Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 11:2b “. . .had heard in the prison. . .”
The free spirit is caged. The best preacher Israel had ever heard is sidelined, cast aside in a corner, neglected like rubbish, having no chance to preach. I know how painful the latter can feel. As a teen, frustrated at my own self, I tried to quit preaching, but made the mistake of leaving my pulpit Bible on the head of my bed. Every time my glance caught it I felt an agony. Knowing God had called me to preach, and unable to bear the thought of not doing it, within a few weeks I picked my Bible up again and returned to the pulpit. At age 34, when going through a church split, I had many concerns, what others would think, how I would support my family. My biggest fear was, what will I do if I don’t have a place to preach.
Preaching was the first calling seared into my life. It was John’s first call. My heart hurts for him when I think of him in prison, a preacher with no place to preach. He was the Voice, but had been silenced. The crowds are gone, success but a memory. John is bewildered. He would have had to be super-human not to struggle with discouragement, disappointment, or disillusionment in this dilemma.
William Barclay tells of a small cell in Carlisle Castle where a chieftain was jailed for years. The cell’s one window sat too high to look out of when standing on the floor. In the stone on the window ledge are two depressions worn away. They are the marks left by the hands of the chieftain, the place where, day after day, he lifted himself up to look out on the green dales he would never cross again.
A similar desperation and despair began to sweep over John. He who had preached freely under the desert sun felt a cloud expanding across his caged mind.
Matt. 11:2c “. . .the works of Christ,. . .”
Herod Antipas was not harsh toward his prisoner. The two conversed at times. John, allowed to have guests, had no trouble hearing what Jesus was doing.
While John was incarcerated, Jesus’ ministry had continued unabated and was flourishing. Kingdom work had gone on while John was in prison. None of us is indispensable. “God buries the workman, but carries on the work” (Wesley).
Matt. 11:2d “. . .he sent two of his disciples,. . .”
While John was jailed, and after he died, many remained faithful to him and his cause with unwavering loyalty. Even in prison, John still had helpers. Thank God for friends who love us when we’re famous or unknown, popular or disliked.
John was puzzled. He had asserted Jesus was the Messiah, the Deliverer, but languishing in prison felt little like the deliverance John expected. Evil Herod seemed to be doing quite well. John needed issues clarified quickly. A dungeon, where execution is an ever-present possibility, is not a good place for doubts.
To Jesus, eighty miles away, John dispatched two of his disciples. There’s strength in numbers. The two will help each other and confirm what is heard.
John, the second greatest man who ever lived, was struggling with doubt. He serves as a model on how believers should handle uncertainty and perplexities.
Many of God’s choicest servants have wrestled with difficulties and doubt. The best of Jesus’ best, even when at their best, are still made of material called flesh and blood. Spiritual greatness does not make anyone less human.
The strongest believers are frail. The Bible draws no fairy tale biographies. It tells how weak our favorite heroes were. After one of history’s most amazing miracles, Elijah ran in terror from Jezebel, and asked God to let him die (1 K 19). After rescuing a city of 120,000, Jonah moaned, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). Jeremiah’s depression was severe, “My sorrow is beyond healing.” He wanted to flee his people and be alone in the desert (JR 8:18; 9:1-2).
John too was great, but also fallible. Only one of our race was flawless, the Lord Jesus. Doubt dogs the human species. Luther and Bunyan both suffered long spells of despondency, doubt, and despair. Shakespeare, when sad, deemed himself no poet. Raphael at times doubted his right to be called a painter.
Doubting, in and of itself, is neither good or bad. Questioning is inherently neutral. Doubts can be dangerous, can drag us down. Doubts can be helpful, can catapult us to higher faith. Both realities are pictured in a story of two friends.
Charles Templeton was once a more famous preacher than his friend Billy Graham, but due to doubts about suffering, abandoned faith, hardened into bitter cynicism, and wrote the book, “Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.” Templeton taunted Graham, “Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as true. Your faith is too simple.” Graham was torn, his faith stretched to the limit. He pored over Scripture, prayed, agonized. Finally, gripping a Bible, Graham fell to his knees and admitted to God he could not answer all the philosophical and psychological questions raised by Templeton and others. Billy prayed, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word–by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.” It was the turning point in Graham’s life. He sensed God’s power flowing over him. Templeton said of Graham, “He committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind.” History has rendered a different, more realistic, judgment. Two friends–the crucible of doubt led one into atheism, the other to being the most influential Christian of the twentieth century.
Doubt is not as decisive as how we deal with it. The latter is where John helps us. John was not content to stay in a state of doubt. He was determined to rise out of it. One of the most important keys to unlocking the grip of depression, doubt, and disappointment is to make the decision to take control of our situation, to refuse to stay where we are. The key choice in my victory over depression was the moment I by God’s grace decided to seek help, when I chose to find a way out.
By sending the two to Jesus, John proved he did not doubt Jesus’ spiritual credentials. The Baptist, convinced Jesus is from God, will accept His will as conclusive. I’m glad John went directly to Jesus. When doubting, talk to friends and read a lot, but most of all, pray much. Spend time in secret, alone with Christ.
Don’t consult the skeptics. Reading them is a huge step backward. My Grandpa Marshall weakened his faith and lost three years in the ministry due to reading the atheistic and skeptical writings of Robert Ingersoll and H. G. Wells.
Matt. 11:3a “. . .And said unto him,. . .”
John did not pretend he was okay, or hide doubt as if ashamed of it. We are well on the way to recovery from doubt once we distinctly verbalize our distresses.
When it comes to doubts about the faith, never be afraid to ask the hard questions. Christianity is God’s truth, and divine truth needs to fear nothing.
Anthropology, archaeology, sociology, physics, chemistry–we fear none of these. As these disciplines learn more, they draw closer to God’s truth as revealed in Holy Writ. Christianity rejoices in the advances of medicine, science, and technology. The Judeo-Christian culture made these advances possible. Biblical Christianity encourages study and seeking to think God’s thoughts after Him.
Doubt seeking evidence is not a sin. Doubt becomes sin only if it refuses obvious evidence, and Christianity yields evidence aplenty. To become a believer requires a step, not a leap, of faith. Many are unbelievers due to a pet sin, or due to hypocrisy in believers, or unwillingness to research truth with an open mind. These diversions keep unbelievers from weighing evidence that requires a verdict.
Asking questions is normal. Much we’ll never be certain about in this life. Predestination, election, free will, Providence, suffering, the Rapture, Tribulation, Millenial Kingdom, etc. It’s okay to wonder, to ponder subjects like these.
Our faith always presents us with perplexities. If wondering, push your inquiry. Christ is not offended by it. He knows our frame, He remembers we are dust (PS 103:14). John knew he would not be rebuffed by Jesus, and felt it would be okay to seek clarification. We should seek it too. Nothing is wrong with this.