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John the Baptist and his Doubts

Category Articles
Date October 7, 2008

John the Baptist, incarcerated in the prison of Machaerus east of the Dead Sea, sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question, which Luke reports twice. So it must be a question to which Luke wants to draw our attention. It is the most momentous question that should exercise minds now as it did then. He asks Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’

What! John the Baptist is unsure? Wasn’t it John who had earlier exclaimed ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29) And was it not John who recognised Jesus when he came to be baptised by him, and tried to prevent him, saying ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matt. 3:14). And coming specifically back to Luke’s Gospel, didn’t the unborn John leap in the womb when he was in close proximity to the unborn, barely conceived Jesus? So what has caused this uncertainty? And how is it possible that this prophet – and indeed Jesus, later in this chapter, calls him ‘more than a prophet’ – should lose a sense of the true identity of the Son of God, the very one he has come to bear witness to?

Some notable authorities, including J C Ryle, tell us that it wasn’t actually John who was doubting whether Jesus was the Messiah. He was only acting on behalf of his doubting disciples. He wanted them to be persuaded of a truth in which he himself never wavered. But this must surely be wrong. If John didn’t need any persuasion himself, why did Jesus send these men all the way back to John with the message? Elijah was a man of like passions as we are, and so was John. In the grim solitude and isolation of his prison cell, his own assurance began to falter. John the Baptist! A prophet, and more than a prophet – but a man with indwelling sin just like you and me. Does it comfort us to know that John the Baptist wobbled? The greatest of men doubt; the best of men sin; the wisest of men err. Only the Lord is perfect in every way. See how Luke, for the second time in the chapter, refers to Jesus as ‘the Lord’. This is the point – we, the readers, have received every proof that Jesus is indeed the Lord, but John needs to be assured. Moreover, John is a mere man, but Jesus is truly the Lord, and that title bespeaks his deity.

Consider Jesus of Nazareth, the popular preacher, the miracle-worker, the one who opposes the scribes and Pharisees and the one whom the common people of the land hear gladly. Is he really the Messiah, or is he not actually the one we should be looking for? Is there someone else? Could there be a contender for the office of Messiah who has better credentials than Jesus of Nazareth? Who else in the history of Israel or of the world might be considered? The same question could be put to people today. Is Jesus the one, or shall we look for another? Some other deliverer, some other Saviour; someone else who has come into the world to redeem humanity, to give us the key of knowledge and understanding! Will the so-called prophet Mohammed save us from our sins? Will Darwin give us the understanding we need? Has Karl Marx brought people prosperity and happiness?

Notice that John’s doubt is linked to the healings which Luke records. It seems that all the reports of healing mystified John the Baptist, as he heard about it from his prison cell. It didn’t square with his own understanding of what the character and the work of the Messiah would be like. Now we need to affirm that John the Baptist was indeed a prophet of God, one through whom God spoke authoritatively and truthfully. Not one word of John the Baptist can have its force or accuracy diminished. But in acknowledging this, we can still say that it was possible for John’s understanding of the situation, and even of the words which he had uttered, to be out of kilter with reality.

So what was John’s misunderstanding? Remember that at the time when he was baptising, he spoke a good deal about the ministry of Jesus in connection with fire. And this is in keeping with the earlier prophets. Every one of the Old Testament prophets, virtually without exception, had spoken of the coming day of judgement, a day of fire. Malachi 3:2: ‘But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.’ Isaiah 33:14: ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”‘

And John spoke powerfully in these terms about Jesus. Luke 3:9: ‘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.”‘ Luke 3:16-17: ‘John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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.”‘ John had presented Jesus before the people of Israel as one who was going to punish and destroy them, right now at his coming.

