At some time or another, every thinking person has wrestled with the problem of doubt. How can I be sure that Christianity is true? What if I have put all my hope in Christ, but I’m wrong? What if there is no heaven or hell? What if critics are right and the Bible is not the Word of God? Questions of this sort can nag at the heart of the most sincere believers.
Even unbelievers have their moments of doubt. C. S. Lewis, who was an atheist before he was saved, wrote (source unknown),
Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamor of this visible and audible world is so persistent, and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist also has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may, after all, be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe. Believe in God, and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him, and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction religious or irreligious will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of faith resulting in the habit of faith will gradually do that.
We usually associate doubt with the infamous “Doubting Thomas,” but at first, all the apostles doubted the reports of Christ’s resurrection (Luke 24:11). In the text before us, even the great forerunner, John the Baptist, was struggling with doubt as he languished in Herod’s prison. Although some respectable commentators don’t attribute doubt to the great man, I do not agree. I think that in spite of the fact that John was a great man of God, he was wrestling here with doubt. Through his honest question, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for someone else?” and through Jesus’ reply to John’s disciples and His comments to the crowd, we can learn some things about dealing with our doubt.
These verses fall into three sub-units: John’s question and Jesus’ reply (7:18-23); Jesus’ commendation of John (7:24-28); and, a rebuke to Israel’s leaders for rejecting both John and Jesus in spite of their differences in style (7:29-35). Luke wants his readers to grapple with the question of Jesus’ true identity and with the response of faith His identity demands. Luke makes it plain that while many had repented and submitted to John’s baptism, most of the Jewish leaders had not responded rightly to John or to Jesus. Rather than follow in their footsteps, Luke wants his readers to think clearly about who Jesus is so that they come into a full assurance of faith in Him.
To understand this text and to deal properly with our own doubts, we must recognize that two kinds of doubters are portrayed here. In John we see the doubts of a godly man who was confused on account of the difficult circumstances he was in. He couldn’t reconcile his understanding of Messiah’s ministry with the fact that he, as Messiah’s messenger, was still in prison while the wicked Herod flourished. Quite distinct from John, the second group of doubters is represented by the Pharisees and experts in the Jewish law who did not want to face their own sin and rebellion. They were not just doubters; they were scoffers. They needed to submit their hearts to God. The overall principle is:
To deal with our doubts, we must submit our hearts to God’s revelation about Jesus Christ and hold to it in spite of our difficult circumstances.
The first principle of dealing with doubt is:
There is debate about whether verses 29 and 30 are Jesus’ words or Luke’s parenthetical explanation. They are probably Luke’s words, but either way doesn’t change the meaning. One group, made up mostly of common people including notorious sinners such as the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice in John’s preaching. In other words, when John thundered against their sin, in their hearts they said, “God is righteous and I am not. I am guilty before His holy throne.” So when John pointed the way to God’s forgiveness through repentance and baptism, these people readily responded.
But, the very people who knew the Scriptures and who should have welcomed John’s message and the Messiah to whom John pointed, did not. They rejected God’s purpose and refused to humble themselves to be baptized by this radical prophet. Their pride kept them from acknowledging themselves as sinners and from participating in an activity, such as baptism, where sinners admitted their need for cleansing. They thought, “We’re better than these no-goods. We know the Scriptures and they don’t. John’s baptism may be okay for them, but we don’t need it.” And so they missed God’s purpose through John’s ministry and they missed God’s Messiah whom John announced.
Jesus uses a parable to expose their root problem. Those who had rejected both John and Jesus were like children playing games in the market place. Jesus’ use of children for His illustration was a rebuke in itself, in that He is implying that these men who thought of themselves as too sophisticated for John’s crude style were, in reality, so immature that a children’s game refuted them. The picture is of one group of children saying, “Let’s play wedding and dance.” But their friends say, “No, we don’t want to play something happy.” So, the first group says, “All right, then let’s play funeral. We’ll play a dirge and be sad.” But the friends refuse to play this game as well. In other words, you can’t please them no matter what you do, because they don’t want to play unless they make up the game and the rules.
The point is that John came with an austere way of life, preaching God’s judgment, but the Pharisees didn’t like him. Then Jesus came along, enjoying normal food and drink, offering a message of God’s forgiveness to sinners, but the Pharisees didn’t like Him either. The problem was not in the message or in God’s messengers. The problem was in the proud, unrepentant hearts of these religious leaders. Verse 35 goes back to those who have submitted to God’s way (7:29). The thrust of it is, the ones who are truly wise will acknowledge God’s righteousness and their own need of repentance and will therefore submit to God’s messengers, but especially to Jesus who is the final revelation of God. They will not fall into the supposedly “wise” ways of the Pharisees and scribes, who refuse to submit to God.
Applied to our struggles with doubt, we all must ask, Is my heart truly subject to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ? Have I bowed before God’s righteous judgment regarding my sin? Have I repented of my sins? Have I laid hold of God’s provision of salvation in Jesus Christ? Have I publicly confessed my repentance and faith in Christ through baptism? Or, could my doubts merely be an excuse so that I can continue running my own life in my own way?
