Sermon Notes + Quotes:
We study through books of the Bible here at the Village Chapel and today is no different, as we’re going to continue our study in the book of Matthew that we’re calling the King and his Kingdom. Raise your hand if you’d like a paper copy and someone will hand deliver it to you. Someone will. If you remember last week, Pastor Tommy led us through the back half of chapter 10, where Jesus is getting ready to send his disciples out on their very first road trip, their very first mission.
And he’s instructing them and reminding them to follow the same pattern in preaching that he did, of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, cleansing the leper, raising the dead, casting out demons. He cautions them against the opposition that they’re going to face, but then also encourages them in the love and care of the Father.
Well, this week, we’re going to go through the first half of chapter 11. And as the disciples are away on their mission, Jesus is continuing His mission preaching in cities, preaching, and teaching. And this awkward, weird, uncomfortable thing happens while He’s teaching. Some of John’s disciples come to listen to him and then to speak to him. And John’s in prison now, which we’ll talk about in a little bit. But he’s been hearing things about the way Jesus is conducting his ministry.
So, he sends the disciples to Jesus to ask him this very pointed question: are you the one who is to come, or should I look for another? Should we look for another. Man, that is awkward, isn’t it? Are you really the Messiah that I’ve been telling everybody and pointing to you or is it somebody else? Because something’s not lining up here.
Michael Green in the Bible Speaks Today commentary on Matthew says this:
“The word of God in the ancient scriptures and the works of God displayed in the miracles of Jesus do indeed point him out as the king who has come to bring in the kingdom. The word of God and the works of God. Both of these do indeed point to Jesus as being the one.”Michael Green, the Bible Speaks Today
Amen. And I think we need to remind ourselves of that because faith is hard. Life is hard. You don’t need me to tell you that. Following Jesus sometimes looks different than we expected it to.
Some of us might have come in this morning with a cup overflowing, just full of faith and confidence in the Lord. And yet, I suspect that some of us come in with a bucket full of doubt, wondering what in the world is going on, because overnight maybe, your life has just turned from rock solid topsy turvy. And you might have even come in this morning wondering, “God, are you even there? Do you even care?” In his book The Preacher’s Catechism. Lewis Allen says,
“Faith is anything but natural or straightforward. Ours is not a simple or an easy reflex to trust in Jesus when life is horrible, and sometimes even when life is wonderful.”Lewis Allen, the Preacher’s Catechism
How does Jesus handle this doubt coming from his own cousin? And how does he handle doubt coming from us? Is it a sin to doubt? Is it a sin to ask questions? How does Jesus respond when we ask this very same question that John asked: “Jesus? Man, are you the one? Are you for real? Can I really trust you?” Let’s pray together church, and then let’s read our text and see what the Lord has for us.
Holy heavenly father, we come before you this morning asking that you help us hear your word. Jesus, thank you for being the word and coming to us. Holy spirit, fall fresh on us this morning. Open our hearts and illuminate the words so that we might have a clear vision of your truth, a greater faith in your power, and a more confident assurance of your love. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Let’s read our text. I’m reading out of the ESV, and this is chapter 11, starting in verse one.
When Jesus had finished instructing his 12 disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 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, John’s disciples, and he said, “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.”
As they went away, John began to speak to the crowds concerning John. What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you. And more than a prophet, this is he of whom it is written. Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.
Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John The Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets in the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The first verse, when Jesus had finished instructing his 12 disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. And I got this sense, reading this first verse that Jesus is continuing his mission as the disciples are out on their own road trip. But there also seems to be some personal care implied here. He didn’t just go to any city, right? He went to the disciples’ cities to continue teaching and preaching, where their families live.
There’s a foundation called the Seal Family Foundation, which cares for families of Navy Seals when they’re out and deployed on mission. And I’m sure that all of the armed forces have different foundations like this. And that’s the kind of sense that I get with Jesus preaching in the disciples’ cities. Man, we don’t serve a detached king. As we serve Him, He is still caring for us.
Well, John was in prison. We read about that in chapter four of Matthew, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who is the current ruler in Galilee, he had divorced his wife so he could marry his brother Philip’s wife. John heard about this, and John being the fire brand prophet that he was, called Antipas out publicly for doing this and said that it was not right in the Lord’s eyes. Well, Antipas being the despotic ruler that he is immediately threw John into Machaerus prison, which is way out east of the Dead Sea somewhere.
