Luke 7:17-23 “This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country. John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he 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. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’”
The summer season of camps and conferences has come to an end. What an encouragement these occasions are. Our children, grandchildren and teenage friends return home from camps and we come home from conferences with a richer and more educated appreciation of the Christian faith. The young people are excited by the teaching of old truths, and by the fellowship of like-minded people of their own age. Summer camps have been peak times in their lives. They’ve come home with an assurance of faith encouraging us in their congregations to tell others about the Lord Jesus even when we’re surrounded by communities doubting the Christian faith – especially that of the academic world. Mark Lilla is a professor in one of the greatest universities in the world, the University of Chicago. He was quite taken up with one bright student who showed such academic promise, and then he learned that in recent months the young man had become a Christian, that is, he had given his life to Christ. Dr. Lilla said, “I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love . . . even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him his dignity depended on maintaining a free, skeptical attitude towards doctrine. I wanted to save him . . .” Our faith is under attack from many quarters.
In Luke chapter seven is one of the most shocking expressions of doubt in the whole Bible. John the Baptist, yes, John the Baptist sends two messengers to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Now there’ve been some defenders of John like J.C.Ryle who’ve suggested that John sent these two men to Jesus for their own benefit not for John’s who never doubted. These two were the doubters whom John hoped would come back from Jesus with stronger faith. So it has been suggested, but there is no evidence in the text for the truth of that idea. In Wales where multitudes think that Christianity has had it this question is everywhere. Is Jesus Christ the only one who speaks from God, or is there another?
1. JOHN HAD PREACHED THE COMING OF THE KING.
None had a more exalted understanding of the kingdom of God than John the Baptist. He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” John understood the ministry of our Lord that Christ would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, and then he would baptize men and women with the Holy Spirit. John had initially recoiled at the thought of baptizing the Lord Jesus in the river Jordan as one wholly unworthy of this task but Christ had persuaded him that his will was best even when it seems very strange. Here from his prison John sends a question to Jesus via two of his disciples. The question was this; “Are you the coming one?” The phrase is found in Psalm 118 and verse 26, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” The two messengers said to Jesus, “John sent us to ask you, ‘Are you the one that should come?’” That is exactly what they said, and you can sense an air of mystery about their question, a certain indefiniteness, a kind of grandeur . . . “the one who is to come . . . the one who has been spoken of . . .” Not just anyone, that man, or this one, but the coming one, he to whom it all pointed forward from Genesis chapter three when the good news was first proclaimed by God – one would come who would bruise the serpent’s head. Is that one Jesus? Is Jesus the obedient one who said, “Lo I am come, in the volume of the book it is written of me. I am come to do thy will O my God”? “Are you this one?” asked the two men. Was Jesus the servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, the elect and chosen of God, the one in whom God was delighted? Was he the Son of Man of Daniel’s vision coming in the clouds of heaven? “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
John had this high and exalted conception of the coming Messiah. He had pointed to Jesus as the Lord, that is, as Jehovah God. He told the people, “Prepare in the desert a highway for our God. Make ready a way for the Lord. Prepare his way before him. It is the Lord himself who is coming. He is on his way even now and you must get ready for his appearing.” John stirred up Messianic expectation throughout the land. “Get ready for his coming! Make preparation, all of you, be changing your lives, abandoning your sins and living righteously, for who shall abide the day of his coming, or who shall stand when he appears?”
John’s preaching was in the line of the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah and Malachi. For example John quotes from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill laid low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” That coming glory of God was what John the Baptist was preparing for. What an effulgence of magnificence there would be when the one whom all the holy angels worship made his appearance. Can you imagine it? Those holy angels covered their eyes in the presence of God’s glory. John had read of this, but what would it be like when every eye saw Jehovah?
John declared him to be the judge. He was coming to refine, his fan would be in his hand and he would do a great work of separation amongst men, separating the wheat from the chaff, and he would burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. There was going to be a great day of judgment when the Lord appeared. It would show the wrath of God against man’s sin. John called them to repent because of the coming wrath of God, and he turned to the Pharisees and called them a brood of vipers. “Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance and say not in your heart that you have Abraham for your father for God can of the desert’s stones raise up children to Abraham.” The whole nation was stirred by John’s preaching; thousands walked out to him from Jerusalem and every part of the country and his preaching transformed many. Hundreds repented and were baptized in the river Jordan confessing their sins.
