Scripture: Matthew 11:2-11
I want to make three points in today’s sermon: Point Number One, doubt is a perfectly normal part of a believer’s life. Point Number Two, there’s a deeper, more subtle kind of doubt to which Christians are especially susceptible. Point Number Three, overcoming this doubt helps us reinterpret life’s disappointments.
Point Number One…
In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is in prison. He will soon be executed. And he sends messengers to Jesus, with one remarkable question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
“The one who is to come,” by the way, is another way of saying, “the Messiah.”
So John wants to know: Is Jesus really the Messiah.
How could John the Baptist, of all people, ask this question, after everything he’s seen and done? John’s life’s work, after all, has been to prepare the world for the coming of Christ!
How could John doubt?
But this really shouldn’t surprise us… By experiencing doubt, John the Baptist is keeping good company with faithful men and women of both the Old and New Testaments.
Let me give you just three examples:
First, Abraham… God promises Abraham that he’ll make a great nation from his descendants—as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore… and one of those future descendants—Jesus Christ—will save the world from sin.
The only problem? Abraham and his wife Sarah have no children. Abraham is already 75 years old; Sarah is 65. And even when they were younger and of childbearing years, they were unable to have children. It’s going to take a miracle!
But God promises that he’ll give them a miracle, and they’ll have a son, and they believe him. At least at first… But years pass, no son. Abraham doubts. He complains to God that his only heir is Eliezer, his servant, who isn’t even related to him. So God performs a miracle. Abraham believes again. A few more years pass. No son. This time, Abraham and Sarah both doubt. Sarah gives her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, to her husband to be his “secondary wife,” or concubine. That works out about as badly as you might imagine! Poor Hagar has a son with Abraham, but this isn’t the son that God promised both Abraham and Sarah. More years pass, still no son. Abraham is 99 years old at this point. Angels come and tell the couple that next year they’re going to have a son. Sarah laughs because what the angels tell them is preposterous. She doubts.
Or what about Moses? God speaks to him through a burning bush… God tells Moses to confront the Pharaoh in Egypt and demand that he free his people, the Israelites, from slavery. And Moses doubts. He gives God several plausible reasons why he isn’t the one for the job—he’s afraid they won’t listen to him; they won’t believe he was sent from God; he’s not an eloquent public speaker.
And God even gives him some miracles he can perform for the Pharaoh and the Israelites—to prove he was sent by God—like turning his staff into a snake and back into a staff. God gave him supernatural power! But Moses still doubts… until he finally says, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else!” 1
And then… even after the Ten Plagues—including the Passover—even after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, even after the drowning of the Egyptian army, even after the miraculous water from the rock, after the daily provision of “bread from heaven,” after the manifestation of God’s presence in a cloud and pillar of fire, Moses still doubts. He worries that he’s not the man for the job. He worries he’s going to fail.
Or what about Elijah. After Elijah had seen miracle after miracle, including raising someone from the dead and watching fire rain down fire from the sky, Elijah doubted that God—who performed these mighty deeds for him—was mighty enough to keep him safe from the king’s murderous wife, Jezebel. So he runs far away… and gets really depressed… Because he doubts.
These are just a few of the greatest heroes of faith in the Bible! Yet they all doubted…
The Bible seems pretty clear: if you are a faithful follower of Christ, you will doubt. In fact, the Bible makes it seem as if doubt is a perfectly normal, natural part of faithful Christian living.
So that’s Point Number One… It shouldn’t trouble us that a faithful man like John the Baptist experiences doubt. It happens to all faithful people from time to time.
But… Point Number Two, there’s a deeper kind of doubt to which Christians are especially susceptible.
About fifteen years ago, there was a cultural phenomenon known as the “new atheist” movement. This movement has pretty much run its course now, I’m happy to report. But for a while there were many bestselling books by the so-called “new atheists.” Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins wrote the bestseller The God Delusion. Philosopher Sam Harris wrote the bestseller The End of Faith. Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote the bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
And these guys were all over television and the internet at the time, arguing against God’s existence, against Christianity, against religious faith. They attracted many young followers.
