The Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 7:2–20, includes John the Baptist’s famous sending of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He “is the one” or whether they should wait for someone else. From time immemorial, scholars and other theologians have debated over the question of whether this is an indication that John the Baptist was himself beset by doubt about Jesus’ identity.
There are, broadly, two views:
(1) John had no doubts about who Jesus was. He was simply performing his last teaching duty to his disciples by sending them to Jesus and having them ask Jesus effectively to confirm that He is indeed the Messiah. Thus, John ensured that these disciples severed their exclusive attachment to himself and re-attached themselves to Jesus instead. In other words, their mission from John was an acted out version of his words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
(2) John did indeed doubt Jesus. Despite having borne witness to Him and pointed others to Him, while in prison John began to wonder whether in fact Jesus wasn’t the real deal after all. Perhaps he shared the narrow and mistaken expectations of Jesus’ disciples and rightly recognised that Jesus didn’t fit that pattern.
The attraction of the first view is obvious. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus Himself, the greatest of the prophets of the Old Covenant. To have a record of His final words being those of doubt seriously tarnishes the reputation of the great prophet, which fits ill with the whole story of John’s life to that point, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke so clearly points out the parallels between the annunciation and birth of the two cousins, John and Jesus.
However, there are difficulties with this view. First, the plain sense of the text gives the impression that John was asking the question, not merely asking the disciples to investigate for themselves. Moreover, we have the disciples returning to John to report Jesus’ reply—something they wouldn’t have had to do unless they thought that John was asking them to inform him of the answer. Thirdly, John up to this point has been preparing for Christ. Surely he would have pointed them to Christ himself, and sent the disciples merely to see for themselves what he had told them already—in which case they wouldn’t have had any need to report back to John. This is further underlined by the fact that Luke tends to minimise John’s role of pointing to Jesus, rather than preparing for him. John isn’t even explicitly mentioned at Jesus’ baptism.
On these grounds, the second option seems more likely: that John himself began to waver while in prison and had to be reassured by Jesus via the testimony of his (John’s) disciples.
However, I like to follow the advice I received as an undergraduate from one of my teachers: “Whenever possible, avoid the either-or in favour of the both-and.” In the case of Luke 7, this principle applies, at least homiletically.
Option 1: John remains steadfast in faith
John is in prison, aware that the time of his ministry is over. Jesus must increase, he must decrease. However, many of his disciples remain loyal to him and, unlike Andrew and Peter, have not begun to follow Jesus. Therefore, John completes his God-given ministry by sending them to Jesus with the question: Are you the Christ. He knows the answer, and he knows that once they get to Jesus, they too will find the answer. As they do. John’s job was to point people to Christ, and he did so even from his incarceration. And as Pastor Larry Peters preaches so well, in this he is an example for us to emulate, and an encouragement to remain steadfastly Christ-focused in all our life—thinking, doing, witnessing.
Option 2: John wavers
The great prophet—the greatest of all the prophets according to Jesus—had completed his task of preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Yet when Jesus did come, and John rightly identified him as that Messiah, his faith wavered. Like the disciples of Jesus, like the crowds, like the Pharisees and the scribes, John too expected a different sort of Messiah from the one Jesus turned out to be. John, too, succumbed to the temptation to be a theologian of glory. And so he sent the disciples to ask Jesus for reassurance. And, ironically, this fact can be a reassurance for us, too: like Moses, like Jeremiah, like the dim-witted disciples of Jesus—and like us—John too wavered in his faith. But if that’s all, it’s still cold comfort in the end. “You aren’t the only one” may be some consolation to someone struggling, but in the end the problem remains unsolved. However, John is a man of the Word to the end. Instead of speculating, or examining his own faith in the silence of his dungeon, he goes to the object of his faith: he sends his disciples to Jesus to find reassurance, to have his faith strengthened. And it is this, rather than the strength of his faith, that makes John the true example for us to emulate: when he was in doubt, when his faith wavered, he went to Jesus to be strengthened.
So which is it? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. For this is not really a story about John, but a story for us. Whether it is for the strengthening of one’s weak faith, or for leading others to faith, there is only one option, only one method: go to Jesus. As Horatio Bonar put it in his beautiful hymn on discipleship:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.
(Lutheran Service Book 699:1)