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On Doubt

Luke 7:11 -- 35

It is a curious, little noted fact: many of the prominent men of faith described in the Bible have their moments when that faith was clouded by doubt. There were times that these great men showed that doubt afflicts them too. Gideon needed two passes with the fleece; Elijah fled from Jezebel after Mount Carmel; Peter denied his Lord three times. Here Jesus deals with the doubt of John the Baptist. But first we must set the stage.

Raising the Dead

Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, "Do not weep." And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and, "God has visited His people!"

(Luke 7:11-16 NASB)

I suppose it is of interest to know where Nain was; it was just a long walk away from Nazareth, as seen on the map:

Map showing location of Nain and Nazareth

Map courtesy of the International Standard Version, via E-Sword

The Compassion of Christ

In this time it would be hard to find a more tragic scene than this. We must remember that the widow is the symbol of poverty in this time. She would be dependent upon her son for her food; so his death not only deprived her of her only son, but also her daily bread. Her circumstances are indeed grave.

Note how Christ handles this: before he performs this miracle, he comforts the widow. This is not the action of a man going through the steps of the job; it is the act of a compassionate Son of Man. It is a simple point, but worthy of repetition: Christ cares, deeply, for you. Before she knows what He will do, the widow is comforted.

The phrasing here is instructive: Christ gives her back her son. Children are a gift from God, who gives every good and perfect gift. It is his good pleasure to be generous with us.

The authority of Christ

It is a characteristic of Christ: he does not ask permission to do the socially unacceptable; he simply does it. He halts the funeral procession. This is highly unusual; the Jews would be very desirous of finishing the funeral that day, because of the ceremonial uncleanness of touching a dead body. Even in our day we can hardly imagine someone who would stop a funeral midway.

The word used for coffin here does not mean what it does in our language. It was usually a simple stretcher of boards on which the body, wrapped in linen, would be placed. If this were a little child, you might see a box like an open coffin – but in any event the body would be plainly visible to all.

Note, then, that the raising of the dead is therefore a highly public and undeniable event. The crowd with Jesus, the funeral procession both would see this. And please note that Jesus goes through no Pentecostal mumbo-jumbo; he simply gives the command. As he stilled the waves, he orders the dead to rise – and they obey. His authority is indeed great, and now complete; the question is not his authority but our obedience.

Fear grips the people

We shall have to have a new acronym: FABS. It stands for “Finding A Bomb Syndrome.” It’s the shock you get when you discover that your war souvenir, so long thought a blank, is actually loaded with explosive. The crowd had it. See the symptoms:

  • First, they had to have an explanation – the man is a prophet, that’s why we didn’t know the gun was loaded. Who would have thought that the dead would be raised?
  • They also recognize that the power had to come from somewhere else – and they rightly state that God has visited his people.

Dealing With Doubt

This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district. The disciples of John reported to him about all these things. Summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, "Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?" When the men came to Him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, 'Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?'" At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind. And He answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. "Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me."

(Luke 7:17-23 NASB)

Why does John doubt?

It is a fascinating question. This is the man who proclaimed, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” How, then, can he be unsure?

  • Some hold that he is not. He is simply sending his disciples to Jesus. John is in prison, and he’s passing his disciples to the Christ. This seems contrary to the sense of the Scripture here.
  • We should note that John’s not the only one. As mentioned, Elijah, Gideon and Peter all had the same problem. They are not alone; there are many others. So we should suspect that John’s doubt comes from natural causes.

Indeed, his doubt does. He is locked in a prison cell with no hope of release. Herod intends to hang on to him, first to keep him quiet over the matter of Herod taking his brother’s wife and second because he is fascinated with the man. What John has learned as a prophet he also remembers – but he remembers as a man, a man in prison. He’s heard it in private, proclaimed it in public – but now in the small hours of the night, he wonders. And so he sends two trusted followers to find out.

How Jesus deals with it

First, note what Christ does not do: He does not flatly state that he is “the one.” He is dealing with doubt, and doubt does not vanish with mere assurance. Indeed, if he were to have replied that way, John might have doubted more – it is, after all, only the man’s word for it. To avoid controversy about testifying about himself (and thus provoking even more doubt in John’s mind), Jesus lets the facts speak for themselves.

And which facts does Christ choose to send back with these two?

  • First, they are things which are prophesied about the coming Messiah in the Old Testament. John now can reason that the prophets of old – who died long before this – saw this coming; this must indeed be the one to come. Christ does not weave a complicated theological reply; he gives him the facts.
  • He also mentions that the poor are the recipients of this good news. Not only is this prophesied, but it also tells John that Jesus is no fraud. Perhaps John’s days in the desert made him feel that the Messiah must be ascetic as well. Jesus parties with the people; can this be real? Jesus banishes that fear; a fraud would preach to the rich in the hopes of gaining their money. Christ preaches to the poor because God loves them.
  • Finally, Christ admonishes John (and indirectly us) that we should never be embarrassed to name the name of Christ. He scorned the humiliation of the Cross for us; we should therefore bear his name without shame.
Jesus, on John

When the messengers of John had left, He began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? "But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. "This is the one about whom it is written, 'BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.' "I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."

(Luke 7:24-28 NASB)

The crowd may have a misapprehension at this point. Sending people to inquire of Jesus may seem like being a man who just can’t make up his mind. Jesus points out that those who went to hear John didn’t go out there to hear a hesitant, indecisive message. That is definitely not John’s style. This is not a man who wavers; this is a man who is decisive. So Jesus assures them that their time spent with John was not wasted.

Indeed, he says, John’s lifestyle was his witness. You want a preacher in the three piece silk suit? You won’t find him out in the wilderness! But God breeds his prophets there. Indeed, John is the greatest of the prophets.

Christ then tells us that the least in the kingdom of God is greater. We can only understand that as a reference to the righteousness of Christ, given at the Cross, which we put on when we come to faith.

Wisdom’s Children

When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God's justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. "To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? "They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.' "For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon!' "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' "Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children."

(Luke 7:29-35 NASB)

John the Ascetic

Christ now makes a very interesting point. First, consider John: he was an ascetic. He denied himself luxury by living in the wilderness. Like the Old Testament prophets before him, this was a credential of his being an authentic prophet of God. Nowadays, we might picture him as a fire and brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, thumping on the Bible, thumping on the pulpit.

And what is the world’s reaction to this? See if you’ve heard:

  • “The man obviously is some sort of nut case.”
  • “No fire and brimstone for me, I believe in the God of love.”
  • “Real preachers have real churches – you know, buildings with steeples.”

So the world now would reject John just as the world did then. What is God to do about such people?

Christ, the winebibber and friend of sinners

Ah, but Christ does not come like that. His closeness to God the Father is intrinsic; it goes with him. His credentials are not so much fire and brimstone but the credentials of one who would claim the title Son of Man. His intent is to show us that he is perfectly man – as we will discover his divinity quite soon enough. And what would such a man meet today?

  • “Real men of God would never drink, never party and certainly wouldn’t go around with people like that!
  • “Aren’t you supposed to be all fire and brimstone?”
  • “Real preachers have real churches – and stay inside them.”

So the world now has a reason to reject Christ too. And what does he say about that?

Wisdom’s deeds

Christ is the wisdom and power of God.[1] The reaction of the world does not depend upon what God does but what kind of people we are – or want to be.

  • There are those who are carnal, for whom the things of this world are absolutely desirable above all else.
  • There are those who are spiritual, for whom the things of God are desirable above all else.

Telling them apart is easy, When they meet the Living God, the spiritual ones are glad and praise the result. The carnal ones criticize God’s technique. What’s your mouth been saying lately?

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:24

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