John was characterized by his faith and courage. He was a single-minded, prepared man; from adolescence he had been in the deserts hiding away from the people, preparing himself for his great work as the herald of the king. There was no fault in his preparation, or in his devotion to what God had truly called him to do. The Lord had given him this message and he powerfully declared it. I am emphasising the stature of this man because he is the one who is now asking this question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” What was John asking? It was this, “Is this the kingdom? Can this be the kingdom of God? Is this the state of affairs we are to expect?” John believed he was standing on the threshold of the Day of Wrath, the coming judgment of God. This, John thought, would be the great climax of his thirty years’ existence. He had known from his first conscious thoughts that he would be a prophet. The Spirit of prophecy has been in him from the beginning of his life, and he believed that as he completed his ministry the Lord would suddenly appear and the great throne of judgment would be set up.
The axe would then be laid to the root of the tree. You know the picture. There’s the vast tree, the Old Testament picture of Israel being compared to a cedar from Lebanon. Then the Lord comes and he is carrying his axe. He begins to lay it deep into the root of the tree and with every chop the whole tree trembles. The axe in judgment is being laid into the root of every man’s life; all the trees that are not pleasing to the Lord are going to be hewn down. If you are a thorn bush, a fruitless tree, barren or bearing bitter fruit, then you will be cut down. That is what John was waiting for, the climax of the vindication of the power of God. It would establish John’s own witness – as the wrath of God fell then John’s mission and truthfulness would be confirmed.
2. JOHN HAD BEEN PERPLEXED AT THE APPEARING OF THE KING.
However, where was this vindication? John preached vividly; he pointed to Christ; he identified him to Israel; he baptized him; he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit like a dove descending; he heard the voice of God confirmed Jesus as his beloved Son. John wonderfully fulfilled his ministry, and then Jesus set out preaching to sinners, that same message as John, urging men to turn around, turn from ignoring God and all that was sinful and follow the Lord. “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand!” cried Jesus, and John encouraged his own disciples to follow Christ. Then Jesus did mighty works and John was amazed at his great signs, and yet he was also somewhat perplexed.
Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding, and no wine had ever passed John’s lips. Jesus healed the Roman servant of Caesar’s centurion in Capernaum, a soldier whose work was keeping the Jews in subjection to Rome. All that was puzzling to John, and then Jesus raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead, and that was even more puzzling. Do you know why? The difficulty for John was this, that he couldn’t be persuaded that this was the kingdom of God that Jesus had been preaching about. John was sure that if this were the kingdom then the axe of judgment had to come before the kingdom could be at peace. The purging fires had to fall. The great separation of wheat and chaff had to take place with all the chaff being burned up. Then peace would come. How can you deliver the oppressed without smiting the oppressor? How could there be peace, joy and jubilee when sinners strutted around and oppressed the poor? Why wasn’t the sword of God falling? How could there be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit with joy and gladness without the fires also falling? The Messiah was coming to baptize with the Spirit and with fire, and John is looking for the fire. He doesn’t see any fire!
John was waiting in the desert watching and fasting. He was living on locusts – large grasshoppers – and wild honey. His clothes were woven from camel’s hair and held together with a leather belt. He was living an ascetic life because soon the fires of the day of judgment were going to be burning. He was daily thinking of the day of doom, but the day of doom didn’t come, instead the Christ went to weddings. The Messiah took the water of purification – can you believe it? – the water pots that stood at the entrance to the house and turned their contents into wine. Those tall pots seemed to stand for John’s baptizing, and Jesus turned that water into wine for a wedding reception. Is that judgment? Is that fire? Is that bringing in the wrath? Is that straightening everything out?
You are aware than in the Old Testament there are plenty of prophecies about bringing in the wrath of God and the way things are sorted out when God’s wrath falls, and so John is watching and waiting, but it didn’t happen here. Moreover, it is Matthew who tells us that John was in prison and he was there for faithfulness to his divine commission. He condemned immorality in high places; there was the incestuous marriage of Herod and Herodias, and John was arrested and put in prison. From languishing in his dungeon facing a life sentence or execution he was forced to send messengers to Jesus; he couldn’t come himself. Where is justice today? Now where is righteousness? Where is the power of the kingdom now? John is perplexed as to what is happening to him. Hadn’t he been faithful? Then why, when the King from heaven has been announced and begun his ministry, why is John humiliated? Haven’t you heard that? Haven’t you asked that? Where is the power of the kingdom if Jesus cannot save his own servants? How can he be bringing in the glorious age of the kingdom if he leaves John the Baptist rot in jail? Here is John in loneliness and suffering, his work ended, while Christ seems to ignore him, going about performing miracles with all kinds of power, limitless power. He can raise the dead, but he doesn’t call John out of prison, and the more John hears of the miracles the more he wonders can this be the Messiah. Is this the kingdom? Is this the King?
