If you have seen one movie on Lifetime Movie Network you have seen every movie on Lifetime Movie Network. If you haven’t, here is the plot line of them all: Somebody cheats on somebody and so somebody has somebody murder somebody for cheating on somebody.
If Lifetime wanted to shake things up a bit, I’ve got the perfect story for them. It’s even based on actual events. It goes something like this: A powerful leader of a country, known for his brutality, travels to visit is brother-in-law (a powerful governmental official as well). Though already married, during his visit, he falls head-over-hills in love with his brother-in-law’s wife. This beautiful woman was not only the powerful leader’s sister-in-law, she was also this guy’s half-niece. (The beautiful woman’s mom was a half-sister of the powerful leader’s father. The powerful leader’s father was one of the most powerful people to have ever lived.) Even though this romantic relationship was both adulterous and incestuous, the two lovebirds divorce their spouses in order to marry each other. The divorce of this powerful leader with his wife causes a small war along the border of his country. But all that really doesn’t matter because everyone knows people in power do whatever they want to do, regardless of how it affects those without any power.
A social activist, known for stirring things up, drawing quite a crowd, and gaining lots of publicity, loudly denounces the marriage and the actions of this powerful leader. This infuriates the leader’s new wife and as a result she convinces her husband to arrest the activist on trumped-up charges of treason, disturbing the peace, and disorderly assembly. As the activist sits in prison, the new wife patiently waits for the opportune time to have him killed. She wants her marriage certificate written on the back of his death warrant. The opportunity to execute presents itself on the powerful leader’s birthday.
At the birthday party, when the leader and his friends are inebriated from excessive drinking, the wife arranges for a stripper to entertain them. Believe it or not, the stripper is her own teenage daughter! Her dance was so seductive, and the powerful leader was so aroused (by his step-daughter and niece), he told her she could have whatever she asked for. Following the scheme devised by her mom, she asks that the activist be beheaded and his head brought to her on a platter. The powerful leader grants the request.
If you have not recognized the story by now, it is the true story of King Herod Antipas, his wife Herodias (the daughter of Herod the Great), and the arrest and execution of John the Baptist.
Do you remember John the Baptist? In Luke’s gospel, his birth runs parallel to Jesus’ birth. His mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s aunt. Thus, he and Jesus were cousins. Luke describes John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, saying, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him…And all mankind will see God’s salvation’” (Luke 3:4-6). This is the same John who also baptized Jesus (Luke 3:21-22). It was sometime after he baptized Jesus that “John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:19-20).
From prison, awaiting execution, John hears reports of all Jesus has been doing, but being physically abused, mentally exhausted, and spiritually drained, John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19) The same John, who had prophesied about Jesus, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful then I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16), was now unsure if Jesus truly was the promised Messiah. This giant in the faith was going through a crisis of unbelief!
Beginning in chapter 7, Luke contrasts John’s crisis of doubt with an incredible story of faith.
After concluding His Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), Jesus returns to his home base in Capernaum. “There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die (Luke 7:1-2). A “centurion” was a high-ranking Roman military official. The Romans were known for the cruel way in which they treated slaves, but this centurion was different. He actually loved and cared for his servants. At the very least, this centurion was a God-fearer. It’s possible he could have been a believer in Jesus. He most definitely was a person known for his integrity. Luke continues, “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ So Jesus went” (Luke 7:3-6).
In most cases Jews and Romans did not get long. The Roman government actually oppressed the Jewish people and military leaders (like the centurion) where charged with leading the oppression. But this guy, through his generosity, had earned the respect of the Jewish leaders. Even though Jesus’ ministry was to the Jewish people, the Jewish leaders convinced Jesus to go and heal the centurion’s servant.
Before Jesus got to the man’s house, the centurion sent word, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” (Luke 7:6). In actuality, the centurion was being sensitive to the culture and beliefs of the Israelites. As a Rabbi, Jesus would be condemned for going into the home of an “unclean Gentile.”
