Have you ever been so certain of the path you were to take that you started moving forward only to have questions and doubts arise later? That seems to be my universal experience. Often in my life, whether it is an issue in my faith life or just a hike in the mountains and I am wondering which way to turn, or wandering as the case may be, my certainty seems to wane the further I get from having made my decision. I think many of you can identify with me.
Those opening words serve to introduce our passage this morning, which isn’t a normal Easter selection. It isn’t about the resurrection directly. Instead, it is about doubting and questioning whom Jesus is and the things he does are to serve to alleviate our doubts. That is why I selected it for today. Many people in the church and outside face times of questioning about whether Jesus is truly whom he says he is. This isn’t abnormal. It is part of being human. My hope this morning is that you will be pointed towards the actions of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection and miracles – today in order to help answer any questions you may have.
Would you rise to hear God’s Word:
“After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”” (Matthew 11:1–6 NIV)
As our passage begins, there are two things that are important to notice, for they will serve to situate our message. Firstly, Jesus and his disciples are preaching and teaching and doing wondrous works. Secondly, John is in prison and doubting.
Preaching must be important. Not just because I am a preacher, but because it is mentioned twice in this passage, once at the beginning as an activity Jesus and the disciples are engaged in, and once at the end as a proof to who Jesus is. So what were they preaching that was so important? They proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is near (Matt 10:7). They are to announce that God is in the midst of the people, ruling and shepherding, curing and judging. They are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper, and drive out demons (Matt 10:8). Essentially they are saying, “The will of God in heaven is being worked out on the earth.” This is what it means that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
To preach the good news is to tell others of God’s great plan of redemption by coming in the flesh to suffer and die for people who hated him and didn’t recognize him. To preach the good news is to declare that none can be saved except through the cross of Christ – for it is by his death and resurrection that the access to God’s throne room in heaven is established. To preach the good news is to declare that everyone is poor and broken, sick and in need of a savior, even those who look healthy. To preach the good news is to identify sin as a great offense to God’s authority, character and sovereignty. To preach the good news is to bring the power of God to bear upon the struggles of human life, which is why Jesus points to his activities in the world.
Preaching like this proclaims the presence of God in the midst of the people: The kingdom of heaven is near (here, at hand). By preaching people can hear a message they are ignorant of until that point. And by hearing the proclaimed message of Jesus, the unbeliever is ushered into faith and the faithful are supported and encouraged by hearing what Jesus has done, is doing and will continue to do. If you are doubting, questioning who Jesus is, don’t let today be the only day you come into a church this year. Come again next week and the week after and the week after that. Come regularly and let the Word of God seep into your soul. Let the good news become a part of your life. Let it transform your heart and your mind as the wonder of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected is declared to you.
The work of God is to serve as the foundation of our faith allowing us rest and strength in our times of doubt and aiding people in need of reassurance. This is why preaching is so important when we doubt and why we are called to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion often, more often than many think, for these gifts from God serve to point us toward the work of God in the world and assure us of his love for us. When we are questioning, we shouldn’t withdraw and try to figure it out ourselves, rather we should immerse ourselves in communities of faith where the works of Jesus are held out for us to see.
Part of the proclamation of the Kingdom being present involves the proclamation of the Messiah, the ruler of the Kingdom, and that brings us to the second part of today’s message where John the Baptist is in prison. John didn’t always doubt, but prison, I am told, gives people time to reflect upon their life, to question choices once made, and to doubt beliefs once held firmly. And that is where John the Baptist finds himself. He begins to question his life’s work and the conviction he once held deeply about who the Messiah, the Savior of the Nation is. This is a mid-life crisis par excellence.
From an early date in John’s life, before he was even conceived, God had destined John for a specific work. John was to be (Mark 1:3-4) “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist was extremely competent in his work. John provided instructions to everyone who came across his path: Jews, soldiers, tax collectors and anyone else whose heart was pricked by God, John instructed in the way of repentance. Truly, he was a messenger preparing the way for the Lord. John’s task was to go ahead of the Messiah and make him known to Israel, he was to go ahead of him in the same way a herald walks ahead of someone important and announces his or her coming.
And when the time came to identify the Messiah, John boldly and loudly proclaimed, (John 1:29) “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John clearly understood who Jesus was. He was the Messiah. He believed it. Jesus was an anointed person, especially selected by God, to save the Israelites. According to Jewish theology, the Messiah would rescue the nation from oppression and lead the world into a life completely dedicated to God and enjoying all the Lord’s blessings – peace, prosperity, bounty, love, justice, righteousness and brotherhood.
