Scandal (Week 7)
Jesus and John the Baptist (Matthew 11:1-6)
Back in 2012, I lived in Calgary. I believed that God had called me to start a new church in the city so at the beginning of the year I moved out there with a couple friends and Amanda, my wife at the time. And while I was living in Calgary, I remember hearing one day, it was a Sunday, that I guy I went to university with had died suddenly. His name was Lynn Erskine and he went out for a run one Sunday night and had a heart attack and passed away very quickly. Lynn had a wife and two young daughters at the time. Then, the following day, on that Monday, some other friends of mine Matt & Kim Hooper, there was a fire in their apartment and the entire building was burned down. And Matt & Kim lost everything. No one was hurt, but they lost everything they owned. And then the next day, on Tuesday, I heard that the senior pastor of a church I used to attend had to step down. They didn’t disclose many details, but there was some moral failing on his part that caused him to have to leave the ministry. I remember commenting to my wife at the time that if there had ever been a week that reminded me that not everything is right in the world, it was this week. And then, on Friday of that week, Amanda left me. She decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore.
This week I found out that a young man who attends Deep Water, the church I was at before coming here, passed away tragically. Jonathan was 31 and leaves behind a wife and a one-year-old daughter. Jonathan’s death has been a shock to the entire Deep Water community.
And I’m willing to bet that if we went around the room this morning, each and every one of us could share a number of tragic stories from their own life. Each and every one of us have painful experiences that we’ve had to go through, whether it’s the sudden loss of a spouse or a child. Or maybe the loss of a job or a home. And I’m sure each of us would say, at least for some moment, we allowed ourselves to ask, “Where was God in this?” When life doesn’t go the way we expected, each of us will have moments of doubt. Doesn’t God love me? Doesn’t God care for me?
Today we’re going to continue with our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus, but we’re actually going to go in a slightly different direction. Over the course of this series, we’ve been asking a what question. We’ve been asking the question “What makes the gospel so scandalous?” Why were the people so offended by Jesus and his gospel? But today, we’re going to change it up a little bit. Instead of asking why is the gospel so offensive or what makes it so radical, we’re instead going to address the question of what do we do about it?
Over the last six weeks we’ve constantly been faced with the reality that the Gospel of Jesus is different than our expectations. That the people of the time had certain beliefs and certain ways of thinking about the Messiah and held to some assumptions about how he would act when he arrived. However, Jesus absolutely shattered all of those expectations and assumptions.
And so the question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we respond to Jesus when the reality is different than our expectations? If we’re following Jesus right, if we’re submitted to him and trying to become like him in every way, then what will naturally happen is that Jesus will expand our understanding of him. Jesus will lead us into a bigger, greater experience of himself. And that new reality won’t always line up with what we thought Jesus was going to be like. So how do we respond to that?
If you have a Bible with you or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and turn with me to Matthew chapter 11. We’re going to examine verses 1 through 6 together. If you don’t have a Bible with you today, all the scripture references and quotes we talk about today will be on the screen behind me. Also, if you don’t have a Bible at all, we would love to give you one that you can take home as your very own. Here at Faith Community we really value Scripture and think everyone should be able to read the Bible, so if you don’t have a Bible we want to give you one for free. Just come and talk to me after the worship service and I will make sure you leave with a Bible today.
Matthew 11:1-6 says this, After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is 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 cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
In verse two of our passage, we’re told that John is in prison. The last time we encountered John in our series was in the very first week. John the Baptist was at the Jordan River and he was baptizing people for the repentance of sin. Since that time, John had spoken out against Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas had been married to a woman named Phasaelis, but he divorced her and then married Herodias who had previous been married to Herod’s brother Philip.
