A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/18/94
What can possibly have been wrong with John the Baptist in this passage? He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the Forerunner of the Messiah. He was the first to announce Jesus as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. So what in the world is he doing now in vs. 20 wondering whether he had made a big mistake in saying all that? There is an answer that makes sense once you understand John's Jewish background, once you understand where he was coming from. This is a passage about the power of preconceived notions.I. THE PROBLEM OF PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS
In order to understand what was happening here, we must remind ourselves of some of the particular preconceived notions to which first-century Jews were subject. For they were so strong that they were able, in the case of John apparently, to obscure the truth and raise doubts about it even in sincere and godly people who were the recipients and channels of special revelation! First-century Jews, as we know, were looking for a military Messiah who would overthrow Roman occupation and restore to Israel the glory of the Davidic kingdom and the Solomonic empire. How did they ever come to hold such a view? Well, the Old Testament is full of prophecies about the coming of Christ. But the interpretation of those prophecies was never clear until Christ had in fact come and fulfilled them. You see, the Old Testament talks about the Messiah, which means "anointed one." This is the Son of David who would reign on his throne forever. It also mentions a Prophet like Moses, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and the Son of Man of Daniel. Now that Christ has come, we know that all these figures are one and the same person, our Lord. But there is not one single verse in all the Old Testament that identifies them in that way. From just reading the Old Testament you cannot tell whether they are supposed to be one person or four. (This is an important point to realize about the very nature of biblical prophecy, by the way: it is not intended to let us predict the future, but rather to enable us to recognize God's fulfillment when it happens. We ought to remember that when we are generating confident dogmas about the interpretation of those prophecies that deal with our Lord's Second Coming!)
Jews at the time of Jesus all held to a view of those messianic prophecies that did not identify the four figures, but took them as separate persons. The basic assumption was that the Messiah would be the new king to overthrow Rome and re-establish the kingdom, the Prophet like Moses was going to be his press secretary, and the Suffering Servant would be a warrior whose self sacrifice in the war with Rome would allow the Messiah to achieve victory. This did not of course turn out to be the correct interpretation. But until Christ came, there was no way to disprove it based on the Old Testament alone. It was not the "clear teaching of Scripture." It was an assumption! But people did not realize that it was an assumption and therefore did not treat it like an assumption. Denying this view, insisting on the identity of the four, especially of the Messiah with the Suffering Servant, was the "heresy" that caused the Jewish religious establishment to reject Jesus' messianic claims and ultimately have him executed. This shows us how important it is to know the difference between what Scripture says and our own assumptions read into the text. It can be a matter of spiritual life or death!
Well, the Roman occupation was the Jewish preoccupation, and John was no exception. God had revealed to him that Jesus was the Messiah, and also this little bit about taking away sins, which John had obediently proclaimed even through he apparently did not completely see how it fit in to the "obvious" truth that the days of Rome's rule were numbered. But now doubts had begun to creep in--could he have gotten it all wrong somehow? Because Jesus did not seem to be acting very messianic. All these miracles and healings and all this teaching was all well and good, but when was the revolution going to start? As Dorothy L. Sayers has him say it in her wonderful series of plays on the life of Christ, The Man born to be King, "When will the long spears go up to Jerusalem?" Or, to use the words that are recorded, "Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?" Preconceived notions can be a huge problem indeed.
Well, we modern people don't have any preconceived notions that hinder our reception and understanding of God's Word, do we? Yeah, right. If you have ever tried to do any witnessing, you know that no matter how clearly you explain the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone, modern people already "know" that a God of love would not require the blood of Christ as the grounds of our forgiveness and that any salvation we do receive has to be on the basis of our works. It is all but impossible to keep our words from going through that grid and being translated into those terms, no matter what we say--unless the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the person's life.
O.K., at least we Christians have gotten rid of all of our preconceived notions, haven't we? I hope that notion isn't one of yours! Could you have any preconceived notions? What are they? Well, if you knew what they were, they wouldn't be preconceived notions, now, would they? That's the problem; that's what makes them so powerful and hard to defeat.
I don't know what your preconceived notions are, but here are some that I have encountered operating powerfully in Christians who ought to know better. Many of us still have the same set as the non-Christians we already discussed, only in a more subtle and less blatant form. We believe in salvation by grace through faith, but we get discouraged and doubt God's work in our lives because we are really still living as if it were by our works. Many people have the unspoken assumption that godliness is all about our emotions rather than our thoughts or actions. They spend an incredible amount of energy trying to engineer and maintain a very artificial emotional state which they confuse with sanctification, even though all kinds of ungodliness can still hide in their lives quite compatibly with it. Many of us assume that the particular brand of theology we were taught is obviously biblical, and everything else is in error. You wonder how Pentecostals can so blatantly read their experience into the Text. Well, I have known Calvinists who very efficiently read the Westminster Confession into the Text! It is not as easy to keep the Text in charge of our thinking as we think it is. And how about this one: "If God loves me, then I won't have any problems in my life, so if I do, they must stem from my lack of faith. For if I had perfect faith, I would also have health and wealth and would be able to 'blab it and grab it.'" Where do people get this stuff? It is not in the Bible--but once you have adopted it as a preconceived notion, you can find it there anyway in ways that are simply astonishing--to those who do not share that particular preconceived notion. You begin to see what a huge problem this is--as big to us as it was to John. Unchecked, our own preconceived notions can take us to the point where we too are capable of asking, "Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?"II. THE POWER OF PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS
To realize the problem and the power of preconceived notions is a sobering thing indeed. Why are they so powerful? Their power over us comes from at least three sources. The first is one we have already mentioned: they are by their very nature hidden. They are like a pair of built-in glasses that make us see everything with spiritual astigmatism. But because they are built in, it never occurs to us to take them off and see what the world, or the Bible, would look like without them. The second is our own nature. This has two aspects. The first is that the Natural Mind, the mind of the Old Man, does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, neither can it know them, being spiritually discerned. And while the process of renewing our minds begins when we accept Christ as Lord and Savior, it is not yet completed in any of us. Therefore, there is a part of our minds that is susceptible to worldy preconceptions. The second aspect of our own natures that makes preconceived notions so powerful is our pride. We would rather rationalize them than admit we are wrong. The third overall reason for their power is not only their hiddenness and our natures but the fact that Satan is at work to enhance their influence in our lives, to keep us unaware of them and to encourage us to continue following them blindly.
