In the Dungeon of Doubt (1): The Cause
Intro – One guy was explaining his tough neighborhood. He said one year 10 kids who sat on Santa’s lap got their pockets picked! That’s a tough neighborhood! Some of you are in a spiritually tough neighborhood this morning! You feel like God has picked your pockets. And a huge shadow of doubt is building. I’m talking to believers. Doubt happens – to Xns – all the time. In theory we trust God, but in practice, not so much. Marriage didn’t turn out to be what we thought. Somebody stiffed us in a business deal. The teacher treats us unfairly. Pain, emotional or physical, is our constant companion. So, where is God? Perhaps He was there for Moses and Elijah, but not for me. Somebody picked my pocket.
Paul Miller in A Praying Life tells of camping with 5 of his 6 daughters. His wife was at home with severely handicapped 8-year-old Kim. One day he found 14-year-old Ashley, all upset. She had lost her contact lens and could not find it among the leaves and twigs. Paul said, “Ashley, don’t move. Let’s pray.” Well, that really turned on the tears. “What good does it do? I’ve prayed for Kim to speak a thousand times and she isn’t speaking.” Kim is autistic, and mute. Five years of therapy had not helped. All the prayer seemed to no avail. So now Ashley had no expectation that God would answer a simple prayer to find a contact lens. She felt like her pocket had been picked.
That’s not a good place to be, is it? It’s a dungeon of despair – exactly where John the Baptist found himself – figuratively and literally. John was the forerunner for Jesus, the first prophet in Israel in more than 400 years. He had a meteoric ministry that lasted for a year, then declined as Jesus came on the scene. We last saw John in Luke 3:18-20, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” Just like that, John goes from a highly successful ministry to being locked up in prison. From his perspective this is a startling development.
Now the key to the passage is v. 23: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” “Offended” is the Greek σκανδαλιζω (skandalidzo) -- from which we get “scandalize.” It means to lead into sin, to cause one to fall away – to fall into doubt. It derives from the action that triggers a trap to close around the neck of a mouse or the leg of a bear. They have been scandalized. Jesus knows his own actions might cause some to go astray, to doubt because He is not what they thought. He instructs, “Don’t let it happen. Don’t let my person scandalize you. Don’t fall away due to unmet expectations or because it is tough.” John MacArthur paraphrases: “Honest doubt is not a bad starting point, but it is a bad finishing point.” Got doubts? Feeling discouraged? Like God has picked your pockets? Listen, you’re in good company. But don’t stay there! Don’t be scandalized and trapped there. You may have to stay in the dungeon, but you don’t have to stay in doubt!
Now, what causes us to take offense? To doubt? This is critical. Doubt results from a preconceived notion of what God should do, or when He should do it, or how He should do it. [Repeat]. John had 2 out of 3 wrong. Furthermore, doubt is almost always triggered by personal crisis – an unexpected hardship – adversity – suffering. John had that too, and the combination laid him flat on his back. We will all be there. The important thing is that we get out before we are scandalized, trapped in doubt. So, today the cause, next week the cure.
I. The Cause of John’s Doubt
John got the “what” right. He was expecting that Jesus was the King and that He was coming to establish His kingdom. Guess what? He was right on the money. But John was miles off when it came to the timing and the method. And personal adversity gave rise to doubt! Even the best of God’s servants can get it wrong. That’s why we want to approach every decision in life – whether personal, family or even church – by fervent prayer and seeking God’s will to get it right -- giving Him all the room He needs to do it His way. We are most vulnerable when we are most sure of God. It’s like golf. Hit a couple of good shots and you think, “Hey, this is an easy game.” Shortly thereafter, you will be brought back down to earth. So, how’d John fail?
A. The Personal Problem
Vv. 18-19: “The disciples of John the Baptist told John about everything Jesus was doing. So John called for two of his disciples, 19 and he sent them to the Lord to ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” Question: how could John be so positive about Christ earlier and now he is one big question mark? John is the one who told his disciples, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is the one who baptized Jesus, and saw the Spirit descending from heaven upon Him, and heard the Father say, “This is my beloved One in whom I am well-pleased.” John is the one who pointed to Jesus one day and made the breath-taking pronouncement, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” If anybody got Jesus, it was John. So what drives his doubt?
