The Forerunner of Our Doubts (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 23)

NOTE: This is part 22 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

Earlier, we looked at one of the passages where Yahweh declared his intention to come and redeem his people, personally triumphing over their enemies. The passage was Isaiah 59:15–16 and following:

The LORD saw that there was no justice,
and He was offended.
He saw that there was no man—
He was amazed that there was no one interceding;
so His own arm brought salvation,
and His own righteousness supported Him.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only time “the arm of the LORD” appears in Isaiah. Although the word “arm” in Scripture usually suggests strength and action, in Isaiah’s writings it too takes on the idea of something hidden that will be revealed. First in Isaiah 52:10:

The LORD has displayed His holy arm
in the sight of all the nations;
all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.

But then—stunningly—in Isaiah 53. The fourth Servant Song, with its awful picture of suffering, rejection, and death, is also the place where the arm of the LORD is revealed.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And who has the arm of the LORD been revealed to?
He grew up before Him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground.
He didn’t have an impressive form
or majesty that we should look at Him,
no appearance that we should desire Him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.
He was like someone people turned away from;
He was despised, and we didn’t value Him. (Isaiah 53:1–3)

Reading this, I can’t help but see a striking contrast to the “Little Horn” of Daniel’s vision. In the symbolism of the Old Testament, both an “arm” and a “horn” represent strength and power. One is a specifically human picture, while the other is animalistic. In Daniel’s “Little Horn,” we have an animalistic power with the implication of “little strength”—yet the horn successfully oppresses the people of God through the power of its mouth.

By speaking loud, arrogant, and blasphemous words, it makes war with the saints and prevails over them for a long time. In sharp contrast, the “arm of the LORD” is human and hidden. He does not call attention to himself. Remember the beginning of the first Servant Song:

This is My Servant; I strengthen Him,
this is My Chosen One; I delight in Him.
I have put My Spirit on Him;
He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or shout
or make His voice heard in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed,
and He will not put out a smoldering wick;
He will faithfully bring justice.
He will not grow weak or be discouraged
until He has established justice on earth.
The islands will wait for His instruction. (Isaiah 42:1–4)

When John the Baptist sent his message to Jesus, the arm of the LORD was still, to a great degree, hidden. Jesus simply didn’t trumpet his identity or his intentions—unlike the enemy, whose accusations, slander, and threats were (and are) long and loud.

So to see the wisdom of God at work, one would have to lean in close. Listen. Watch. Ponder. And wait.

The answer Jesus sent back to John the Baptist was not a loud, colorful, boastful one. It was the kind of answer that required pondering. The words of Jesus still do; the work of God still does.

And even now, this is frequently the nexus of doubt: we want an answer, a clear one, now. We want the story to go the way we expected it to go. And instead we are presented with an invitation to lean in close, to reconsider our position, to understand something we have never understood before.

At times, that act of reconsideration might itself feel like a crisis. After all, if we reconsider the story, we might need to question pieces we have always taken as bedrock before.

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Doubt can feel immensely threatening. And it can be immensely threatening, especially if it becomes a capitulation to the long, loud, threatening, and arrogant words of the “Little Horn”—the Herods and Jezebels and Roman emperors and secular philosophies in our own lives.

But doubt can also pose an invitation. It can be an opportunity to renew our faith, and perhaps to renew it on stronger grounds. Doubt, in other words, can act as a purging, leaving us with a stronger and purer faith. If nothing else, it can reveal to us that our understanding is fallible.

That’s why, ultimately, it’s not what we believe that matters so much as who we believe. “Faith in Christ” is not a creedal statement or a set of intellectual agreements. It’s trust in a person. When John asked, “Are you the One?”, Jesus’s answer amounted to, “Yes, but trust me. This isn’t going to go down the way you think.”

The Refiner’s Fire

Sometime before Matthew 11, when Jesus’s ministry was just beginning, the crowds of people who were drawn to John the Baptist wondered if he was the Messiah. Rumor had it that he might be, and they wanted to know—was he the one, or should they look for another? So John answered them:

I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out. (Luke 3:16–17)

In his lecture “The Holy Spirit in Luke and Acts,” Dr. Darrell Bock explains the image of “fire”:

The idea of fire is the picture of purging, the purging of humanity. Some get through the purging and survive it, and others are judged as a result of it. So there’s this division of humanity that comes, and the dividing line is the gift of the Spirit that comes to those who respond to Jesus in faith.

When the Messiah came, he would have the effect of separating wheat from chaff, silver from dross, belief from unbelief, believer from unbeliever, the righteous from the unrighteous. The purging would go through all levels of human experience, from the highest levels of society to the greatest depths of the individual human heart.

But John wasn’t the first to connect the Messiah’s coming with a purging or refining by fire. That was the prophet Malachi, some four hundred years before—in a passage we’ve already looked at.

Before we get there, though, let’s look again at Jesus’s response to John’s question in Matthew 11. After he sent back Isaiah 61 to John, Jesus turned to the crowds and said:

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. (Matthew 11:7–10)

Before writing this book, I had read that passage a million times and never looked up the rest of the quote—the passage that Jesus spoke out in this scene. Actually, I just assumed the reference was to Isaiah 40. But it isn’t. Jesus was quoting Malachi 3.

And look again at the rest of the passage:

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD as in days of old and years gone by. (Malachi 3:1–4)

When I first realized the connection between this prophetic passage and the narrative of Matthew 11, it took my breath away. Jesus was not only identifying John on the landscape of prophetic history, he was also explaining the interaction of this very moment. John, the messenger of Yahweh, had come to clear the way before the Messiah. The Messiah, the Lord, had come to his temple—just as the people sought. And in an unimaginable twist, the Messiah was not just a human king but Yahweh himself, setting up his kingdom on earth and bringing a new covenant era to his people.

But even as Malachi prophesied, the coming of the Lord brought with it a refining fire—a trial and testing that would burn away impurities from his servants. And then, in a breathtaking moment of clarity, Jesus reveals that John the Baptist, the Forerunner and Messenger, would be the first to undergo the refining.

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.

Remember, John the Baptist was a Levite—the son of a priest. For hundreds and thousands of years since the day they were called to serve Yahweh as his set-apart tribe within a set-apart people, the Levites had been sometimes faithful and oftentimes corrupt.

But when the Messiah came, Malachi prophesied, he would begin the work of purifying with his most sanctified servants.

John the Baptist, the Levite. The forerunner of our doubts—and the forerunner of our refining.

To be continued …


This is Part 181 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 MUILLU on Unsplash




2 responses to “The Forerunner of Our Doubts (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 23)”

  1. […] Part 181: The Forerunner of Our Doubts (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 23) Matthew 11:1-19) […]

  2. Bob Emery Avatar
    Bob Emery

    Well, fellow Levite, this was an enlightening post. Thank you. I, for one, appreciate your diligence in study and the clarity with which you write! Blessings! Bob

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