gospel.  If I am living to please people instead of God, I am not fully trusting the sufficiency of God’s acceptance of me in the gospel.

And so it is with John.  There he is--proclaiming the advent of a Warrior King and this suffering Servant, Jesus of Nazareth shows up and in the face of that confusion, he gives in to doubt.  Living by faith is hard—it’s impossible apart from a perpetual spiritual i.v. drip of the grace of God.  If you don’t believe that, then you’ve never tried to live by faith for any length of time.  John is not a positive example in his doubt, but he is a good example in his honesty about it.  He doesn’t sit on this—he openly expresses whatever level of skepticism he is experiencing in a very transparent question, “Are you the One…or not?” 

One thing that is toxic to faith is for believers to hang around other believers or go to a church where you can’t be honest about your doubts.  If we all feel like we mustn’t ever admit that we are having trouble believing God in an area, then we will never be more than an inch deep in that area of struggle.  We are called to build up one another in Ephesians four.  That certainly includes building up our faith, but how can that happen if we aren’t free to admit it to anyone.  We are called to bear one another’s burdens in Galatians six.  That would include the burden of a crisis of faith but that assumes that someone actually KNOWS ABOUT your burden of unbelief.  We are to confess our sins to one another in James five.  That would include unbelief wouldn’t it?  We are to encourage one another according to First Thessalonians five.  That surely includes encouraging others to trust God when they confess wavering faith.  John’s example here in Luke seven reminds us that living by faith is hard in our fallen condition and we should be honest about our doubts. If John the Baptist can doubt God in the face of such tremendous evidence, then surely you and I can and will.

A second point of application is seen in Jesus’ response to John’s unbelief.  That is—Jesus is enduringly patient with us.  We saw a few weeks ago several places where Jesus in the gospels marvels at the unbelief of his generation and his disciples.  But here we see his gentleness with John.  He would have been perfectly justified to say in the face of John’s doubt, “John, what about my baptism when you saw the Holy Spirit descend upon me—You know the prophecies!  What about your own testimony about me as the “Lamb of God” and the “Son of God?” What about me being the One whose sandals you were not worthy to untie? Was that just your imagination?  What about the joy you experienced at my appearing?  Come on John--get with the program!”  Jesus could have thrown all of John’s own words back in his face, but he doesn’t do that.  He tells John’s messengers in verse 22,“…Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them...”  Jesus doesn’t condemn John. He builds his faith in the best way--by the use of Scripture.  Paul tells us in Romans 10:17 that faith comes by the hearing the word of Christ.  So in this gentle reminder, Jesus brings to John’s memory several Old Testament texts that reveal that the Messiah will come and do the very things he is doing.  He’s gently encouraging John to think about the prophetic texts so as to stir his faith.  I’m so glad Jesus is gentle.  Is that is the way we are when other believers fail us?

Finally he says, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Again, hear the gentleness of this rebuke wrapped in beatitude.  Implicit in this is the thought—“John, don’t allow your unmet expectations about me to cause you to stumble.  Don’t trip over me—this is who I am and it’s exactly whom I am supposed to be.”  God is patient with our doubt.  If he wasn’t, none of us would be alive today.  I was reminded by a dear brother recently that in all those pages and pages of Old Testament laments where God’s people pour out their complaints to God—many of those complaints are nothing but an agonized expression of doubt in God’s goodness and sufficiency.  Yet, in all of those pages and pages of lament, God never once responds to a lament by rebuking the saint who is sincerely struggling with faith.[2]  Jesus is enduringly patient with us.  And our doubts, though often sinful, do not prompt God to condemn us.

A final point of application is the main one I think the Holy Spirit wants us to take away from this account about John’s doubt.  That is—as great as John was, he WAS unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.  Do you ever wonder why the Holy Spirit includes a certain story within the Bible?  Why would Matthew and Luke include this story that puts the greatest man born of woman in a negative light?  It would have been far less messy to leave this out.  The picture of this last Old Testament prophet would have been unmarred by sin. Why do Matthew and Luke feel compelled to pop our bubble about the Baptist?  Apart from having to present a true picture of John, isn’t it to show that even though John was by God’s grace a true prophet and worthy of our admiration, he’s no Jesus—not by a long shot.  As great as John was by God’s grace, he was fallen.  He’s a sinner and if you place your trust in him, he will let you down.  He’s a created being saturated with sin. 

God wants us to contrast all the Biblical heroes of the faith with Jesus.  In 33 years, Jesus always did exactly what the Father told him.  He never struck the rock.  He never lied. He never sinned sexually even in his mind and he never murdered anyone even in his mind.  He obeyed God at every turn and he obeyed God when God told him to do something infinitely more difficult than anything he had ever told anyone else to do.  He went to the cross and took upon himself the infinite wrath of a holy, sin-hating God who just happened to be his Father.  And through it all, he never once sinned by doubting.  He always trusted in God…always.  And the take home message for us is—this is a Savior—this is a God you can trust.  He does all things well—he never makes a mistake—he doesn’t know how to.  So if you’re here today and some “new information” is causing you to doubt God, do what John should have done.  That is—call to mind what God has already done for you—the faithfulness you have already seen---the promises he has kept and by God’s grace believe.  May God give us the grace to increasingly grow in our God-given faith.

[1] NICOT Numbers, Timothy Ashley, p.389

[2] Private conversation with Larry Filmore, 7/19/09 re. a teaching he had heard on Lament from Michael Card.

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