Even the G.O.A.T. Has Questions

“John the Baptist in Prison” by Josef Anton Hafner

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“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me’” (Matthew 11:2-6).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There is a line of thought among some Christians that having questions about God’s dealings with the world is somehow being unfaithful or disobedient. To justify God’s action (or more likely inaction) that seems arbitrary or unjust to us, we are tempted to suppress doubts and stop short of being honest with God and ourselves. This motivation, a desire to trust God no matter what, is well-intended, but the result is often a reluctance to take seriously what it means to live by faith.[1]

This reluctance has led to disastrous consequences. In his book, You Lost Me, Barna president David Kinnaman names the church’s aversion to openly and honestly dealing with doubts as one of the main reasons so many young people have left the church. His research has found that 50% of 18 to 29-year-olds who have a Christian background do not feel they can ask their most pressing questions at church. Ten percent are blunter by agreeing with this statement: “I am not allowed to talk about my doubts at church.” The problem is that the church (and its preachers) often presents the Christian faith as having no room for doubts.[2]  

But that’s not a true or realistic approach. Life throws at us a constant barrage of reasons to question God’s loving presence and power. Some examples are extreme. There is the seemingly healthy 45-year-old mother who dies suddenly at her home. There are the years of abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather, which leaves her wounded and traumatized for life. A lone shooter goes into an elementary school and senselessly takes the lives of many children, leaving survivors emotionally, if not physically, scarred. John the Baptist’s imprisonment and beheading fits into this category as well. Terrible things happen and God does nothing to stop it.[3]

Not all suffering is so intense, however. It is often a slow bleed. There is the silent struggle of the young mother who wonders why everything in her life must be so difficult. There are the lonely days of the long-time nursing home resident who wonders why God keeps her around. The learning disabilities that make a student’s every subject in school a struggle. The physician’s ominous prognosis: “We’ve tried everything we know; there’s nothing else we can do.” Sometimes, God does not provide the support and strength we so desperately ask of Him. The resultant doubts are real and pressing. We should not brush them off or sweep them under the rug.[4] This is the time of waiting, the time of doubt, the time of questions, which all thinking Christians experience at some point in life—even the G.O.A.T.

The acronym G.O.A.T., “greatest of all time,” gets thrown around a lot these days. Many say, “Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T.,” the greatest quarterback of all time. Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T., the greatest basketball player of all time. Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the G.O.A.T. of hockey. Using Jesus’ words in our Gospel, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that John the Baptist is the G.O.A.T., the greatest prophet of all time, especially considering the role he was given as the forerunner of Christ. That’s what makes his question of Jesus relevant: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

Was the Baptist really asking his question for his own sake or merely for the sake of his disciples? Interpreters have debated this over the centuries, and it is not insignificant.

Except for Tertullian, the church fathers and early commentators, held that the Baptist could not possibly have entertained doubts about Jesus’ identity.[5] How could the prophet of whom Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” (Matthew 11:11) have doubts? How could the one who leaped in his mother’s womb as he came into the presence of his embryonic Savior doubt (Luke 3:41-44)? How could the one who pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), doubt? How can the one who saw the heavens open as the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus at His Baptism, who heard the voice from heaven say, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17), question Jesus’ identity?

Modern commentators seem split evenly—some say the question was John’s, others that it was the question of John’s disciples. Yet in terms of grammar, near context, and even the wider sweep of Scripture, there is no compelling reason to reject the obvious sense of the text. Grammatically, it is John who is the subject of the verb “he said” in 11:3. Further, Jesus replies, “Go and announce to John …” (11:4). Finally, the closing beatitude is singular and in the first place refers to John himself. Grammatically, John has asked a question, and Jesus has answered him.[6]

In the terms of near context, the obvious must not be overlooked: John had announced that Jesus was the end-time Judge, far mightier than John himself and on the verge of wielding a winnowing fork of separation (3:11-12). But John is now in prison.[7] Where is the thunder of judgment? Where is the rebuke of the wicked? Why this use of power over demons but not over evil men? Why does Jesus allow God’s prophet to rot in Herod’s jail without a word of protest?[8]

We should not necessarily think John is simply concerned for his own personal welfare. John is the fiery prophet of the Lord, and he knows it. Just as he was taken aback, however, when the Lord came to receive his baptism (3:13-15), so is he here, as the judgment tarries and the forces of evil men are still so strong.[9]

In terms of Scripture’s wider context, there are any number of parallels to John’s journey from faith to doubt and back to faith again. The disappointment and frustration of Moses (Exodus 5:22-23), Elijah (1 Kings 18-19), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18), and others give ample support for the view that John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question that is truly his own: “Are You the Coming One, or shall we expect another?” (Matthew 11:3).[10] Do you suppose that there has ever been a man of God who has never had his doubts about himself and about at least some of his Lord’s promises? Would that not be expecting the impossible of anyone with a sinful human nature?[11] Even the G.O.A.T. has questions!