Well, he had a personal problem. He had done all the right things – been faithful to the ministry, message and mission that God had assigned to Him. He had taken a stand against sin in high places, and what did it get him? It got him in jail. Any time we do the right things for the right reasons, and end up facing even greater adversity, it gets hard to believe, right? Seems like God is picking our pocket. John was no different. He was just as human as we are.
Why was John in jail? Mark 6:17-18: “For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was tetrarch of Galilee. He was an evil man. Herodias was no better. She was a granddaughter of Herod the Great who had married her Uncle Philip – private citizen of Jerusalem. However, Herod Antipas seduced her, divorced his own wife and married her. Fearless John called him out and Herod locked him up. Herod feared him; Herodias hated him.
Now, John has been residing for months in Herod’s summer palace, the Black Fortress of Machaerus, about 5 miles east of the Dead Sea. John’s dungeon backed up into a mountain, but out front he could see the vast wilderness leading to the Jordan River. This wild child can see freedom, but he cannot touch it. Meanwhile he sees and hears the luxury of Herod, and his heart is crying out, “Where is the Messiah? What is He doing? Why am I here?”
This is not what he expected. He feels neglected, discouraged and doubt has invaded his soul. So he sends 2 of his disciples to Jesus. V. 19: Memo from John: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Left unsaid, but implied, “And what about me?” Look at Jesus’ response in v. 28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.” Jesus is saying, “John? Let me tell you about John. He’s the greatest man who has ever been born!” Wow! And doubt plagues him? Realize when doubt comes, you’re not alone. And you’re not unspiritual. You’re not strange because you are unsure. It happened to the greatest man in OT history. When doubt descends over you like a fog, you’re in good company. You’re not alone!
And neither was John alone. We are never alone. A man was overheard as he was leaving his companion at the entrance to the IRS office: "As your tax consultant, I said in case of an audit I would accompany you to the IRS. I never said I’d to in with you." Rest assured that is not how Jesus operates. When we enter the waiting room of suffering, He goes along! John wanted action. Months in prison was not his idea of participation. He wondered if the whole thing was a sham. Ever feel that way? Faith’s easy when things are good – when someone else is suffering. Doubt creeps in fast when it is us. But that is when we must believe the hardest. If our faith is not good in the hard times, it is not good at all. It takes no faith to believe in the good times.
Hang on to Isa 55: 8) For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9) For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Are you in the dungeon of doubt? Take heart. God is just doing it differently than you would. And even better is the promise of Heb 13:5 “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” To John it seemed like Jesus was out there, and he was in jail, but in truth, God was right in there with John, just like He was out there with Jesus. John would die for His faith in God’s plan – but so would Jesus. All part of God’s good plan. In adversity, He is with us.
B. The Timing Problem
John’s doubt was also provoked by a timing issue. Doubt hammered him bc the timing seemed off. John had preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). At hand; right around the corner. Like every Jew, John expected when Messiah came, He would usher in the kingdom. He knew it was for those who repented of their sin, but by now Jesus should be ousting the Romans. It was time and past time for action!
But instead of sending the Romans packing, Jesus is healing their servants. Unthinkable to John. No kingdom had come. No resolution had happened. In fact, reports indicate even Jesus’ influence is beginning to wane. What’s up?
Question. Was John wrong to expect a kingdom? Of course, not. It’s in the plan. But John had the same deficiency as all the OT prophets. He did not see two comings of Christ. He didn’t see a first coming to show God’s love and grace in making payment for sin on the cross. He didn’t see that the kingdom starts in the hearts of believers now, but its full expression awaits a 2nd coming! It’s all going to happen. John expected the right thing. But he was expecting the right thing at the wrong time! And failure to trust the timing to God energized doubt! He wondered if his pockets had been picked. He had to learn that God does not adjust His timetable to us. We must adjust to Him.
May I let you in on a secret? We are not meant to know everything. That is a humbling fact, but it is true. When Jesus’ disciples asked the resurrected Christ, “Okay, Jesus. We see that you had to die and be resurrected. We see that. But is it now? Will you set up your kingdom now?” Know what He told them? Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” He doesn’t say He’s not going to do it. Just that the timetable is in the Father’s hands. Be patient.
