Great Stuff Found on the Web — Better Late than Never, by Wild Boar from the Forest

Pastor Lincoln Winter posted this over on his blog Wild Boar from the Forest, and it brought to mind the sermon that my pastor preached that helped me understand this. This particular pericope has bothered me for most of my life — why does Jesus’ cousin John doubt whether Jesus is the Messiah? He jumped in his mother’s womb when Mary came to visit while pregnant with Jesus. He’s probably known him most of his life. I just could not wrap my mind around why he would doubt.

Here’s Pastor Winter’s take on this pericope:

Better Late than Never (link)

Pastor Lincoln Winter

I know, We’re less than 48 hours from Christmas, and now I post on Advent 3.

I’ve been chewing on this for a week or two, and I’m finally ready to comment.

Advent 3, (John sends his disciples to Jesus) is often interpreted as John, languishing in prison, beginning to doubt that Jesus is the promised one, so he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is truly the Christ.

I have looked, and I am unable to find where this interpretation begins. It is not, in my (admittedly limited) research, in the early church fathers.

Nor is it in Luther, or for that matter Walther. However, it does appear (in subtle form) in Lenski.

But if John doubts, we have a problem.

Jesus does not condemn John’s doubt. He praises John’s steadfastness.

This takes an axe to the first Commandment. In the Large Catechism, Luther goes to great pains to point out that trust is what makes a thing a god, whether it be the True God, or a false god. Whatever we trust in, that is our God.

If John doubts, Jesus praising his steadfastness not only leaves us with no law for this Gospel reading, it totally decimates the entire concept of the law.

This is a fundamental problem.

Indeed, sermons that take the view that John doubted generally have some sort of generic law, but they all leave you with the impression that it is OK to doubt. Now, exegesis is certainly not my strong suit, but I am pretty sure that the Scriptures can be interpreted in no other way than to condemn unbelief. Jesus says, “O ye of little faith” to the disciples, and it is not an endearing term.

Yet, for some reason, Jesus here praises John for his steadfastness in the face of his (supposed) unbelief.

Indeed, Jesus words (no reed broken by the wind) almost necessitate rejecting the “doubting John” theory out of hand.

My recommendation? Go with the traditional explanation : John sent the disciples to Jesus so that they would believe. His has one last chance to point to Jesus, and he takes it.


My Pastor’s explanation of this pericope made a lot of sense to me. His basic statement was that John was expecting a Messiah much like the jewish leadership was — a leader who would immediately bring justice to the world and not let bad things happen to good people. Everything would become glorious with the arrival of God’s son. There would be heaven on earth.

It was therefore perfectly human of John to doubt — he’s been sitting for a year in this prison, looking forward to death and not the glorious life that he expected after the Messiah came. The human in any of us would get dejected and wonder if he understood correctly, and want some kind of reassurance that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

12-12-10 3rd Sunday in Advent — Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-11, Matthew 11:2-15
“Is Jesus What You Expected?”
Rev.Mark Elliott, St John Lutheran Church, Champaign, IL


About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff Found on the Web — Better Late than Never, by Wild Boar from the Forest — 10 Comments

  1. Not to comment to my own post, but I then found this sermon about the same topic, with this quote:

    Christian Expectations, by Pastor Jason Zirbel

    Not surprisingly, there are some people out there who have a hard time accepting this blemish on John’s résumé. Many people have tried to preserve John’s honor and faith by saying that he never had a doubt about Jesus as the Messiah, but his disciples did, which is why he sent them to Jesus to get the proof first-hand. While I don’t doubt that John’s disciples were struggling in their doubt, it is foolish and wrong to think that John was absolutely steadfast and unwavering in his faith. Guys: John was human. John wore sinful flesh, no different than any of us. Like us, he could and did struggle in his faith when the going got tough. This struggle arose out of his expectations and understandings of what the Messiah was supposed to look like, sound like, and act like.

  2. I should also point out that there is, to my memory, no mention of doubt in his disciples and finding it there I think is isagesis.

    Further, I think the idea that doubt and unbelief are the same thing is just plain wrong. This is, I think, based on a series of bad translations that ended up with “apistos” being translated as “doubt” in the “Doubting Thomas” narrative rather than what it is, unbelief. This is thankfully corrected in the ESV.

    Further, Christ seeing John’s pain and doubt and self-questioning, all the while going to the very Souce of the Answer, Christ Jesus Himself, is the essense of saint and sinner. And even as John languishes in that sin, Jesus commends him, and then comforts Him by explaining that He is indeed the Messiah that was to come.

  3. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Thanks Norm for posting this interesting discussion from Wild Boar, i.e., Pastor Lincoln Winter. Pastor Winter always has interesting thoughts that are provocative, intriguing, and insightful.

    On this question, I think Pastor Winter is correct to doubt the received wisdom on this passage. That is because the received wisdom rarely takes into account what it is like for a prophet to listen to his own utterances.