Now in Jewish custom, if a man dies without having children, then his younger brother is supposed to marry his widow. That way the first born son of this new marriage can be considered the next of kin for the deceased brother and carry on the family name. This Jewish custom led the Sadducees to ask Jesus a very convoluted question about marriage and the resurrection in Matthew 22. However, this Jewish custom of marrying your brothers’ widow is not what John is talking about. Herod Antipas was married Phasaelis, but divorced her and married his brother’s ex-wife Herodias, even though Philip was very much alive.
This didn’t sit well with John and he spoke out against Herod, who in turn locked him up in prison on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long John had been in prison for before sending his disciples. All we know is that he heard about the deeds Jesus was doing. Specifically, we are to understand that John would have heard of the deeds Jesus was doing in chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew since these are the deeds that immediately proceed John’s question.
So to review, John was baptizing people in the Jordan River and was quite popular. Jesus then comes to John to get baptized and it’s at that moment that John declares himself that Jesus is the long await Messiah. Then, at some point, John uses his popularity to speak out against the evils of Herod Antipas, including his divorce and subsequent marriage to his half brothers’ wife. Herod then threw John in prison where John hears about all the deeds that Jesus is doing. And it’s these deeds that cause John to send his disciples to Jesus and ask in verse 3, “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” Quite literally, “Are you the Coming One?” Are you the Messiah? Are you the one we’ve all been waiting for or should we expect someone else?
Now, why would John have asked this? John and Jesus were both operating from the belief that Isaiah 61:1 was a prophecy about the Messiah. We talked about Isaiah 61 back in week two when Jesus was in Nazareth and read from the scroll of Isaiah. As a refresher, Isaiah 61 verse 1 says, The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. Jesus, more or less, read this passage in Nazareth and proclaimed it was talking about him. That he is the long awaited Messiah, the Coming One.
But wait… what about those last two lines. To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. John would have been just as familiar with Isaiah 61 as Jesus was. So the question in John’s mind would have, “Well if Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah is supposed to free the captives and release the prisoners, then why exactly am I still in prison?” What gives Jesus? The Messiah is supposed to free prisoners and release captives. I’m still a prisoner. Well does that mean… maybe Jesus isn’t who I thought he was?
John has heard reports again and again about Jesus. Jesus heals a man with leprosy. Jesus gives a blind man sight. Jesus raises a dead girl. And maybe for a little while, John would have heard these reports and been excited. Maybe for a little bit, he would have heard about Jesus doing these things and thought, “Okay, any day now. Jesus is going to show up. He’s going to get me out of this place.” But day after day went by and Jesus never came. Day after day went by and John continued in prison. And slowly but surely, the question started to enter his mind. “Was I wrong?” Is Jesus not who I thought he was?
David Platt, in his commentary on Matthew, says this, “John the Baptist had prophesied about the judgment that the Christ would bring about, but Roman rule was still in place—and John was in jail because of it! It must have been confusing for the prophet to see Rome in charge, sin still rampant, and political and religious corruption still ruling the day. Everything seemed to be just as it had been for generations. Instead of overthrowing Rome, Jesus was spending time with irreligious sinners, teaching them about forgiveness, and to the great surprise of some, He wasn’t even fasting. Surely John was thinking, ‘Isn’t the Messiah the One who is going to deliver us?’”
John is confused. John has doubts about Jesus and who he thought Jesus was. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come?” Jesus replies in verses 4 and 5, Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead and raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Now, this is a very roundabout answer from Jesus. He could have just as easily said, “Yes I am.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he just says, “Go back and tell John what you yourselves have seen.” And then he makes a list of what they have seen. But it’s a very specific list. Back then, the Bible didn’t have chapters and verses. So if Jesus wanted to reference something, he couldn’t just say, “Well check out Isaiah 61.” Instead, he would have to just say whatever it was that he was talking about.
So he starts talking about some of the things they’ve seen him do, but he’s simultaneously making reference to a number of passages in Isaiah that also talk about the Messiah and what the Messiah will do when he arrives.
He references Isaiah 26:19 which says, But your dead will live Lord; their bodies will rise. Isaiah 29:18, In that day the deaf will hear the words of your scroll and our of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Isaiah 35:5-6, Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Isaiah 61:1, which again says, The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.
