Faith & Doubt
Faith & Doubt
The Return of our Old Friend
This week in the text, we meet an old friend that we haven’t seen in a long time. We’ve been following the life of Jesus, but we met his cousin John all the way back in chapter 1, when he was born a couple months before Jesus. Then in chapter 3, we saw John enter his public ministry and he appears to be a sort of wild child prophet. Matthew and Mark, in their accounts, tell us John wore clothes made of camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was grasshoppers and digging honey out of active wild beehives.
But despite his eccentric appearance and diet, John is not a lunatic. Luke is purposely calling attention to two things about John:
- He is the last in the line of prophets who pointed to Jesus. It was part of the prophecy about him. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel – John is one of them, who proclaims to everyone who will listen: “THIS IS WHAT THE LORD SAYS!” and points to the coming Messiah and his kingdom.
- His appearance and his diet are meant to be a sort of protest against the religious elite who would say that the outward appearance of a person tells you all about their position in relation to God. John isn’t some prosperity gospel preacher wearing fancy shoes or flying in a personal jet and saying he’s #blessed. His clothing and diet are his protest against that kind of thing, and it fits his message which is a call to repentance and change.
John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, we’re told in Luke 3:3, specifically a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. In other words, John was linking baptism to repentance as a way of preparing hearts for the coming Messiah. Come wash your sins away. Let’s start over and re-commit to following Yahweh. Let’s prepare our hearts for the Messiah. He’s coming soon, verse 16: One who is more powerful than I am is coming. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.
So John’s message is pretty aggressive. We call this hellfire and brimstone now. This is in your face, “get your act together,” preaching. He sees the Messiah as someone who is going to thump skulls and separate the Jews from the Romans, to gather up the good guys and burn the bad guys.
Then in verse 19, John boldly decided to take his fire and brimstone message of repentance straight to the palace of King Herod. And he decided to help King Herod remember the exact sin the king should repent of, which was sleeping with his brother’s wife, and instead of repenting and being baptized, verse 20 of chapter 3: Herod threw John in prison.
So that’s the last we’ve seen of John. We don’t have any idea how long he’s been there in prison, but someone has been bringing him news about what Jesus has been doing ever since. They’ve been reporting the miracles, the messages, etc. But when they eventually reported what we talked about last week, where Jesus healed a Roman centurion’s servant – even calling the centurion a man of faith, and then raising another man from the dead, John needed some clarification.
[7:18] Then John's disciples told him about all these things. So John summoned two of his disciples  and sent them to the Lord, asking, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"  When the men reached him, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to ask you, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?'"
I imagine John to be thinking: “Jesus – I recognized you as the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel. I baptized you, saying that’s who you are. But I imagined you would be getting RID of the Romans, not HELPING THEM! You’re supposed to be working for the home team, not the enemies! Whatever happened to the winnowing shovel in your hand and cleaning the threshing floor? What ever happened to gathering the wheat into the barn (that is Jews into their own nation) and to burn the chaff (that is any who oppress or oppose us) with fire that never goes out? You’re not doing any of that! Instead you’re healing Romans, and randomly resurrecting strangers.
Now, John is not depressed in the corner of his cell. He is in prison because he spoke out against the king. He knows you don’t come out of prison after something like that, and he knew that when he walked into the palace. So, I believe he’s thinking, if I’m going to lose my life here, I’m just double checking…Did I prepare the way for the right person? Are you the Messiah, or did I get that wrong?
This Isn't What I Imagined
I wonder how many of you have ever felt that way. You’ve looked around at other people’s lives, even people who want nothing to do with Jesus, and you’ve said to God, “This isn’t how I imagined this going. I didn’t imagine following Jesus to look this way or be this difficult. How come those people get an easy life? Why do they get to be so happy, and I’m over here struggling? I’m supposed to be on your team, Jesus. How does that moron get to be married and have a family while I’m still single? How come those people got healed the first time they prayed, and I’ve been praying for years and still nothing? How come their retirement looks like this, and I still have to scrounge to make things work? How come those people’s kids are well-behaved and respectable, while nothing I seem to say makes any difference at all for my kids?
Anyone besides me ever felt any of those things? Have those thoughts?
You can write this in your notes to read later, but Psalm 73 is one of those chapters where the author is really struggling with doubt. He wonders if his desire to live a holy and righteous life is actually getting him in a worse position than he had before. He said, it feels like everyone else has an easy time until they die, except me! “I’m afflicted all day long, I feel like I’m being punished just for waking up.”
