Doubting John

I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap over his initial questioning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Courtesy of Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

He’s been forever saddled with the “doubting Thomas” label, but the fact is the rest of the disciples were no better in the beginning. Before Jesus died, all of them were clueless with respect to Christ’s teaching on His resurrection: “For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.” But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said” (Luke 18:32-34).

The eleven initially had trouble after the resurrection as well. When the women witnesses (e.g., Mary Magdalene) reported the events to the disciples, Scripture says: “When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country. They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either” (Mark 16:10-13).

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Further, when Jesus gave instructions for them to meet Him in Galilee, we’re told: “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful” (Matt. 28:17).

So, let’s ease up on Thomas, shall we? Have you never descended into a I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it position because something bad happened and you felt the light would never dawn again?

Moreover, let’s not forget about another prominent personality in Scripture who also had a slight hiccup where Jesus was concerned: John the Baptist.

Nobody greater

When the Son of God says, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Matt. 11:11), you get the point that John wasn’t just an ordinary guy. And yet John reached a point, however brief, when he had some questions about Jesus.

Even after John’s miraculous birth, seeing and hearing divine confirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship during His baptism (John 1:31-34), and pronouncing Christ “the Lamb of God” (John 1:36), one day John sent word to Jesus asking, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matt. 11:3). Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly dive into this incident to provide an explanation for John’s questioning, Matt. 4:2 says that John sent word to Jesus “while imprisoned”.

John had been taken into custody by King Herod Antipas and had been locked up in the gloomy fortress of Machaerus, modern Khirbet Mukâwer, which was located about five miles east of the Dead Sea. Hearing about Jesus’ activities and considering his own unpleasant circumstances, John was likely confused and disheartened over the current state of affairs.

While John had indeed pointed out Christ as the Lamb of God, he also preached Jesus as the One who had come to reprove and destroy (Matt. 3:7, 10; Luke 3:7, 9). It seems even he thought his prophecies of judgment would be fulfilled then vs. in the future.  

John may have shared the same hopes as Thomas of Jesus immediately ushering in the kingdom of God and who can blame them? The circumstances of that day were not good, with Rome’s domineering oppression and pagan idolatry with their false gods at every turn.

The answer that restores and sustains

Jesus squelched Thomas’ doubts by appearing to him, but with John, Jesus gives him an answer that redirects his focus from the kingdom fulfillment prophecies of the Old Testament to other predictions of the coming Messiah:

“Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight 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” (Matt. 11:4-5).  

Then Jesus finishes his reply with: “And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (Matt. 11:6). I think the ESV study Bible commentators are spot on with their interpretation of this verse: “The beatitude is a mild rebuke; John and his disciples must be open to God’s unfolding plan even though Jesus’ ministry did not exactly match their messianic expectations.”

John will need to remember Jesus’ words because things were going to get worse for him. Not only did Christ not rescue him from prison, but John will soon be the victim of a spur-of-the-moment treacherous act committed against him by a vindictive, evil woman and her gutless king husband.

Except for the content contained in Scripture on the trials and crucifixion of Jesus, no chapter in the Bible makes me grit my teeth more than Mark 6 that details the murder of John the Baptist. The man God calls the greatest “born of women” seems to fall as a meaningless casualty to evil people.

That’s a hard pill to swallow.    

Let’s face it, it’s easy to read “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2), but it’s hard to do. And sometimes, like John the Baptist, there is no rescue in this life. Good health doesn’t return, a loved one dies, the business doesn’t make it, the marriage ends, the prodigal stays gone, or a terrible wrong is never made right.

Like Thomas and John who wanted Christ’s kingdom to materialize during their lifetime, we want what we want also. And if God’s plan doesn’t dovetail with ours, we churn inside.

At that point, we are anything but blessed because we do indeed get offended at Him. I’ve been there – have you?

But thankfully, God is patient with us just like Jesus was with Thomas and John. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The best saints have need of the best helps they can get for the strengthening of their faith, and the arming of themselves against temptations to infidelity.”

I’ve received those “helps” and so will you when the time comes. Just like he answered John’s questions, He provides the assistance we need at the right time, allowing us to experience the truth of Psalm 37:17: “For the arms of the wicked will be broken, but the Lord sustains the righteous.” 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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