For the third week of Advent, we look at John the Baptist, the great roadbuilder for God. But the great roadbuilder was imprisoned and beginning to question what he had once believed: that Jesus was the Messiah. How did he address his doubts? We see that in Matthew 11:2-11. We also see how Jesus wonderfully addressed his esteemed doubter. (The sermon lasts about 26 minutes. The text can be found below.)
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.”
John the Baptist gets a lot of press during the Advent season. He makes it into the gospel readings on both the second and thirds Sundays of Advent, Perhaps the church realized that we, like John, are waiting for Christ to claim his kingdom. And, as we wait, our situation may, like his, be fraught with trouble. We too may face discouragement and doubt.
John was a road-builder – or, rather, John was the roadbuilder. His work was to make ready the way of the Lord. We too are roadbuilders. The things we say and the way we conduct ourselves should smooth the rough places, level the highs and lows, and prepare the way. Like John, we are not so much preparing the way for people to come to Jesus as we are preparing the way for Jesus to come to people. It is Jesus who is (to borrow John’s own words) “the Coming One.”
It is easy to get this backwards – especially for pastors. We think that the truths we speak, or the hopes we inspire, or the insights we share are preparing the way for people to come to Jesus. But behind that way of thinking is a mental picture of a stationary Jesus. It’s the people who move or don’t move (or need us to move them) toward Jesus.
But that is not the right way to look at it for it assumes that God does nothing, and people must do everything. If it is up to people to come to God and they aren’t coming, then it is up to us to move them – by what means necessary, including strong-arm sales techniques and emotional manipulation. After all, if they don’t come to God, they will go to hell. We forget that God will come to them.
He comes first to rescue them: He woos them; he calls them; he rebukes them; he draws them; he reveals himself to them. He “stands at the door and knocks,” but gives them the choice of acknowledging him or ignoring him. He gives them the choice this time. The next time he comes, there will be no choice. As a roadbuilder, my obedience to Jesus Christ prepares the for God to come to people.
This is work I can do. I don’t need to be someone I’m not – an eloquent speaker or a high-powered salesperson. God will come to people, and I can be part of the roadbuilding crew that prepares the way for him.
This kind of roadbuilding goes beyond good deeds and persuasive words. Much of the work involves making changes in our own lives, for who we are is more important that what we say or do. Repentance is roadbuilding work. Sacrificing time or money can be roadbuilding work, as is the renewal of our minds. The presentation of our bodies as living sacrifices is roadbuilding work. Much of what happens in roadbuilding happens inside us.
You see, the road we’re building for God runs through us. God intends us to be the way by which he comes to people. This was true of Jesus. Remember what he said? “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As the Father sent him, so Jesus sends us. The road Christ travels to our friends and family – and even our enemies – runs through our words and actions, our hopes, our love, our prayers.
But sin leaves potholes in that road. A flood of anger can close the road entirely. Self-absorption leads to detours. If we are going to build a road on which our Lord can come to the people we know, we cannot ignore such things. It is not enough for our words to tell people that Jesus is there; our lives must convey him to them.
John the Baptist was the roadbuilder par excellence. But even the road he built became obstructed. To understand how that happened, we need a little background.
John got on the wrong side of Herod Antipas, was arrested and thrown into prison in the fortress of Machaerus. I have been in prisons in Ohio, Michigan, and Virgina, but I have never been imprisoned. I find the sound of closing prison doors disturbing even though I know those doors will open again in an hour to let me out. I can only imagine what it would be like to hear those doors close knowing that they were not going to open again.
I read about a guy named Stuart McCallister who, in the 1980s, smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe. He was caught and thrown into prison. He had no idea what his captors intended to do with him. He didn’t know if anyone was coming for him – or even knew where he was. He started off his incarceration expecting that God would rescue him quickly – after all, wasn’t he doing God’s work?
With no word and no change in his situation, it was only a short time before he began questioning God’s apparent lack of response. It didn’t stop there. His thoughts quickly evolved from, “Why isn’t God doing anything?” to “God isn’t going to do anything.” Then from there, he began to question whether God cared – or was he even there.