Skepticism about the truth claims of Christianity was fashionable back then. It became cool to be a skeptic.
And when I heard these new atheists talk, they worried me, frankly. I didn’t know how to answer many of their objections. And I’ve told you before that when I was in seminary, I struggled with many doubts myself. The “new atheists” weren’t helping!
But, in 2007, I attended a debate between Christopher Hitchens, one of the most outspoken “new atheists,” and Dr. Tim Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory… And Dr. Jackson did a wonderful job answering every objection of Hitchens! “My guy” won the debate hands down! And he inspired me. I began to think, “There are good answers to the objections that these skeptics raise in their books.” And I began reading other books—like the massive Resurrection of the Son of God, in which New Testament scholar and ancient historian N.T. Wright argues from historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that was extremely edifying to me.
And I began reading and listening to other smart Christian thinkers who could defend the Christian faith with conviction.
And, praise God, my own doubts began to subside… And my confidence that God really is telling the truth in his holy Word, the Bible, began to grow…
Until… suddenly… no more doubts!
Except… that’s not quite true… Don’t misunderstand: I am proud to tell you that I am a good, faithful, orthodox Wesleyan Christian… I’m proud to tell you that I believe—like John Wesley, like the Protestant Reformers—in the infallibility of scripture… I’m proud to tell you that I believe the ancient Creeds are true, and I believe all the classic Christian doctrines, and I share all the traditional Protestant convictions…
I’m not proud to tell you, by the way, how self-righteous I can get about it!
If you had asked me ten years ago if I still doubted, I probably would say, “No way!” And I would be prepared to give you all the arguments for God’s existence, for evidence of the resurrection, for the truthfulness of scripture.
“I don’t doubt anymore!”… is what I would have said back then.
But who was I kidding?
Because all those doubts I wrestled with in seminary, those were mere intellectual doubts. They were doubts that these events happened the way the scripture says they did. They were doubts about certain historical facts and church doctrines and theological propositions.
But as I say, there is a deeper, more subtle, more insidious kind of doubt to which faithful people like John the Baptist, and me, and probably you, are especially susceptible. That’s the kind of doubt I want to talk about now.
Because, first, I want to show you something that surprised me as I was looking at the scripture this week. I had never noticed it before. Let’s look again at verse 2 of today’s scripture. It begins, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”
So… do you get the picture? John heard about the “deeds of Christ” and sent some of his disciples a hundred miles north, to Capernaum, to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah?”
So… He first heard about the deeds of Christ… and then began to doubt…
Which means that something about Jesus’ deeds caused John to doubt. What are the “deeds” about which John had recently heard?
Well, let’s just turn back the clock a couple of chapters—let’s just look at chapters 8 and 9—and see for ourselves.
Chapter 8: A leper comes to Jesus: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus touched him and said, “I will; be clean.” 2 A Roman centurion—a Gentile army officer—comes to Jesus: “My servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 3 And Jesus doesn’t even have to go to the man’s home. He gives the word and heals the servant from miles away. 4 Next, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus heals her. Next, a crowd gathers to be healed by Jesus, “including many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” 5
Later in chapter 8, Jesus calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee: he makes the waves and the winds stop immediately. 6 He later heals two men of demon possession—sending the demons into a herd of pigs that run into the sea and drown!7
Chapter 9: Jesus heals a paralytic. Next, he heals a woman who’s been hemorrhaging for years. Next, he revives the recently deceased daughter of a Jewish nobleman. Next he heals two blind men. And, finally, he enables a mute man to speak again.
These are many of the most recent “deeds” that Jesus has performed. They are undoubtedly the deeds that John himself has heard about… just before he begins to doubt.
But this seems a little crazy to me.
Because if I, like John, heard credible reports from trusted friends about the miracles that Jesus was working, then far from making me doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, they would surely strengthen my faith that Jesus is the Messiah!
To put it another way, it seems to me that John should only doubt that Jesus is the Messiah if John weren’t hearing reports about Jesus’ working miracles!
