(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

It is rather disturbing to read in this passage of the great forerunner's doubts. Whenever a prominent Christian expresses reservations about God's revelation in Christ Jesus it is dispiriting to say the least.

It is convenient to divide this exposition into three sections: (1) Doubt: its cause and cure. (2) Worth: its evaluation and escalation. (3) Pride: its contrariness and curse.

(A) Doubt: its cause and curse.

(1) The evidence for John's doubt.

Although some commentators are unwilling to admit it, John the Baptist did have doubts about Jesus. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" v19. This elicited a rebuke from Jesus: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." v23.

John doubted that Jesus was the Messiah in spite of the enlightenment given him by the Holy Spirit at Jesus' baptism and the report he received from his disciples about everything Jesus was doing.

All over the world Christians who have both received the Holy Spirit and seen Jesus transform the lives of others succumb to doubt.

(2) The cause of John's doubt.

John doubted because of:

    (a) His circumstances. John was imprisoned, inactive and of growing insignificance. He had been used to sunshine, fresh air and the wide-open spaces of the desert but now he was confined to a small dark cell. John had known the thrill of speaking to large crowds and baptising many who repented of their sins. The Baptist had been a force to be reckoned with - leading as he did a growing band of disciples. In his prison cell John had no audience, his voice was silenced and his influence all but gone. It is little wonder his spirits were at a low ebb.

    It is hard to cope with imprisonment - for the faith or by ill health and old age. It is not easy to be shut away in an old people's home, confined to one room, deprived of your familiar possessions and unable to attend church. Many Christians are miserable at becoming less active in the church. It is reassuring to be useful in Christ's kingdom and valued by our fellowship. We lose a lot when bodily infirmity curtails our usefulness. Satan takes the opportunity to tempt us and whisper in our ear: "You're an old has-been. You are all washed up. God's got no further use for you. What does God or anyone else care about you now. Its the scrap-heap for you"

    (b) His expectations. Scripture does not tell us in any detail what John the Baptist expected the Messiah to do. But one thing he was sure of; the Messiah would come in judgment. He made pronouncements like: "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Mt3v10. "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

    John probably thought that the Messiah would reform Israel, establish a devout following, throw off the Roman yoke and rule over an independent Israel in peace, prosperity and righteousness. In the process of achieving this great good for Israel and ultimately the wider world John doubtless hoped he would be released from prison and play his part in the new, free, reformed and godly Israel.

    Jesus showed no signs of doing what John expected - although, of course , he was judging the Jews by his words and actions.

    People who make a Christian profession come to doubt Jesus because he does not live up to their expectations. He doesn't punish the wicked - they seem to get away with their wickedness. I used to give old Jack a lift to chapel most Sundays. He would sometimes say to me: "I wish God would put me in charge - just for a day - I would show them." Jack was disappointed that Divine retribution was not meted out in the here and now. Christians wonder why Jesus does not protect the innocent from disaster. Impoverished believers in Africa cannot understand why God keeps them poor. I know Christians who have become disillusioned because Jesus does not heal a much prayed over loved one. Others cannot understand why, in spite of their impassioned prayers, they have not been able to find a wife or husband.

    Another very real stumbling block for many Christians is that Jesus' followers do not live up to expectations. All my grandfather Hughes' five children were at one time or another idealistic Christians. It is true to say that every single one was disillusioned by the behaviour of fellow believers. It led to my uncles Ted and Philip falling away from the faith, my uncle Stephen leaving the Baptist ministry - although he remained a Christian, my uncle David converting to Roman Catholicism and my dear mother experiencing much misery.

(3) The cure

So he (Jesus) replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." v22.

There are three points I wish to make:

    (a) Jesus instructed John's disciples to tell their leader about the difference he made to the lives of men and women. No-one could have changed lives more dramatically than Jesus - the blind could see, the lepers were cured and the dead raised.

    Dramatic changes still occur in the lives of men and women who believe in Jesus. I have provided numerous examples of this in these expositions. See for example: Jesus heals the paralytic and Jesus and the Widow of Nain. All over the world there are countless converts to Christianity who are living proof of Christ's redemptive and transforming power.

    (b) Jesus brings hope to the poor. It doesn't matter how poor a man is, if he possesses Jesus he is rich beyond measure. Belief in Jesus qualifies us for entry into God's family and to an inheritance laid up for us in heaven. The gospel has brought enormous comfort to the oppressed - from the slaves in the Roman empire to the black plantation workers in the deep south of the U.S.A.

    'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.' 1Cor2v9.

