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The Ambassadors of the Kingdom, Part 2: John's Doubts and Christ's Answer

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 18, 1998

Matthew 11:1-6

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If you have your Bibles with you, I invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter eleven.  As we continue our study in Matthew's gospel, we've completed a survey of Matthew chapter ten in which the Lord Jesus commissioned His disciples before they went out on their first missionary journey into towns of Judea.  And we might expect Matthew to tell us a little about what happened on that first journey, but He says nothing about it.  Luke gives us one verse about it.  Mark gives us two verses about it, but Matthew doesn't tell us about what the disciples did, or the adventures that they had at all.  He immediately starts telling us about what the Lord Jesus started doing after He sent His disciples out, because his focus is on the Lord Jesus as Messiah. 

And in this passage in Matthew chapter eleven, he is going to show us several events which will establish the claims of the Lord Jesus as Messiah.  The passage, of course, opens up with Jesus being encountered by John the Baptist’s disciples.  His cousin and his forerunner is in prison and sends these disciples to ask Jesus questions.  And Jesus not only sends a response, but He says some incredibly kind things about John the Baptist after his disciples depart.  And then later in the chapter, we'll see the Lord Jesus pronounce judgment on the unrepenting cities, those cities that heard His disciples preach the gospel, and even heard Him preach the gospel of the kingdom, and yet rejected Him.  And then at the very end of the chapter, we'll see Him issue an invitation that only God could have issued. 

And in all these things, Matthew is going to show us Jesus as the Messiah.  All of these events are a symbol by Matthew to testify to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah.  And throughout the chapter, though he tells us as his readers about different events that occur, his ultimate focus is on the Lord Jesus.  Jesus is the focus.  And the majesty of the Lord Jesus as the Messiah is the theme of every event in the passage including the one that we're going to look at today.  Even though John the Baptist is the occasion for the first six verses of Matthew chapter eleven, the Lord Jesus is the theme, and His majesty is the theme of this passage.  Let's look then at Matthew chapter eleven, beginning in verse one.  Hear the word of the living God.   

Matthew 11:1-6  

Our Lord, this word is for us in doubt and in difficulty.  This word is for us when faith is weak, so teach us by it.  Strengthen our faith even as we feed upon Your word.  Open our eyes that we might behold wonderful things from your word and by your spirit apply it to our hearts, and enable us by grace to embrace its truth, and Him who wrote it and of whom it was written.  We ask it in Jesus' name.  Amen.          

I. Jesus sets the example for His disciples.
As we have said, the theme of this passage before us is the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah,  but the passage opens up with John in prison and doubting.  And there are many things that we can learn from the passage before you.  The first thing we see in verse one, however, is the example which the Lord Jesus set for His own disciples.  There we are reminded of the centrality of preaching and teaching in the gospel ministry.  Notice the words of Christ.  When Jesus had finished giving instruction to His twelve disciples, “He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities.” As Jesus is sending His disciples out to preach and to teach, He also goes out to preach and to teach.  The Lord Jesus never calls on us to do something that He is not willing to do Himself.  And even as He sends His disciples out to preach and teach, He goes out to preach and to teach.  He sets them, in fact, an example of what He is asking them to do.  He is the example of how they are to carry our their duty in proclaiming the gospel message.  He teaches, He explains the scriptures, He preaches, He proclaims the message, the message of the kingdom.  And this is the focus of His ministry, even though later in this passage the signs or the miracles will be pointed to.  And Jesus himself will point to those signs and those miracles as confirmation of the words of the old testament. 

Isn't it interesting that Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, focuses on the fact that Jesus in the gospel ministry is preaching and teaching.  We should never underestimate the power of proclamation.  It may seem an outmoded thing in a day like ours, but it is the way that God advances the gospel of the kingdom.  Notice that the disciples, by their preaching and teaching, were themselves now preparing the way of the Lord. 