Of course, I wouldn’t doubt like that … or would I? The loneliness, the complete uncertainty, lack of sleep, lack of privacy, strange, unappetizing food, my routine shot to pieces – perhaps I would come undone even faster than he did.
Stuart was in prison for a matter of weeks. John was in prison a lot longer. And remember, the vast outdoors had been John’s home, but now he was restricted to a few square feet and bounded by walls and bars. Remember too that John ate a very unique and specific diet for years, but he was now given food that he couldn’t stomach. If you were in that situation, you would lose weight and then strength. As you sat in that cell day after day, and month after month, the person you thought yourself to be would gradually disappear. You would hardly recognize yourself.
John sat through interminable days and even longer nights. His active mind must have screamed in protest. He had announced that the judgment of the wicked was at hand—but nothing had happened. Why was God delaying? What was Jesus – whom he testified to be the Messiah – doing? Had he been mistaken?
John was not the first of God’s people to experience this kind of thing. The prophet Jeremiah accused God of deceiving him and cursed the day on which he was born. Job nearly lost his mind. David cried out to God, “How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). Elijah, who was John’s hero and model, fell into so deep a depression that he wanted to die. These were great people – heroes of the Bible. If they could feel this way, what about you and me?
So, John was in prison and having doubts about Jesus. A similar fate might await some of us before Jesus returns. Such a fate is already the lot of Jesus’s people is some parts of the world. How can they stand before their doubts and remain true to God? How can we?
The first step is to examine our assumptions. Doubt does not usually start with our beliefs being disproved but with our assumptions being upended. Stuart McCallister, who was held in a communist prison in the Eastern Bloc, later said: “I expected God to do certain things, and to do them in a sensible way and time. I expected that God would act fairly quickly and that I would sense his intervention. My reading of Scripture, my grasp of God’s promises, my trust in the reliability of God’s Word, the teaching I had received, and the message I had embraced, had led me to expect certain things, and in a particular way. When this did not occur in the way I expected, or in the timing that I thought it should, I was both confused and angry … I was unaware how many unexamined assumptions I was living by.”
Unexamined assumptions. We all have them. And sometimes they are mistaken. Big Ed went to a revival meeting and was deeply moved by the preaching. After the service, when people were asked to come forward for prayer, Big Ed got in line. When it was his turn, the preacher asked, “Ed, what do you want me to pray for?”
Big Ed said, “I need prayer for my hearing.”
So, the preacher put one finger in Big Ed’s ear and the other hand on top of his head and prayed loudly and exuberantly for some minutes. Then he removed his hands and asked, “How’s your hearing now?”
Confused, Big Ed answered, “I don’t know preacher. The hearing’s not until next Wednesday.”
Everyone (but God) has unexamined assumptions. John did. He assumed that Jesus would rain down judgment on the heads of unbelievers. He expected him to “cut down every tree that does not bear fruit and throw it into the fire” (Luke 3:9) and to do it quickly. John wasn’t wrong, but his timetable was.
If you are having doubts, trace them back to their origin. I’ve known people who have been driven by doubt to throw their beliefs overboard. But their doubts didn’t come from their beliefs; they came from their assumptions. Assumptions can be wrong even when our beliefs are right.
Such was the case with John’s role model Elijah. Elijah was operating with a set of mistaken assumptions. He assumed that everything would be alright once his battle with Ahab and Jezebel was won. It was not. He assumed that he alone had remained faithful to God. He was wrong. He assumed that he would retire when his work was wrapped up. He did not.
When his assumptions began to fall like dominoes, his doubts – about himself, about other people, about God – came out into the open. God did not let Elijah down; his assumptions did. Those mistaken assumptions had to be exposed before Elijah could be restored, and that was a slow and painful process.
Perhaps we are operating with some mistaken assumptions. For example, we might assume that we will have justice in this life. We might assume that good health is normative, and that people who work hard and are fiscally responsible will have enough. But what will happen if we experience gross injustice or, after years of eating right and exercising, our health fails, or our retirement investments lose half their value in a matter of weeks?
We probably won’t doubt our assumptions even then; but there is a danger that we will doubt our God. We won’t doubt our assumptions because we don’t know that we have any; by their very nature, they remain invisible to us. How we need God’s help – and his people’s – to remain true!
