Pastor Scott L. Harris
July 11, 1993
Popular Christianity has given doubt a bad reputation. Pointing out verses such as James 1:6, “But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind,” the conclusion has been that all doubt is bad. But that is not the case. An old French Proverb says, “He who knows nothing doubts nothing.” G.K. Chesterton said something similar, “materialists and madmen never have doubts.” Having no doubts is really a demonstration that something is wrong, not that something is right. The problem with doubting is not in having the doubt itself, it is in what is done with that doubt. This morning we are going to see that even one of the greatest men that ever lived had doubts, and his great character is demonstrated in what he did with those doubts.
Alfred Tennyson described the positive aspects of working through doubt in these lines,
. . . One indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touched a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out;
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts, and gathered strength;
He would not make his judgment blind;
He faced the specters of the mind,
And laid them, thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone.
If doubt is faced honestly and handled properly, then we can actually become stronger in our faith. Such was the case of John the Baptist. Let’s examine the setting of what led to his doubt and then see how it was overcome.
JESUS IN MINISTRY
Turn to Matthew 11:1 and read along with me. “And it came about that when Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities.”
In Matthew 10, Jesus had given the disciples instructions about the mission they would be carrying out. (See: Instructions for Ministry). They have now gone out on that mission of proclaiming that the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 10:7) and Jesus is left alone. Jesus now continues His ministry of going through the cities of Galilee teaching and preaching, a ministry we have already noted in Matthew 4:23 and 9:35.
JOHN IN JAIL
In Matthew 11:2 we find out the situation that John the Baptist was in, “Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples.” John was in prison. This man, who from birth was used to the open spaces of the desert, is now confined to a cell, really nothing more than a pit, in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus located about five miles east and fifteen miles south of the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Mark 6:17 tells us the reason for his imprisonment, “For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”
John was in prison because he had confronted Herod, the Tetrarch over Judea (i.e. the puppet king) about the sinful relationship he had with his sister-in-law. Herod had taken a trip to Rome in which Herodias had accompanied him. During that trip Herod and Herodias decided they would rather have each other than their current spouses, so they divorced them and married each other. From the text we have read and from what follows it we come to understand that Herodias is wicked to the core and the one responsible for John’s imprisonment and his eventual death. Herod, though certainly wicked, still has some respect for righteous men. We find him perplexed because he cannot find reconciliation between his wickedness and what John is telling him. He wants both, but cannot have it. In the end he chooses evil. There are certainly many around today that are just like these two. Some are evil but perplexed by righteousness, while others are evil and fighting against righteousness.
John is in prison because of his righteousness and for calling others to repentance. Remember, his message from the beginning of his ministry has been, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Now he is in prison and Jesus and His disciples are out teaching and preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. John was the one that was the voice crying in the wilderness to make ready for the coming of the Messiah. (See: The Messiah’s Herald). It was John that preached that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” and who had “his winnowing fork in His hand” to “thoroughly clear His threshing floor” and “gather His wheat into his barns, but burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11,12). It was John that proclaimed that Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and “the Son of God” (See: The Herald’s Message). It was John that had baptized Jesus at Jesus’ insistence and was witness to the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Jesus and proclaiming, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” John knew and had taught that Jesus would increase and that he would decrease. But now he was in prison and may have been there for nearly a year. Where did his being in prison for so long fit if the kingdom of heaven was at hand?
There was confusion on the part of John and he began to have doubts. But in having his doubts, John demonstrates to us what to do with them. John did not start asking other people what they thought of Jesus. He did not start polling the religious experts of the time to see what they were thinking. He did not keep mulling it over himself. Instead, he did what needs to be done whenever doubts arise. He sought out the source that could answer his questions. Since he was in prison he could not go himself, so he sent word by his disciples to Jesus. His question is in Matthew 11:3, “and said to them, ‘Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else.”
John’s questions showed the depth of what he was struggling with. The term, “the Expected One” is a reference to the Messiah. It is the title that is found in the Psalms 40:7 and 118:26 as well as used or insinuated to by every Gospel writer (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; 11:9; Luke 3:16; 13:35; 19:38; John 1:27). To ask if Jesus was the Expected One was to question whether Jesus was the Messiah. John in effect is saying to Jesus, “I have been uncompromising in my belief that you are the Messiah; but have I been wrong?” This is a deep question, but as we shall see later, Jesus does not rebuke him for it. But before we look at Jesus’ answer, I want us to consider four elements that may have contributed to John’s doubts. These four elements that are usually at the heart of our own doubts.