John knew these expectations and he knew how to recognize whom the Messiah was supposed to be since the Lord had given him a description of what to look for. Listen to John’s words, (John 1:33-34) ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
There was no doubt in John’s mind that day by the Jordan River, about the truth that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Things were crystal clear, and certain and in that respect he is like many of us: assured close to an event but uncertain in hardship and difficulty. You see while sitting in prison, reflecting on life and where it has taken him, John the Baptist began to doubt if his belief is true. He wonders if he has gotten that work right. Has he prepared the way for the right person? Has he proclaimed and identified the right Messiah? John questioned so much that he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him this question: Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another? (Matt 11:3).
Maybe you can identify with John. As a child you came to believe in Jesus as your savior but now that you are older you aren’t so sure you believe that Jesus really is God and man and that he alone can save people from all the evil they commit. Maybe your doubts spring from some hard knocks in life – situations that make you wonder if God really cares – lost jobs, a divorce, death, or sickness and the like or maybe your doubts rise from philosophical grounds – the question of evil, the certainty of truth, how can God become man, etcetera. Then again maybe you have never believed in God but as life moves along you find yourself wondering if such a blatant denial of Jesus is wise. And so you are wondering, “Jesus, are you the one you claim to be?”
This same question plagued a man who was once utterly assured of his faith. But now, John finds himself in prison, likely facing death and all his assurance is gone. Why does John doubt? He doubts for the same reasons that you and I doubt. The future isn’t living up to the expectations. John began to doubt because Jesus wasn’t living up to his desires and hopes. John expected the imminent end of the Age. He expected the Messiah to set up a godly kingdom and replace the ungodly leaders of the nation and the world. He expected the power of God to correct the injustices of the world, which he believed to be the most important thing the Messiah do. This isn’t to say that John’s expectations were bad; they weren’t. They were very good. (All of these expectations will be realized one day when the Lord Jesus recreates the cosmos and all things are forever subsumed to his lordship.) But while John’s expectations were good, they were misguided in their timing, and so they allowed places for doubt and insecurity to take root in his life as the expectations didn’t align with real life experience.
Isn’t that where much of our doubting comes from? How much of our questioning of God exists because of faulty expectations of what he will or won’t do for us, with us, or to us? How much do we struggle in our faith because we fail to let go of our plans for life and embrace God’s? How many of our struggles are rooted in not accepting Jesus’ word and instead we try to figure out how to live basing it on human wisdom instead of trusting in God’s word? As I have been reflecting on this question, I am convinced that many of my doubts, and probably yours, arise not from a lack of clarity in the Scriptures about who Jesus is, what he accomplished and how God expects us to live but our doubts arise from the conditions we place upon how those promises of God and his instructions must be fulfilled in our lives. Just like John.
Do you see how expectations can cloud our faith and lead us to doubt and question the love of God, the truth of salvation, the need for repentance, the work of Jesus and many other things taught in Scripture?
So how does Jesus answer this question of John? He doesn’t say, “No, I am not the Messiah” and neither does he say, “Yes I am the Messiah,” at least not directly. Jesus answers John’s inquiry by appealing to his activity in the world. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I am doing the work of the Messiah. Look at my deeds when your mind causes you to doubt.” The activities of Jesus, the Messiah, are the things that are going to help John through his uncertainty and doubt because the activities of Jesus are the very things that can calm our questions and secure our faith. His work in our world is the only ground of assurance we can trust. As Jesus himself says, (John 14:11) Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.
You may be wondering, what are these works of Jesus held out for us to see? Jesus pointed to 5 specific actions. Each of the five deeds had roots in the Old Testament and was part of the expectations some Jews had for the coming Kingdom of God when the Messiah would appear. Listen, (Matt. 11:4-5) “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
When Jesus said this, he was quoting from some passages in Isaiah. The passages Jesus was drawing from all speak about the judgment and redemption of Israel. So in that respect they conformed to John’s expectations, but each passage also spoke about another part of the Messiah’s work. His work of healing which Matthew took great pains to record chapters 8-9 of his Gospel. There we find actual stories to illustrate how the Kingdom of God had come near: A leper was healed in 8:1-4, a paralytic was healed in his hometown in 9:1-8, a dead girl was raised in 9:23-25, Two blind men are healed in 9:27-31, and the deaf/mute hear/speak.
These actions of Jesus, rooted in Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah and his reign, were to serve as the antidote for John’s doubt. Sure, the Messiah is going to judge the world, as John reckoned, but he was also going to heal and preach to the nations. By pointing to his work in the world Jesus was able to affirm John’s expectations and answer his doubt. He not only showed him the works he performed but led him into greater revelation and renewed clarity concerning who the Messiah would be and what he would do.