To say that John has his doubts about Jesus as the Messiah is not to judge him as having rejected Jesus. Doubts may threaten faith, but they do not automatically rule it out or destroy it. What is more, it is significant to note what John does about his doubts. He takes them to Jesus! When doubts of any kind assail our Christian faith, we too need to go to Jesus for reassurance.[12]

Jesus’ answer in 11:4-6 exhibits a twofold character. On the one hand, His words offer the strongest possible “yes!” to the first part of the Baptist’s question. The deeds that Jesus performs are the long-expected signs of renewal and restoration in Israel. The age of salvation is here; He is the One who was to come.[13]

On the other hand, Jesus’ words invite John to accept in faith the strangest of all paradoxes in the history of the world. The reign of God has broken into history in the person of Jesus, and He is the Coming One. But the power of evil men remains strong, and Christ will not overthrow that evil—yet. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins (1:21), yet He teaches His followers to expect opposition and hatred (10:24-39). God has come to rule and restore through this Jesus alone. Only God can reveal to people Jesus’ identity and His hidden ways.[14]

Note how Jesus reassures John. He does not just say, “Yes, I am the promised Messiah.” He points instead to His mighty works. Giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk, curing lepers, making the deaf hear, raising the dead, preaching good news to the poor—these were not only mighty works that demonstrated Jesus’ divine power; they are the very works that Isaiah the prophet had foretold of the Messiah (see Isaiah 35:5,6).

And notice the sequence: Enabling the lame to walk, restoring hearing and sight, and curing leprosy are difficult, but raising the dead is impossible. But more important than all these physical miracles is that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. No miracle will release John from imprisonment or save him from execution. He will have to be content that sins are forgiven in Christ. Faith feeds not on miracles but on the Gospel. And it is that Gospel that makes all the difference, no matter what your current circumstances. For in that Gospel is forgiveness, salvation, and life—eternal life.

Jesus’ final words for John reaches out, inviting all to faith and discipleship: “Blessed is the one who is not caused to stumble because of Me!” (Matthew 11:6). One can easily imagine that John, in prison and poor in spirit, hears the Lord’s message as profoundly good news filled with salvation and hope. We believers today, who struggle in the paradox of salvation already won but not yet fully experienced, can also hear Jesus’ invitation and, not stumbling over Him, rejoice in God’s gracious and hidden reign in the Savior.[15]

To be sure, we don’t celebrate our doubts, nor do we parrot superficial platitudes or pat answers. We take seriously those doubts and support one another in the struggle to live faithfully. And we do so by gathering around God’s Word and Sacrament, confessing the faith we believe. Our Bible studies are also an excellent opportunity for such conversation and mutual consolation. They are a safe space for asking honest, even tough questions. I would encourage you to join us regularly. And remember, if you’re not comfortable bringing up questions in a group, you can always check in with your pastor.

For now, you may have to suffer through trial and trouble. Jesus never said His followers would have a trouble-free life. In fact, He said, “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

To those who experience the loss of a loved one, Christ promises that in the Resurrection on the Last Day you will be reunited with those loved ones who have died in the Lord in His presence for eternity.

For those who have suffered abuse or neglect, Christ promises His never-ending love, mercy, and justice. “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not quench until He brings justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20).

For those suffering the devasting effects of depression or anxiety, the Lord encourages through His Word: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5–7).

For those enduring long, lonely days in the nursing home, the Lord promises, “I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).

Jesus has not promised to take away your afflictions now. But He will. In His own time, in His own way. If not in this age, certainly in the Resurrection on the Last Day. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by [Him].”

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] https://www.1517.org/articles/matthew-11-2-15-022

[2] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, Baker Books, 2011. See especially chapter 10 called “Doubtless” on pages 185-198).

[3] https://www.1517.org/articles/matthew-11-2-15-022

[4] https://www.1517.org/articles/matthew-11-2-15-022

[5] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 555-56.

[6] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 555-56.

[7] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 556.

[8] Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 81

[9] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 556.

[10] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 556.

[11] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 162

[12] G. Jerome and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. People’s Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 162-63.

[13] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 556-57.

[14] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 557.

[15] Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Matthew. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 557.

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