Why Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus?

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Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Today’s scripture is about a real mystery. The mystery involves Jesus and a man named John the Baptist. But in order to understand what the mystery is, we need to understand a little bit about John the Baptist.

Who was John the Baptist? The Bible tells us a lot about him:

  • In today’s scripture, Jesus says that John the Baptist was “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9).
  • In today’s scripture, Jesus also says this about John the Baptist: “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
  • The mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus were related (Luke 1:36).
  • What made John great? Actually, that’s the wrong question. The right question is: Who made John great? The answer was God. John was not great because of something he did. John was great because God gave him the most important job in human history: He was to prepare the way for the Messiah, God’s chosen one (Luke 1:16-17). The way God had John do this was to send him to baptize in the Jordan River. Many came to be baptized by him. (Luke 3:3).
  • But that wasn’t the most important part of preparing the way for the Messiah. The most important part was that the Messiah himself showed up to receive baptism! Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, not the other way around!” But Jesus insisted (Matthew 3:13-15). When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, he saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. And then John the Baptists said, in John 1:32-34:

I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.

So when Jesus says that no one is greater than John the Baptist, he is not simply being polite. Who could be greater than the one chosen and prepared to baptize the Son of God?

With this context in mind, we can understand the mystery that is presented in today’s scripture. In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is in jail. Well, that part is not the mystery: John had criticized the king for marrying his sister-in-law (Matthew 14:3-4).

When John the Baptist was in jail, he sent two of his students to Jesus to ask him this question: “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3)

So the mystery is this:

Why did John the Baptist doubt Jesus? He had spent his whole life preparing the way for God’s chosen one. He had seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. God had told him, “Whoever the Holy Spirit descends on, that’s my chosen one.” After all that, how could John come to doubt that Jesus was the one?

Maybe we could just say, “Well, that’s what happens when you end up in prison and suffer: You lose your faith.” Not too long after John the Baptist sent the messengers to Jesus, John’s head was cut off (Matthew 14:10). Perhaps he knew the end was coming, and he was simply scared.

But according to today’s scripture, that’s not what Jesus thought. Jesus said that John the Baptist was not “a reed shaken in the wind” (Matthew 11:7). In other words, nothing scared John. And in today’s scripture, Jesus didn’t rebuke John. That’s a very important clue to our mystery. Even at the moment that John seemed to be doubting Jesus, Jesus still praised him as “more than a prophet” and “the greatest born of women.” Jesus said that his mission and John’s were inseparable. He told a parable about children in the marketplace to explain that the crowds had rejected not only Jesus but John also. No, there is no rebuke for John from Jesus; only praise and empathy.

So why did John doubt Jesus, then? If fear wasn’t the cause of the doubt, what was?

The key to solving our mystery is Jesus’ prayer in verses 25-27 of today’s scripture. Here is what Jesus prayed to his father:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.

From Jesus’ prayer we learn one of the most important truths about the character of God that we need to remember every day of our Christian lives: God is not subject to human perception. Nothing about God can be known by anyone unless the Son chooses to reveal it to them. Nothing! You can read the whole Bible; you can even memorize the whole Bible; but unless God chooses to reveal himself to you, your reading will be fruitless. You can go to church. You can pray 24 hours a day. You can dedicate your life to God. But you still cannot know anything about him unless he chooses to reveal himself to you. God could stand right in front of you, two centimeters away from your nose, and you still cannot see him unless he permits you to see him.

But Jesus’ prayer tells us even more than that. It says that being wise and prudent is no advantage in knowing God. God reveals himself to whomever he wants to reveal himself. He chooses to reveal himself not to the wise but to the babes. In Christ, God chose to reveal himself to tax collectors and sinners, shepherds, lepers, children, divorcees, and uneducated men. He did not choose to reveal himself to the righteous or the religious leaders or the political leaders. God does not reveal himself to you because you are important or because you are interested. He reveals himself to you because “it seemed good to him” to do so. And God does not reveal himself to you because you are holy. You are holy because God chooses to reveal himself to you.