    (c) We need always to bear in mind what Jesus came into the world to achieve. Paul reminded Timothy: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1Tim1v15.

    Jesus did not come into the world to make us wealthy or successful, to find us a marriage partner, or to be a heavenly G.P. dispensing wonder cures. The apostle Paul, God's chosen instrument and his faithful servant, went about in rags, had poor health and even lacked the support of his fellow believers. Jesus came to save us from our sin, to give the Holy Spirit to all who believe in his name and to raise us up at the last to life everlasting.

(C) Worth: its evaluation and escalation.

Jesus in assessing the Baptist's worth deals with:

(1) What John wasn't

    (a) He wasn't: "A reed swayed by the wind." v24.

    It is by no means certain what Jesus meant by this. Reeds were two a penny in the Jordan valley. Perhaps Jesus was saying that John the Baptist, far from being a nonentity, was a man of substance. He did not bow to popular opinion like a reed bending before the wind. He didn't tell his hearers what they wanted to hear. John gave forthright advice to the common man, tax collectors and soldiers on what they needed to do to repent. He was scathing about the Pharisees and Sadducees who hung about on the edge of the crowd: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance .... ." Mt3v7.

    (b) He wasn't: "A man dressed in fine clothes? No those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces." v25.

    John wasn't a courtier - someone who depended for his living upon the patronage of the rich and powerful. He was beholden to none. John was in no man's pocket. The Baptist did not belong to any party or movement. He was his own man - or, more accurately, the LORD'S man. John spoke without fear or favour and as such he was a prophet of absolute integrity.

    I read recently the obituary of an influential Anglican theologian. He was a Christian much interested in unity and he managed to be on good terms with all the different factions in the Church of England. What I found particularly interesting was the comment that it was extraordinary difficult to know what the eminent theologian believed. He never let on where he personally stood. I have to say that I find people like the theologian infuriating! John the Baptist was not like this - nor was Jesus and nor was the apostle Paul.

    It is better to be poor like John the Baptist - with his camel skin cloak and diet of locusts and wild honey - than to be rich and fearful of declaring the truth for fear of offending those on whom you depend for recognition and advancement. I have been true to my convictions both in secular employment and as a preacher. It is not something that I regret.

(2) What John was.

"But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John." v26to28.

    (a) John was a prophet. He was one of God's spokesmen. He declared God's truth as it was revealed to him. His was a great calling.

    (b) Jesus implies that the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets. This is not an assessment that most of us would make of John. Was he greater than Elijah? John did no miracles. Was he greater than Moses? John had far less impact upon his people than did Moses - the mighty deliverer, the lawgiver and stalwart leader of the Jews for forty critical years. Was he greater than Isaiah? Isaiah described the Messiah's role with immense clarity and power.

    John was greater than all who preceded him in one respect only - in his close relationship to Jesus. He announced Jesus coming and prepared the way for his ministry.

    (c) Yet the relationship John had with Jesus was in some respects distant and unsatisfactory. The Baptist never became intimate with Jesus like Peter and the rest of the disciples. It is almost as if John thought his campaign and Jesus' ministry could continue in parallel.

    Now I think it is true that many men and women owe their greatness in part to their relationship with Jesus but sadly it is a distant relationship. It is possible to be a composer of religious music like Vaughan Williams or Handel, the architect of a great cathedral, the writer of novels with a Christian ethos like George Eliot or Charles Dickens, a poet like John Betjamen or a famous political leader who stands up for Christian values as did Winston Churchill without being totally committed to Jesus Christ.

(3) What John could have been.

Jesus said: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." v28.

This is a tragic verse. John the Baptist unlike the disciples was not a follower of Jesus. He did not abandon his own campaign to benefit from the ministry of Jesus. So John never became a member of the kingdom of God. He never entered the very kingdom that he announced so vigorously. He never enjoyed the status that belief in Jesus confers.

True greatness depends upon our relationship with Jesus. In my exposition on Acts1v8 I write about Madeleine Whyte and Winston Churchill. By the world's criteria Winston Churchill was immeasurably greater than Madeleine Whyte. But in Jesus' estimation the reverse is the case. Madeleine Whyte's status far exceeds that of Winston.

The apostle John declared in his gospel: Yet to all who received him (Jesus), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. John1v12. It is very significant that Jesus said of John that none born of women was greater than he. However those who believe in Jesus are not born of women but born of God.

We need to bear in mind that some of those rather drab, little, old ladies that frequent the empty pews of our churches may in God's eyes be greater than the grandest bishop. C.S. Lewis once wrote that if you could see one of those old ladies as she will be in glory you would fall down at her feet in adoration. Of course some bishops will be in glory too!

