by Bob Lupton, June 2011 John sat against a cold stone wall, chained in the dank prison of the castle Machaerus, frontier fortress built by Herod the Great as a rampart against Arab marauders. Far from the familiar hill country of Judah, separated from family and friends by the Dead Sea and miles of scorching desert, John sat alone, condemned for moral accusations against the frivolous and vain tetrarch Herod Antipas. This Black Fortress, as it was known, was dark for more reasons than the color of its stone – it was for John a dungeon of despair.
How glorious had been the days when crowds flocked to hear his stirring sermons, when people hung on his every word! “Thunder in the desert,” some had described him quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Preparer of God’s arrival.” How confident he had been of his message, how certain of his calling. Countless times his mother had told him about his near miraculous birth, about his leaping in her womb at the sight of the yet unborn Messiah, about his special mission in life. Even his name had been given by Yahweh, she told him. And then the amazing apparition – the descending divine dove and the audible heavenly voice as he baptized Jesus in the Jordan. These were the glory days.
But his imprisonment had brought all this to an abrupt end. He had spoken out publicly condemning the immoral behavior of governor Herod, emboldened by belief that that Herod’s rule would soon be ending. The Kingdom was at hand. The promised Messiah, Israel’s deliverer, was already here. John had personally proclaimed Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It was time for boldness, especially about sin, not that John had ever been reticent about speaking out against it. His arrest was a temporary inconvenience, he was convinced. Soon a Righteous Government would be in place and those who had been unfairly judged would be vindicated. It was just a matter of time.
But the reports that John was receiving were not encouraging. The Anointed One was spending much of His time among the insignificant populace and making no moves at all to consolidate power. A grass roots campaign might be effective if it were skillfully orchestrated but the word John was receiving was that Jesus was alienating a disturbing number of people, including many of the religious leadership. Unless He began to move in a more authoritative manner and organize an effective power base, His Kingdom campaign might never get traction. And that could be disastrous for John – for all of Israel, yes, but it was John’s head that was on the block.
“Are you really the Messiah or shall we keep on looking for him?” John had to find out. He sent two trusted disciples to ask Jesus directly. This messenger whose entire life’s work had been dedicated to preparing the way for the promised One was now questioning the validity of his own mission. Could he possibly have been wrong? Could he have become so consumed by his calling, so absorbed in his preaching, that he somehow misread the signs? He had been so confident when the crowds swarmed about him. But now, isolated and impotent, haunting doubts troubled his soul.
The word sent back to him from Jesus was not at all encouraging. No inside scoop on the campaign strategy, not even a hint of deposing the corrupt Herod or ousting the Roman occupiers. Only a reiteration of soft-hearted deeds performed among the illiterate peasantry, some admittedly miraculous, but nothing even remotely related to the establishment of a new government. And then His concluding words: “Blessed are you if you do not lose faith in me.”
Blessed! Blessed! How blessed is living under the threat of having one’s head severed from one’s body and served up on a platter at a drunken birthday party?! No, this was not John’s idea of blessedness. In those last days and hours of his life he would engage in the most agonizing spiritual struggle he had ever faced. Could he relinquish his biblical conception of the Kingdom? Could he loosen his grip on his messianic theology? Could there be another completely different understanding of these things? Should he trust the mystic confirmations of a dove and a voice, and the inescapable urges in his spirit to proclaim this man the Christ? Should he trust the words of his Galilean cousin?
Doubt. Questioning the unquestionable. Distrusting trustworthy truth. Where does it leave one when those secure foundations no longer provide security? What’s left to build on when the bedrock is gone? This is what happens when our theology lets us down. Doubt. When a vision fizzles, when tragedy strikes, when prayers don’t work, when answers don’t satisfy – doubt invades the soul. And guilt.
How John ultimately resolved this struggle never made it into the record – only his final, grisly end. And an affirmation from the One he staked his life and reputation on: “I tell you the truth: John the Baptist is greater than any other man who has ever lived.”
Doubters, it seems, may be in good company.