This is a theme that runs all the way through the Bible. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:20-21:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

But we should not hear these things and say, “Aha! So it is not my fault that I don’t know God. It is God’s fault. He has not revealed himself to me. If he had, then I would have understood him.”

But that is not what Jesus says. In today’s scripture Jesus pronounced woe on all the cities of Galilee (Matthew 11:20-24). But he did not pronounce woe on John the Baptist. Why?

Because John had been faithful to everything God had revealed to him. He had prepared the way for God’s chosen one. He had not wavered from his task. But the cities of Galilee had not been faithful. He had revealed himself to them, and they had rejected him. So in Matthew 11:21-22, Jesus said to those cities, “If the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be much more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

Why will it be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for the cities of Galilee? Because God knows what he revealed to them. In the cities of Galilee, he revealed himself—in human form! Standing two centimeters in front of their noses, teaching them and healing them!

But Jesus did not say that Tyre and Sidon would not be judged. In fact, in Ezekiel 26-28, God pronounces one of the harshest judgments in the Bible against Tyre and Sidon! In Ezekiel 26:21, God says to Tyre, “I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more.” So in today’s scripture, Jesus is saying to the cities of Galilee, “You thought that judgment was bad? The judgment against you will be much worse!”

In fact, no human being in any city can say, “It is not my fault that I don’t know God. It is God’s fault.” In Romans 1:18-20, Paul writes,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

So not even North Koreans can say to God, “Oh, we didn’t know about God in North Korea. It was Kim Il Sung’s fault. We were educated in materialism. We have an excuse.” But Paul says: No excuse! God has revealed enough of himself to each human being on earth who has ever lived that no one of any nation has any excuse.

But now we have two ideas that seem to contradict each other. On the one hand, we say that we can only know God if he reveals himself to us; we can’t force that to happen. God reveals himself to the babes, not to the wise or learned. But on the other hand, we say that God has revealed himself to everyone, so we are without excuse. How can we connect these two ideas together?

And this is the focus of today’s scripture: We must accept God’s revelation the way he wants to give it, when he wants to give it. But instead, we insist that God reveal himself the way we want it, when we want to receive it. In Jesus’ generation, the people rejected both John and Jesus. Neither revealed a God that they were willing to receive. Jesus said in Matthew 11:18-19, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man [Jesus] came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” We are blind to God because we have a certain picture of God in our mind. When God reveals himself to us, it does not match the picture. So we do not see the real God, or we reject him.

Even John the Baptist had this challenge. He had a picture in his mind of the kind of messiah Jesus would be. In Matthew 3:12, we can see the picture John had in his mind. John says, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” But during his lifetime, the only fork Jesus seemed to have in his hand was a feasting fork. No wonder John was confused. John had the right picture of the Messiah, but the wrong timing. In Matthew 25 we can see that one day he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Baptist wanted that day to be today. But it was not the right timing. So he struggled to understand Jesus’ ministry, and this is why he sent messengers to ask Jesus.

But notice that John the Baptist did not reject Jesus. He doubted, but he brought his doubts to God. As long as our doubts take us to God, not away from God, he is honored, and he does not rebuke us.

But when our picture of God causes us to doubt the true God, or when our human wisdom leads us away from God, we can expect hell, not acceptance of our excuses for why these things happened.

So what did Jesus tell John? What is Jesus telling us? You can see the answer in Matthew 11:6: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” In other words, blessed is the one who accepts God in the way God wants to reveal himself, whenever God wants to reveal himself. Hebrews 1:2 tells us how God wants to reveal himself: by his son. In fact, according to Jesus in today’s reading, the Son is the only one who can reveal the Father, and the Father is the only one who can reveal the Son.

Do you know who struggles to accept that? The wise.

Do you know who accepts that without struggle? Babes.

Let us be humble to accept God the way he wants to reveal himself—by his Son—when he wants to reveal himself—which (as the writer of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 3:7) is today. Respond as humbly and as receptively as a babe as you hear his voice saying to you by means of the Holy Spirit,

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

 

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