Plenty of people have that problem today. They cannot understand a gospel that doesn’t immediately bring power to bear to right the wrongs in their lives and straighten out their problems. John the Baptist couldn’t understand it. Why didn’t Jesus do something about this dreadful wrong of leaving his servant in prison? That is the background to this crucial question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Now just wait a minute John. Someone else? Another Jesus? Another one upon whom the dove would descend from heaven? Another one to whom the voice would say, “You are my beloved Son”? Another one to whom John the Baptist could point, “Behold the Lamb”? Another Jesus? Is that what you want? Another oreacher of the Sermon on the Mount?
3. JOHN SENT TO ASK JESUS ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF THE KING.
Notice also this, that as this question comes into John’s mind he sends two messengers to Jesus. If you ever take that step in your doubt, and as often as you take it, you do have the answer. I want to make the point that the strange thing about doubts is that many don’t talk about them; you don’t tell your pastor about them, you don’t tell your friends about your doubts, you keep them to yourself. Sometime you can think that you are the only one who has ever had them, that you are the different one in the group because you have doubts. There are others who are professional religious people and they feel they can open up to a journalist or interviewer about their doubts. They suggest that they belong to a special group, a sort of advanced group because they doubt. They consider themselves as the thinking set, and they are going to take these doubts and they are going to ‘grapple’ with these doubts. In a new book former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, says he feels more at home with “the cloudy glimmerings of myth rather than the diamond-sharp clarities of religion.” He prefers honest confusion to ‘steely’ conviction. He is like the Englishman who remarked that the country would indeed change to driving on the right side of the road sooner or later, but it would do so gradually. The former bishop should read in Pilgrim’s Progress about the three rogues, Faint-heart, Mistrust and Guilt and the damage they did to Little Faith.
What is the answer to our doubts? The important thing in your own experience, whatever age or stage at which you are handling doubt, whether the problems of youth or the problems of advancing years, or the problem of some physical infirmity that is coming upon you and seeming to challenge your faith – no matter what the problem is, the question is have you gone to Jesus with your problem? Have you asked him whether he is the one that should come or is there another one? John expressed his doubt to Jesus himself and thereby he shows a strange kind of believing unbelief in which he takes the question to the Lord. Luke in reporting this to us, uses the title ‘Lord’ in the question. Luke often uses the word ‘Jesus’ when he is speaking of Christ, but right here, at this particular spot, Luke says, ‘He sent them to the Lord,’ and I am encouraging you, “Go to the Lord with your doubts.”
4. JOHN WAS TOLD OF THE SIGNS OF THE KING.
“Can this be the King?” John was asking. “Is this the true kingdom?” and Jesus answers, “This is the kingdom because you are seeing signs of its power.” When the two disciples came to Jesus and passed on to him John’s question Jesus didn’t give them any answer at first; he ignored them but kept them beside him. Perhaps they were puzzled, baffled by his silence. Why didn’t he say at once, “Yes I am the coming one. No need to look any further.” You may be baffled when you first go to Jesus with your doubts. I said that if you go to him you’d get the answer, but I didn’t say that if you went you’d get the answer in the first fifteen or twenty minutes. It doesn’t mean that you can go to Jesus, have a time of prayer and in half a hour rise from your knees with all your doubts gone. Sometimes you have to wait for a while. There are some things you have to experience, some things you have to understand, some things have to happen in your life, some of them will be sad, maybe even wrong things take place to give you a new grasp of the faith. May be you ought to change your praying. Let me tell you of a student at Princeton who went to see Archibald Alexander and told him of his doubts. “Do you pray?” asked Dr. Alexander. “Oh yes,” the student replied. “What do you pray for?” the Doctor asked. “I pray for assurance and God’s light and blessing coming upon me.” “Then stop praying that,” said Dr. Alexander, “and pray that you might be given boldness to speak to others of the Lord Jesus.” In other words, it is as we serve others, and evangelise, and as we get involved in good works that assurance comes and doubts go.