FOUR CAUSES OF DOUBT
The first element is trying situations and difficult circumstances, and John certainly was in that. A man used to wandering around the open desert was now confined to a small cell in a dungeon. He had been used mightily of God to affect the whole nation and was now restrained to just talking with perplexed Herod on occasion when Herod was curious. He was certainly aware of Herodias’ bitter hatred towards him and knew she wanted him dead, so that psychological pressure was added to his already difficult physical circumstances. One cause of John’s doubt was certainly the situation he found himself in.
Trying situations are nothing new for those that follow after God. Through both the Old and New Testament we find story after story of the godly suffering through difficult circumstances. All too quickly our minds turn to wondering why God would allow us to go through so much. Sometimes it seems like those doubts are even stronger when such conditions develop after we have been especially diligent in serving the Lord. We start to think that it is not fair, and that if we are doing so much for God, then the least He could do is to keep adversity out of our lives. How could God let me, His servant, go through all of this? We start to question our beliefs and begin to wonder if they are true. If we dwell on such thoughts, Satan will magnify them and use them to undermine our trust and confidence in God.
We are never more vulnerable to doubting God’s goodness and care for us as when we are going through some hardship, and hardships come in such a variety of ways. It could be physical imprisonment such as John was suffering, but it could also be some of the more common tragedies of life. It could be a financial crisis. You lose your job and cannot find another. Perhaps someone sues you for whatever reason, and we certainly live in a society that sues one another over nothing. Maybe it is a relationship problem. You are in conflict with a friend, a relative, a child, or your spouse. Perhaps your spouse even leaves you for someone else. It could be an accident of some sort. An auto accident or a fire that destroys plans you have made and things that are precious to you or someone close to you. Maybe your spouse dies and you are left alone. It could be something more direct such as a debilitating accident or disease that leaves you unable to do the things you once did.
There are many things that can be trying situations, for difficult circumstances are part of life in this fallen world. That is why trials are described in James 1:2 as things we just run into as part of life. In our self-centeredness we tend to look at everything from our own point of view. We see things for how they affect us personally, and consequently we view those troubles of life as negatives. They are at least hindrances to living a full life and possibly a great tragedy depending on how severe the trial. That is why the doubt begins. Yet we find throughout the Scriptures that the difficulties that come in life are seen as positive in our lives.
James 1:2, 3 tells us, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith . . .“. Please note that it is a testing of your faith. The troubles of life cause us to question what is true and what is not, and that tests our beliefs and our trust in God. Doubt can arise at this point, but if that doubt is dealt with properly then the rest of the passage is fulfilled. James 1:3, “knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The trials of life work to make us mature in the Lord if we handle the doubts properly, and verse 5 tells us that. “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” That is exactly what we see John the Baptist doing.
John needs wisdom in order to deal with the trying situation that he is in, so he sends and asks Jesus for help in the matter. Jesus responds with the help John needs and He does not reproach him for the question.
Another source of doubt is incomplete revelation. John had been proclaiming many things about the coming Messiah, among them is the idea that the Messiah would conquer and judge. John was having a hard time reconciling that message with what was happening to him. If the Messiah was coming to conquer and judge the wicked, and if Jesus is the Messiah, then why is John, the servant of the Messiah, suffering so much at the hands of the wicked? It did not make sense. John, like all the other godly men of his time, did not understand the first coming of the Messiah as the suffering servant. The Scriptures declared that message, but it was a message overshadowed by the other Scripture picturing the Messiah as the conquering king. John had an incomplete understanding of God’s revelation.
We are so often in the same situation as John. A large part of our doubt comes not so much from the difficult circumstances themselves, but not understanding why we are going through them. Our doubt arises with those questions of “why is this happening?” “How does this fit with what the Scriptures say?” “Doesn’t such and such a verse say thus, and if so, then why is this and that going on?”
Part of that incomplete revelation is directly related to our lack of knowledge and understanding of God’s word. I have dealt with people many times that quote verses such as John 14:14, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it,” along with the last part of John 10:10, “. . . I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly,” and they are questioning why their life has troubles in it. Often selections from the Psalms are added like, “Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4),” “No evil will befall you, Nor will any plague come near your tent” (Psalm 91:10). Some years ago there was a little book out called “The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book” which was especially bad for taking selected Scriptures out of context to present only good things happening to believers. Each of those Scriptures quoted has a wider context that must be understood to interpret them correctly. In addition, we must look to all of the Scriptures to understand life including those that tell us about its troubles. John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Matthew 5:11,12, “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Part of the doubt caused by insufficient revelation is due to our lack of knowledge and understanding of Scripture, but another part of it is because we do not know all that God is doing. Consider all that Job went through, and yet he did not know until it was all over the reason he was afflicted so with the loss of everything he owned and suffering severe physical torment as well. We do not know everything. The things God has given to us in His Word belong to us and our children, but the secret things belong to the Lord for Him to reveal as He chooses in His time (Deuteronomy 29:29).
