On Faith & Doubt (Part 1)
An Exploration of John the Baptist's Crisis of Faith
Luke chapter 7 records a surprising and unexpected scene. While languishing in his prison cell, John the Baptist experiences what we might be tempted to call, “a crisis of faith.” This was the same individual who, less than a year earlier, stood on the banks of the Jordan river, pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes a way the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29, 36). On that occasion, there was no doubt or hesitation at all in his voice. In fact, it was nothing less than a prophetic announcement — Jesus of Nazareth was being singled out and identified as Israel’s true messiah. But in Luke 7, when his disciples came to visit him in prison, they reported to him many of the things Jesus had been doing throughout the region. Rather than rejoicing over this news, however, John he sent two of his disciples over to Jesus in order to ask the following question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Lk 7:19).
At one point during his ministry, Jesus had said of John, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” (Mt 11:11). So in a sense, Jesus was saying that apart from himself, John was actually the greatest man who ever lived. And yet, in Luke 7, we find this great man at his weakest moment. And yet, how can this be? Was John the Baptist an inspired prophet or was he not? And if he was, how would it be possible for him to have a crisis of faith?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely had times of doubt in your own life. John Calvin once observed that all Christians are “partly unbelievers until we die.” All of us are sort of like the man in Mark 9 who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” So, if you think about it, John’s moment of doubt, can actually be a source of great comfort to us in our times of doubt. Though he was a great prophet, even he has doubts. And here in Luke 7 we discover in fact that he’s not only questioning his faith, but he’s having trouble believing the message of his own sermons.
Before we unpack this fascinating passage, we first need to clear away a few misconceptions. The first idea we need to dispel is that prophets were holy men who were inspired in everything they said and did. If you still happen to hold this view, I’ll recommend that you go back and re-read the book of Jonah after finishing this article. Another section of Scripture that I think can be helpful in correcting this misconception are the words we find at the beginning of 2 Samuel 7, in which king David tells Nathan the prophet that he’s decided to build God a permanent temple. If you recall, Nathan initially responded to David by saying, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.” But then in verse 4 we read, “that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan saying, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD…Would you build me a house?…The Lord shall make you a house.’” In other words, a careful study of this passage reveals that Israel’s prophets were fallible human instruments who only ended up speaking God’s word on specific occasions. We could also think of a New Testament character such as Peter. Though he had been with Jesus throughout his ministry, and had also been ordained as one of the twelve Apostles, he too had a moment of weakness in which he ended up denying Jesus three times. And even after he was later restored by Jesus, Peter still ended up making a significant blunder which forced the Apostle Paul to rebuke him to his face (Gal 2:11).
So the point we need to keep in our minds is this. Prophets and apostles were not inspired in all that they said and did, but only had a kind of limited inspiration, insofar as they were called by God to speak his word at a specific moment in redemptive history. Jesus, on the other hand, always spoke God’s word, because he was in fact, God incarnate. And this is the point being made in the opening lines of the book of Hebrews which says that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In my thinking, all this helps to explain how we can find someone like John the Baptist making such bold and confident announcements about Jesus, while just a short time later we then find him questioning whether this same Jesus really is the one who was to come.
Another misconception we need to address is the idea that faith is always, in and of itself a good thing, and that on the other side of the fence, doubt is always bad. According to Proverbs 14:15, “A simple man believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” In other words, this passage is warning us not to be gullible. We shouldn’t believe every idea or opinion that is out there in the spiritual marketplace — which means that exercising some level of doubt is actually a wise thing to do. In other words, faith itself, or the act of believing, is not as important as the object of our faith — and this is true in the world of science just as much as it is in religion.
Let me give an illustration that fleshes this out. Some years ago I went to the doctor complaining of an ache in my right side. And after hearing all my symptoms and running some tests, my doctor hypothesized that the muscles in my digestive track were not contracting in the right sequence, and as a result, pressure would build up, which was the source of my discomfort. So he then wrote me a prescription for a drug called “Hyoscyamine,” which he though would give me relief. I agreed with his conclusions, and began taking the medicine — however, the pain in my side didn’t go away, and it took a few more years to discover why. A year or two later, I visited a different specialist, who ran even more tests, and this new doctor found evidence that my gallbladder wasn’t functioning properly. And once I had it removed, my problems were resolved.