So the disciples of John stood there, with Jesus ignoring them, and he continued his ministry. “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind” (v.21). You understand what happened, that Jesus didn’t arbitrarily show his power by saying to these young fellows, “Look at this,” pointing to a tree a hundred yards away. “See how I make it burst into flames.” It wasn’t like that at all. Rather Christ healed the sick, and the scene is briefly sketched. There was a long line of ill people, many with their relatives, waiting to stand before our Lord. There were those with all kinds of diseases and sicknesses, heart failure, brain tumours, paralysis, cancer in many forms and some in its last stages, liver failure, blood disorders, and pregnancies that have gone wrong. The blind are particularly singled out because of the prevalence of blindness in the middle east. The activity of evil spirits is also referred to because when the Lord Jesus was in the world there was an eruption of demonic attack.
So there was this long line of wretchedness and pain, the fruit of the fall of man. One by one the men, women and children came and stood before the last Adam in their need and then he cured them. A smile? A word? A touch? A slight nodding of his head? Whatever . . . and then the effects of their disease were instantly removed. The blind could see the faces of their family and friends. The deaf could hear the singing of the birds. The demon possessed were clean and given a peace of mind. The paralyzed could run. The mute could greet their wives. Those overwhelmed by constant pain were pain free, the first time for years. Those losing blood knew the flow had ceased. The healed gathered in a growing group with their loved ones weeping and clutching one another at the transformation, overwhelmed that the unbelievable had happened to them. Jesus did not suspend the natural order, he restored it! These are foretastes of what lies ahead. This scene is not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our affections. The world we all want is coming and it is coming because of he who was the coming one. That was the scene that the two messengers from John stood and witnessed. The long line of sick folk waiting to stand before Jesus, and then every one healed gathering together lost in wonder, love and praise, staying near to Jesus. There was one group waiting to see Jesus, and another group of those he had had dealings with. Once you presented yourself to the Lord Christ you were different. There was no third group of sick people whom Jesus had tried to cure, but failed.
Then, when they are all healed, Jesus answered the question of the two disciples of John; “‘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. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’” How is Jesus answering? He reveals all these signs of his power in the sight of these very disciples of John, and then he reiterates what those signs are. “This is what you have seen, the blind receiving heir sight . . .” and so on. He asserts, in short, that he has all authority over the effects of sin, over disease, and over demons. This king has the authority to remove evil from this world. He has the authority to do this. In a moment he can remove evil from the whole cosmos and cast it into the bottomless pit. He does it as these disciples are watching him keenly. They are eye-witnesses that Jesus has the power of overcoming Satan and all the powers of darkness. He can conquer death too. Jesus by his deeds seals this claim; the dead are raised. He has just raised the widow of Nain’s son, and soon he will raise himself from the grave. All this royal authority is God’s authority.
You consider the line in which the sick are apprehensively waiting their turn to be healed and those healed are overwhelmed with what has happened. But surrounding them a huge circle of men and women, silent, watching everything with wonder. These are the people “all filled with awe and praising God” saying, ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ They said. ‘God has come to help his people’” (v. 16). “God has come,” they said. Not much doubt there. John is doubting in all his loneliness; they are not. These signs of the Lord Jesus are gospel pledges, gospel signs, gospel works done by Jesus to display the character of the gospel. The healing of the Lord displays the real help of the Lord in the midst of his people. In the Old Testament God says, “I am the Lord who heals you,” and Naaman the leper is healed. That same Lord is here in his Son Jesus Christ. He reveals to the blind the light of the gospel. He empowers the lame to walk in the ways of the Lord. He cleanses the leper. He liberates the demonized. He gives life to the dead. The King has all power to restore in the beauty and glory and fulness of the gospel all that human life is created to be. He has come bringing gladness and joy and peace.
That is why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast as the disciples of John the Baptist because the bridegroom is among them. There is a taste of the new wine of heaven in their midst. There’s the glory of the reality of this happiness, of the fulness of the meaning of life, and Jesus shows that by the character of his miracles. It is a foretaste of that which is to come. These are signs of the new heavens and the new earth. The group of healed joyful men and women is a manifestation of what the perfect, finished work of consummated salvation will really be like.