The message from the centurion continued, “That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7:7-8). This Roman centurion understood how authority worked and he believed Jesus had more authority then even himself.
Then Luke writes, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well” (Luke 7:9-10). As far as we know, Jesus never personally met this man, yet He healed his servant and bragged on his incredible faith!
What made this guy’s faith so great? First, it came through mercy and grace, not entitlement. The Jewish leaders said, “This man deserves to have you do this” (v. 4). The man, himself, confessed, “I did not even consider myself worthy” (v. 7). What a contrast! True faith approaches God out of a need for mercy and grace, not out of a sense of God owing you anything. Second, his faith caused him to actually love his enemies. Technically, the Jews were the centurion’s enemies. Yet he had shown them mercy and generosity, building them a synagogue. Even though he was a Gentile, this guy believed and practiced what he believed.
Next, Jesus traveled to the village of “Nain” (Luke 7:11). A town about 25 miles from Capernaum and 6 miles from Nazareth. Luke records, “As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry’” (Luke 7:12-13). The compassion of Jesus cannot be overstated. As a childless widow, this woman would be thrust to the very margins of society. “Then he went up and touched the coffin…” (Luke 7:14) By touching the coffin Jesus was violating the Law of Moses and making Himself unclean. He did the same thing previously by touching a leper (Luke 5:13). If you want to truly follow Jesus you have to be willing to get dirty. Jesus touched the coffin and said, “‘Young man, I say to you get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:15). I wonder what his first words were. I wonder how those carrying the coffin reacted. All we are told is, “They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country” (Luke 7:16-17).
It was these types of stories that John the Baptist’s disciples reported to John (Luke 7:18). Yet, for whatever reason, instead of being encouraged by these stories, John started to doubt if Jesus truly was the Messiah (Luke 7:19). Why? I suspect the root of John’s doubt was Jesus was not living up to John’s expectation of the Messiah. It’s quite possible that John believed the Messiah was going to overthrow the Roman government and reestablish the throne of David. Like many others in Jesus’ day, John could have been looking for a political/military Messiah, instead of a loving and compassionate Messiah. Likewise, the root of our doubt is when we expect God to be one thing when in reality He is another. We want a Messiah whom we can control and who does what we expect Him to do. But what we have is a Messiah who does exactly what He is supposed to do, and we are called to trust Him, even though we don’t understand Him. We miss what God is already doing when we spend our time looking for God to do something else. From John the Baptist’s battle with doubt, we learn four important things about doubt.
First, doubt can happen to anyone. The centurion soldier had a strong faith. The widow, without expressing any faith at all, had her dead son raised to new life. But John the Baptist? The last person you would ever think would doubt, doubted. Simply put, if John the Baptist can doubt, anyone can doubt. No matter how strong you think your faith is, or how mature your believe you are, you can (and will) experience times of doubt. Don’t freak out when it happens. Just keep on believing in spite of your doubts. If you have ever doubted, you are in good company. Not only did John doubt, but also Moses and Elijah and David and Jeremiah, and Peter. Even people of strong faith go through periods of doubt. Secondly, doubt can happen at anytime. It can happen to anyone and it can happen at anytime. For John, his doubt came during a time when I am sure he was under tremendous stress and was physically exhausted. After all, Jesus had said He came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18), yet there was John, Jesus’ cousin, sitting in jail on false charges. What’s up with that! For us, doubt can come after times of discouragement or after times of blessings. Doubt can come on anyone at any time.
A third lesson is doubt is not a sin. Nowhere in the story are we told that John was wrong for doubting, or that he needed to repent of his doubting. Doubting is simply a part of faith. Which bring up the fourth lesson: Doubt doesn’t mean you don’t have faith. Quite the opposite! Doubting is a sign you do have faith. A person without faith never doubts.
