Doubt. Anger. Disbelief. Ask the average Christian about them, and he or she probably will tell you they’re all signs of weakness. Doubt is a sign of weak faith. Anger is the loss of self-control. Disbelief is faith surrendered.
He would be right only on the last point.
Matthew’s Gospel shows us a converging of all three. In Matthew 11, while Jesus is teaching, a delegate from John the Baptist arrives. John, the fiery prophet, has been in prison for some time (Matt. 4:12), and he has begun to waver emotionally. He asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
Forget Doubting Thomas. He asked only for proof he could see and feel. “Unless I see the nail prints in [Jesus’] hands, put my finger into the prints, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
John’s doubt is massive. He is ready to write Jesus off and look for another Messiah. This is John. How could he succumb to doubt?
Jesus’ Reaction to John’s Doubt
Jesus never chides him. Instead he tells his messengers to relay what they have witnessed—the many who have experienced liberation from sickness, lameness, demons, and death; and the gospel being preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5).
Jesus finishes with a personal word to John, “Blessed is the one who will not be offended in me” (Matt. 11:6). In effect the statement says, “I know you’re in prison, and I know it’s difficult. Don’t give up in the hard times.”
The context in Matthew 11 shows that the exchange was public. The crowd who was with Jesus heard everything, and doubtless found it disturbing.
Matthew shows us two things in this context. One, Jesus seizes on the event, as he often does, and makes a teaching moment from it. Two, it is an angry moment.
Jesus’ gospel began in Matthew 5, with the Sermon on the Mount. With the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4), Jesus turned the religious world on its head. He welcomed the humble and the hurting over the religiously proud.
But by Matthew 11, few have responded to the good news. They have grown complacent with what they have heard.
Anger…From Jesus? or the next twenty-four verses, Jesus seizes on the event to rebuke the people. Two things are important. First, by this point in the book, the people have been listening passively for a long time and have shown little change in behavior. They are stuck up to their floorboards in passivity. Second, Jesus is angry because passivity really is a sign of their disbelief. The points in his sermon go like this:
- Jesus’ eulogy for John is a rebuke toward the people: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see…?” (Matt. 11: 7-15). Many of the people have heard John prior to Jesus. In their continuing complacence, they are doubly responsible for the content they have heard.
- Jesus compares the people’s passivity to the theme from a child’s ditty: “We played the pipes and you refused to dance; we played a dirge and you wouldn’t mourn” (Matt. 11:19).
- The cities that have rejected Jesus will face darker final judgment than Tyre and Sidon, and even Sodom (Matt. 11:20-24).
The only way to interpret Jesus’ sermon is as an angry commentary on what he sees. Some have acted in faith and have experienced difficulty, as John has. They succumb to doubt. For these, Jesus offers only a mild course correction.
But when people hear the good news over and over and sit on their hands, Jesus loses patience. He wants authenticity from his followers. Matthew brings three emotions that Christians typically question. The first two are far less dangerous than
Doubt? Yes, we all experience it, and Jesus treats it gently. Rather than being the dangerous act of subversion we typically believe it is, doubt opens the opportunity to examine the truth more closely.
Anger? Jesus is angry, and he is the ultimate man’s man. Sometimes anger is called for.
This is intolerable. Jesus’ call, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” (Matt. 11:28-30), occurs at the end of this angry message. It is a call for the people to be liberated from their own disbelief and passivity. The two are one in the same, and they are crippling.