Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
July 30, 2017
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”
21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
24 When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
31 “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
— Luke 7:18-35, ESV
Sometimes life can be worse than death.
An evil, unbelieving life is certainly worse than death. Jesus said that those who live their lives to misuse or mislead children would be better off dead, and that by taking a dip in the ocean with a cement swimsuit (ref. Luke 17:2). He also said that it would be better to have never been born that to live a life that ultimately betrays the Son of God (ref. Matthew 26:24). Bad, unbelieving lives are worse than death.
Even a good life can seem worse than death, if you come to the point of death and cannot see the good in your life. Henry David Thoreau warned of this when he went to the woods of Walden Pond and wrote, “I did not want to discover, just before I died, that I had not lived at all.” What a terror it would be to come to the end of the road and discover your miles were traveled in vain. It would be worse than death itself.
Here in the Gospel of Luke (ref. also Matthew 11), John the Baptist, in some respects as good a man as has ever lived, is staring death in the face. What is worse, however, is not what he is facing but how he is facing it. Rather than expressing great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, John took a detour into the valley of the shadow of doubt.
An Agonizing Doubt
John the Baptist was not the rule when it came to men. He had been the exception since the inception of his life. His parents gave birth to him after exceeding the normal biological age to conceive. He was filled with the Holy Spirit while still an unborn child. He was commissioned by the God and priests of Israel to be a wilderness-wandering, tee-totaling, last-of-the-Old-Testament prophet to pave the way for the New Testament Messiah.
Near the end of his life, John veered from preaching the gospel and meddled in social issues, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Christians of all people and preachers of all Christians must take a biblical stand on the moral and social issues of our day. John did, criticizing the illicit sex life of Herod Antipas, the king of Galilee. For speaking truth to power, John was imprisoned and would eventually be executed. This reality must have settled bitterly in to John’s soul, as every day reports were coming into him of the people, people other than him, being helped and healed by Jesus.
I doubt this is the way John though his life would end. So, John had doubts. He felt as if he had been imprisoned by a devil and abandoned by God. Doubts can be worse then death, for they cast a shadow on your greatest fear, the fear that you may have wasted your life.
Imagine living your life for money, and all you want to do is leave a boatload of money for your heirs, only to discover at the end of your life there has been some malfeasance or bad investment and all of your money is gone. Imagine living your life for love, and finding out at the end of your life that the one you loved never really loved you at all. Imagine living your life for the Lord Jesus Christ, only to find out at the end of your life that Jesus was neither Lord nor Christ.
It was the latter, lingering doubt that anguished John while he languished in prison. John had preached Jesus as the Lamb of God, baptized Jesus as the Son of God, sent his followers to Jesus as the Messiah of God, and gladly decreased so that Jesus could increase as God. So it is sad, even soul-crushing, to learn that among the last words ever spoken by this great man to our great God and Savior were these: “Are you the One … or shall we look for another?”
Some Amazing Answers
How would you answer John? Jesus answered with actions. He performed some amazing exploits aimed at affirming John’s faith in the gospel and the word of God. John’s messengers must have been mesmerized by eye witness accounts and what they witnessed with their own eyes concerning Jesus’ miraculous powers to make “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus was not showing off. Jesus was not merely performing miracles for miracles’ sake. Jesus was fulfilling Holy Scripture (ref. Isaiah 61). In doing so He was answering John’s doubts. Jesus knew that John the Baptist had the heart of a gospel preacher and the head of a Bible scholar. Jesus knew that John knew what the Scriptures said about the Messiah. So, as Jesus did what only the Messiah can do, He was telling John what He has told all doubters everywhere, “Search the Scriptures … they bear witness of Me” (ref. John 5:49).
There were two young men in the 1940’s who burst upon the scene with an unusual flare for preaching the gospel. Together they climbed the mountain, and together they went through the valley of the shadow of doubt. A crisis of faith gripped them both because of modern claims which deny the miracles of the Bible and the deity of Jesus Christ. One, the most gifted one, succumbed to his doubts and wrote a book, Farewell to God. The other, less gifted one reread the Bible and recommitted his life to the truth of Scripture and the power of the gospel. You’ve probably never heard of the first man, Charles Templeton; but, you know the second, Billy Graham.
Scripture is the anchor chained to the old ship of Zion, where Jesus is at the wheel to guide us through the valley of the shadow of doubt. When circumstances cast us about we must take stock, throw out the anchor, search the Scriptures, and trust in God and His word. The Bible is the answer for great men like John the Baptist and Billy Graham, and for lesser mortals like you and me.
A Surprising Tribute
I believe that Jesus believed that John still believed in Jesus. Inspired Scripture is not exhaustive, so we cannot read John’s mind as he received Christ’s answer to his agonizing questions. However, the tribute Jesus gives to this great man with great doubts would certainly not fit a great apostate. John may have lost confidence in Jesus, but Jesus never lost His confidence in John. Just listen to the words Jesus spoke behind John’s back.
Jesus praised John for being a man’s man and, more importantly, for being God’s man. Just as Jesus set Himself in Scripture as the Messiah, He put John the Baptist in the Book, too, as the one who paved the way for the first coming of the Christ. Jesus did not castigate John for casting about in a moment of doubt, but rather loved him and assured him and praised him in front of all the people. Jesus even said that John, up to that point in time, was just about the best person who ever lived. This is mighty high praise.
But then, Jesus offers higher praise, aimed directly at you and me. That’s right, John is in this text, Jesus is in this text, and every member of the New Testament church is in this text, too. We are the “least in the kingdom of God” who have the potential to be “greater than he,” greater than even John the Baptist. This is a surprising tribute, indeed.
If you believe the gospel and the word of God, then the gospel places you in the word of God. You are the one who has not seen, yet believes. You are the one who has been chosen, predestined, called, regenerated, justified, sanctified, and glorified. You are part and parcel of a better covenant that the one God gave to Israel. You are in the scene in the book of Revelation, part of the multitude from every tongue and tribe who has come to God by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You are one of the ones who will rule and reign with Christ, forever and ever, alongside all the old saints, not the least of which is John the Baptist.
Don’t doubt the gospel. But, if you do, God will still love you, God will certainly keep you, God will eventually comfort you, and God will one day call you to His side. For the Christian, even the road through the valley of the shadow of doubt leads to Heaven.
A Wise Warning
As assuredly as this story brings assurance to the hearts of doubting believers everywhere, it also adds a word of warning to unbelievers. Lost people in this world are living lives worse than death. They just do not know it.
I’ve taken two approaches to preaching the gospel in my life. In my early years, I was somewhat like John the Baptist, fiery, a little fundamentalist, and my favorite word was “repent.” I lived and share the gospel in that way, “and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (ref. Acts 13:48). Most people, however, opposed or mocked or ignored the gospel.
Then, I hope I changed to be more like Jesus than John, more loving, more inclusive, broader minded but still within the narrow way. I still cherish the word “repent,” but my favorite is “believe.” I live and share the gospel in this way, and many have believed. But again, most have opposed or mocked or simply ignored the gospel.
The scary part of how this story ends is what Jesus says about most people, lost people. It does not matter if you come at them like John, all austere and blustery, or like Jesus, full of love and mercy with a wine glass in your hand. Most people will simply not believe the gospel. Most people will assuredly waste their life. And that is worse than death.
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