John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” And Jesus essentially responses with, “What what does Scripture say the Messiah should do?” The blind receive sight? Check. The lame walk? Yep. The deaf hear? The dead and raised? The good news is proclaimed to the poor? Check, check and check.
Now, you’ll notice that none of the passages we read specifically mentioned leprosy. However, in other passages from Isaiah, there is talk about the Messiah as a suffering servant; one who will be stricken for us. The Hebrew words that we translate as leprosy and stricken have the same root to them. And some Rabbis looked at the similarities between these words and suggested that the Messiah might be one who has leprosy. Other Rabbis said that when the Messiah comes he will be found at the city gates sitting among the poor lepers.
Johns disciples come and ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” And Jesus responds with, what have you observed yourselves? How do my actions line up with your understanding of the Messiah? My actions speak for themselves. Go back to John and tell him what you have seen. The Kingdom of God is here and the results are the blind have received sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. And he finished up by saying, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
I find this passage incredibly comforting. This is a story about a man with doubts. This is the story of a man who had great faith in Jesus, who testified that Jesus was the Messiah, the long awaited saviour of Israel. And yet, now he’s in prison… and he begins to question if Jesus is really who he thought.
I find this passage comforting because the truth is that all of us have doubts. All of us have those moments where we’re not quite sure if Jesus is who we thought he was. All of us have certain expectations and assuming of how the Kingdom of God is supposed to look in our lives. And like John, often the reality of God’s kingdom is drastically different than what we thought it was when we first started following Jesus. And what I find so comforting about this passage is that Jesus meets John where he is.
John has doubts. John has questions. John has fears that may he put his faith in the wrong guy. But Jesus doesn’t belittle John. He doesn’t tell John that, if only he had more faith, he wouldn’t be in jail. He doesn’t tell John that he just has the wrong perspective or ask John who he thinks he is to question Jesus. John has doubts and Jesus meets him exactly where he is. He answers them.
David Platt, earlier in his commentary on Matthew says this, “The good news is that even in our doubts, the God whom we seek to be sure of is certain to meet us where we are. He desires to assure us of His faithfulness.” God desires to assure us of His faithfulness.
I grew up believing that there was essentially two kinds of people in the world, those who have faith and those who doubt. And I grew up in the kind of churches that said that God doesn’t like when we ask questions because that shows that we don’t have enough faith in him. But what we see time and time and time again in Scripture is God willing to engage honest questions. We see people who have a certain expectation or a certain understanding of who God is and what he’s doing. And then, God will invariably act in some way that is different than their expectations. And what’s natural for those people, and for us, is to question God.
It’s natural for us to ask how God to let something happen or where God was when that tragedy occurred. And yet time and again, God answers those questions. He meets us where we are. But we have to be willing to ask them. We all have doubts. The trick is we have to vocalize those doubts.
Here’s the takeaway from this story. Doubt is an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more. Doubt is an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more. In this story, John already had his doubts but he had to decide what to do with. Does he vocalize them? Does he have his disciples go ask Jesus? Or does he bury them inside?
The choice wasn’t to doubt or not doubt. The choice was in what he should do with those doubts. Does he ask Jesus or does he push them down? Now the thing about vocalizing your doubts is that there is inherently a risk to it. There was a risk to John decided to question Jesus. Jesus easily could have come back with “No John, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not your Messiah.” By vocalizing his doubt, John left open the possibility that his entire faith was wrong. However, I would argue that not vocalizing his doubt carried an even bigger risk.
For most of us, what tends to happen is that we have a fear or a worry or a doubt somewhere inside of us. And we’re scared to vocalize that doubt because we think people will look down at us or we’re scared to hear the answer and so our doubt gets pushed down. But what ends up happening is that that doubt grows and it gnaws at us. And eventually, it gets to a point where we just can’t believe any of it anymore. And suddenly we’ve lost our faith, because the whole notion sounds utterly preposterous.
