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 7:19
This is John the Baptizer – the man who heralded the coming of the Christ. A year or so earlier, he had looked at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God … I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” John’s anointing and entire life had led up to his heralding of the Savior to a waiting world – and now, he wasn’t so sure.
Dude. You had one job.
There’s a lot going on in and around this passage, but let’s start with the observation that John’s bout with doubt didn’t faze Jesus in the least. His answer to John’s disciples contains no anger or angst, just a straightforward report of the facts. Here’s what’s happening – remind John – his faith is not in vain.
Another great comfort in this passage is that Jesus’ affection for John is not mitigated by John’s question: “I tell you, among those born of women, none is greater than John.” Jesus was used to being questioned by those around him, but John was both a family member and the ordained Messianic messenger. His questioning could be taken as a serious affront, an abandonment. John may have suspended faith in Jesus, but Jesus never lost faith in John.
This is a sweet comfort for us. Knowing that Jesus will not turn away from those who are doubting means that we are free to ask questions – free to be less than certain. One might even say that Jesus invites cross-examination. There is no question we can ask that wasn’t answered before God laid the foundations of the world. And when we’re questioning, we’re engaged, pondering, digging deeper. This honest searching, Jesus knows, is honoring the Father.
So what was behind John’s question? Scripture tells us that John had been in Herod’s prison for several months, maybe a year. He had been arrested not long after baptizing Jesus for berating Herod publicly for his relationship with his brother’s wife. Having spent most of his adult life in the open wilderness, he was now confined to a small and sordid cell with minimal contact with the outside world. He knew that prison sentences rarely ended with being released to a halfway house – execution was a very real possibility. He had done what God had assigned him to do. So why was he now being treated this way?
It’s a fair question and a reasonable source for doubt. John may have even raised politically inflammatory questions believing that God would protect him from the repercussions of doing so. Instead, he was rotting in prison, and Jesus, meanwhile, was gaining fame. Add to that the apparent fact that Jesus essentially ignored John while he was imprisoned. “I must decrease,” John had said – but this was unbearable.
It’s unlikely that any of us will ever face the conditions or temporal future that John faced (God willing), but we will all experience the feeling – sooner or later, possibly multiple times – that Jesus is neglecting us. Despite your fervent prayer and your work on behalf of the Kingdom, the Father has seemingly turned his face away and left you to face whatever’s next on your own.
Beloved, this is the time to give God’s promises more credence than your own experience and reasoning. Like a skewed compass or a poorly drawn map, your senses and circumstances will give you inaccurate data. Your enemy, that old serpent, will gladly reinforce the error and you’ll be off-course and wandering/wondering whether you’ve been taken in by a myth.
The Bible is full of stories about doubt: Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Paul, the disciples (Matthew 28:17!), to name a few. This is one of the things that gives God’s Word a blessed credibility – the acknowledgment that, in our fallen flesh, doubt is inevitable. And not every example is followed by God showing up in the next chapter to lay that doubt to rest. This is how God accomplishes his will in us – tempering and strengthening our faith by causing it to work.
Scripture doesn’t record how John responded to Jesus’ reply to his question. In fact, the next thing we hear about him is that he is ignominiously dispatched – beheaded on a whim for the sake of entertainment. This is probably not what John or his followers would have hoped for or planned. But God’s plan was better, and John was ushered into his presence before he turned 35, having accomplished all that God had asked of him – including reminding 21st-century believers that our questions are welcome.