If you are experiencing doubts, find out where they are coming from. It’s likely that they are sourced in your assumptions, which you have not examined, rather than in your beliefs, which you have. We all need to learn to doubt our doubts.
Even though John was doubting Jesus, doubting himself, wondering if he had been mistaken, he did one thing right. He went to Jesus with his doubts. I’ve seen other people, plagued by doubt, go everywhere but to Jesus. They go to the internet. They go to their friends. They go to a counselor. But they don’t go to God. He could help. He would help.
As John’s doubts gnawed at him, he sent two of his disciples (according to Luke) to Jesus to put the question to him. This is verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come,” – literally, the Coming One, that is, the Messiah – or shall we look for another?” Matthew’s Greek here is revealing. There were two words at his disposal that could be translated “another.” One means, “Another of the same kind.” That was the word Jesus used when he told the disciples that the Father would send them “another comforter” – “another like me.”
But the word used in John’s question means, “another of a different kind.” John is asking, “Are you the one – or is God still going to send the other kind of Messiah, the one who conquers, who destroys our enemies and establishes righteousness?”
Going to Jesus was the right thing to do. Notice how Jesus responded. He did not say, “Of course, I am the one; you said so yourself.” He knew that would not clear up John’s doubts. Instead of telling John what to think, he simply provided him with the evidence he needed and let him think for himself. It is impossible to persuade someone out of their doubts, for the door of doubt is locked on the inside and it is the doubter who must unlock it. The best we can do is slip them the key.
Look at the evidence that Jesus presented (verse 5): “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus is reminding John of Isaiah 35, the passage that was read for us earlier. He is giving John a chance to bring his doubts into the light of the Scriptures. He is slipping him the key.
We can learn a lesson from this: Always go back to Scripture. We need to see God, Jesus, ourselves, and others through the lens of Scripture, not the lens of our assumptions. We are all myopic – some of us terribly so – and only the Scriptures can correct our vision. Jesus knew that John would see him clearly once he saw him through the lens of Scripture.
Put yourself in Jesus’s place for a moment. The first and most prestigious person to support you is now questioning your legitimacy. John is doubting Jesus. No one likes to be doubted; it is blow, a threat – and coming from someone of John’s stature, doubts could have an enormously negative impact on public opinion.
Over the years, various people, some I didn’t even know and some who were close to me, have doubted me. When I was younger, the very fact that someone had doubts about me hurt me, and the better they knew me the more it hurt. When someone expressed doubts about me – my rightness, my ability, my motives – I felt threatened, got defensive, and tried to prove myself. I saw the doubter as an antagonist and, of course, myself as the protagonist. If they suspected my motives, I suspected theirs. If they criticized my ideas, I poked holes in theirs.
As I say, that was when I was younger. I am not so confident of myself now and so I am not so threatened by people’s doubts and questions. I am not so confident in myself, but I am more confident in my savior. As my hope has grown, my doubts have shrunk. That is the way God intends it to work.
John doubted Jesus but Jesus – how beautiful is this? – never doubted John (11:11). He did not get defensive. He did not cast John as an antagonist, didn’t question his motives, or criticize his ideas. Instead of standing up to John, he stood up for John. Jesus does not get angry at doubters. He encourages them.
Let’s wrap this up. First, if you are a doubter or have one in your family or among your close friends, don’t panic. Entrust the doubter to God, even if the doubter is you. Don’t panic. That will increase the person’s doubts because they will see that you don’t trust God either.
Second, take the doubter to the Scriptures. God still meets people there. If you can’t take people to the Scriptures like Jesus did because you don’t know the Scriptures, that is the place to start. You need to know the Bible. Get into a D-group or a Bible Study group and start your own regular practice of Bible reading and prayer.
Third, remember it is not all up to you to move people to God – that puts way too much pressure on you! God will come to them and the road by which he comes can run through you! Just make sure that you are dealing with your own sins and doubts – keep the road open and free of obstacles.
 Quoted in Ravi Zacharias, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Thomas Nelson, 2007), pp. 258-261