But by vocalizing his doubt, by asking Jesus the question that had been gnawing at him, sitting in the dark areas of his mind, “Are you the one who is to come?” Are you the Messiah or was I wrong about you? By asking Jesus the question, it gave Jesus the opportunity to respond. It gave Jesus the opportunity to meet John in his moment of struggle and respond with love and kindness. And because John had the courage to ask his question, because John had the courage to vocalize his doubt, it became an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more. Jesus, I thought the Kingdom of Heaven meant freedom for the captives? I thought your kingdom meant release for the prisoners? John had certain expectations. He had expectations of who Jesus was, how the Messiah worked, what the Kingdom of God was all about. And suddenly, he was confronted with a God who continuously defied those expectations and operating in different ways. But his doubt was also an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more.
God likes it when we ask him questions. He loves when we wrestle with him. Which means, when the rains of life come; when you lose your house or your job or when you’re struck with an unexpected illness or the sudden loss of a loved one; when those things happen and you naturally wonder “Where is Jesus in all of this?” Know that God’s response is never “Who are you to question me?” Jesus will always respond to your doubt with love and kindness.
Our job is to vocalize that doubt. Our job is to ask those difficult questions. God’s job is to respond. His job is to lead us into a greater understanding of who he is, how he works and what he’s doing in our lives. He might not always give you the answer you want to hear, but he will always lead you closer to himself. I’m sure the answer John wanted was, “I’m on my way.” I’m coming to let you out of prison right now. But that wasn’t the reality. Jesus was talking about a different kind of captivity, a different kind of prison. He was talking about freeing people from captivity to sin. But John asked his question anyway and it allowed Jesus to respond. Doubt is an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more. So here are some questions for us to wrestle with this week.
First of all, are you being honest about your doubts? For some of us, maybe we grew up in a church that told us doubt is the opposite of faith. And so, maybe for some of us, we don’t even want to be honest with ourselves about some of the doubts we may have. But if we’re going to bring all of our doubts and fears and insecurities to Jesus, we have to be willing to vocalize them to ourselves first. Are you willing to do that? And you willing to be honest about the areas you doubt and question?
Secondly, do you trust God to answer your doubts? There are two kinds of questions we can ask God. There are honest questions and there are arrogant questions. Arrogant questions are what happen when we think we know everything and when we demand God answer us. When we ask God arrogant questions, he tends to answer us the way he answered Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Essentially, when we arrogantly question God, he tends to come back with “Who do you think you are?”
But honest questions are what we see so often in Psalms, “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” Honest questions are genuine struggles to understand where God is and what he’s up to. Honest questions come from doubts. They come from a genuine desire to know God more. Do you trust that God wants to answer your honest doubts and fears?
Finally, what are you doing to get answers for your doubts? Asked another way, how are you letting God speak to the doubts in your life? Maybe for some of us, we have questions and doubts about how a loving God could allow so much suffering in the world? Maybe others of us, we read things like the story of creation in Genesis 1, but then we hear scientists talk pretty convincingly about how the universe is billions of years old. And maybe we have doubts about the authenticity of Scripture in light of some compelling science. Maybe for some of us, we have doubts about who Jesus is and if he really died and rose again. None of these things are terrible questions. God is not offended if you have any of these doubts. So how are you letting God speak into your doubt? How are you allowing those doubts to be an opportunity to further trust Jesus?
One option is to come talk to me or to talk to any of our Elders, Gerrit, Bill, Andy or Tyler. All of us would love to sit down with you for coffee and talk through any doubts or questions or struggles you have. Beyond us, there are so many books, podcasts, videos and other resources out there that we could point you too. No matter what your doubts are, someone somewhere has had that same question.
Your doubts are an opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more. Are you being honest about your doubts? Do you trust that God wants to meet you in the midst of your doubt? Are you letting God answer your doubts?