So now John’s question seems to be this: where is the fire? Sinclair Ferguson says: ‘What John the Baptist could not understand clearly was that the “fire” of which he spoke would fall upon the Messiah himself, in the judgement-dereliction of the cross.’ (The Holy Spirit, IVP, p.59) In Luke 12:49-50 Jesus gives expression to this: ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!’ The fire and the baptism are linked together here. Jesus is himself going to be baptised with the fire of the Father’s wrath. John missed the fact that the first and the second coming of Jesus would be separate events. Indeed, they are still being separated, even today! God is stretching out this gospel era in order to gather in the whole number of his elect.

This helps us understand so much of the Bible. Take for example Luke 9:51-55: ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.’ The Son of Man had not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them. And long before any fire fell upon Christ’s enemies, it would fall upon him.

Do you ever wonder why the events of the New Testament happened so long ago? Or to put it the right way round, why have so many centuries elapsed since the days of Jesus and the apostles? Why this long delay? There’s as much time between Jesus and us as there was between Abraham and Jesus! The answer is a glorious one, not a problematic one. It must be seen in terms of the grace of God. He is delaying the final fire. He is granting to the world a long season of opportunity, a long day of salvation.

But is the judgement of fire the only theme with which the Old Testament prophets were concerned? Was there anything else that John the Baptist might have missed?

Jesus tells John’s disciples to report these healing miracles to him in prison. But why? John had already been told about all the things that Jesus was doing, as we see in verse 18. Did he need this report? Surely there are unmistakable echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6 in Jesus’ words: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.’ Jesus, like Isaiah, speaks of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking. But he also speaks of lepers being cleansed, a possibility that even Isaiah had not prophesied. And he tells John that the dead are raised, as we see in this chapter, in the case of the widow’s son. What is the message? Jesus is fulfilling and even surpassing the predictions of the Scriptures.

And surely we also need to notice this. Jesus climaxes his report with the news that ‘the poor have the good news preached to them’. This is in clear fulfilment of Isaiah 61:1. ‘The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.’ Jesus is saying to John, ‘You know the prophets, don’t you? You know what Isaiah spoke about the Messiah? See and believe that his words are fulfilled in me!’ And we also need to take on board that this is the greatest report of all. Good news is being preached to the poor. This is even better than the raising of the dead!

Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth, and the passage in the Old Testament goes on to speak about the ‘day of vengeance of our God’. But Jesus deliberately stopped short of these words. Why? Because they were for a future time, a time not yet made manifest. This present gospel age is not to be one of fire. The gentle, gracious character of our Lord Jesus must characterise the method by which God’s servants make the Saviour and his salvation known. Paul says to the Thesslonians (1 Thess. 2:7): ‘We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.’ Swords, stakes and suicide bombs have no part in gospel work.

God has given this world space to repent and believe in Jesus. Now is the day. The Industrial and Technological Revolutions of the last 250 years mean that men and women can travel to far distant continents with news of Jesus Christ. Pagans in thick darkness hear the gospel and believe. The wrath of God is averted from them. Countries which a couple of centuries ago were without any gospel witness and were headed for judgement, are now full of believers on the way to eternal life and glory.

We are to see in the words of verse 23 a mild rebuke to John. As Hendriksen says, it was a tender rebuke. A mighty prophet John was – the Elijah who was to come – and he ought not to have made a mistake, but Jesus is gentle with him as he was with Thomas when he doubted. Don’t be offended – ‘scandalised’ is the derivation from the Greek word here – don’t be tripped up by what you have heard. Believe the good news along with the others! And all the more we are to see the encouragement that if we have trusted in Jesus Christ we have trusted in the one who has all the credentials as the Messiah.

With a note of solemnity we also need to say this. John the Baptist’s words were not wrong! The Lord Jesus will baptise with fire. There will be a Day of Judgement. The day in which men and women have the opportunity to repent and believe will not go on indefinitely. Death will take each one of us, unless the Lord return first.

I asked earlier on whether it comforts us to know that the faith of John the Baptist wobbled. Maybe it did, but what should comfort us more is the answer that Jesus gave. ‘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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’ Are you offended by Jesus, or do you call him your Lord and Saviour? Don’t look for another Messiah. If you have found Jesus Christ you have found the pearl of greatest price.

Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.

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