For those who already believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah who takes away sin. Be encouraged. Let his actions then and now continue to give you hope and assurance. But for those who are questioning if the story of forgiveness is true, then let me point you to the works of Jesus. Consider them carefully. Examine them, search the ancient writers, and you will find that the evidence for Jesus is great and the evidence for his death and resurrection is strong.
First, there are no ancient writers who question his healing ministry, at least none that I am aware of. I have never found a Jewish rabbi in antiquity that questioned Jesus’ miracles. They accepted them, though sometimes they attributed them to evil spirit instead of God’s spirit. Let his healing works stand in his defense and help your doubts be turned into faith.
Second, if these are not enough, then consider his work in the lives of his people. Do Jesus’ followers exhibit the fruit of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23)? Are their examples of Christians who give their lives in the fight for justice? To save the needy? Or to stand for the Faith? I think of men like William Wilberforce who fought to end slavery, or George Muller and Amy Carmichael and Heidi Baker who cared for thousands of oo o rphans, or the countless young women of the 2nd to 4th centuries who died the deaths of martyrs for failing to renounce the name of Jesus. I think of Mitsuo Fuchida who bombed Pearl Harbor and later turned to Jesus Christ and began preaching about Jesus to his countrymen in Japan. I am reminded of Paul Popov who spent 13 years in a Bulgarian prison, tortured and beaten, because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. Look to these works of Jesus in the lives of men and women; let them stand as his testimony that he is raised and working to save the lost and dying. Read biographies of Christians from the past and present and Let your doubts be turned to faith based upon the work of Jesus Christ among people.
Finally, there are three other great events that must be considered as one wrestles with who Jesus is. The first of these is the incarnation. You see, there are many expectations in the world about what a divine man should look like. And none of them involved humility and being born into a stable. Yet this is the testimony of the Scriptures. Consider it. What God is born into human poverty and oppression except one who cares about an impoverished world? Are you unsure if God cares about the world? Look to the Incarnation!
The second great even is the death of Jesus Christ. There are many expectations in the world about what a divine man should do. And none of them involve crucifixion and burial. Yet again this is the testimony of the Scriptures. Consider it, divine men are not supposed to die. But consider this, the gift of grace that people are saved not based on their actions but on Jesus’ perfect life required one to die in our place. It is hard to believe. Yet, it was because of his divinity that he was able to suffer the wrath of God upon a cross and die, being laid in a tomb. Do you question if God loves you? Look to the Cross!
The third great even is the resurrection from the dead. The celebration we are here to commemorate. Again, there are many expectations about what God’s grace, love, salvation and judgment must be like. And an empty tomb isn’t normally the picture that most conjure up to fulfill that expectation. But it was because of his love and mercy that he judged death as a fruitless, powerless entity and walked out of the grave in order to bring salvation to all who would believe in his name. Jesus Christ is the only savior of the world and faith in him is the only door into God’s presence. Do you question the power of God to fulfill the impossible? Look at the empty tomb!
When Jesus came in the flesh, performed his miracles and preached about the Kingdom, when he died on the cross, and rose from the grave, sustaining his people and causing them to perform wondrous works of love – all of these He accomplished to swage our consciences in times of doubt. These are the activities to which we can look when we doubt and be draw near to God in faith.
Truly Jesus is the one and only savior who can and does take away the sins of the world. Just Look to his resurrection for this is why we preach. This is why we sing – He is risen!
 (Is. 35:5-6) Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
(Is. 53:4) Surely he took up our infirmities (another way of saying sickness, leprosy, etc.) and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
(Is. 26:19) But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.
 Those familiar with the Gospel of Matthew may know that there are no recorded healings of deaf people in the gospel of Matthew, so how can Jesus say the deaf are healed as part of his answer to John’s disciples? In Hebrew, the word for deaf, kwflos, can also mean mute, and there is a mute demon possessed man healed in 9:32-24.
- Jesus’ Preaching and Teaching (Mt 10:7-8, 11:5-6, 5:3
- John the Baptist’s Biography (Mk1:3-4, Jn 1:29-34)
- Unmet expectations breed doubt in the life of faith (Mt 11:3)
4. Jesus’ actions are his response to doubt (Jn 14:11, Mt 8-9)
A. Jesus use of Isaiah to answer John (Isa 35:5-6, 53:4, 26:19, Matt 11:4-5)
B. Looking at Jesus’ Works today (Gal 5:22-23)
1. Miracles, Christians, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection
5. Are you prepared to loose your expectations but embrace Christ as the Messiah (Jn 1:29)