I had faith in my first doctor — I not only believed in his diagnosis, but I also swallowed the medicine he prescribed. But that faith didn’t do me any good, because it turned out to be an incorrect diagnosis. No matter how strongly I believed, Hyoscyamine, as it turns out, simply does not cure a malfunctioning gallbladder. This is why the object of our faith is more important than belief itself. In other words, we have to believe the right thing. Of course, faith is important — otherwise I never would have trusted the conclusions of my second doctor. But once he explained the results of the additional tests he conducted, I began to be persuaded that he was on to something and I agreed to have my gallbladder removed.
Now, with some of these categories in mind, let’s take a close look at Luke chapter 7. John the Baptist, you’ll recall, has been imprisoned by Herod — a fact confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus who also informs that John was specifically taken to a fortress on the eastern side of the Dead Sea called Machaerus (Ant. 18:119; 18.5.2). And while he was in prison, John’s disciples visited him and told him about all that Jesus had been doing throughout the region. But after languishing for a while behind bars, John no longer appeared to be his old self. We might even say that he was experiencing a kind of deep depression. And so, rather than responding with joy to all that he heard Jesus doing, John asked two of his disciples to seek Jesus out and to ask him whether he really was Israel’s promised messiah.
Now, when John’s disciples did finally catch up with Jesus, they found him healing many people of their diseases, bestowing sight, etc. And according to verses 22 and 23 of Luke 7, after relaying John’s question, Jesus responded by saying, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Many scholars have pointed out the significance of Jesus’ response to John’s disciples, particularly in the way he alluded to various Old Testament prophecies, particularly from the book of Isaiah. For example, in verses 17-19 of Isaiah 29 we read, “Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.” Similarly, in Isaiah 35:5-6 we’re told that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” We could also think about a text such as Isaiah 42:7 in which God promises to send a deliverer who would “open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
Now, put yourself in the shoes of John the Baptist for a moment. What is the particular promise from all these prophecies that you’d be tempted to focus on while you’re languishing there in your prison cell? Well, if I were John, I’d long for the day in which the messiah inaugurates his kingdom and sets prisoners free. And the fact that this was never literally fulfilled in John’s case, is in my thinking, the best explanation for his crisis of faith. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In other words, John appears to be saying to Jesus, if you really are the promised messiah, what are you waiting for? Do what the messiah is supposed to do and get me out of here! Don’t you know that I’m suffering in this place? Don’t you know that I am regularly subjected to beatings? Are you really the messiah?
What’s particularly comforting to me is that in his response, Jesus never ends up rebuking John. Think about this for a moment. If blind faith really is a virtue, this would have been a great time for Jesus to lay into John about his lack of faith. Instead, Jesus simply tells John’s disciples to report back what they have seen and heard. “The blind,” Jesus says, “receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus is not only reminding John’s disciples what they have seen with their own eyes, but he uses specific language that, as we’ve seen, alludes to various prophecies about the coming messiah. In other words, his response is resting on two primary things. First, it’s resting on the authenticity of the eyewitness accounts. Though John may have had trouble believing in general what a lot of people were saying about Jesus — because you know how it goes with rumors. There are a lot of crazy ideas floating around, and who knows what’s really going on. But this eyewitness report by John’s closest disciples — the ones who just visited him in prison and who are currently standing in front of him — would be difficult to dismiss. He knows these men well, and trusts them deeply. And so when they reported to him all that they saw and heard Jesus doing, this was extremely credible and reliable evidence. Secondly, as his disciples reported the specific words that Jesus relayed to John, he certainly would have picked up on the very clear allusions to the ancient prophecies. The point therefore is inescapable. Very credible eyewitnesses have seen with their own eyes a fulfillment of what Isaiah and other prophets foretold about the coming messiah centuries in advance. This is how Jesus chose to comfort John in the midst of his doubt. He didn’t shame John for questioning his faith, but instead gave him a solid anchor for his faith.
As it turns out, this is actually the approach we find all throughout the Scriptures, even going all the way back to the writings of Moses. For example, in Exodus 7:9 God forewarned Moses that Pharaoh would not believe his story that he had recently been visited by a god who desires to set the Israelites free. Therefore, God told Moses, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” Pharaoh, you see, just isn’t the sort of guy who will simply take Moses at his word. He’s the kind of person who says, “Oh yeah, prove it to me!”