John is in prison.  His job had been to prepare the way for the Lord.  In God's providence,  mysterious as it was, John has been taken off of the scene.  But God has now raised up twelve in John's place to go into the villages of Judea, proclaiming the way of the Lord,  preparing them to hear Jesus and the message which Jesus is preaching.  We must never ever think that there is anyone who is indispensable to God's work.  We're all expendable in God's kingdom.  If we had been living in those days, we might have been lamenting and saying ‘how can God's work go on without a man like John?  Is there anyone else around here of his stature?’  And then we would have looked quickly to Jesus’ disciples and I suspect we might at that time have sort of shook our heads, “They’re going to replace John?  Those guys?  That's what God’s giving us in the place of John the Baptist?  The man who dressed funny and ate funny food and was thought of as a hermit but dared to proclaim the truth of God to kings.  You’re going to bring these guys as his replacement?”  Well that’s precisely what God did.  He raised up these twelve men to prepare the way for His Son in the preaching of the gospel.  Wherever the Lord loses a servant in His goodness, He raises up another witness and there is no one indispensable to that work, for God Himself causes it to be carried on. 

Notice again, that Jesus as a good teacher, teaches His disciples to go out and minister on their own.  He sends them out, preaching and teaching.  It would have been very tempting for those disciples to want Jesus to be physically present with them, but Jesus Himself knew that in only a short time He was not going to be physically present with them at all.  And it was now the time to learn how to minister without Him being near by, for they would have to carry on the bulk of their ministry with the Lord Jesus Christ locally present in glory, and not physically present next to them.  Jesus Himself doesn’t even stay in the launching point or the home base.  He goes out and begins preaching and teaching, lest His disciples get out on the mission field and think, ‘Hmm this isn’t going so well.  I'll go back to where Jesus is.’  He’s out on the field preaching as well, and they had to learn how to minister without Him being physically present.

We ourselves, as believers in the time in which God has brought us into the world, must learn how to live the Christian life without the Lord Jesus being physically present with us.  Oh, He is present with us by the power of the Spirit.  He indwells us; we are in Him and He is in us.  But how many times do we think that it would be so much easier if He were physically present with us there?  He knew that temptation to lean on Him too much in that way, and so He sends His disciples out from Him.  They must live the truth.  They must teach the truth without Him being next to them. 

We learn best, don't we, by teaching.  And what we teach, we learn best by living.  And that’s precisely what Jesus calls on the disciples to do.  I mean, it's wonderful to sit under a good lecturer.  It’s wonderful to hear someone who can really explain the Scriptures.  It's wonderful to have the Sunday School teachers that we’re blessed with at First Presbyterian Church, who study and work and give us fabulous teaching from the Scripture, but there’s nothing like having to prepare the sixth grade Sunday school lesson yourself.  It rubs your nose in the truth.  You have to learn how to present it.  You have to decide what are the important things because you’ve only got so many minutes to do this.  What are the important things that you’re going to stress from this passage?  In the very context of having to teach ourselves, we learn the truth in the way that we wouldn’t otherwise.  And of course, precisely in the midst of the most difficult circumstances of our lives, we learn the truth in an entirely different way, don't we?  We can glibly talk about the sovereignty of God, but when the world is crashing around our ears, believing that and embracing that truth is an entirely different matter, and we learn things that we thought we once knew in new and deeper and broader and higher ways, precisely when God makes us live that truth.  It either makes us or breaks us, doesn’t it? 

The Lord Jesus has put His disciples precisely in those circumstances.  Here’s the gospel to the kingdom.  You've been feasting under My teaching on it for these last many months.  Now you're going to go out and proclaim it, and now you're going to go out and live it, and you're going to have to trust God because those people are going to hate you when you proclaim it.  And you're going to have to trust God because you don't know where your next meal is coming from.  And you're going to have to trust God because the kingdom that I'm asking you to proclaim is very different from the way that you conceived it about six months ago.  Kind of like the Christian life, isn't it?  And so, the Lord Jesus, as the master teacher, sends His disciples out on their own mission.   

II. We are reminded here that even the most mature believers can experience serious doubts.
We also see in this passage, in verses two and three, John's struggle.  And I don't want to say this in a morbid way, but we kind of appreciate the fact that John is struggling with doubt.  We're glad to see that there's someone else, even of John's stature, who's wrestling with his faith in a dark time because we know that we've been there.  We may be there right now.  You may be there right now.  And we learn in verses two and three that even the most mature believer can have serious struggles with doubt. 

