The modern age is plagued by doubt. Moral relativism’s onset erodes certainty, leaving indecision about ultimate reality in its wake. Even in religious circles doubt is lauded as humble and high-minded.1 Yet the Bible teaches believers to take their doubts to the Lord, so that fear and unbelief may be replaced with faith. Matthew 11-12 deals with two radically different kinds of doubt, leading to two radically different outcomes; each of them provides lessons for our times.
A Crisis for A Great Man of Faith
John the Baptist was a great servant of God, fearlessly preaching the gospel to the religious leaders of his day. He pulled no punches, as this passage shows:
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’” Matthew 3:7-12
His boldness is further demonstrated in that he rebuked Herod for his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife (Matt. 14:3-12). Yet this courageous ministry led to his imprisonment.
During his incarceration, John sent two disciples to ask Christ: “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Why did such a brave man seem to waver regarding Jesus’ identity? Earlier he pointedly identified him as the Messiah (John 1:19-35). Why is he now reconfirming that Jesus is the promised Savior? The context of Matthew 11 offers the answer.
When saints are tried by difficulties, they may doubt what they have previously known. John preached that Christ was coming to judge; yet now his forerunner was imprisoned, and Jesus was being persecuted. By all appearances Israel did not seem to be receptive to the Lord and his message. Circumstantially, the prophet was confronted with the test of waiting. Other servants fell when encountering delays to the fulfillment of God’s promises (e.g., Abraham in Gen. 15). Believers can and do doubt—especially when they are threatened or hurting. Eric Alexander makes an important distinction between doubt and faithlessness: “Doubt is not the same thing as unbelief. Unbelief is an act of the will that refuses to trust and obey Christ. Doubt is often asking questions or voicing uncertainty; and it may well be from the standpoint of faith. And doubt which is smothered or ignored can often be the precursor of many problems in Christian experience. Doubt which is confessed and faced and fought through can be a growing thing in someone’s Christian experience. It is not the same thing as unbelief or scepticism…a healthy understanding of doubt should go hand in hand with a healthy understanding of faith.”2 In other words, believers take their doubts to the Lord. They must not wallow in it, allowing it to become settled unbelief. When we waver, we must run to our Great High Priest who upholds our faith through his ceaseless intercession (Heb. 7:25; Luke 22:31-34).
Dispelling Doubt and Building Faith
The Lord Jesus responds to John’s emissaries by pointing to his messianic works: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” (Matt. 11:5-6). In the upper room, he later uses the example of his works to bolster his disciples’ faith, saying: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me, or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11). By fulfilling Old Testament prophesies concerning the Messiah, Jesus left lasting evidence of his deity and divine mission. The saints can look back on his ministry and take confidence that our faith in Christ is not misplaced. As one writer declares: “Intellectual doubt destroys the peace of the soul. We walk by faith, not by sight. Yet he who believes is more likely to see than he who believes not. Faith in God, in the certified truths of the gospel, in his promises, and in his overruling providence, brings rest. God reigns! Not a sparrow falleth on the ground without him. His kingdom is sure to come despite all obstacles. The darkest experiences are but the appointments of his infinite wisdom, and in the midst of them he will manifest himself. In every garden of Gethsemane an angel; in every lonely chamber the risen Savior! Do not question, but trust. Be not troubled, only believe.”3
The Doubt That Damns
After seeing the Lord Jesus heal the lame, give sight to the blind, cleanse lepers, and many other signs, the Pharisees rejected this evidence, attributing these obviously supernatural deeds to the power of Beelzebub—another name for Satan (Matt. 12:24). As the Lord said: “But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of me, that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). When the Spirit-empowered proof of the Lord’s identity is rejected, there is no hope. This sin was committed in the face of the pure display of divine light. Not only was such doubt unreasonable, but it was also wilful unbelief. No matter what proof Jesus offered they refused to believe in Him. There is no reason to remain in doubt. The Lord Jesus offers us every reason for faith. His word gives confidence; therefore, read and believe it. As Hebrews 11:6 explains: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” As Christ also said: “Do not be unbelieving but believing” (John 20:27).
1. “Doubts and fears have in our day been almost elected to the parliament of Christian graces. Some consider it a bad sign not to have any doubts. Doubts and fears are not signs of health, but festers and carbuncles… Give yourselves no rest, day or night, until you can read your title clear to mansions in the skies.” T. DeWitt Talmage, in J. S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator: Luke, Vol. I. (London: James Nisbet & Co., n. d.), p. 469.
2. Eric Alexander, quoted here: http://feedingonchrist.com/doubting-believer/
3. H. M. King, Life’s Golden Lamp. (New York Observer, 1889), p. 18.