What’s interesting is the fact that most religious people today seem to think that this approach is entirely wrongheaded. “You can’t prove religion,” they’ll argue. “Religious claims aren’t based on proof, they’re based on faith!” The odd thing about this passage from Exodus (and many others like it) is that Pharaoh’s demand for proof is never actually called out as an impious request. Rather, God simply instructs Moses to grant Pharaoh’s demand. In fact, the same could be said about Exodus 4 in which Moses wonders whether the Israelites themselves will believe his story, that God just spoke with him at the site of the burning bush. In that chapter as well, God promises to empower Moses to perform various signs that will basically “authenticate” his message. “If they will not believe you or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign (Ex. 4:8).
Now, some of you may be saying to yourselves at this point, Sure, this is all well and good, but what about a passage such as Matthew 16 in which Jesus says that it’s an “evil and adulterous generation that seeks after signs.” This is a good question, so let’s take a close look at this text. Beginning at verse 1 of Matt 16, we’re told that “Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them saying, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’”
First of all, we should point out that Jesus ended up performing hundreds, if not thousands, of miracles during his three-year ministry. And even the great Nicodemus himself came to him under the cover of night saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” But at one point a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus insisting that he show them, not just any sign, but a specific kind of sign that would be sufficient for them to believe. This was to be a sign in the heavens. And on this particular occasion, Jesus decided not to grant their request. Take a look at verse 4 again closely. He says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
Typically I think we read this verse if Jesus said that the generation was evil because it asked for a sign. But this verse doesn’t actually say that. Jesus first describes the people of his generation as evil and adulterous (which is something that just about every prophet said of his own generation since the people of Israel were continually found to be in violation of the Mosaic covenant), and then he says, “This generation asks me for a sign? Yet no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” In other words, he didn’t actually refuse their request — he just refused to agree to their specific terms. What he didn’t do was perform the particular sign they requested, which was some kind of sign in the heavens that they wanted to see right there on the spot. But instead, Jesus pointed them to his forthcoming resurrection — which was something that had been foretold in various Old Testament prophecies.
The point I’m making here is that Jesus performed many signs, and gave “many convincing proofs” that he was indeed Israel’s messiah. But he was also God incarnate, and on some occasions he sovereignly decided not to perform signs. For example in Mark 1:37 we’re told that one morning the disciples were frantically looking for Jesus because they said, “Everyone is looking for you!” And Jesus said to them, “Let us go on to the next village, that I may preach there also, for this is why I have come.” At some places in the Gospels, you begin to notice that the signs and wonders have sort of become an end in themselves. And yet, the very nature of a sign is to direct you, not to itself, but to something else entirely. When Jesus calmed the storm, no one in the boat that morning said, “Wow, that was awesome — can you do it again?” Rather, they were filled with fear and said, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” In other words, the signs help us to recognize Jesus’ true identity.
Mark chapter 2 records the famous scene in which the paralytic man was lowered down from the roof while Jesus was teaching in Capernaum. You all know the story well, so I don’t need to repeat it here. But think about Jesus’ final words to the crowd, “So that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” he looked at the paralyzed man and said, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” The people who had gathered there couldn’t see with their eyes whether that man’s sins had been forgiven, but they could see that the man had been healed. So in other words, Jesus performed a visible sign to confirm the truth of the more important invisible reality, which at the end of the day, pointed to his divinity.
Now when you read accounts like these in the Gospels today, if you’re anything like me, on some occasion you might find some of the stories difficult to believe. It’s hard to believe that such a small amount of food was multiplied and ended up feeding over 5,000 people. I’ve never seen anything like that, and what would it have even looked like anyway? Of course, the opposite would be even harder to imagine. How could a man who claimed to be God, have attracted so many followers in first century Judea, without performing any miracles?
To read Part 2 of this article click here
John appears to have been asking Jesus very specifically, in a manner familiar to Rabbinic students, "Since you are the Messiah, when are you going to set me free from prison like the Messiah is supposed to do?"
Jesus' proof that he offered John's disciples included all the works that he was doing, but very pointedly avoided any mention of setting prisoners free. He appears to have been replying very specifically, "Yes, I am the Messiah...but I am very sorry, my brother, you're not going to be set free." This is why his message to John's disciples included the tag, "Blessed is he who does not take offense at me." (Luke 7:23)
I'm pretty sure that that was the content of the exchange, and I'm also pretty certain that the crowd understood it as well as the disciples--which is why Jesus immediately turned to the crowd to praise John. "Don't get me wrong," he was saying, "John is as great as they come."
I don't think that John's faith ever wavered; I think he was asking whether he might be freed, and Jesus was telling him, "Sorry, but no."