And you’ve got to think from John’s perspective, here he is in prison, not knowing what’s going to happen. And, we know that he’s going to be beheaded in a few chapters. But he has no idea what’s going on. He was expecting the Christ to come and pronounce blessing on those who had repented, but then also pronounce judgment on those who were unrepentant. Like he said in chapter three when he was talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff, he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
You’ve got to figure, at this point, John is wondering, wait, why am I still in prison? And how come Jesus hasn’t already visited Herod Antipas with unquenchable fire? So, John sends his disciples off to Jesus to ask this question of him. “Man, I hear how your ministry’s going. I’m seeing all this grace and all this blessing. I’m not seeing this judgment. What’s going on here?”
Well, how does Jesus respond to this? Out of everyone that Jesus knows and has encountered, John is the one that says this to Him. John, his cousin, whom He’s known all His life. John, who is the one that, has been prophesied as the herald, the one who is coming to prepare the way of the Messiah. John the Baptist who, in the gospel of John, said when he saw Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
This same John that baptized Jesus, that saw the holy spirit descend on Jesus like a dove and heard the father’s audible voice from heaven saying, “Behold, this is my son and who I am well pleased.” This same John, he’s the one that’s asking this question, “Are you the one? You sure you’re the one?” And look how gently Jesus reminds John of who He is. He reminds John of all that has been foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapters 35 and 61.
He tells John’s disciples, he says, “Hey, go back and report to John what you see and hear. The sick are healed, the blind received their sight, the lame can now walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to him. He’s telling John, “John, go back to your scriptures. Go back to Isaiah 35 and 61 and read that. This is exactly what was prophesied. This is exactly what I’m doing.”
Just like Michael Green said,
“Indeed, the word of God from the ancient scripture and the works of God displayed in Jesus’ miracles, they are all pointing to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the coming king.”Michael Green
Well, as Jesus in verse seven, as he sends off John’s disciples, he turns to the crowd and starts addressing them. And I think he does this intentionally while John’s disciples are still in earshot. He’s just had the gentlest of rebukes for John if you can even call it that.
And now, he turns to the crowd, and He gives John this ringing endorsement in spite of what John’s disciples have just asked, Jesus said, “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind?” Did you go out to see this namby-pamby feel good guru? Someone who is just going to teach whatever’s fashionable, whatever fad is around? Somebody who wears the trendiest clothes? No. You went out in the wilderness to hear and see a prophet. Man, that is exactly what you saw.
You saw a prophet, and you saw more than a prophet. He’s not only a prophet, he’s also been prophesied about. He’s a herald, he’s a witness to the coming king. Jesus finishes this by saying that among those born of women, there is none greater than John. And as Pastor Jim has pointed out before in the past, there’s only two people in the world that have not been born of a woman: Adam and Eve. And here, Jesus is saying, “Man, everybody ever since John the Baptist is greater than all of these.” What a commendation.
But then, he says the most curious thing, he says that the least in the kingdom is greater than John the Baptist. And what in the world does he mean by that? Some commentators think that he says this because, on the one hand, John is considered the last of the great Old Testament prophets, right? And he does see Jesus alive and see Jesus beginning his ministry, but he doesn’t see the fullness of the kingdom that is inaugurated with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
As great as John is, the least in the kingdom of heaven has seen something that John doesn’t get to see, at least not in this earthly life. And then, the very next verse, verse 12. Boy, this is one of the hardest verses to understand in a whole New Testament. From the days of John, the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force. What in the world does that mean?
Well, I think there’s actually a couple of meanings. The most obvious would be that Jesus, the night He’s arrested, He’s taken by force. He’s taken by violence. He is sentenced to death on a Roman cross, this most violent of deaths. But this violent death is what brings us radical new life, right? Now, I think you can also interpret this meaning a little bit that there is opposition to the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is rejected and opposed by the kingdom of this world, as is the king.
Well, Jesus finishes out His commendation of John saying that all of the law and the prophets have prophesied until John. Again, implying that John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. And remember that in a few chapters, we’re going to read about Jesus being up on the Mount of Transfiguration. And there, Moses and Elijah appear, and they have a brief conversation with Jesus, and that’s implying that Jesus is both the fulfillment of the law through Moses, and the prophets through Elijah. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this.
And He compares John to Elijah who also cried out in the wilderness, and also wrestled with doubt. And Jesus finally says in verse 15, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” He’s saying, “Pay attention.” Pay attention or else you’ll miss the deeper meaning here. Well, what can we take away from this passage? Can we doubt? Are we allowed to doubt? Is it a sin to doubt? What happens when we doubt? Does God zap us when we doubt?
I think the first takeaway that I’ve been thinking about this week while studying this is that:
- Faith and doubt are companions, not adversaries.
I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith. I think willful disbelief is the opposite of faith. Jesus recognizes the difference between honest doubt and willful disbelief. All through the Bible, we read of people who are heroes in the Bible, who are godly characters. They wrestle with doubt.