Even stranger, there’s no indication that John doubts the truthfulness of these miracle reports. It seems like he believes that Jesus is really doing these things.
And this, brothers and sisters, brings me back to my point about the more subtle, more insidious, more dangerous kind of doubt that afflicts Christians like me and you: They are not mostly intellectual doubts. Most of us know in our heads that Jesus is God in the flesh, that he was resurrected from the dead, that he’s the Messiah, that he’s the world’s Savior. Pick any miracle of Jesus in the four gospels, and most of us would sign off on it: “Yep, I believe that happened! I don’t doubt!”
In our heads most of us believe these things.
But the worst kind of doubt occurs when we believe that God has done everything he says he’s done in God’s Word, and yet we still refuse to trust him!
And that’s John’s problem. He didn’t doubt that Jesus performed all these amazing, miraculous signs. He just didn’t trust what Jesus said about the meaning of these signs.
Which, again, seems crazy because if Jesus can raise the dead, and heal disabled people, and calm the storm, and drive out demons, hasn’t he proven that he’s someone we should listen to? Hasn’t he proven that he’s someone we can trust?
Even if what Jesus says contradicts what we currently believe…?
And what did John believe that contradicted what Jesus said?
Contrary to what John was expecting, in Christ’s first coming, Jesus’ miraculous deeds and powerful teaching made clear that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, to judge it, and to punish sinners. As Jesus says in John 3:16 and 17, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Notice those two words: “the world.”
In Greek, “the world” implies that God loved and wanted to save not merely a small handful of faithful Israelites, who are mostly pretty good already—and then punish everyone else… No, this world that God loves and wants to save is a world full of sinful, rebellious people—mostly Gentiles and mostly pagan people at the time—most of whom were hostile to God, most of whom would resist submitting to Christ the King and refuse to accept him as Savior and Lord. The world that God loved and wanted to save included unrighteous tax collectors, and prostitutes, and Samaritans, and Gentiles, and other sinners… It included those evil, nasty Roman soldiers… It included that terrible King Herod Antipas—who put John in prison in the first place!
Jesus the Messiah loves and wants to save all of these people, too!
By contrast, listen to what John the Baptist preaches about the coming Messiah in Matthew chapter 3: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… 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… [The Messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John must have been thinking, “Where’s the fire, Jesus? Herod Antipas, who put me in this prison and will soon execute me, is exactly the kind of chaff that I expected you to burn with unquenchable fire! Why haven’t you done that?”
Because far from burning the chaff, Jesus seems to want to save the chaff from the fire!
Every moment John spends in this prison, he must think, “If Jesus were the Messiah that I believed he would be, then surely he would use his power to overthrow King Herod and set me free!”
But here’s what I want to ask John the Baptist: “Even when you don’t like what Lord is saying and doing in your life at the moment, who are you going to trust? Are you going to trust in yourself—trust that you know what’s best, trust that you know how to run the universe—or are you going to trust in the One who raises the dead, who heals disabled people, who calms storms, who walks on water, who feeds thousands with a few fish and loaves, who drives out demons, who conquers death, and—indeed—who created the universe and everything in it, including your very life.”
Who knows better, John? You… or Jesus?
When you put it like that, trusting in Jesus doesn’t seem like such a big risk, does it?
And yet… How often are we just like John? That’s the worst kind of doubt…
And that’s Point Number Two. We who already believe our Lord is telling the truth in his Word so often fail to surrender our lives to him… to entrust ourselves to him… to trust him!
It doesn’t make sense, when you think about it!
Point Number Three: If we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, it should enable us to reinterpret the disappointments in our lives and become happier people.
Don’t we all want to be happier people? I do!
John was disappointed. Jesus wasn’t living up John’s expectations.
I’m reminded of the popular saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Maybe that was true of John?
It was certainly true of George Bailey in the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart. Bailey owns a struggling Building and Loan. At great personal cost, George has spent the many thankless years of his professional life making home ownership affordable for less advantaged and working-class citizens of his town—because otherwise, the tragic alternative is renting from the notorious slumlord, Mr. Potter—who also owns the local bank.