A third cause of doubt is worldly influence. John was subject to that just as we are. It was not just that John did not have complete revelation, but what revelation he did have was influenced by the beliefs of those in the society around him. He, in part, was looking for the Messiah as the conquering king because everyone else was. The same sort of influences affect us.
Consider how we view the world. Americans have enjoyed both prosperity and freedom unknown throughout most of human history, yet because this is what we have always known, we take that for granted. Consider the kinds of things we consider to be trials. What are things we do complain about? Having to wait more than 30 minutes to see a doctor. Having two cars and one of them breaks down. Going to the market and finding they are out of the sale item. Eating too much and having to lose weight. Having the air conditioner break down, etc. Our perspective of life is skewed by our society. We expect life to be easy and we consider things to be doubt causing trials when those things are minor inconveniences compared to what most of the world goes through daily.
Our view of God is affected as well. The idea of Him as the benevolent grandfather of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel taught by so many of the TV preachers on TBN would not make it in most of the world. It is successful here only because we are affected by our society which markets everything, so Jesus is packaged and sold in the marketplace as the means to the good life. No wonder doubt arises so quickly among so many who call themselves Christians when all they are really going through is some inconvenience.
A fourth cause of doubt, which is related to all of the above, is unfulfilled expectations. Our expectations are built off of what we understand to be true. An incomplete knowledge of the Scriptures, in conjunction with our understanding being swayed by the society around us gives us false expectations.
When Diane and I do pre-marital counseling, one of the areas we cover is expectations. Engaged couples tend live in a world of romance and wonderful dreams. They are going to get married and live happily ever after. We try to get couples to talk about their expectations of each other, and they quickly find that marriage will take hard work. We also try to alert them to the fact that life is full of pitfalls, and they do not know nor can they control the future. There are so many tragedies that could happen: miscarriages, children die, employment is lost, accidents resulting in physical disabilities, your possessions are stolen or destroyed. The vows exchanged at the wedding are for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, and in sickness and in health, but life does not always give for better, for richer, and in health. There is a lot of for worse, for poorer, and in sickness.
When our expectations are not met we begin to wonder what happened. Did I miss something? Was I wrong to start with? What is the truth? Such was the case with John the Baptist and such is the case with us at various times. When that happens we must be sure to deal with the doubt in the right way, and as we have already seen, the right way is to go to the source and get our questions answered.
John was confused because his expectations were not being met. He was beginning to have doubts and he took those doubts to Jesus asking Him, “Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Let’s now look at Jesus’ answer.
Matthew 11:4-6, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.”
Notice that Jesus does not just say, “yes I am,” and he does not say he will free John from his current difficult circumstances. Instead, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and report to him what they were seeing, and what they were seeing was the fulfillment of several of the prophecies concerning the Messiah as predicted in Isaiah 35:5, 6 and 61:1. Jesus gave John a special confirmation that He was indeed performing Messianic works. John knew the Scriptures well enough to understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, even if he did not understand how everything fit together. Jesus concludes with a mild admonition that the person who does not stumble over him would be blessed. A tender rebuke, but no reproach. There is no fluctuation in the Lord’s love for this momentarily confused man. And in view of verses following in which Jesus praises John, it is certain that it was sufficient to strengthen John’s faith.
How do we overcome doubt? First, honestly recognize that it is there and take it to the Lord. Ask him for wisdom to deal with the doubt and its causes. Second, in the midst of the confusion, go back to the basics; the things you know are true even if other things do not make sense at the moment. We find that sequence in Romans 5. Tribulations come and we can rejoice in the midst of them and not doubt God’s love and concern for us if we keep in mind the basic truth upon which our hope stands. Romans 5:8 explains, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” I may end up confused about many things and start to wonder and doubt God, but when I come back to that truth, I know that God loves me regardless of whatever I may be going through, regardless of whatever else may be confusing me. God need not do anything else to demonstrate His love for me, for He proved it for all time and eternity when Christ took my place and died for my sins even while I was still in enmity against Him.
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