Notice, again the words, “Now when John, while in prison  heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?'"  The chapter begins with John, this mighty preacher that is unquestionably of the hand of God.  He has proclaimed the truth, prepared the way for the Messiah, and he's imprisoned.  He's in a gloomy prison fortress about five miles east of the Dead Sea, one of the palaces of Herod Antipas, and his ministry is cut off.  He's not able to do what God made him to do.  God made this man to preach.  He made this man to prophesy, and He's now not able to carry on that work.  And John, in this circumstance, struggles with doubt.  He's the herald of the Messiah, and his heart is quivering with doubt. 

Seminary students, this is an aside, if anyone ever asks you whether constance and complete assurance is of the essence of faith, you turn them to Matthew chapter eleven verses two and three. Case closed.  Move on to the next point.  Even John has times in his Christian experience, if we can speak that way, in which he struggles with faith.  John is in prison.  That perplexes him.  John is alone.  That perplexes him.  John has preached a message emphasizing the passages of the Old Testament which say that when the Messiah comes He will set things right in Israel.  He will purify Israel.  He will bring judgment on the wicked.  He will release those who are oppressed.  He will restore order in the land.  He will draw all people back to God.  And John is in prison.  He is imprisoned by the grossest, most immoral adulterer possible, Herod Antipas.  And John’s wondering,  ‘What gives here?’ 

Now I want you to know what John had been proclaiming about the Messiah.  Turn back with me to Matthew chapter three.  I could go to different passages in Luke and other places as well to stress the tenor and focus and the themes of John's preaching, but this will do as well as any, Matthew 3:7.  Notice what John says when the Pharisees and the Sadducees approach, “You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  You see, John's emphasis is on the fact that when Messiah comes He will bring wrath against self-righteousness, and against wickedness.  He goes on to say, “Therefore, bear fruit in keeping with repentance, and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves,  ‘We have Abraham for our father’ for I say to you from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.  The axe is already laid at the root of the trees.  Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand and He will thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and He will gather His wheat into the barn, and He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  

Hell, fire and brimstone.  That's John.  John is proclaiming those passages which certainly say that the Messiah will set things straight.  He will bring judgment.  He will judge iniquity.  He will spare the remnant.  He will cleanse Israel.  And He will rain down unquenchable fire on the wicked.  John has been proclaiming this in his teaching, and he hears of Christ's preaching and His deeds while he's there in the prison, and even though those deeds, those reports of deeds, give him encouragement, they also perplex him, because John himself is unjustly in prison.  And John knows that Isaiah said that when Messiah comes, He will proclaim release to the captives.  And he’s wondering, ‘Maybe I missed something here.  Maybe I jumped to a conclusion.  I don't understand.’  And so he sends his disciples right to Jesus to inquire. 

And we see that John is struggling with some of the same misconceptions that Jesus' disciples were struggling with in Matthew chapter ten, and which Jesus labored a whole chapter long full of instructions to try and correct.  Jesus' disciples thought that when He set up his kingdom it was going to be a triumphal kingdom of might, of power.  He was going to reign over Israel.  He was going to kick out all the enemies of God's people, and He was going to establish rule by power. 

And John himself was expecting the king and the kingdom to burst on Israel with outward power.  He had not anticipated that the Messiah might be a Servant King.  Granted, John was recognizing an element that is definitely there in the Old Testament teaching about the Messiah.  The Messiah will bring judgment.  The Messiah will clear the threshing floor.  He will judge the wicked. 

But he was missing another emphasis that was just as certainly there in the Old Testament teaching.  The teaching of the servanthood of the Messiah.  And in response to John's question, Jesus is going to take him right back to the Scriptures and remind him of a truth that even the great John has overlooked apparently, or not understood as fully as he ought, and which is now the source of part of his doubts. 

There are so many applications of this passage we could hardly enumerate them today, but one thing is certain. That we must not be surprised when mature believers struggle with doubt.  Doubt is the enemy of faith.  We should never underestimate the seriousness of doubt, but we should never be surprised when even the believer who has walked with God for many years struggles with doubt, especially in difficult circumstances, and especially when we face disappointment, disappointment to the point that our hope is broken.  And that's precisely where John is.  John is in a gloomy prison cell, and all the action is out there.  He's been made to preach, and he can't preach. 

