Today's Gospel illustrates a struggle that plagues all believers. We all struggle with doubt. From time to time, even the most ardent believer will wonder if Jesus is really the one - the one who can save them from sin - the one who can give them an eternity free from doubt and fear. In today's Gospel, we see that even John struggled. He sent his disciples to Jesus and asked, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
Wait! Is this not the prophet who was already at work before he was even born? For while he was still in the womb, Mary came to visit his mother and, although Jesus was no bigger than a peanut in the womb of the Virgin, John leapt for joy at His coming. Is this not the same John who pointed to Jesus and said, [John 1:29] "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" How can this same John doubt that Jesus is the Lord - the promised one - the Messiah?
This doubt comes from the nature of the Advent of Christ. We could say that the Advent of the Christ is a lot like a trip to the mountains. When we first see the mountains on the horizon, they all appear to be about the same distance away. They also appear to be a lot closer than they really are. When we get closer to the mountains, we realize that those mountains that appeared to be right next to each other are actually many miles apart.
Biblical prophecy is like that. When the Lord gave a vision of the future to His prophets, that future appeared to be all of one piece. Now that we live in that future, we understand that thousands of years can separate the events of God's salvation. So it is with the Advent of the Christ. He came once to take on human flesh and save us from our sin. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and take His people to live with Him forever. We now know that these events are thousands of years apart.
Some theologians talk of the "now, but not yet." Perhaps the Apostle Paul said it best. The Holy Spirit inspired him to write [1 Corinthians 13:12] "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." We know that Jesus is with us now, but we do not yet see Him as we will. We know that we already live in the Kingdom of God, but we do not yet experience it as we will in eternity. As Christians, here on this earth, we live in the "now, but not yet."
We heard John's message in last week's Gospel. He used phrases like: "… brood of vipers … wrath to come … the axe is laid to the root of the trees … His winnowing fork is in his hand … burn with unquenchable fire." With these words, we see that John was not only proclaiming the Advent of a savior, but he was also proclaiming the Advent of a judge. John expected Jesus to deal in mercy and grace to those who repented, but he also expected Jesus to deal in judgment to those who refused to repent. He was expecting Jesus to take the axe to the tree - to clean His threshing floor - to throw the chaff into unquenchable fire. From John's viewpoint these things were not happening. John was dealing with the "now, but not yet" of the Christian life. He was dealing with the fact that the Advent of the Christ comes in stages.
When John's disciples came to Jesus and asked their questions, Jesus gave them an answer that brings comfort and assurance, not just to John, but to all who believe in Jesus. Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers1 are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." Jesus asked John to remember the words that God gave to the Old Testament prophets - words like the ones we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah: 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. As the Word of God incarnate, Jesus is not only the great prophet who gives us the promises of God, but He is also the God who keeps those promises and fulfills those prophecies.
There are people who criticize Jesus for His answer. They ask, "Why didn't Jesus just say He was the Christ?" They say, "This seems like a pretty round about way to give an answer." They want us to believe that Jesus never made any special claims about Himself.
Consider the number of people in our world today who actually believe they are Napoleon of France or Cleopatra of Egypt. There are even people alive today who actually say they are Jesus of Nazareth. We don't give any credibility to such people. In fact, we hope that these people are receiving treatment from caring professionals.
It is one thing to say that someone is the Messiah. It is something entirely different to show that you are the Messiah. It is one thing to talk well. It is something entirely different to walk the talk. Jesus knew that actions speak louder than words and Jesus allowed His actions to do His teaching for Him. He challenged John's disciples and John himself to compare His deeds to the prophecies from God. Was He fulfilling the words that God gave to the prophets of old?
Jesus invited John's disciples to witness His actions. As they saw the fulfillment of prophecy happen before their eyes, they had great words of encouragement to take to John even though he was in prison.
The word of encouragement that we have in our day is even stronger than the word that those disciples carried back to John. Every one of the Gospel accounts tells of a time in Jesus' ministry when He began to prophesy about this sign of encouragement, comfort, and assurance. The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to record the prophecy in this way: [Matthew 16:21] From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. This is an incredible promise. It is one thing to predict that you will die a violent death at the hands of the enemy - that was not at all unusual in first century Israel - but to come back to life after that death, only the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one can do that.
With this teaching, Jesus described the reason for His first Advent. He took on human flesh so that His mother laid Him in a manger. He grew up in a sinful world and yet, He Himself never sinned. He then submitted to beatings and crucifixion and, while He hung on that cross, He absorbed the full punishment for our sins. His friends buried His lifeless corpse in a tomb and yet, that tomb is empty. Hundreds of witnesses saw Him alive after He died. They ate with Him. They touched Him. They had conversations with Him. The credibility of those witnesses has been sanctified by the fact that those witnesses refused to change their story even in the face of torture and death. The historical evidence is clear beyond any reasonable doubt. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. This is the sign that is greater than the witness John received from his disciples. Jesus fulfilled His own promise to rise from the dead.
Jesus had high words of praise for John. He said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist." With these words, Jesus tells us that John is not only the last of the Old Testament prophets, but he is also the greatest of them. Never the less, King Herod executed John before he could witness the fulfillment of those prophecies. John saw neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection before he died.
Those who believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin live after the crucifixion and resurrection. They have the comfort and assurance of the resurrection. Their comfort and assurance is superior to that of John the Baptist. That is the reason Jesus can say, "Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]."
We all have our doubts from time to time. The resurrection is there for us when we have those doubts. The witness of those who were with Jesus after His death gives us historical evidence that Jesus lives. We can live in the certainty that Jesus is our savior.
For that reason, we who live between the first Advent and the last Advent can look forward to the day when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. For on that day we shall stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ and we shall live with Christ for eternity. This is the encouragement, comfort, and assurance that will, one day, overcome all our doubts. Amen
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