    According to Smalcald Articles III, viii, the external word must always precede faith and the Holy Spirit. But John was in a unique situation. He was the first person in the world to say about Jesus of Nazareth “This is the One!” And he did so, not by rational discernment, but through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So the internal word came to John and then he preached an external word that created faith in the hearts of his disciples and those who became Jesus’ disciples. But what about John himself?

    Preaching does not have the same effect on the preacher as it does on the audience. Having served now as a Lutheran preacher for over twenty-five years, I can tell you that I have had at least a handful of people come up to me and thank me for something I said in a sermon I preached a number of years previous. They will quote me, sometimes verbatim. I will reply, “I am glad that was helpful to you,” but the truth is I don’t remember that I said that. I remember hardly any of my sermons–they just all blur together in my memory (fortunately, I have most of my sermon manuscripts for future reference). But I remember many other pastor’s sermons, and professors lectures, as if I heard them yesterday.

    When John was in prison, permanently retired from his preaching ministry, he had plenty of time to think about his work of ministry. Since he had no manuscripts, all he could remember about his preaching was a blur of activity, the event of Jesus’ baptism, and the preaching of words not his own (i.e., inspired words of the Spirit).

    John, himself, needed some other prophet’s external word upon which to ground his own personal faith, before he faced death. This was not doubt. This was faith seeking understanding (I believe the Latin is “fides quarens intellectum”). This is what Jesus gave to John in the text being considered: the external word upon which he could ground his own faith.

    I think this is also related to the meaning of I Timothy 4:16. A pastor has to attend to both his own faith in one way (private study of the Scriptures and prayer) and to the faith of his flock in another (sermons, liturgy, prayers, pastoral care).

    This demonstrates why the Saint Louis seminary’s attempt to get their students into the habit of private study of Scripture and prayer is not just commendable, it is Scriptural!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  4. @Martin R. Noland #4

    Pastor — thanks much for expounding further on this pericope. Looking at it from a Pastor’s perspective helps a lot in understanding the message here. It seems that there is a fine line between “doubt” and “faith seeking understanding”. This is also certainly a good argument to use for those who don’t see the need to be in church each and every Sunday .. we all need to be fed by the external word.

  5. @Rev Day #6

    Thanks Rev Day! I love this:

    Here we are. There is John. And perhaps we aren’t so different after all. John had his problems, too. I don’t know what they were. Maybe his parents were getting divorced. Maybe his girlfriend left him. Maybe he had a habit that he couldn’t break. His flesh, like ours, was no more durable than the grass of the fields and his heart, too, was blackened by lust, greed, and hate. And yet, still, in the midst of trouble, from inside Herod’s prison, with his own personal package of weaknesses and sins, he had faith. He, who leaped in his mother’s womb for the joy of God in Mary’s womb, believed that Jesus had the answers. He does not sit back in his prison cell and think on Jesus. Instead, he seeks a Word from Jesus. That is what faith always does. It does not turn in on itself, that is the way of despair. Faith goes to where God promises to be.

    Feeling depressed? Read the Bible. Lonely? Read the Bible. Afraid? Worried? Uncertain? Struggling with temptation? Angry? Read the Bible! I went to college to learn this. It isn’t that difficult, but still I haven’t really learned it. None of us have. Well, John. But he had to have his head separated from his shoulders first. Now he knows it perfectly.

  6. I do not believe that John doubted (based upon Jesus’ words about John)
    The break with our fathers (and their exegetical conclusions) concerning the “doubt” of John may simply be our culture – which loves to see heroes with weaknesses (real or made up).

  7. John was one of many who testified to Jesus being the Christ – there was the testimony of his parents, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Anna which testified to the same. Not only these, but all of the people who heard their words and believed. John also had the external Word of the Father and the Spirit’s visible presence in Jesus’ baptism. Tie all of this into Jesus’ own words and teaching. These external words would have sustained John, as well as the remembrance of all of the miraculous things surrounding his own birth as well.

  8. @Pastor Joshua Scheer #9
    John also had the external Word of the Father and the Spirit’s visible presence in Jesus’ baptism.

    [Pr. David Peterson is attempting to make John’s situation relate to us, but this is too much extrapolation. John’s parents were old before he was born and were quite likely dead before he was 30. I doubt he ever thought of having a “girlfriend”! (What Jewish family would betroth their daughter to this rough man in the wilderness?)]

    “And yet, … [John] had faith.” …
    “Faith goes to where God promises to be.”

    [That’s ‘better’!]

    In many countries of the world this Christmas, there are Christians who are being actively persecuted for their faith. In Iraq, where a remnant of Christianity has clung to faith for 2000 years; in India, where, if tradition is correct, the Gospel has been preached since the days of St Thomas and certainly since the beginning of English missionary activity; in Indonesia, where German missionaries first brought Lutheran Christianity in the 1800’s; in Africa, where we are told there are now more Lutherans than in the US (and probably more Muslims than in the Middle East, anxious to wipe them out).
    Pray for the preachers of Christ in this generation and His disciples, that they may cling to faith to eternal Life!

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