5. JOHN WAS ALSO TOLD THAT THE POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM.
But Jesus gives to John another pledge, and it is of gospel proclamation. The King who has come is also the preaching Saviour; “the good news is preached to the poor.” That falls right in with John’s problem. How can you have the poor delivered without smiting their oppressors? Surely our theology must be one of political liberation, but there was no hint of that in Jesus’ ministry. He was sending a message to John that the poorest people in the world were turning from their sins and believing upon the Lord Jesus. They were receiving Christ and were being given the right to be called the sons of God. The poor by faith in Jesus were being made heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ. God is now supplying the believing poor with all their needs according to his riches in glory. He was working everything together for the good of the poor. Nothing would separate them from God’s love. The poor were being blessed without the oppressor being smitten, and God will bless to them all the pain that he inflicts. The glorious blessings of the kingdom are being brought in. They are here; they are everywhere the Lord Jesus goes.
Then Jesus adds, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (v.23). “John you have to trust me . . . don’t fall away for the way in which I’m doing things. Trust me to fulfil the will of my Father. Trust me to be the Messiah according to the promises of the Old Testament, because that is what I am doing. John I am preaching the gospel to the poor. I am telling them that redemption has come; salvation is here. The signs that I am doing show the reality of that great deliverance of gospel power. John, can’t you see that the axe of judgment being laid into the root of the tree cannot and must not fall yet? If the Lord came with the axe of judgment and with a consuming fire then, John, who could stand when he appears? No one. If he were coming to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire we would all be burned up.” That is what Jesus is saying. The King has come but he has come as Saviour. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.
Jesus says, “I am come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” The King has come to save sinners, to seek and to save that which was lost. What has Christ come to do? He has come to bear the blow of the axe in himself. He has come to bring men to eternal life by advancing to the flaming sword of the cherubim bearing our guilt. His own bosom becomes the sheath for the sword of judgment. Christ has come, but it is by the way of the cross. The signs of mercy come in before the day of wrath because Jesus Christ has come to endure the day of wrath for his own people.
There would soon be a day when Jesus would enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and the crowd would be singing from Psalm 118 about the King coming meek and lowly, riding upon a donkey. He comes riding into Jerusalem in order to die, giving his life on Calvary’s cross bear shame and scoffing rude. “The holy wrath of God is indeed coming, John, but it is going to fall on God’s own dear Son. The fires from heaven are going to fall but they will fall on Golgotha. The chaff is going to be burned up with unquenchable fire, but on the cross Christ was made chaff for us. Oh, John, if only you’d better understood what you’d said in the Spirit when you declared, ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.’ John, blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
There’s a wonder in the gospel that you’ll find nowhere else in the world, the wonder of God’s redeeming love, the marvel of the Son of God who has all power in heaven and earth but who uses that power to give his life as a ransom for many. ‘Don’t be offended by your disappointments, your difficulties and sufferings. Don’t be disappointed John that you are locked up in prison because this is the will of Jesus Christ that you should die for the glory of his name. Don’t be offended disciples of Jesus because your Lord has said, “take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus goes to die, and you will die too. Jesus never promised to deliver us as Christians from suffering. He does not promise he will always deliver us from death for his namesake because this is the time when judgment is being withheld and in it the righteous will suffer again and again in all sorts of mysterious ways, but all the suffering that is given to you when you follow after Jesus Christ is completely changed because the Saviour has gone before. He has borne all the wrath, and the suffering to which he calls you is for the glory of his blessed name, and blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Jesus.
Please do not stumble on the rock of the suffering that you or your loved ones go through. John in a dark stinking dungeon had his doubts about Jesus and the kingdom. Perhaps you have your doubts about Jesus too. It is easy to believe in Jesus in summer camps and conferences when you are all together. It is hard to believe when you are alone, with an axe hanging over your head and things aren’t working out as you thought, when you feel yourself forsaken and betrayed and Christ seems far away. Then my friends, go with your doubts to Jesus and say, “Are you the one who was to come?” Jesus will answer you and say, “Yes I did come, and I showed my presence and grace by many signs and mighty works.” But Jesus will also say, “But I am coming again,” for Jesus Christ is the Saviour who has come, and also who is to come, the alpha and the omega, and his plan is perfect.
Let us declare war on the fake kind of Christianity that sometimes develops in evangelical churches where everything has to be sweetness and light, where there can’t be any sufferings and doubts, and all Christian living becomes a sort of pleasant happiness and the occasional thrill of excitement.
We live in a fallen world of tragedy, of brain damage, of cancer, of abortion, of famine and death, but we have a Lord who has borne all the guilt and death. He is the one who is to come. He came and he died, but he has risen and he is coming again, and we say, “Amen, even so come Lord Jesus.”
7th September 2008 GEOFF THOMAS I had much help in this sermon from the work of a former teacher of mine, Ed Clowney.