If you've ever read the letters of Samuel Rutherford, you know how that man felt when He was exiled to Aberdeen.  He wanted to be preaching the gospel to his people, and the king sent him to Aberdeen and kept him under house arrest.  And his heart breaks because he wants to preach the gospel to those people.  He loves them, and he wants to tell them the truth.  And here's John in a prison.  He wants to be preaching, and that's not God's will for him, and those circumstances cause doubt. 

And then there's disappointment.  He had been waiting for the Messiah to come in and clean house.  He was tired of what the Pharisees and the Sadducees were doing to his people.  He wanted to see the Messiah set them straight.  And the Lord Jesus is preaching and He's doing some incredible things, but John doesn't see the Sadducees and the Pharisees being kicked out of the Sanhedrin.  He doesn't see the Romans being kicked out of Judea.  It's just not like what he imagined.  He's disappointed.  His hopes are crushed.  And if you're in a place like that, where your circumstances are dark and your hopes have been crushed, it's not surprising that you would struggle with doubt.  That's not to say that our faith is based on our circumstances.  It's not.  But it's ridiculous to say that our circumstances will have no effect whatsoever on our faith.  When we're in that kind of circumstance we may expect our faith to be tested.  Even John, the mighty John - and if you had to go to the fiery furnace with somebody, it'd be John the Baptist.  You'd want him by your side - but even John is struggling in this circumstance. 

We must also not miss the emphasis that John missed here.  Jesus' servanthood is not to be missed in the proclamation of the gospel.  It is the warrant of faith.  Jesus' servanthood is the thing by which He draws the world to Himself.  Yes, it is true that He is the Judge.  Yes, it is true that He is the Messiah who will set all accounts straight.  But it is the fact that He has come to serve to the point of the giving of His life for unworthy sinners  that causes the heart of the world to melt before Him and be drawn to Him.  And that must not be missed in our proclamation. 

Now I want to say this about John.  John knows the right question to ask.  He's in prison, and He tells his disciples, you go to Him and you ask Him, “Are you the Messiah, or are we to look for someone else?”  John puts his finger right on the ultimate question.  John puts his finger right on the most important question that any man or woman in this world could ask: is Jesus the Messiah, or are we to look for someone else?  There's no way that you can answer any way but yes or no to that.  There's no, “Hmm, no big deal.” There's no, “Hmm, I don't know.”  There's yes or no.  He's either the Messiah or He's not.  It's that simple.  And John knows enough to put his finger right on that question.  And that reminds us today, my friends, that we ourselves must answer that question.  We must either embrace Him as Messiah, or we must reject Him.  Whether we reject Him openly or by default, rejection is rejection.  And so John points us to that ultimate question.   

III.    We are reminded here that saving faith is grounded in the word of God and the work of Jesus.         
And then we see Jesus’ reply in verses four through six.  John's struggle evokes this incredible reply from our Lord and Savior.  And we're reminded there that the saving faith is grounded in the word of God and in the works of Christ.  That's where saving faith is based.  It's grounded in the word of God and in the works of Christ.  And notice again these words, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see.  The blind receive sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.  And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’” 

Jesus takes John's disciples directly to the Scriptures, and then He says, ‘Now what have you seen Me do with your own eyes, and what have you heard Me do with your own ears.  And you look at what the Scriptures say Messiah will do, and you think about what you've seen Me do in these villages, and you tell Me, am I the Messiah?’  Jesus takes them directly to the word of God, and then He takes them to the works that He is performing, the gospel that He is proclaiming, and He's saying, ‘Now you just tell Me.  Am I the Messiah?’  

Now Jesus, in particular, takes these disciples to two passages in Isaiah. Now it is important to understand that Jesus is not only giving John assurance here, He's giving him a little lesson in biblical interpretation.  We've already said that John wants to stress the judgment that the Messiah is going to bring.  And so Jesus takes him right to passages where the judgment of the Messiah is stressed, but He points him to the parts of those passages which stress the servanthood of the Messiah. 

First, in Isaiah 35:4-6.  Now I want you to note that the section which Jesus references in his comments to John are in verses five and six.  But I want you to go back to verse four, because Jesus knows that when He quotes these passages to John, or His disciples quote these passages to John on His behalf, that John's going to know the context, because John's preached this passage before.  John knows Isaiah 35:4 just as well as he knows Isaiah 35:5-6.  And look what Jesus has for him there.  “Say to those with anxious heart, 'take courage, fear not.  Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’” John knows that passage well.  He's preached it many times.  But look what Jesus points him to.  “When the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.  Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy.”  