A few years ago a man who did not believe in Christ and his wife, who did believe, began attending the church I pastored in California. He had come for quite some time when his wife had to go into the hospital for surgery. I went to the hospital to wait with him while her surgery was under way. After we had talked about a number of things, I said to him, “Bruce, you’ve been coming to church for quite a while. Where are you at spiritually? Have you put your trust in Christ as your Savior yet?” He replied that he had not yet trusted in Christ. When I asked him why not, he said that he still had a lot of unanswered questions. I said, “Well, we’ve got some time right now. What are your questions?” He said, “I have a lot of them.” I said, “How about if you make a list of all your questions. If I can provide satisfactory answers to your questions, would you then become a Christian?”
He got a wry smile on his face, as if I had found him out. Then he said, “If I’ve been hearing you correctly, if I trust in Christ as my Savior, I’ve got to quit running my own life and let Jesus take over. Is that correct?” I said yes. He said, “Well, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do that yet.” He saw that the matter was not intellectual, but rather of yielding his will to God. A few months later, he did yield his life to Christ and I had the joy of baptizing him.
Doubt is often just a smokescreen for a heart that wants to play by its own rules. God has given sufficient evidence that Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be. If your doubts stem from sin and rebellion, you won’t see them removed until you repent and submit your heart to Jesus as Lord. So the first step for dealing with doubt is to turn from your sin and rebellion against God. Acknowledge that God, as the Sovereign Creator of this universe, has the right to run your life. Recognize that Jesus Christ offered Himself as the necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s righteous judgment. Accept Christ as your Savior and Lord. Yielding your heart to Him will remove many doubts.
As I said, many weighty commentators refuse to attribute doubt to John, since he was such a great man of God. Jesus gives John the highest imaginable commendation (7:24-28). Unlike the reeds that swayed in the breeze along the Jordan River where he preached, John was a man of unswerving conviction. He didn’t change his message in the slightest when the big shots from Jerusalem came to hear him preach. Further, John’s convictions were backed up by his lifestyle. He wasn’t preaching so that he could wear the finest clothes and eat gourmet food. John was a prophet, and more than a prophet. He was the very messenger whom God promised in Malachi 3:1 to prepare the way before Messiah.
Because Jesus speaks so highly of John, many think that John’s question did not stem from his doubt, but was designed to shore up the doubts of his disciples. In spite of John’s greatness, I reject that interpretation for two reasons. First, Jesus’ gentle rebuke in verse 23 seems to be a word to John, not to his disciples. Note, by the way, that Jesus sent this rebuke directly back to John, probably without the multitude hearing. Then He praises John to the multitude. We often err by praising a man to his face and running him down to others behind his back. Jesus’ gentle rebuke says, “John, I’m the one; just don’t stumble over Me because I’m not doing things the way you may have expected.”
The second reason I think that John was doubting is that even the greatest men of God are still men of flesh, subject to times of doubt and despair. The mighty prophet Elijah wavered in his faith and ran from the wicked Jezebel, whose prophets he had slain, asking God to take his life. Ironically, he was one of two men who did not ever die, but were taken straight to heaven! Now, the “Elijah who was to come” wavers as he sits day after day in Herod’s prison. Why did John doubt?
It’s interesting to contrast the Elijah of old with John, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah. The Old Testament prophet saw God work many powerful miracles. In his duel with the prophets of Baal, he called down fire from heaven to consume his saturated sacrifice and then he took up a sword and slew all 400 of them. Later, when the wicked son of Ahab and Jezebel sent a contingent of 50 soldiers to take him captive, he called down fire from heaven and consumed them. When a second group of 50 came, he did it again. Yet John the Baptist had performed no miracles. When the wicked Herod decided to imprison him, he didn’t call down fire from heaven to consume the arresting soldiers. His prayers and the prayers of his disciples on his behalf to get him out of prison weren’t even being answered. John sat in that dark dungeon day after day, he ate the meager diet of bread and water, and he wondered, “If Jesus is the Messiah, then why am I still in prison?”
Whenever you’re going through a time of difficult trials, when it seems that God is ignoring your prayers, be on guard. It was in the context of enduring fiery trials that Peter wrote, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Then he added, “But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:8-10, italics added). Your trials do not mean that God does not exist or that He has lost control as the Sovereign of the universe. Hang on by faith, knowing that He will use your trial to strengthen and establish you. As Peter instructs just a few verses before (5:6-7), “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God … casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” Don’t doubt God’s sovereignty or His love when you go through extended trials.
Not only was John going through a difficult trial that would shortly result in his martyrdom, he also was dealing with disappointed expectations. John came thundering about God’s impending judgment on sinners. He was bold enough to rebuke even King Herod for his immorality. But Herod was still having his drunken parties, still living in immorality with his brother’s wife, while John was in prison. Also, John knew that Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would proclaim freedom to the prisoners and bring in the day of vengeance of our God (Isa. 61:1, 2). And yet, John wasn’t exactly free from prison and God’s vengeance had not been poured out on the likes of Herod. Besides, the Jews, especially the religious leaders, weren’t flocking to submit to Jesus as their Messiah. So John’s expectations about Jesus were disappointed.