Maybe in your situation, you would say to Jesus today, just throw me a bone – give me a sign. Give me some encouragement that you really are at work, and that I’m on the right track.
John shows us how to respond to that kind of situation. Even though he seems to be having some questions here similar to what you and I might have had, John goes to Jesus for answers. He has questions, and he knows where to go with those questions… to Jesus himself. There is no better place to go with your doubts.
How will Jesus answer John? Will he say “Hey, bud, I’ll see you on Thursday and we can talk this through”? Does he say, “Seriously John. What’s with the questions?” Will he condemn him for asking?
 At that time (While the 2 disciples from John were still standing there) Jesus healed many people of diseases, afflictions, and evil spirits, and he granted sight to many blind people.  He replied to them, "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news,  and blessed is the one who isn't offended by me."
For John and for all of us who struggle with doubt from time to time, here’s what I think Jesus is really saying: Dear friend, Check the prophecies about me and then look at what I’m doing: Do the blind see? Yes. Lame walk? Yes. Is leprosy cleansed? Yes. Are the dead raised? Yes. Are the poor told the good news? Yes.
Okay then, that is your answer, John. That’s your answer Rodney. Look at the prophecies, and see that I’m fulfilling them. Those are my credentials. John, you baptized the right person. Keep trusting me. I’m fulfilling prophecies one after another. It’s okay that you asked me this question. I understand your frustration. But hang in there and keep trusting, even when it doesn’t look like you thought it would. Blessed are those who are not offended that i don’t look like the kind of savior you expected.”
This scripture is written for us to hear that same word spoken to us. Keep trusting, even when it doesn’t look like you thought it would.
The Greatest Man on Earth
 After John's messengers left, he began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind?  What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? See, those who are splendidly dressed and live in luxury are in royal palaces.  What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.  I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John,
I don’t know who you would say is the greatest person who ever lived, but the answer is John, according to Jesus (of course not counting himself). John is the greatest because scripture pointed to him as someone who would pave the way for the coming Savior; But more than just a prophet who simply pointed to a Messiah, John was the first person to recognize Jesus as the Messiah they’d waited for (Bock, 675)! And Jesus says about John, oh this is no ordinary guy. This guy is the greatest man ever born.
Pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile said this: “For Jesus to make that statement after John asked these kinds of questions means that doubt and faith can exist in the same heart.”
Doubt & Faith
In Mark 9, a man came to Jesus with a child possessed by a demon. Jesus asked the man if he believed he could heal his son. The man responded with one of the greatest lines ever: “I believe – help my unbelief.” Faith and doubt in the same heart. I feel like I live there sometimes. God I believe you can do this, I believe that your will is to see these things happen, but I still find myself unsure sometimes. I believe – help my unbelief!
Jesus isn’t afraid of our doubts. He isn’t harsh with John – he understands John’s question.
- Psalm 103:14 says, “For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.”
- John 2:25 says about Jesus, “…he did not need anyone to tell him about the hearts of men and women; for he himself knew what was in mankind.”
I think sometimes we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than Jesus does. We think we have to have perfect faith and never doubt or else we’re not solid Christians. We’re afraid to ask questions about Jesus or salvation or spiritual things, because it makes us look or feel weak, or like we’re not actually saved or something.
Jesus Knows Our Limitations
Jesus knows we’re made of dust. He knows what’s in our hearts, because he was there at Creation! He knows that we don’t have the capacity to understand everything he does, because he created us that way. His ways are higher than our ways; his thoughts are higher than ours. That’s why he calls us to trust him!
Jesus doesn’t condemn John for doubting and asking questions… he says John is the greatest man ever born, the greatest prophet of them all because he literally introduced the Messiah to the world… AND YET, Jesus continues, “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
Which is to say, the honor and privilege John had of preparing the way for Jesus was great, but even better than being the person preparing the way is being the person who is receiving that way by faith! Even better than talking about Jesus, is receiving him… The greatest person who ever lived, the greatest in a long line of prophets, talking about Jesus doesn’t receive higher praise or greater position than a sinner who is receiving the kingdom by faith.
No Order of Importance in the Kingdom
Which is to say there is no hierarchy in the kingdom, where people who grew up in Christian families get to skip to the front of the line. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of God, where people who go on missions trips and plant churches and donate a lot of their time and money to the poor get a seat at the table while everyone else is kind of stuck with standing room. There is no sort of order of importance in the kingdom where the people who know their Bible inside and out get the better seats at the table next to Jesus, while the person who lived in sin and rebellion for 50 years and only came to Jesus 5 minutes ago has to sit over at the new Christians table and stay quiet.