Abraham wrestled with doubt. Moses wrestled with doubt. King David, a man after God’s own heart, wrestled with doubt. Elijah wrestled with doubt. John The Baptist, and then Thomas the Apostle. After Jesus’ resurrection, the first time he comes and visits the disciples, Thomas is not there. Later on, the disciples say, “Thomas, we’ve seen Jesus. He’s alive.” And what does Thomas say? He goes, “Nope. Not going to believe it until I can see the nail scars in His hand and put my hand in that hole in His side. Till then, I’m not going to believe it.”
Eight days later, they’re in the locked room again. Jesus appears to him. First thing He says: “Thomas, come here. Take your hand and look at the nail scars in My hand. Take your hand and put it in the hole in My side.” And what does Thomas do at that point? He just falls to his knees and says, “My Lord and my God.” That’s how Jesus responds to honest doubt.
And yet, as we’ve seen and will continue to see, he deals severely with willful disbelief, especially from the religious authorities who had set their hearts and minds against Him. Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond said it like this:
“Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe. Unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty. Unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light. Unbelief is content with darkness.”Henry Drummond
Friends, when we doubt, we’re asking questions which can strengthen our faith and lead us to a deeper walk with Jesus. And yet, if we stubbornly cling to willful disbelief, we’re content with the darkness. As believers, we know how the story ends, right? That’s not in question. It is an amazing ending to the story. And yet, it’s the in between for all of us, for our individual stories, that we don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
And I know that some of us here are contending with really hard circumstances, some of which are probably not going to change this side of heaven. But we are encouraged to remain in relationship with the author of the story. If you think about it, if the place that we look for ultimate truth is in a story, this story right here, the Bible, and if we’re still in the middle of the story, we’re walking by faith and not by sight. We’re going to have doubts. We know the end of the story, but man, we’re right in the middle of it, and who knows what’s going to happen next?
But we are invited to walk in relationship with the author of the story, who promises he will never leave us or forsake us. Proverbs chapter nine, verse 10 tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the holy one is insight.” And then Proverbs 14:15 tells us, “The simple believes everything.” That’s recipe for disaster, isn’t it? “But the prudent gives thought to his steps.” Doubt is not a sin; doubt is the prudent giving thought to his steps. The examined life.
The faculty of doubt, I would say, is essential. But doubt rests on faith and not the other way around. The capacity to doubt given to us as a gift by the Lord. The capacity to doubt to question is normal and necessary, but its role is derivative of faith. We can’t prove scientifically whether there is a God or isn’t. And I would say that the atheist lives a life of faith just the same way that we do.
In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
Isn’t that awesome? Our faith, it needs to be alive and moving and growing. We need to be prodded, and thoughtful, and examining, and prudent as we go ever on and ever deeper with Jesus.
I just read this story a couple of days ago in the news. In 1996, NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency all started together on this project that ended up lasting 25 years and cost $10 billion. And last Christmas day, a rocket launched carrying the James Webb space telescope on a journey of a million miles out into space, and its finally found its parking place. Amazing GPS, Apple maps, thank you.
But next week, NASA is going to start releasing some of the first photos that this telescope has taken. One of the things that it can do, it can take pictures of the universe in infrared. And whereas the Hubble telescope showed us thousands of galaxies, this telescope is 100 times more powerful than Hubble and can show us over a million galaxies. And evidently, scientists are crazy excited about it.
And if you think about it, there are over seven billion people on our planet. I don’t know the exact number. But as Jim calls it, our little dust bowl of the planet, tucked away in our little solar system, in our little corner of the Milky Way galaxy. And then you start thinking of, the current estimate is over two trillion galaxies in the universe. Friends, statistically, numerically, we’re insignificant. Staggeringly insignificant.
And yet, but God, the creator of all those galaxies, and all the stars in those galaxies, who numbers the stars and calls them by name, also knows each of us and the number of hairs on our head. Psalm 147 versus three and four tells us, “He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of stars. He gives to all of them their names.”
Just in the last week or so, I’ve started thinking about what in the world those two sentences, those two verses have to do with each other? I’ve always loved those two verses, but why are they side by side? And I think it’s God’s way of telling us how truly significant we are.
We matter. You matter.
You matter to the creator of the universe who created two trillion galaxies, numbers the stars, calls them by name. But He also knows you. He knows your heartache. He knows the number of hairs on your heads. He binds up your wounds. That is unbelievable, isn’t it?
And that brings us to our second point from this passage. The significance that God places on us.
- Deserving judgment, we are surprised by grace of grace.
What a surprise grace is, the fact that the creator of all that ever is or all that ever will be created us in His image. And then, when we messed it up, His response is not to bring the judgment that we deserve, but to bring us grace. Overflowing grace, and a plan to bring us back home to Him.