(D) Pride: its contrariness and curse.

Jesus takes the opportunity, after speaking about John, to attack the Pharisees for their obduracy. Luke records: But the Pharisees and experts of the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John. v30.

The Pharisees pride resulted in:

(1) Aloofness

Jesus said: "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling out to each other:

'We played the flute to you,
and you did not dance;
We sang a dirge,
And you did not cry'" v32.

Jesus seems to be referring to a small group of children who held themselves aloof. They wouldn't join in any of the games other children played whether it be weddings or funerals. I can remember when I organised games at Pioneer Camp many years ago there would always be youngsters who didn't want to participate in anything. They were too self absorbed and proud to get involved.

A classic instance of this attitude is found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son where the elder brother refused to attend the party to celebrate the return of his sibling. The Bible tells us: He would not go in.

There are a lot of very, proud Christians who hold themselves aloof from others. Some of them worship in tiny churches and refuse to have fellowship with anyone else. These narrow-minded believers will only associate with Christians who are 'sound' - and as they are the only ones who are sound they keep themselves to themselves. They will get a shock when they sit down to the marriage feast of the Lamb and find themselves seated amongst Roman Catholics, charismatics, Arminians and even a few liberal churchmen. I don't think the Master of the feast will provide them with a side table so that they can sit apart from everyone else.

Many churches contain some contrary Christians who critise whatever is organised; for whom nothing suits and who remain permanently discontented. It's not as it they ever do anything constructive themselves!! Such believers are full of pride!

(2) Misjudgement

Pride distorts men's judgments. The Pharisees totally misjudged both Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus said: "For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners"." v34.

What a terrible error! To slander John the Baptist by accusing him of demon possession shows how warped by the evil spirit of pride the Pharisees were. Even worse were the dreadful slurs on Christ's character. How could the religious leaders of Israel say that Jesus was a gluttonous drunkard who fancied prostitutes?

Pride distorts the judgment of:

    (a) Christian by the world. It is a travesty of the truth and unsubstantiated by evidence to accuse Christians of being hypocrites and bigots. In the Daily Telegraph on Saturday there was an article in which the author accused the Christian registrar in Islington who is unwilling to 'marry' homosexuals of superstitious bigotry. The journalist obviously thinks that his views on homosexuality are so right that anyone who disagrees with him is a misguided bigot.

    (b) One Christian faction by another. I read another article in the Daily Telegraph recently by an Anglo Catholic about woman bishops in the Church of England. He considered that woman bishops would be such a break with tradition and so distance Anglicans from Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches that the Church of Enland would become a sect. Now words like 'sect' and 'cult' are derogatory terms - used by religious people to put down those with whom they disagree. Tradition is a very poor arbitrator of truth. Jesus was an enemy of the Pharisees who were steeped in custom and tradition. The trouble is that over the years error creeps into the church and then custom and tradition make it acceptable and respectable. It is a good thing that doctors and dentists are not bound by tradition otherwise they would still be performing operations without anaesthetic.

    (c) One Christian individual by another. I wonder how often pride has made you damn a rival with faint praise!

(3) Rejection

The curse of pride is its rejection of God's authority. At the baptism of Jesus God said: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." Luke3v22. But there was no way the Pharisees and Sadducees were going to recognise the authority of Jesus. In the end they shouted out: "We have no king but Caesar." Jn19v15.

Jesus, as prophesied by John, did judge the Jews. They were shown to be wanting in rejecting him. The axe was indeed laid to the root of the tree. In a short time, that axe would be wielded, Israel destroyed, and the Jews scattered all over the earth for nearly 2000 years.

Pride remains one of the main reasons that men and women refuse to submit to Jesus. Edmund Goss provides a sad example of someone who, by his own admission, would not yield control of his life to Jesus. See my story 'He couldn't do it'.

It is a terrible thing to reject God's grace - his provision for salvation, fellowship and useful service.

(E) Conclusion

Jesus sums up his remarks about the Pharisees and Sadducees with an enigmatic saying: "But wisdom is proved right by all her children." v35.

During my time as a Geography teacher I could have said: "The wisdom of my approach is justified by my pupils." That is what Jesus is claiming - wisdom is shown to be wisdom by those who subscribe to it and act upon it - her children. In other words wisdom is justified or proved right by its outcome.

True wisdom is to believe in Jesus. This is shown to be wisdom by all those who do believe in him. The quality of Christian lives should prove beyond a shadow of doubt the wisdom of submitting to Jesus and following him.