When Everything Goes Sideways (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 18)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. To start from the beginning, go here and look for the Refiner’s Fire section at the bottom.


We’ve journeyed together now through John the Baptist’s understanding of the Scriptures. We’ve come to an understanding, as best as we are able from such a distance in time, of the content of his faith. We know what he expected from Jesus and how he understood his own role and identity in the plan of God.

So why, two years into Jesus’s ministry, did John reach a place where he was no longer convinced that he had correctly identified the Messiah?

It’s a pertinent question. Although it’s common in Christian circles to explain defections by saying that if someone has fallen away, they must not have really believed (or really “been saved”) in the first place, I think this treads on dangerous ground not only because it leads us to judging the hearts of others but also because it may lead us to interpret our own doubts in unhelpful ways.

Most of us are really convinced of the things we believe, whether that’s because of study or personal experience or because we’ve simply never really questioned what we were taught. And yet life can move any one of us away from that rock-solid certainty. It happened to John, whom Jesus called “more than a prophet” and “the greatest among those born of women.” It can certainly happen to us.

For some of us, it happens because of a crisis. A prayer doesn’t get answered. Someone dies, and in our grief and anger we can’t see any way to hang onto faith. A scandal rocks our church or takes down a Christian leader we have looked up to and followed, and it casts everything they taught—and we believed—into question.

“Offenses must come,” Jesus said in Matthew 18:7, employing a Greek word that means most literally “a stumbling block” or a “snare”—in other words, that which causes someone to become entrapped or to stumble along his way. “But woe to that man by whom the offense comes.” Earlier, in verse 6 he said, “Whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!”

For many, it happens more quietly. Questions that have festered for years simply become too loud and too settled for us to ignore any longer. In many cases, it comes as a result of a simple environmental change: a student who has always been a “strong Christian” goes off to college, makes a new set of (nonbelieving) friends, is exposed to a suite of secular thinking and pluralistic worldviews, and simply finds he or she does not believe anymore.

Perhaps we discover that some fundamental underpinning of our belief system is shakier than we believed it to be or is even simply wrong. Or perhaps we rebel against an aspect of the particular Christian culture we grew up in—its unique rules, dress standards, or gender prescriptions, for example. In all those cases we might be in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

In the case of John the Baptist, we can’t know what precisely prompted his crisis of faith. The Bible doesn’t tell us, and we don’t have access to the thoughts and feelings of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But we can make educated guesses, based on what we now know about the Old Testament prophecies and the Messianic expectations that had developed by John’s time.

Somehow, Jesus had let John down—or at least, John thought he had. If we’ve ever felt the same way, it may be instructive to figure out how.

The Life of Jesus and Reasons for Doubt

First of all, there was Jesus’s astonishingly nonmilitant character. Of course, people in Jesus’s day might have been waiting for him to suddenly change tack, take up the sword, and start a military revolution—phase two of his ministry, after all the healing and teaching and miracles to attest that he had been sent from God and enable him to build a following. But two years in, Jesus showed no sign that he ever intended to do that.

Even worse, he’d recently begun to say some extremely pessimistic, almost nihilistic things; and it’s fair to assume John’s disciples had carried word of this to John in prison.

To the best of your ability, listen to these words of Jesus, conveyed during his commissioning of his apostles in chapter 10, with the ears of a first-century Jew waiting for the Son of David to be revealed. For that matter, listen with the ears of John the Baptist, having given your whole life for this cause!

Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn

a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and a man’s enemies will be
the members of his household.

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39)

Remember that while the Jews did expect Jesus to “take up a sword,” they thought he would do it in order to bring and enforce peace. The goal was supposed to be victory, not defeat. And no one in the first century carried crosses except people who intended to die on them.

This was not a cheery prospect. N.T. Wright reminds us:

The point is often made but bears repetition: we in the modern West, who wear jeweled crosses around our necks, stamp them on Bibles and prayer books, and carry them in cheerful processions, need regularly to be reminded that the very word “cross” was a word you would most likely not utter in polite society. The thought of it would not only put you off your dinner; it could give you sleepless nights. And if you had actually seen a crucifixion or two, as many in the Roman world would have, your sleep itself would have been invaded by nightmares as the memories came flooding back unbidden, memories of humans half alive and half dead, lingering on perhaps for days on end, covered in blood and flies, nibbled by rats, pecked at by crows, with weeping but helpless relatives still keeping watch, and with hostile or mocking crowds adding their insults to the terrible injuries. (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began [NY: HarperOne, 2016], 54–55)

Crucifixion was, simply put, “the lowest point possible for a human being.” It was also terribly familiar. The Romans used crucifixion to destroy, demoralize, and humiliate their enemies, especially those who rebelled against them.

So Roman provinces like Palestine lived in the shadow of the cross. In Galilee, a major revolt had taken place just four years before John was born, and it ended with the public crucifixion of two thousand Jewish rebels. John’s father and mother would have remembered that—talked about it. His older cousins would have suffered posttraumatic nightmares, recalling what they saw as children. Neither Jesus nor John could afford to hold a romanticized idea of martyrdom, especially through crucifixion. They, their friends and their families knew the specter of the cross too well.

This being the case, if Jesus was telling his followers to expect to be crucified, it seemed he expected his mission to fail.

Remember, too, that Daniel had spoken of a period of extreme suffering before the kingdom of God came—a time when the “Little Horn” would wear out the saints and nearly defeat them. Jesus’s talk of crosses and death—“losing your life in order to find it”—may have led to John to wonder if Jesus was simply bringing this period to a head.

Perhaps Jesus’s life was meant to be the apex of Israelite suffering before the Messiah’s coming. But if Jesus died, taking his followers down with him, he could not be the Messiah. A dead man, murdered by Rome in the most degrading and horrible way possible, could not be the Son of David who would defeat Rome, take the throne, and restore the prosperity of Israel.

Compounding all of this confusion was Jesus’s somewhat unusual relationship to the law and to the idea of Jewish holiness (or “set-apartness”) in general. As Jesus himself pointed out, he was not an ascetic like John, and many (especially the Pharisees) saw him as overly friendly with those Jews who compromised the law, embracing Greek and Roman culture and therefore (in their minds) pushing the Jewish people toward unfaithfulness to God. The usual parlance for Jews who did these things was “tax collectors and sinners,” and Jesus was famous for associating with them on friendly, nonconfrontational terms.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:18–19)

Given all these reasons for doubt, John finally reached a point where he pushed for an answer. His old beliefs weren’t working anymore in the face of so many apparent problems.

But the answer Jesus gave was not necessarily what John wanted to hear.

To be continued …


This is Part 176 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Freddie Sze on Unsplash




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