The film shows how ambitious the young George Bailey was: He always wanted to “see the world.” But “seeing the world” was one of many dreams that George sacrificed when his father died, and he inherited his father’s Building and Loan. He also sacrificed his dream of going to college, of becoming an architect, of “building things.” Instead, he watched his classmates and his younger brother achieve the fame, fortune, and glory that, he believed, should have been his.
If only… if only… if only…
To add insult to injury, George Bailey’s incompetent Uncle Billy, who works at the Building and Loan, manages to lose a bank deposit worth thousands of dollars—and now the authorities are looking to arrest George for embezzlement. They think he stole the money!
It’s Christmas Eve. George is contemplating killing himself… because at least that way, the life insurance will help support his family. “I’m worth more dead than alive,” he thinks.
Expectation is a planned resentment.
Before he kills himself, a guardian angel named Clarence intervenes to save him. And Clarence shows George what life in his small town would look like if George hadn’t spent all these thankless years working at the Building and Loan, rather than traveling the world, going to college, becoming an architect, building things. And to say the least—by so many measures—poverty, alcoholism, crime, prostitution, gambling, you name it—is so much worse. The quality of life in this town he loves is so much worse. He sees that the people he knows and loves are suffering in ways that they won’t have to suffer… all because George spent those many thankless years working at the Building and Loan… rather than chasing after his life’s dreams.
And by the end of the movie, he realizes something: The original dreams that he had for his life weren’t nearly as good as the reality that he actually lived… the reality of staying in his small town and running this business.
George simply didn’t have the right perspective or the proper vantage point to be able to see the difference he was making. But when Clarence enabled him to see it, it changed everything for George. He was happy!
John the Baptist will get to that same point, eventually… By all means, he’s deeply disappointed right now that his original dreams for the Messiah aren’t going to come to pass. But soon John will see that the reality of what God is doing for the world through Jesus the Messiah is so much better than what John had dreamed.
And if this is true for John, it’s certainly true for those of us who are in Christ… and who know Christ as our Savior and Lord.
After all, as Jesus says in verse 11, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus says that John was the greatest, most faithful person who ever lived up to that point in history… Greater than even Abraham, Moses, and Elijah! But John’s “greatness” was only among those who were “born of women.”
By contrast, those of us who, unlike John, live on this side of the cross and resurrection… if we have faith in Christ, we are born not merely “of women,” but we are born of the Holy Spirit. We are born again. 8 We are adopted into God’s family. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters through faith. We enjoy God’s favor continuously. God loves us the same way and with the same intensity with which he loves his only begotten Son Jesus! And nothing can ever separate us from this love!
How can these facts not change the way we handle disappointment?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul was writing to a church that was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, the church was split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Some were saying, “I belong to Peter!” (Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas.)But listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 and prepare to be blown away:
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
In other words, these church members are arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. You don’t belong to me or Apollos or Peter. We all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereignty, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.” In fact, Paul goes on, “This is true of literally everything in the universe! Everything that happens to you… You may lack the perspective to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even the things that cause bitterness and disappointment, even your own death—it’s all for you… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you. And because you’re in Christ, his plan for you is always for your good; his plan is always to serve your best interests. Because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Unlike George Bailey, we likely won’t get to see the many ways in which God is working his good plan in our lives, but if we’ve been born again through faith in Christ, we can be confident that he is!
I need to say one more thing: I preached early this year about the preaching of John the Baptist. And back then, I did not say, “Oh, by the way, John’s preaching about God’s judgment, wrath, and repentance was wrong.” Because it wasn’t wrong!
John was telling the truth about the coming Messiah: He will bring God’s judgment; he will pour out God’s wrath; he will punish evildoers. There will be a “fiery judgment,” and sinners do need to repent while they still have time.
The only problem with John’s message is that he misunderstood when all this was going to happen. He failed to anticipate that from the coming of Jesus right up until the Second Coming of Christ, we are living in a season of mercy.
God is graciously giving every one of us the time right now to repent and believe in Christ. If you haven’t received Christ as Savior and Lord, I pray that you will.