No matter your culture, no matter your faith, even if you subscribe to a belief system that basically is no faith, we can all say things are not the way they were meant to be. Paradise is lost. Our toys are broken. And yet, the difference between Christianity and every other faith is that every other faith says, “Do this in order to get to God.” And only in Christianity does the creator of those two trillion galaxies, the author of this story, come down and enter the story to come save us and bring us home. What surprising grace that is.
Moody Bible Pastor Harry Ironside said this about grace: “Grace is the very opposite of merit. Grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor shown to the one who has deserved the very opposite.” Friends, deserving judgment, we are surprised, aren’t we, by grace? John The Baptist wanted Jesus to come in with vengeance, swinging the acts of judgment, hitting the roots, and cutting down the trees of all the unrepentant.
But I think Jesus would say to John, “John, if I come in swinging the ax”, no one will survive. So, He brings grace, and judgment does fall, but He bears it for our benefit. G.K. Chesterton said it this way:
“To love means loving the unlovable.” That’s what God does for us. “To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”G.K. Chesterton
That’s what Jesus has done for us on the cross. God’s capacity to forgive is far greater than our capacity to sin. As far as our sin reaches, His grace and mercy and forgiveness reach farther still. As deep as we fall, God’s love and mercy reach even farther down at our lowest point, God is there to meet us with unending grace. That is the gospel of good news that Jesus is proclaiming to the poor, that He told John’s disciples about. “This is what I’m teaching.”
And our last point that I think we can take away from this passage in response to doubt and to faith:
- Believers, adventure awaits.
I said this earlier, we do know how the story ends, right? But we don’t know what the rest of the right is going to be like for each of us. When Jesus comes into our lives and we yield to him, and it changes everything. And I’m not talking about getting a new puppy changing things, I’m talking about really changing our world.
And it’s literally, in the best sense, like a roller coaster ride, because even as I’m up here talking right now this morning, Jesus is writing the story of our lives, yours and mine. And we don’t know what’s around the next curve. Just like a coaster when you’re going up and up and up and up and you crest that rise? We don’t know what’s on the other side. But we know who is on the ride with us, and we know who’s going to welcome us home at the end of the ride.
Martha Finley was a lady who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She wrote Sunday school books and children’s stories. And I just somehow ran across this quote of hers this week, and man, I love it.
“God calls us to a wild adventure, not a tea party, my dear. I don’t follow Jesus because he can give me a life without pain. I follow him because He is good. Sunday. I will follow him right through death and into our heavenly father’s house.”Martha Finley
Friends, when we finish the literal ride of our lives, we’ll find that Jesus was both our companion on the journey and the destination of our journey. Amen. He’s going to meet us, say, “Welcome home,” and bring us into his arms.
I’m going to close with this quote from Lesslie Newbigin, who was an English missionary and author of a bunch of books. He’s got this book called Proper Confidence that I would recommend. It’s just talking a lot about faith and doubt and certainty, and why we believe, and how we believe. And he says, “The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of demonstrable and indubitable knowledge. It’s the confidence of one who has heard and answered the call that comes from God through whom and for whom all things were made: ‘follow me.'”
Friends, Jesus is not afraid of our doubt. Our doubt doesn’t anger him. He doesn’t shame us when we doubt. No, this is how Jesus responds to our doubt. When we’re in the belly of the boat and the storms are surrounding us, Jesus comes walking to us on the water in the middle of the night and says, “Don’t fear. I’m here.”
When we say, “Jesus, I just can’t believe until I can actually see the nail holes in Your hand.” He says, “My son, my daughter, look, look, see how much I loved you.” Jesus knows we’re hungry for hope, that our souls crave consolation, that we pray for the peace of a forgiven spirit. We’re worn out with carrying our own little world on our two shoulders. And the creator of two trillion galaxies, He says, “Come to me. Come to me all you who fear and doubt, and who weep and cry out, and are burdened by a burden that you’re not meant to carry. Come to me. I will give you rest. I will give you what your heart longs for the most.”
Jesus’ response to our fear and our doubt is to give us Himself. He says to the fisherman, to the tax collector, to the zealot, to the trader, to you and to me, He looks each of us in the eye and He says, “Come follow me.”
Let’s pray, church. Lord, we are grateful for your word and for your works. Jesus, there are times when it is desperately hard to believe, desperately hard to carry on. And we are so grateful that you stand there and you say, “It’s okay. I am here. I’m with you. Come to me. Follow me. I’m not ever going to leave you.” Jesus, we bring our cares to you this morning, and we ask that you give us full confident assurance of your love and your presence in our lives. Come what may, you are there with us, and you will welcome us home. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.