Belief and uncertainty: a case study in John the Baptist

The Gospel of John tells us that John the Baptist was a witness, sent by God to testify of the Light, of Jesus. A witness is one with knowledge, who is called to testify of something he has special knowledge about, like one who has seen something himself. John’s testimony is certain. He speaks as a prophet in proclaiming the way of the Lord, as Isaiah predicted. He cried out his testimony, with confidence and conviction.

When he saw Jesus, John called out to those who were there listening to his message, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” He knew, because he saw the dove. He knew because God told him. He knew with certainty.

But he wasn’t always so certain. Jesus said that John was Elijah. But John claimed he wasn’t. He was just one crying out the message God gave him. Beyond that, he didn’t claim any special status for himself. He just cried out what God told him to proclaim.

In the dark days at the end of his life, when John was imprisoned by Herod, John questioned even that. He sent his followers to ask again, to find out if Jesus was in fact the Christ. Things evidently hadn’t gone as John had thought they would. Jesus did not act how John expected him to act. Perhaps John’s belief in the Messiah followed the interpretation of his day, the expectation that Jesus would free the Jews and become their king. In any case, it is clear that even as a prophet, a witness to Jesus coming, he still doubted.

Jesus answered him gently. He did not denounce John’s struggles to understand and believe. He sent back the message John needed to hear. Not an assertion of Jesus’ status as the Christ, as anybody could have claimed, but evidence that John would understand and believe. Jesus didn’t come and free John from prison, or from beheading. He just sent John what John needed to hear in his dark final days in order to keep the faith.

It is encouraging to me to see John’s struggles, and Jesus response. In my moments and days of doubt, Jesus understands, and he sends me the response I need.

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