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 away 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 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 passage that can be helpful in correcting this misconception is 2 Samuel 7. This is the scene 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 good, and 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.
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 sandals 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.