 (And when all the people, including the tax collectors (those at the supposed back of the line), heard this, they acknowledged God's way of righteousness, because they had been baptized with John's baptism.
God, You're Right!
To say they “acknowledged God’s way of righteousness” is to say “they got it.” They had been baptized by John, which means they had taken seriously his call to repent, and so when they saw in this moment that having questions doesn’t disqualify them, that Jesus fit the qualifications for being the Messiah, and that the kingdom wasn’t just for the prophets but for ordinary people, real sinners like themselves, they responded in faith!
These folks who on the outside looked like there was no chance for them are suddenly being told they can have a greater access to Jesus than even John did! Church – if you have been born again; if you have seen the grace of Jesus for you and received it by faith, then you have greater access to Jesus than the greatest prophet who ever lived.
Why it Matters
That’s why Jesus said we don’t need to judge. That’s why we don’t condemn. Sometimes the people you think would never come to faith in Jesus already have faith! In some cases the people you think will just skateboard into heaven because of their credentials won’t be there at all. Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom, Jesus said.
That’s good news for those who look at their own situations and think “I’m just a nobody.”
Which means you don’t have to put on a show for anyone today. You don’t have to pray some fancy prayer during prayer time, showing off all the things you know about God and the theological words you’ve learned. You don’t have to be some Instagram worthy person who looks and acts a certain way. You can come to Jesus with your doubts, and find that the very fact that you went to him and not somewhere else is the seed of faith already starting to mature and grow in you.
And not only that, to those who respond to Jesus in active faith, he fills them and empowers them with his Holy Spirit, who continues to grow them and mature them and develop them to be more and more like Jesus, and as he does, that tiny little seed of faith begins to grow into a tree that bears fruit that makes a difference in other people’s lives and bringing glory to God
Two Kinds of Children
So how can you tell if you have this true faith or not? Jesus wraps up this section with a picture of two kinds of children. (30-35)
- The first kind of children are those little kids in the grocery store who throw a fit in the shopping cart because mom didn’t let them get the M&Ms. They kick their legs, scream a bit, or make fists because they want their own way.
- These are the people who you can’t please. You can never do church right for them. That’s what v 32 means – you play a fast song, but they don’t respond to it. So you play a slow song, but they don’t respond to that either. John’s message was too harsh. You step on our toes too much. They didn’t respond with repentance. Instead they accused him of being demon-possessed!
- But then Jesus came preaching grace and mercy, hanging out with sinners, drinking some adult beverages, and they say, yeah well, no, that kind of preaching is too liberal. He’s watering down the word to make it palatable for unbelievers. Gotta hold the line! They didn’t respond to his message of grace either. Instead they accused him of backsliding his own message. That’s verse 34.
That’s what the Pharisees were. People who didn’t respond in faith but judged by outward appearances. They wanted their own way, not God's way.
But there’s another group of children. The children of wisdom. Those who do respond in faith.
-  Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children."
The Gospel Changes Lives
That simply means this wisdom of the Lord’s way of righteousness, which is through faith, is seen in the transformed lives of people who follow it. One commentator said it like this:
“Look at the children of the Lord, born-again believers, and you see people who were once strung out on drugs, hooked on pornography, or held captive by materialism; people with messed-up marriages, hurting families, and broken lives who are now in the process of being perfected. God’s wisdom is shown to be right by looking at the changed lives of those who follow it. Let the Pharisees argue all they want. The irrefutable fact is that lives are changed by the gospel. (Courson)”
Jesus is the only place you can anchor your hope. He doesn’t have to change your circumstances in order to be good and faithful and true. But because he is good and faithful and true, he will redeem those circumstances to change you, to grow you to be more like him, bearing good fruit to the glory of his name, and permanently filling you with his Holy Spirit so that you can say with the tax collectors and other sinners: “I was one way, and now I’m completely different. And the thing that happened in between was him. ("The Chosen")”
Anyabwile, Thabiti. February 21, 2016. “Friend of the Nones” https://soundcloud.com/archurch/friend-of-the-nones
Bock, Darrell L. 1994. Luke: 1:1–9:50. Vol. 1. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Green, Joel 1997. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co
The Chosen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRlUdfoSAqA