On the bank of the Jordan River, the Baptizer—John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth—cried out, “Behold! Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of this world!”John 1:29 ff.
Later, from one of the jail cells of Herod, John sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Matthew 11:1-19
On Christmas Day, we will sing with heralds, “Glory to the newborn King,” but maybe we wonder: “Should we be expecting something else?”
Can we be honest with each other and agree that there have been days or times when we have had our doubts?
John had a lot of time to think while he sat there in the prison. The conditions had to be poor, even for someone who was accustomed to living out in the wilderness, wearing a camel skin, and eating bugs.
As he sat there, probably knowing that he’d never leave alive, it seems that John wondered if Jesus was the person who was going to fulfill all the prophecies of the Old Testament. Was He the Messiah? Jesus was not the one whom John had pictured.
Have we asked the same question?
In my role as a pastor, sometimes I visit with people who I know are struggling with doubt. They might be dealing with a significant or persistent health issue, or maybe there is trouble at home or at work. Relief doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. I ask them, “How are you? Really. How are you?” They look at me and pause. You can see the answer right behind their eyes, but no words come out. They aren’t ready to talk yet. They don’t want to give voice to their discouragement or let their doubt escape into the air.
I don’t try to force that confession, but I know it’s there. I know, because sometimes it’s my own confession. There are days where I’m haunted by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Jesus heard about John’s struggle. He replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed are they who do not fall away on account of me” (Matthew 11:4–6). Echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1 can be heard in these words.
I wonder, were these words helpful for John? We don’t know. We don’t get that answer from Scripture. We don’t hear a profession or reaffirmation of faith from John. What is striking is Jesus’ affirmation of John, even though John may have had his doubts. Read the rest of the passage (Matthew 11:7-19).
I have heard some turn the phrase and say that Jesus “believed” or “had faith” in John. It’s provocative to say—that Jesus believes in us—but it distracts us from understanding that Jesus was showing John that their work was a fulfillment of prophecy, an important part in the great arc of God’s redemptive plan. In Jesus’ words, John was a great prophet, the Elijah who was to come, who was to prepare the way for the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5).
I wish I knew if John’s disciples were able to pass along Jesus’ message. If so, did John hear enough to be encouraged? We don’t know. “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:6).
If we stumble on our doubt sometimes, does that mean we aren’t blessed? No. But, consider it to be a blessing when faith is strong. We recognize that there are seasons in our faith lives. Sometimes, our faith may be as solid as the ground that we stand upon. Then, there are times when faith feels like a cliff that we hang on to by our fingertips. Yet, take comfort: it is still faith.
I read this story and I am reminded again that faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8). Faith may wax and wane like the moon in the sky, but as the moon never really disappears, by God’s grace, faith remains as well.
Today, let us acknowledge our doubts when they come and be honest about them. I would rather have faith with doubt than no faith and no doubt. My prayer is that God will take those doubts, and, in nothing short of a Holy Spirit-empowered miracle, will use them to nurture within us a faith that isn’t rooted upon the strength of our convictions, but, instead, rests dependently in his caring grasp. Come, Lord Jesus; help me come to you.
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just As I Am, without One Plea1
Author: Charlotte Elliot, Tune: WOODWORTH ↩