John the Baptist is one of the most fascinating characters in the New Testament. Luke alone in his gospel tells us the story of his miraculous birth to parents who were way beyond child bearing years, that he was a distant relative of Jesus, that he was in some way a fulfillment of prophecy and that he was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). It is also only in Luke that we read of John's childhood and youth spent in the desert -- just one verse (1:80).
But all 4 Gospels tell us of his public ministry. John was sent as a forerunner to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, by preaching to the nation of Israel their need to repent and return to the LORD, demonstrating their repentance through baptism. John even baptized Jesus , witnessed the Spirit's descent on Him, heard the Father's voice from heaven and testified that Jesus was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
But then John "quit preachin' and went to meddlin'" as the old saying goes. He accused Herod Antipas the Tetrarch, who claimed Jewish ancestry, of violating the Mosaic Law by taking his brother's wife. John was imprisoned by Herod, later to be beheaded. And as John languished in prison, the man chosen by God, this bold preacher, this forerunner to the Messiah, began to have his doubts. He began to question whether Jesus really was the one who John thought He was.
The story of John's doubts is told briefly by both Matthew and Luke in their Gospels -- just two verses in each. Luke's version reads as follows: "And John's disciples reported to him all these things. And John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord saying, 'Are you the Coming One or should we expect another?'" (Luke 7:18, 19)
Neither Gospel writer gives us any more than that. The story moves on. But we want to stop here and ask what's going on? What happened to John? After all he said, after all he witnessed, after hearing these glowing reports which seemingly confirm his message, what is it that causes him to question whether Jesus is really the Coming One?
But as it so often is, the Bible is silent where we'd like it to speak. We can only conjecture. We can go to the commentaries, but the scholars seem as befuddled as we are. There are many possible explanations suggested.
One idea that is sometimes put forward is that John isn't really in doubt, he is simply expressing confirmation of his previous opinions, possibly for the sake of his disciples. I suspect that those who say this, do so because they don't like to see warts. But the characters in the Bible are as human as we are.
And that to me is the comfort in this passage. If someone like John can have his doubts and not be condemned, maybe God can deal comfortingly with mine.
Here is a man who felt God's call from his childhood, who had felt himself a fulfillment of prophecy, perhaps even as a child, as his parents related to him the stories of his miraculous birth, of the angelic message, even the Old Testament prophecies.
Here is a man who saw and heard an amazing witness from heaven confirming his thinking about the Messiah. Here was a man who saw great crowds of his people turning their lives around because of his ministry.
And now here he was, sitting in a cold damp filthy prison cell, perhaps surrounded by real criminals and not knowing when his death might come. And his disciples come and tell him about Jesus' miracles.
We can imagine that, though John had been sure that Jesus was the coming Messiah, Jesus was not living up to the popular expectation of what the Messiah would do. And so the doubts creep in. "Why hasn't Jesus done what is expected of Him? Why hasn't He taken over and begun His reign? Why hasn't He delivered His people? Why am I -- His forerunner still sitting in prison when He could tear down the walls and free me? I hear reports about His miracles, even His raising the dead; why doesn't He free me? Could I have been wrong about Him? Could He simply be just another healer?"
I know I'm just using my imagination but I and (I suspect) many others can to some extent identify with John -- even those of us involved in the ministry. We feel we've given our lives over to serve and found that our service is not only unappreciated but condemned. Oh sure, we've kept our heads (at least literally) but we've found ourselves in the slough of despond. And maybe we've not asked the questions John did, but we have questioned Jesus.
It is interesting to read what happens when John's messengers come to Jesus. Jesus doesn't give what we'd see as words of comfort. He simply tells them to go back to John and relate what He's doing. And He gives what appears to be a rebuke, though not a harsh one.
"And when the men had come to Him they said, 'John the Baptist sent us to you saying, 'Are you the Coming One or should we expect another?''" (Luke 7:20)
"At that very hour Jesus healed many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits, and He gave sight to many blind persons. And He answered them and said, 'Go report to John the things you've seen and heard: blind receive sight, lame walk, lepers are cleansed and deaf hear, dead are raised, poor are preached the gospel -- and blessed is the one who does not stumble over Me!'" (Luke 7:21-23)
But interestingly, though Jesus doesn't send comfort to John, He has nothing but praise for him after John's messengers leave.
"And as the messengers from John were going away, He began to say to the crowds about John. 'What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Look, those who are dressed in splendid clothes and live in luxury are in royal palaces. Well, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it's written, 'Behold I'm sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.' I tell you that of those born of woman there is no one greater than John -- but the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he"' (Luke 7:24-28).
So what do we get from this story? I'm not sure, but here are a few thoughts.
· God allows us to have doubts. He knows our faith is not perfect.
· We will never receive all the answers to all our questions in this life.
· Jesus cares, even when He doesn't do for us what we expect Him to do.