Now turn back to Matthew 11.  Keep your finger there in Isaiah.  And look what Jesus says to him in Matthew 11:5, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.”  And He says,  ‘Look, John's disciples, what have you seen Me do?  I've given sight to the blind, I've made the lame walk.  I've caused those who are deaf to hear again.’  And furthermore, the Lord Jesus says,  “and the dead are raised up.”  In fact the Lord Jesus is saying,  ‘I've done more than even Isaiah predicted I would do.  I'm raising the dead.’  

The other gospel passage speaks about the resurrection passage of the son of the widow of Nain.  Jesus says, ‘I'm doing more than what Isaiah even predicted.’  But He reminds him side by side with that passage which spoke of the Messiah coming in judgment, and He says, ‘Yes, but look what else that passage says.’  Jesus doesn't teach John here the distinction between the first and the second coming.  You might wish that He would have stopped and given him a little message in eschatology right here.  But Jesus hadn't even done that for his disciples yet.  He told His disciples they couldn't understand that yet.  They were still on the rudiments.  So He certainly doesn't stop to explain that to John.  We could see that from hindsight.  We could say, “Oh, ok I understand.  Jesus' second coming will be the coming of judgment.  Right now He's manifesting His humility and servanthood and calling all to come to Him who are burdened, who are weary and who are heavy laden.”  But that's what's going in this passage. 

Now, if you'll turn with me to Isaiah 61:1-2, this is the second passage which Jesus references.  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”  Again, John knew that passage.  In fact, it may well have been that passage that was causing John his problems.  I mean, that passage,  doesn't it say that when the servant of the Lord comes, when the Messiah comes, He will proclaim release to the captives?  And John was a captive.  He was a prisoner.  And the Lord Jesus hadn't even come to visit him.  He hadn't come to attempt to get him out of prison.  He was being ignored for all John knew.  The Lord Jesus quotes that passage and points John to aspects of that teaching, of that messianic prophecy, that John was not grasping, which he wasn't reflecting on, which he had not understood. 

The Scriptures, you see, my friends, are our first stop in struggles with doubt.  For though, our circumstances may be the occasion of our doubt, it is the lack of grasp of the truth of Scripture which enables our doubt to get a foothold on us.  And Jesus deals with John's doubt tenderly and pastorly by helping him to understand a message that he was missing from the scriptures. 

You see, the Messiah was a little bit different than John expected.  He was better.  That's the way it always is with us and Jesus.  He's always a little bit different that we expected.  He's better.  And it is precisely in our struggle with doubt that the Lord Jesus teaches us that He's better, He's got majesty that we can't imagine.  And the tenderness of the way He deals with His struggling disciple ought to convince you of the tender way that He's going to deal with you in your doubt.  Here is John, the herald of the kingdom.  You can imagine, this would have cost Jesus dearly in public relations.  This is the man who first announced Him as the one that was sent by the Lord to rectify things in Israel, and now he's doubting, but the Lord Jesus deals with him tenderly.  He says to him, “Blessed is the one who does not take offense at Me.”  Tender encouragement.  Tender rebuke to John.  ‘John, don't stumble over Me.  Don't stumble at those things that you have a hard time grasping about Me, because I'm bigger than you thought and I'm better that you thought.’  Jesus' infinite greatness and majesty is displayed in the way that He deals with John.  John was the greatest prophet that the Lord had sent.  He was godly; He was bold; and yet he's trembling at this point.  And the Lord Jesus shows His greatness by helping His servant, John, in his struggle. 

If John can struggle, you can struggle.  If John can struggle, you will struggle.  If you're not there now, you will be.  And you need to know that in your weakness and in your doubt, you have a Savior who is so strong that He can help you, and He's so gentle that He will embrace you and He will not let you go when you don't have the strength to hang on.  Let's look to Him in prayer.   

Our Lord and God, we thank You for the Savior that You sent us, for He is strong. He's so strong we tremble in His presence.  And He's so gentle that there are no other arms in the world that we would rather be in.  So help us to trust His strength and His goodness, and we'll give you all the praise and all the glory.  Amen.

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