William Barclay points out that John may have wrestled with the answer Jesus sent back through his disciples. He told them to go and report to John the many miracles they saw and the fact that the poor had the gospel preached to them. But, as Barclay puts it, “If Jesus was God’s anointed one, John would have expected him to say, ‘My armies are massing. Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman army is about to fall. The sinners are being obliterated. And judgment has begun’” (The Daily Study Bible, Luke [Westminster Press], p. 89). John had to deal with his mistaken expectations of who Jesus is and what He came to do.
You’ve been there, haven’t you? You thought that Jesus would solve all sorts of problems for you, but instead, the problems have grown worse. You thought that He would make life easier and more abundant, but it has been more difficult and destitute. Perhaps some well meaning saint came along and told you that the reason things weren’t going so well is that you weren’t praying enough. So you prayed more, but the problems persisted. Then he said that you must be harboring some secret sins, so you confessed every sin you could think of, and prayed some more, but God still didn’t seem to be listening. It’s easy for even the godly to doubt at such times. So what’s the answer?
John may have died without resolving some of his theological confusion about Messiah. He knew from Isaiah that Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but he didn’t seem to understand that Messiah would come twice—the first time to baptize with the Holy Spirit as He proclaimed the favorable year of the Lord; the second time to baptize with the fire of judgment as He will bring the vengeance of our God (Isa. 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-21). But even though John may not have understood everything, he still clung to Jesus. He teaches us two things about dealing with doubt:
Bring your doubts to Jesus Himself.
John sent his disciples straight to Jesus. He could have sent them to the scribes and Pharisees, and they would have only deepened his doubts and perhaps added a few more reasons to doubt. He could have consulted the Hebrew commentaries, but he probably wouldn’t have found much help there. He went directly to Jesus and Jesus gave him a solid answer, along with a gentle rebuke. Jesus did not say, “Cursed is he who doubts Me,” but rather, “Blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.”
When as a believer you’re struggling with doubt, take your doubts to Jesus in prayer. Make sure your heart is in submission to Him. Make sure that you’re not harboring any sin that lies beneath the surface of your doubts. Then pour out your confusion or difficulty to the Lord. If you need a gentle rebuke, He will give it, but always with a view of bringing healing. Don’t take your doubts to those who sit in judgment on God’s Word. If you read Bible critics, they will not usually strengthen your faith. Reading solid, Bible-believing commentators may help you clarify a matter, and so this can help. But in all your study, you need to lay hold of Jesus Himself. So bring your doubts to Him.
Look to the person and work of Christ Himself.
Jesus told John’s disciples to go and tell John what they had seen and heard, and then cataloged His many miracles that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Jesus is saying, “Look at My life and ministry.” He worked miracles by the power of God to authenticate who He was. He preached the good news of salvation to the poor whom society disregarded.
Also, He affirms here that John was the messenger predicted by Malachi, which also affirms that Jesus is the promised Messiah. When Jesus states that John was the greatest of men, but then adds that “he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” He is affirming that while John was the greatest of the old era, someone even greater is here, namely, Jesus the Messiah, who ushers in the kingdom of God. John lived in the era of promise; the one who submits to Jesus as king lives in the era of fulfillment.
In explaining why the least in the kingdom is greater than John, William Barclay (ibid., 90) writes,
Why? Some have said that it was because John had wavered, if but for a moment, in his faith. It was not that. It was because John marked a dividing line in history. Since John’s proclamation had been made, Jesus had come; eternity had invaded time; heaven had invaded earth; God had arrived in Jesus; life could never be the same again. We date all time as before Christ and after Christ—B.C. and A.D. Jesus is the dividing line. Therefore, all who come after him and who receive him are of necessity granted a greater blessing than all who went before. The entry of Jesus into the world divided all time into two; and it divided all life in two. If any man be in Christ he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
So when you struggle with doubt, go back to the basic question, Who is Jesus Christ? Read the Old Testament prophecies. Read the Gospels. Could He have been a charlatan? Or do His life and teaching ring true? In John 6, Jesus taught some difficult things and as a result, many who had been following Him withdrew. Jesus asked the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter gave the great reply, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). When you struggle with doubt, look to the person and work of Jesus Christ Himself.
I have been where Peter was many times, struggling with a hard saying of Jesus or a difficult personal matter that seems to undermine the truth of God’s Word. I have had to go back to the basics and ask, “Where else can I go? I know that Jesus is who He claimed to be. He is the promised Messiah. He is the only Savior. He is risen from the dead.” I may not understand everything, but if I cling to Jesus, I will come through the storms of doubt into calmer seas. To deal with your doubts, make sure that your heart is in submission to God. Then, look to God’s revelation about His Son and hold to it in spite of your difficult circumstances. Jesus will give you aid as you pray, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation