John the Baptist: Doubt in the Darkness

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

This was a surprising question coming from John the Baptist.

It’s unclear exactly when John first consciously knew that Jesus was the Son of God, whose way he had come to prepare. The Apostle John quotes him as saying, “I myself did not know him” (John 1:31) around the time he baptized Jesus.

This is remarkable because John’s mother, Elizabeth, had known. She knew because John announced it to her in utero by leaping when she heard Mary’s voice. Was she not allowed to tell him? We don’t know. Regardless, John had known even before he knew.

What is clear is that when the revelation came it was an overwhelming experience for John. That day, when Jesus approached him at the Jordan near Bethany, John couldn’t contain the shout: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” With awe and trembling hands he had baptized his Lord. And then saw the Spirit descend and remain on him.

That day had also marked the beginning of the end of his ministry. From that point he had joyfully directed people away from himself to follow Jesus. And they had.

Now he sat in Antipas’ filthy prison. He had expected this. Prophets who rebuke sinful kings usually do not fare well. Unfortunately, he had not been an exception. Herodias wanted him dead. He could see no reason why she would be denied her wish.

What he hadn’t expected was to be tormented by such oppressive doubts and fears. Since the Jordan, John had not doubted that Jesus was the Christ. But stuck alone in this putrid cell he was assaulted by horrible, accusing thoughts.

What if he had been wrong? There had been many false prophets in Israel. What made him so sure that he wasn’t one? What if he had led thousands astray? There had been false messiahs. What if Jesus was just another? So far Jesus’ ministry wasn’t exactly what John had always imagined the Messiah’s would look like. Could this imprisonment be God’s judgment?

It felt as if God had left him and the devil himself had taken his place. He tried to recall all the prophecies and signs that had seemed so clear to him before. But it was difficult to think straight. Comfort just wouldn’t stick to his soul. Doubts buzzed around his brain like the flies around his face.

The thought of being executed for the sake of righteousness and justice he could bear. But he could not bear the thought that he might have been wrong about Jesus. His one task was to prepare the way of the Lord. If he had gotten that wrong, his ministry, his life, was in vain.

But even with his doubts, there remained in John a deep, unshakable trust in Jesus. Jesus would tell him the truth. He just needed to hear from him again.

So he sent two of his closest disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  

The affection that radiated from Jesus was palpable. Jesus was familiar with John’s sorrows and grief and the satanic storms that break on the saints when they are weak and alone. He loved John.

So he invited John’s faithful friends to sit near him as he healed many and delivered many from demonic prisons. Then he turned them with kind tears glistening in his eyes and said, “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 and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” John would recognize Isaiah’s prophecy in those words. This promise would bring the peace John needed to sustain him for the few difficult days he had remaining.

Out of love for his friend, Jesus didn’t include Isaiah’s phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives.” John would understand.

When Jesus had sent John’s disciples away, he said something stunning about John: no one born of women had ever been greater. This, right after John questioned who Jesus was.

In this age, even the greatest, strongest saints experience deep darkness. None of us are spared sorrow or satanic oppression. Most of us suffer agonizing affliction at some point. Most of us will experience seasons when we feel as if we’ve been abandoned. Most of us will die hard deaths.

The Savior does not break the bruised reed. He hears our pleas for help and is patient with our doubts. He does not condemn us. He has paid completely for any sin that is exposed in our pain. He does not always answer with the speed we desire, nor is his answer always the deliverance we hope for. But he willalways send the help that is needed. His grace will always be sufficient for those who trust him. The hope we taste in the promises we trust will often be the sweetest thing we experience in this age. And his reward will be beyond our imagination.

This month we are highlighting the sermon titled, “Sustained by Sovereign Grace—Forever.” I have never forgotten the poem John wrote for and unpacked in this sermon:

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

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In John’s darkness and pain Jesus sent a promise to sustain John’s faith. He will do the same for you.

Trusting the God of John the Baptist with you,

Jon Bloom
Executive Director