I find comfort in the fact that doubt can happen to anyone at anytime, and in the fact that doubting is not a sin and is not a sign I don’t have faith. But what I find most comforting is how Jesus responded to John’s doubt.
John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20) Jesus responded, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good new is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22-23). Instead of condemning John, Jesus lovingly reminds John of what has already been done. When doubt creeps into your mind, let Jesus know about it. Ask Jesus questions. But then allow Jesus to remind you of what He has already done for you in the past. We don’t live in the past, but God’s faithfulness to us in the past can be a great source of strength to believe for the future. If God has never let you down in the past, He is not going to let you down now! If God met your needs in the past, He will most certainly meet your needs in the future. If God was there for you in the past, He will be there for you in the future.
When in doubt, remember what Jesus has already done.
In Luke 7:23, Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” Jesus was kindly saying to John, “Don’t let your doubt of Me cause you to not believe in Me. Just because you can’t see, nor understand, what I am doing, keep believing and trusting that I am who I claim to be.” The lesson is as follows: Instead of condemning John for his doubt, Jesus lovingly blesses John for his honesty and vulnerability. When you experience doubt, go to Jesus with your doubt. Instead of judgment you will find reassurance. Instead of guilt, you will find love and blessings.
After John’s disciples leave to take Jesus’ words back to John, Jesus turns to the crowd and does something totally unexpected an incredible. He uses John as the example of real faith! He brags on John, saying, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John…” (Luke 7:28) The only exceptions, the only people greater then John, are people like you and me, when in the middle of our doubt, choose to keep on believing, “…yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). Here is the third lesson: Instead of condemning John for his doubt, Jesus praised him publically.
Fourthly, Jesus responded to John’s doubt by speaking out against something worse than doubt. Jesus, turning to the Pharisees, says, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace an calling out to each other: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not cry’” (Luke 7:31-32). The Pharisees were guilty of rejecting Jesus because Jesus did not play by the rules. The Pharisees were like children crying and whining because they did not get their way.
Jesus explains, “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking sine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35). The religious leaders rejected John’s message because he was too extreme. He was a separatist. He took vows that made him different from everyone else. Then, those same religious people rejected Jesus because He associated with people, eating and drinking with them. Here is Jesus’ point: There are two things worse than doubt. First is unbelief. Second is self-deception; especially disbelief and self-deception that is couched in religion. Jesus praises authentic faith that doubts from time to time while condemning inauthentic faith that is filled with pride and ultimately results in deception and unbelief.
G. Campbell Morgan was an extraordinary preacher. He never preached from a book in the Bible until he had read that book out loud, 50 times, to himself. Born in England in 1883, he preached his first sermon at the age of 13. Before the age of 20, however, he went through a crisis of doubt. As a result, for 2 years he neither preached, nor read his Bible. The only books he read during this time were books that either criticized or defended the Bible. After 2 years, in total despair, he put away all books, and for the next 7 years read nothing but the Bible. He says when he began to read the Bible with an open mind and determined will, the “Bible found me.” He wrote in his journal, “Since then I have lived for one end—to preach the teachings of the Book that found me.” Pastor Morgan died in 1945, at the age of 81, after decades of faithful ministry.
Like John the Baptist, G. Campbell Morgan’s crisis of doubt brought him to greater faith. Why? Because he was honest with his doubt and he allowed Jesus to minister to him through his doubt.
G. Campbell Morgan’s crisis of doubt drove him to a deeper relationship with Jesus. I think that is what happened to John the Baptist as well. I think that is what can happen to you.
The problem is not the doubting. The problem is what you do when you do doubt. Do you use that to be honest with yourself and honest with Jesus? Do you use your doubt to go deeper into your relationship with Him? If you do, your doubt can be the pathway to a greater faith.
It is great to have the faith of the centurion.
It is great when Jesus does things for you even before you believe like He did the widow who had lost her only son.
But the greater than both is when Jesus uses our doubt to grow our faith and to encourage us in our journey following Him.