How come John the Baptist doubted that Jesus really was the Messiah?
Jesus described John as the greatest man who had ever lived. He had been supernaturally conceived and set apart by God to point people to the Messiah. He had seen a revival as people responded to his call to repentance and were baptised. He had seen the dove descend on Jesus at His baptism. He once said:
John 1:32-34 32 …‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.’
God spoke to him. He was utterly sure that Jesus was the Messiah. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He knew what Jesus was doing: great miracles including the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising of the widow’s son in Nain.
But then he had a crisis of faith. Listen to this passage. How could this happen? How did Jesus answer it? READ Luke 7:18-35
John had been imprisoned. That might explain it. Prison undoubtedly was tough physically and psychologically, but also spiritually. Maybe he felt that God had let Him down. He had been faithful. People had responded. He had stood up for what was right. He was in prison for challenging King Herod’s immorality. Surely God should have been his defender and protected him from this.
Maybe too Jesus wasn’t quite what John had expected.
Luke 3:16-17 16 John answered them all, ‘I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’
Maybe, languishing in prison, he had hoped that Jesus would be that judge; exercise that mighty power, punish evil and set him free – and Jesus hadn’t.
Does any of that sound familiar? If John the Baptist can have doubts, any of us can have doubts. We might have faith in God but then we strike pressure or suffering and we doubt if God really is who we thought He was. We can feel that God should have healed us or someone we love; that He should have answered our desperate prayers; that He should have protected us from hardship; that He should have prospered us financially. And He hasn’t. Is He really who we believed Him to be?
John could have given up. In disappointment, He could have turned his back on Jesus. Instead, He sent two people to Jesus seeking reassurance. He didn’t turn away from Jesus; he turned to Jesus. That was the right thing to do. It is as if he is saying, “Jesus, I am struggling. Reassure me. Convince me again.”
Many of the psalms speak of distress and disappointment. “How long, O God, will You leave me in suffering? Why do You not answer my prayers?” But even in saying that, the psalmist has turned back to God. “Speak to me. Reassure me. Strengthen me again.”
Jesus responded to John in two ways. First, He answered John’s question, although only indirectly. He just pointed to the evidence. “Here are the fact, John. What do you think?”
Luke inserts a brief report about what was happening at the time. Look at v.21: At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirit, and gave sight to many who were blind.
How would John the Baptist know whether or not Jesus was the Messiah? Remember Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.” And so Jesus simply pointed to the fruit. “Report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
When we express our doubts to God, we must also be ready to listen to the answer. Yes, it was true that John was suffering – and it was fair enough to ask the question. It was a valid question. Jesus hadn’t judged evil and established righteousness and Jesus hadn’t rescued him from prison. He had said that He had come to set the captive free. So…? Maybe He wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they should be looking elsewhere. Fair question. But it was not just about John. What else was happening?
People were being healed of sicknesses and delivered from evil spirits. The blind were receiving their sight and the lame were walking. The dead were being raised back to life – like the widow’s son immediately prior to this. The good news of the gospel was being preached to the poor. So, what do you think? Was Jesus the One who was to come? Was the Kingdom of God present?
John’s personal experience did involve disappointment and suffering. But then all these other things were happening. Should he go with his personal experience or acknowledge the bigger picture?
Maybe we feel disappointed with God. We could give up. We might say that in New Zealand we don’t see much evidence of God. Maybe this whole Christianity thing is not what it is cracked up to be. Maybe it is not worth the effort. Why should I keep serving a God who doesn’t do much for me? God, are You real? Jesus, are you really the Messiah?
I wonder if God might then say, “Do you know, people are still being healed and still being set free from evil spirits by the power of the name of Jesus – including in New Zealand? Do you know that, according to Wikipedia (although God probably wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia), world-wide, the Christian church is growing by about 29.5 million people each year. In other words, about 80,500 people are becoming Christians every day. In 1900 there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa. By 2000 there were 360 million and the estimate by 2025 is 633 million. Do you know in which country Christianity is growing the fastest? Iran. In Iran, where there is a radical Islamic dictatorship and where conversion to Christianity can result in death, it is estimated that the church is growing at 20% per year. Christians are still a small minority but that growth is phenomenal. World-wide, Christianity is not dying; it is experiencing explosive growth.”
