John the Baptist Superstar, Pt 1: Dealing with Christian Doubt

I will go out on a limb and say that I believe I have come across the optimal way to assess the force, vigor, toughness, versatility, and overall manliness of a film actor.[1] Simply ask this question: how well would this actor do in portraying John the Baptist?

Even the Greek Orthodox iconography of John portrays him as the ultimate warrior poet.
[Even the Greek Orthodox iconography of John portrays him as the ultimate warrior poet.]
Think about it. John the Baptist is, on one level, a man’s man. Living in the wilderness, practicing a bizarre diet, preaching in-your-face truths, picking a fight with the king, dressing in, shall we say, a unique fashion. Yet he wasn’t a blunt force of pure masculinity like a Samson. Hence, this combination rules out the jocks (like Vin Diesel or Wayne Johnson), the too-suave-and/or-good-looking (Leonardo diCaprio, Matt Damon, and Will Smith: love you guys, but you’re out) and the wimpy/goofy guys (sorry Elijah Woods and Tobey Maguire). John was an oddball, for sure, but somehow Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis do not seem to fit the bill, either.

John the Baptist was not, however, just a first century version of Bear Grylls. He possesd penetrating insight into spiritual truths. He led a following of people characterized by, of all things, this odd thing of “baptism for the repentance of sins.” He was both warrior and philosopher. He was the consummate warrior-poet. Thus, many actors with the chops to portray the philosopher side but who are lacking on the warrior are out of the running (apologies to Messrs. Hanks, Hoffman, and Clooney).

So that leaves us with a few actors who might make a go at John the Baptist. Denzel, maybe, but of late his characters have been a bit one-dimensional in their dysfunction or anger issues. Brad Pitt from 10 years ago might be convincing. Pacino/De Niro of 20 years ago would have gotten that casting, but they wouldn’t fit the bill now. Christian Bale has both aspects, but Batman cannot be John the Baptist. Clint Eastwood could direct it, for sure, but Dirty Harry, likewise, cannot play John.

So that leaves basically one option: Russell Crowe. How could we not go with the guy who plays the Gladiator, Javert, Robin Hood, Jim Braddock (the boxer), John Nash, and Noah? (You can now thank me for sticking the image of Russell Crowe in your head every time you read about John the Baptist).

Through the guise of this admittedly over-analyzed discussion, I wanted to introduce a short series of posts on the man who, in my opinion, is one of the most fascinating figures in the Bible.

The Voice of the One

There are literally thousands of characters in the OT. Many of the men and women from the OT are mentioned retrospectively in the NT, such as Abraham, David, Moses, Jacob, Esau, Rahab, Ruth, Sarah, Hagar, Isaiah, Elijah, and a few others (e.g., in the so-called “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11). The NT often looks back at OT figures when dealing with the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises or to mine the riches of their personalities or lives as an example for us today (see point 3 here).

However, I can only think of two specific individuals where the reverse is true: who live in the NT era but who also feature prominently in the OT. The first is obviously Jesus. The second is none other than John the Baptist.

The gospels are clear that several OT prophecies refer explicitly to John. In particular:

Isa 40:3: A voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’

Mal 3:1Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Mal 4:5-6Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.

All four gospels feature John’s appearance in Palestine as the precursor to Jesus’ public ministry. In various ways, they portray John’s coming as a fulfillment of these OT texts:

Matthew 3:3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’

Mark 1:2-3: Mark’s gospel actually opens by quoting bits of both Malachi and Isaiah.

Luke: Verse 1:17 quotes Mal 4:5–6 (he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children). Verse 1:76 partially quotes Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1 (you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways). Then 3:4–6 make an additional extend reference to Isaiah.

John 1:23: John himself say, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight[a] the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.

The Jordan River
The Jordan River

John, in other words, is a very big deal in redemptive history. He is foretold in the OT as a central figure who would go before the Lord and prepare the people to receive his coming. All four gospels devote significant attention to him, the most prominent of which is Luke. He served as the bridge-man between two eras: that of the OT and that of the NT. He was, as most scholars agree, the last of the true OT prophets, bleeding over, as it were, into the new era of Christ. Amazingly, his life was foretold by prophets living hundreds of years before his arrival.

His mother and father received visions about his greatness. He was Jesus’ cousin.  He baptized Jesus himself and witnessed God’s own declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship and the anointing of Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

He was a superstar in advancing the Kingdom of God, and he was right there in the mix in the early days of the explosive force of Christ’s coming to achieve salvation.

But John faced a profound crisis of doubt, which often gets overlooked.

John the Baptist’s Crisis

The following passage documents the existential crisis John faced at a particularly dark point of his ministry:

Luke 7:18–2318 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

John was imprisoned for challenging the king. He was waiting to be beheaded. He had announced to the world that Jesus was the Lamb of God. But the kingdom John had foretold had not yet come, or so it seemed to him. He had given up everything to preach about this Jesus who was coming behind him, the guy who was so great that John, despite his widespread reputation, would not be worthy even to untie his sandals. He had preached great expectations—but he was now unsure things were playing out according to plan.

