The Refiner’s Fire: The Struggle and Triumph of John the Baptist (Introduction)


Sometimes life, and writing, takes an unexpected turn.

As I wound down the end of my study of Matthew 10, I looked ahead to chapter 11 with the intention of skipping fairly quickly over the interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist. That would allow me to get back to the actual teachings and actions of Jesus, where I really wanted to dig in.

But instead, I found myself writing out an outline for an entire series within the Matthew series, or, as I came to think of it, a book within the blog. I’ll be posting that series until it’s done.

I didn’t mean to write a book about John the Baptist, and frankly, I have at least three other book-sized projects clamoring for my attention. But I couldn’t shake the sense that I needed to stop and delve deeply into this story, and that I needed to do it now.

I couldn’t shake the sense that someone needs it.

When Jesus had finished giving orders to His 12 disciples, He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.”

As these men went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Look, those who wear soft clothes are in kings’ palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;
he will prepare Your way before You.

“I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!” (Matthew 11:1–15)

There’s something undeniably rough-edged about this interaction. At the height of Jesus’s public ministry, just when he was beginning to expand and send out his apostles, his cousin—also the man who was largely responsible for launching Jesus’s ministry—very publicly expressed doubt. John, who once declared that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals, now indicated his own fears that he might have chosen the wrong man to follow.

It’s painful. If we dare put ourselves in John’s shoes, it’s frightening. And it may be familiar.

Our reasons for doubt are many. They can be broad. We encounter reasons to doubt our faith, and our God, in school, on the street, and in the media. The world around us is in many ways post-Christian, and it does its best to push us toward unbelief.

The influences we encounter include social pressures, among them changing sexual mores and repeated calls to reexamine our history1—calls which typically conflate Christianity with Colonialism. We may find ourselves put off by the discomfort and antagonism of the current political climate, or growing more and more uncomfortable within our particular religious context—lately Evangelicalism, the Word of Faith, and the Neo-Reformed movement have all taken fairly bad hits. Other reasons for doubt may include the influence of pluralism, spirituality without religion, or the cult of rationalism.

Or they may be deeply personal. We may find ourselves doubting not because of the media or a slant of a particular college course, or because of pressure to bend to a culture that seems determined to shame and chastise nearly everyone who believes anything, but because we feel personally let down by God, or even abandoned by him.

The fallout of doubt is sometimes very private and sometimes very public, but either way, when it’s left unaddressed it can be incredibly damaging. We might walk away from the faith entirely—or we might just quietly, privately stop trusting the God we still profess.

That’s the biggest reason I am writing this series, now. We rarely talk about the creeping pain of doubt, about our own fears that we might be wrong, or self-deluded, or borderline crazy. We rarely talk about the need we feel to put up defenses against questions that hit too close to home. Yet this experience—of doubt and disappointment, or at its height, of a crisis of faith—is common to everyone who tries to live by faith, and it’s something I think we should bring into the light.

I know too many people who have faced crises of faith and felt alone. I’ve watched too many fall away from the faith, while family, friends, and followers are left to pick up the pieces. The question John asked, and the doubt and disappointment that drove it, are not strangers to us today. We still ask these questions, if we dare. We still feel these feelings, though we may not feel free to express them.

There is a lot of depth to this story, and we’ll go into it throughout this series. My intention is to write this particular stretch of posts as a book and to post it as I go, so you’ll see a weekly or biweekly post as usual, but they will be a little less a verse-by-verse commentary and a little more a continuous, big-picture story. When I finish the series, I’ll release it all as a book. That way you can continue following on the blog week by week or just pick up the whole story at once.

I hope this book will do several things. I hope it will give us freedom to ask questions and to express our fears and doubts. I don’t think we are served by stuffing these things away. More than that, I hope it will give the shaking, the rocked, and the devastated tools to process their questions and feelings and to channel them toward restoration and solid ground.

And of course, I hope it will enable us all to delve more deeply into the story of Jesus and the kingdom of God, as the Bible tells it.

Thanks for coming on the journey.

Rachel Starr Thomson
August 2019

1. To be abundantly clear, I think this reexamination can be necessary, especially when we’re asked to reassess our history through a lens of social justice and racial equality. God has always been on the side of the oppressed, and Colonialism has always tended to conflate its own desire for power and supremacy with righteousness and the will of God. But a massive deconstruction such as we are undergoing as a society does tend to shake everything, deservedly or not, and collateral damage is real.


This is Part 159 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash




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