“Do you know that Muslims are being converted in large numbers, many after having had supernatural visions or dreams of Jesus? Do you know there are more people being martyred for their faith in Jesus now than at any other time in history?” Is that a good thing? No, but it shows that people love Jesus more than their own lives. There are millions of people willing to die for Jesus.
Or God might remind us of what He has done in history. Or He might point us to the wonder of creation. We, on the one hand, have our disappointment and on the other have the evidence.
Have you noticed, in the Psalms, that when people start off by expressing disappointment or questions, they end up by praising God? That suggests they had their complaint but they were open to listen to God’s response and when they listened, they were reminded of the reality of God and they praised Him.
The second thing Jesus did in response to John was to tell his disciples to say to him, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
We could be offended by Jesus. He might say something we don’t like. He might challenge us. He might call us to repent of some sin. We might be disappointed because He doesn’t do what we think He should. But Jesus says, “Truly happy is the person who, even though disappointed in Me, keeps going.”
And that is where Luke leaves the story. We don’t know how John responded. We do know that after John’s messengers had left, Jesus said to the crowds, “This man (John) is the greatest man who has ever lived.” Wow! That is quite an endorsement from Jesus Himself. John the Baptist, greater than Abraham, Moses, Elijah… And yet, Jesus said that the least in the Kingdom of God was greater than John. I find that hard to understand. I think it means that John was like the last of the Old Testament prophets. He died never seeing the salvation that Jesus brought through His death on the Cross. Christians are in a much more wonderful position with many advantages that John never knew. In other words, it is not so much that Christians are better than John but better off.
Luke notes that the people (including those you would least expect, e.g. tax collectors) were responding to Jesus’ words, acknowledging that God’s ways were right – not my ways, God’s ways – because they had been baptised by John. The Pharisees and the experts in the law (the people who might be most expected to believe) rejected God’s purpose for them because they had not been baptised by John.
John’s influence was huge. It is not as if his baptism was magic. Rather, he preached repentance and pointed people to Jesus. Those who repented, responded to Jesus. Those who resisted what God was doing through John and refused to repent, were hardened and not ready to meet Jesus. What an amazing job John did readying people – softening people – so that they then accepted Jesus.
Some didn’t like Jesus. Some were jealous of Him and threatened by Him. Some were offended by Jesus. He called them to repent of their sins. Some were disappointed by Jesus. He wasn’t what they thought the Messiah should be. He didn’t behave in the way that they thought He should.
Even John had his own ideas of what Jesus should do and therefore he doubted but he sought reassurance and presumably was willing to listen. Others also had their own ideas of what Jesus should do and what He should be like but they wouldn’t listen. Jesus told a parable about children playing. If someone suggested they play weddings and be happy and dance, they didn’t want to do that. OK, well let’s play funerals then and be sad. No they didn’t want to do that either. Jesus couldn’t win with some people.
People said John was too serious. He wasn’t enough fun. Jesus was too much fun. John was too godly. Jesus wasn’t godly enough.
A classic modern example would be that people are offended by the wrath of God. “No, no, I cannot accept a God who gets angry.” Some fall away. Some redefine God the way they want Him to be but that means redefining the meaning of the cross and everything. The alternative is to submit to God as He is.
The fact that people were coming to faith in Jesus proved that He was doing it right, despite the criticism.
Have you been disappointed with God? Have you thought that God isn’t doing it right? Has God let you down? You can tell him how you feel but don’t forget to also ask Him to reveal the truth and to be willing to listen and to submit. If it is clear that He is God and He knows what He is doing (even when we don’t understand it) then happy are those who fall on their knees and worship Him.