DOUBTS ABOUT JESUS (7:18-19)
John the Baptist was in jail. He had the guts to speak out against King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. That didn’t sit too well with King Herod and the now Queen Herodias (you have to admit that, based on their names alone, they made a great married couple).
Josephus (Ant. 13.5.2 §119), an ancient historian, tells us that John was imprisoned in Machaerus (mack-cure-us), an impressive fortress that overlooked the Dead Sea. The name Machaerus is the Greek word for “sword.”
From what I understand, the dungeon at Machaerus had all the gruesome stuff you would imagine being in a dungeon—iron hooks, chains, the works.
It was here that John was beheaded and had his head taken to Herodias on a platter.
John’s disciples did not abandon him in prison. Indeed, survival in prison in those days depended on whether or not you had friends or family to bring food to you.
Another way that friends helped friends who were imprisoned was simple communication with the outside world. That’s what we find John’s disciples doing:
Luke 7:18 And the disciples of John shewed him of all these things.
They told him what was happening with Jesus. The phrase “all these things” has mainly to do with what has been reported in chapter 7—the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising from the dead of the widow’s son. What is John’s reaction?
Did John the Baptist Have Doubts About Jesus?
Luke 7:19 And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?
One of the big questions that Bible interpreters have to deal with in this passage is, why did John the Baptist question who Jesus was?
At first glance at the passage, it naturally seems that John was doubting who Jesus was. Many are uncomfortable with the idea of John the Baptist doubting. The old commentator J.C. Ryle, for instance, wouldn’t entertain the notion that John could have doubted even though he was imprisoned with little hope of release and that Jesus did nothing to free him.
As proof that he did not doubt, Ryle points out that in the next passage, that Jesus praises John highly—would he do that if John was a doubter?
Ryle (and others) say that it wasn’t John that was doubting, but his disciples. He sent them to Jesus to ask the question, “Are you the Coming One?” not to calm his fears and doubts, but to strengthen the faith of his own disciples. 1
While that explanation does help preserve the spiritual integrity and character of John the Baptist, it does not do justice to the text itself.
The natural reading of this passage is that John was suffering some sort of doubt about who Jesus was. The natural reading is the first interpretation that you should consider when you read the Bible.
Ryle would rightly argue, however, that if the natural reading contradicts other clear scripture, it must be wrong. Ryle felt that John was too strong in faith and too well praised by Jesus in other passages to be considered a doubter. So he proposed an alternate reading that could still fit in the text.
But doesn’t scripture record other people who were strong in faith that had moments of doubt? It sure does: Abraham (Genesis 17:17), Sarah (Genesis 18:12), Moses (Exodus 3:10–15), Gideon (Judges 6:13–23, 36–40), Elijah (1 Kings 19:1–14) and others.
Of particular interest is Elijah because of the similarities between him and John the Baptist. Both were rough and tough type of guys who preferred camel skin to silk ties. Both were bold in their speech.
In fact, they were so alike, that people asked John if he was Elijah (John 1:21). He was not Elijah, but he did come in the “spirit and power” of Elijah (Luke 1:17). Jesus himself said that, in some sense, John was the Elijah to come (Matthew 11:14).
Elijah, despite his great and bold faith, also had a moment of doubt, even after a great victory over the priests of Baal. Remember that he ended up in the desert complaining that he was the only one left (1 Kings 18-19). If Elijah can doubt, why can’t John the Baptist?
In the end, we cannot know for sure what was going through John’s mind. But the idea that he couldn’t have doubted ignores our human nature and it ignores scripture.
Why Would John The Baptist Have Doubts?
There are several reasons why John may have had doubts. It should be no surprise that these reasons are also reasons that people might struggle with doubt today.
1) Personal Loss—John had been faithful and bold in his ministry. He had declared the coming Messiah and faced down Pharisees and even the King without fear. He would have naturally expected to been rewarded with something more than being thrown in prison!
And then, it would seem appropriate for this Jesus to come to his rescue—but Jesus didn’t seem to be making any move to do so. In fact, his question for Jesus could even have been a veiled hint to Jesus—“Are you the long expected Messiah? If you are, I could use some saving…hint, hint!”
Believers today also struggle with doubt because of personal loss. It might be the loss of a marriage or a ministry; the loss of a loved one or a long-desired dream. Whatever it was, our expectation was that Jesus would honor and bless it, but he didn’t. Despite our perceived faithfulness to him, we suffered personal loss, and as a result, a sliver of doubt crept into our heart.
Another reason John may have doubted was because of…
2) Popular Misconceptions About Jesus. In New Testament times, there were many ideas about who the coming Messiah would be and what he would do.
In general, it was believed that the Messiah would be conquering hero for Israel. He would come and reestablish Israel as an independent kingdom and restore the golden age of David and Solomon. The aspect of the Messiah suffering for sins was either overlooked or ignored.
So deeply ingrained was this misconception about the Messiah, that even after his death and resurrection, Jesus’s disciples still thought he had come to conquer.
6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)
It is possible that John the Baptist also believed this misconception that Jesus had come to restore the kingdom to Israel. And he, the Messiah’s herald, languishing in a dungeon, couldn’t be a part of the plan!
What misconceptions do people have about Jesus today? There are many.
One is that he is a good teacher and to follow him simply means that you take his teaching and adapt it to our time and culture. They say that Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged,” means that they can accept and approve of sinful behavior .