And he faces a significant moment of crisis—of a profound doubt whether Jesus was really the Messiah that he, John, had said he was. His simple question reveals a swirl of doubts.

  • Is Jesus really the one? Did we get the wrong guy?
  • Why is Jesus not doing anything? Where is the kingdom?
  • Was I wrong about him? Was I deluded?
  • Have I wasted everything?
  • Do we have anything to hope for in this man?
  • Am I willing to die for someone that may not even be the right man?

This is a shocking amount of insight into what John was going through.  As one commentator puts it, “Doubts buzzed around his brain like the flies around his face.”

Connecting to the pew: dealing with Christian doubt

Feel the weight of this scene: John, the one foretold by Isaiah the prophet and announced by Gabriel, was doubting whether Jesus was “the one.”

In many Christian circles, including my own, the issue of doubt in the Christian life is not discussed very much. The impression one might get is that all our religious questions as a church body were answered in the Reformation, and that all our questions as individuals are instantaneously resolved upon our conversion. But such is not the case. If nothing else, John’s example shows that true believers can face the most profound of doubts at points in their lives. One can be hit with emotional doubts (facing tragedies in your life, questioning whether God is really good, doubting whether he loves you), intellectual doubts (is the Bible true, how do I reconcile the biblical view of the world with the naturalist view, how can I believe in my own salvation), and even relational doubts (do other Christians love me, can they really forgive me and accept me).

Doubt is a very real thing, and in an era of big-name pastors, media-savvy parachurch ministries, and exhausting arguments about finer points of doctrine, it can be easy to think that no one else has struggles about the Christian life. Sin, yes. But doubt—everyone seems too assured to doubt anything, right?

We need to remember John. He’s a warrior-poet not just because of his clothes and diet and provocative words—but also because he was an intensely “round” character, full of high points and low points and scars. John’s example helps us deal with our own doubts in the Christian life. His question and Jesus’ response gives great insight into approaching doubt in one’s spiritual walk:

  • Do not be afraid to ask. John had presumably grown up with Jesus. He knew the Bible. John was the fulfillment of the OT prophecies, for crying out loud. Of all people, he would have thought that he knew the answer to his own question, that he shouldn’t be facing such turmoil. But he was honest and asked the question: “Please tell me, Lord: are you really the one?” It almost sounds offensive in light of what Jesus had already done so far in his ministry. But John asked nevertheless. We, too, need to be willing to give voice to our doubts when they arise. Stewing over them in isolation only leads to more isolation. By the same token, the church needs to foster a better atmosphere in which doubts can be surfaced. Most churches try to make themselves open to the questions of non-believers, for that is viewed as “normal.” But many churches give little thought to doubts and struggles among their own flock.
  • Be patient, for Jesus answers questions in strange ways sometimes. I have always found Jesus’ response to John’s question a bit odd. He does not visit John and encourage him with a direct answer. In fact, he doesn’t visit John at all. He does more miracles, and then tells the messengers to go tell John what they’ve seen. He doesn’t say, “Yes, I am the one, just sit tight, it will all work out in the end.” He leaves John hanging while he demonstrates his power once again, and then he lets John stew over it some more. Often in moments of doubt, we want an answer (fairly quickly, too) that resolves our questions and sets us at ease. But Jesus does not always work that way. Sometimes the way through a period of doubt is not to seek an “easy” answer, but to struggle some more until Jesus gives you more light. This calls for patience, for the Lord works in roundabout ways.
  • If your own mind is troubled, rest in the church. Note also that in Jesus’ response, he sends the messengers to tell John what Jesus has been doing, rather than go directly himself. This is often the pattern Jesus uses, whereby he enlists the community of faith as his instruments in ministry. When we are struggling personally, that is where the body of the church takes on even greater importance. The Christian life is not “me + Jesus + some good singing on Sunday.” It is a corporate thing. We need the church. When we are facing emotional or intellectual doubts, we need to turn to the body of believers for help, for through them Jesus can administer grace all the more.
  • Remember the facts. Finally, notice how Jesus does not respond to John with an OT quotation, or a parable, or a pithy maxim, or some sort of sermon. He does not respond to him theologically at all, in fact. Rather, he points John to look at the facts: here is what Jesus is doing. These facts give you the answer to your question. While many of our doubts may stem from difficult doctrines, we need to remember that the core of the Christian life is not a set of teachings, but rather a collection of real, historical facts (which form the structure upon which the teachings are built). The central facts of the Christian faith—from creation, to fall, to the incarnation of God in Jesus, to his miracles and recorded teachings, to his death outside Jerusalem on a Roman cross, to his resurrection on the third day, to his ascension—are things that happened in historical reality. Ultimately, like John, we need to see our doubts through the lens of those facts, rather than look at the facts around us through the lens of our doubt. We need to remember, in other words, “what we have seen and heard.” For our minds change all the time through periods of doubt and certainty, but the facts never change.

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[1] I think that sentence alone just violated about 27 rules of political correctness and gender inclusivity. Apologies to Sheryl Sandberg, Elaine Pagels, and the Sophia movement. For the record, I think female actors can portray many of the same attributes.

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