It’s hard to be patient under suffering, isn’t it? It seems so long. Albert Einstein, famous for expounding the theory of relativity, was at a conference once where interminable boring papers were being read. At one point he whispered to a colleague, “I just got a new theory of eternity.” That’s what John got there in prison. Unexpectedly forced to sit in the background, he got a new theory of eternity. He had a time problem. But not Jesus. He’s right on schedule. And I assure you whatever is going on in your life, God is right on time. Never early; never late. Don’t let delay bring doubt. Timing is perfect!
C. The Method Problem
A final reason John was disillusioned, discouraged and ravaged with doubt was impatience with Jesus’ methods. Notice what triggered the doubt. V. 18, “The disciples of John reported all these things to him.” All what things? The things that Jesus was doing! The preaching, the healing, the mercy. That’s what prompted John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus should be getting on with it and isn’t! Maybe He’s just another forerunner. Maybe He’s not the One after all. What provoked doubt? Methods. Jesus wasn’t using the right methods.
John’s message per Luke 3:9, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John’s a man of action. His message is clear. Repent and you are in the kingdom. Refuse and judgment is coming. So, let’s get on with it. But instead of taking the kingship, Jesus just goes on preaching, healing and showing mercy. What gives? Where’s the judgment? Where’s the fire and brimstone? Where is the setting things right!? John languishes in jail while Herod proudly sits his throne. This isn’t the way he understood the plan!
But, our ways are not God’s ways, right? And it’s a good thing. Prov 16:25 “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” That’s our hope when things go wrong! We think, “Oh, if I could only be king for a day!” And God is saying, “If you were king for a day you’d only kill yourself and everyone around you. Get on board with My plan!” Is judgment coming as John prophesied? Absolutely! When He comes the second time it will be in power and judgment. Contrary to what John thought, everything, including his imprisonment, was right on schedule. Prov 16: 33) “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Don’t let expectations bring doubt. Grab God’s plan and hold tight. He’s got it under perfect control.
I’ll never forget the 1st All-star game I saw. One National League batter took the strangest stance I’ve ever seen. He did everything wrong, looked decrepit. He looked so bad I thought he was a pitcher. Turned out, he was a guy who made the all-star team a record 24 times. His 3,630 hits (equally split between home and away) ranks 4th all time. He won 3 MVP awards. His name was Stan Musial, and if you know baseball, you know Stan the Man. He was a very humble guy, but he got off a great line in 1970 when asked how he would do against the yellow-tinted baseballs being used experimentally that spring. He replied, “You’d wonder where the yellow went” – a takeoff on the popular Pepsodent toothpaste commercial of the time. Looks aside, Stan Musial knew how to hit a baseball, just like God knows how to go about His business. His methods may not be our methods, but they work! So when the grade comes back C instead of A, or when the healing doesn’t come, when the car breaks down for the 3rd time in a month – give it to Him. Learn what He’s teaching! Accept that God’s ways are not our ways – but they are God’s ways! And as we submit to Him, we are right where He wants us to be for some greater good we can’t see yet – but it’s out there – because He’s out there.
Conc – A man met God and asked, “What is a million years to you?” “Like a second,” God answered. “What is ten million dollars to you?” was the next question. “Like a dime,” came the answer. “Well then,” the man continued, “Can I borrow a dime?” God responded, “Just a second.” Simple story; big truth. We’ll never fully understand God’s ways or God’s timing, but if we’re trusting Him, we don’t have to. He’ll bring it out right in the end. Trust Him.
Remember Paul Miller and Ashley. Paul did encourage her to pray for her lost contact that day, silently asking God to give her a reason for hope. The moment they finished praying, they looked down and there it was, on a leaf at their feet. Further, while little Kim can’t talk, the family eventually found a computer program that enables her to express herself in a different way. It’s not what we would do – but it is what God has done for purposes beyond our immediate perception. So I encourage you today – prayer does make a difference. Whatever your trouble, give it to Him, and hang on for all you are worth. Don’t be scandalized by Him. “Honest doubt is not a bad starting point, but it is a bad finishing point.” He is there and He’s not picking your pocket; He’s filling it with blessing you just haven’t seen yet. Let’s pray.