Another modern misconception is that Jesus will bless you with all the health and wealth you could ever hope for. After all, you are a child of the King, how could you live as a pauper? Anything Jesus taught about suffering for his sake is forgotten.
Yet another misconception about Jesus is that he is only one of many ways to God. Jesus’s love and compassion is such that he would never condemn a sincere Muslim or Buddhist or even a nice atheist to Hell.
Never mind that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
Are you trusting in and following the real, biblical Jesus today?
Or do you trust a Jesus of your own creation; one that behaves the way you want him to behave?
John could have had doubts about Jesus because of personal loss, or because of popular misconceptions about Jesus, or because he had…
3) Preconceptions That Were Unfulfilled. John was a true “fire and brimstone” preacher. He warned of God’s judgment. He called people to repentance.
7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke 3:7)
I think it’s very likely that when John’s disciples came to Machaerus dungeon and told him of “all these things,” of Jesus healing and raising the dead, that John thought, “Where’s the judgment that he was supposed to dole out on people?”
John did not understand that the Messiah’s coming was to be a two-stage coming. Jesus would come as a the suffering servant in the first part. He would heal and teach and ultimately, die for the sins of the world. Then he would rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven.
So far 2,000 years have separated the first and the second stage of Jesus’s coming. One day he will come again as a conquerer on a white horse.
11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. (Revelation 19:11)
In our day, we also struggle with preconceptions of Jesus that are unfulfilled. We like to think that the wicked will be judged and justice will be served. Believers have always struggled with this particular unfulfilled preconception about God. The psalmist complains in Psalm 94—
1 O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. 2 Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: Render a reward to the proud. 3 Lord, How long shall the wicked, How long shall the wicked triumph? (Psalm 94:1–3)
The answer is that they may not see judgment until the day of their death. Why? Because our God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
There’s room for the fire and brimstone preaching of John the Baptist, but we should have the hope and expectation that unbelievers would respond to it with repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Beware of having a heart that wants people to go to Hell—our Lord does not, neither should we!
For some or all these reasons—personal loss, popular misconceptions about Jesus and unfulfilled preconceptions about Jesus, John the Baptist had a moment of doubt.
JESUS’S ANSWER FOR DOUBTS (7:20-22)
John’s disciples go and seek out Jesus and…
Luke 7:20 When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?
Let’s stop here and examine this question. John was asking Jesus whether or not he was “he that should come?” (erchomai). Literally, he was asking Jesus if he was “the coming one” or “the expected one.”
Jewish believers for centuries had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah.
There are dozens of references in the Old Testament to a coming Messiah, starting with Genesis 3:15, a prophecy given moments after the first human sin was committed. The Lord says to Satan:
15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
There’s even a reference to Christmas in this verse. God says that he would put enmity between Satan’s seed and “her seed.” Women do not carry the seed, so many Bible scholars take this to be the very first reference to the virgin birth.
Other Old Testament references to the expected Messiah are familiar to us:
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, And shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
2 But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (Micah 5:2)
There are many others passages we could look at. The Jews were right to expect a Messiah to come, even if they were mistaken on the details.
But because Jesus wasn’t doing the things he expected, John wondered if he was really the Messiah. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus and, instead of answering them immediately, Jesus went back to his work.
Luke 7:21 And in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight.
We don’t know how long this went on—Jesus going about his miracle work and John’s disciples watching—but eventually Jesus stopped and turned back to the disciples.
Luke 7:22 Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.
John’s disciples undoubtedly picked up on the numerous Old Testament references in his answer (as any Jew would have). They were all from Isaiah (26:19; 29:18–19; 35:5–6; 61:1-2). Perhaps John’s disciples had heard (or heard of) Jesus reading Isaiah 61:1-2 in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19).
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; Because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to them that are bound; 2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…(Isaiah 61:1–2)
Jesus hasn’t showing off his power to John’s disciples (other fake messiah’s used magic tricks to prove themselves). No, Jesus was saying that he was fulfilling specific Old Testament prophecies about what the Messiah would do. He had begun his work (although it will not be fully realized until his second coming and the Millennium).
What about us? How do we know that Jesus is who he said he is? We have the written record of the Bible. The only question is whether or not we will believe what has been written down for us—which leads us to the final verse:
ARE YOU OFFENDED OR BLESSED? (7:23)
Luke 7:23 And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
The word, “offended” (root: skandalon), is used to refer to having a negative reaction to God and his Gospel. When Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth, “they were offended by him” (Matthew 13:56).
People today still are offended by Jesus. The Bible admits that this will be the case. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1, says that Jesus and the cross are foolishness and a stumbling block to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 1:21-28).
And why? Paul says in the next chapter:
14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
It’s not a matter of the Bible not being reliable—it’s completely reliable. It’s a matter of the unbeliever’s stubborn insistence on not wanting to believe the Lord God who created us.
Look, you can have all the evidence in the world stacked up in front of you; Jesus could appear before you and perform miracles and you still wouldn’t believe if you didn’t want to.
How do I know? Because the Pharisees didn’t. When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, they didn’t rejoice and say, “Hallelujah! What a miracle! The Messiah is come!” No, they said, “Couldn’t you wait until tomorrow to do that? You can’t heal a human on the Sabbath—an ox maybe, but not a human!”
What about you? What are you doubting Jesus about? What are you demanding that he do so that you can believe? Are you going to continue in your doubts and skepticism about Jesus? Or are you going to believe the record we’ve been given?
1 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, vol. 1 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1879), 218–219.