The power of preconceived notions is seen in a number of biblical examples, especially the one we are examining today. John the Baptist had many advantages as a student of the Word of God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. He was raised by Zacharias, the most godly priest of that generation. He was a cousin of the Lord Jesus Christ. To him the Father had revealed Jesus as the Lamb of God. And he had been an eyewitness of Christ's character. Nevertheless, with all these advantages, he was capable of asking, "Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?" How much more must we be concerned about the power of preconceived notions, who operate without many of those advantages? The disciples were also people with many advantages. They were personally chosen by Christ. They followed him, lived with him, for three years. They were eyewitnesses not only of his character but also of his miracles. They heard his teaching from his own lips, and had the opportunity to ask all the questions they wanted. They were eyewitnesses of the Resurrection. And yet, just as he was ready to go back to Heaven, they were asking, "Is it now that you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?" The same preconceived notion that had led John astray was still potent in their own minds after all of that. How much more must we be concerned with the power of preconceived notions to hinder our walk with the Lord?
The effects of preconceived notions that are not identified and dealt with are profound. Because of them a sincere servant of God who was filled with the Holy Spirit ( ! ) and who was a diligent student of Scripture could be so out of synch with God's program that he teetered on the brink of apostasy. He was so out of synch with what God was doing that he wrestled with an almost debilitating doubt. And he was on the verge of allowing that doubt to dishonor Christ and affect the faith of others. We are vulnerable to all these effects as well. Therefore, we had better pay close attention to the next point:III. THE PRESCRIPTION FOR PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS
How can we combat an enemy so hidden, so powerful, so insidious? Jesus' answer to John's question contains some answers.A. Go Back to the Facts (vs. 22).
"Go tell John what you see and hear." The Old Testament prophets had performed miracles, healings, even resurrections. But these were usually done for isolated individuals. Never before had there been such a wholesale application of supernatural power as was seen in Jesus' ministry. And as the Old Testament allusions in his answer show, they were all quite specifically signs of Messiah's ministry. They were quite sufficient to prove that Jesus' claims were valid. However confused John might be by his approach, it did not change that fact. Doubts are often based on theories, expectations, what-ifs. These are all things that are lower in the scale of warrants for belief than facts are. "It is always a capital mistake, Watson," Sherlock Holmes says more than once, "to theorize in advance of the facts." So, while preconceived notions can cause us to see things in Scripture that are not there and to ignore things that are there, if we remind ourselves that we might be influenced by them and therefore pay close attention to the facts of the Text, asking God to show us where we might be wrong, we have the opportunity to realize that there might be a disconnect between what we think we ought to be seeing in Scripture and what we are in fact seeing. The distress from noticing this disconnect is called "cognitive dissonance." It is an opportunity to become aware of our preconceived notions and to allow the Text of Scripture to correct them. It is an opportunity we need to be constantly on the lookout for. We must understand the insidious nature of preconceived notions and therefore be vigilant in looking for this opportunity. We must always be going back to the facts.B. Go Back to your Relationship with Jesus (vs. 23).
"Blessed," said the Lord, " is he who keeps from stumbling over me." Whenever we catch ourselves stumbling over Jesus, whenever something hinders our relationship with him, it should be a sign to us that a preconceived notion may be operating in us. Therefore it is a sign that some serious self examination, some serious questioning of our own assumptions, is in order. When you go back to the facts, you are ultimately going to be left with this question: Do you trust Him? Or do you trust yourself? It ultimately boils down to one of those two options. His ways are not your ways. He is infinitely wise; you are sinful and foolish. Therefore it is a perfectly rational expectation that you are sometimes going to wonder what He is up to! When you do, don't stumble over Him. He deserves your trust. He earned it by going to the Cross for you. That is the chief, the most important, of the Facts we are to keep going back to.CONCLUSION
If John the Baptist had a problem with preconceived notions, you can bet that we do too. No matter how biblical your thinking, no matter how biblical your theology, it is not perfect. It stands in need of correction. We must never forget that! Sooner of later, like John, you are going to have a problem with what Jesus is doing in your life. When you do, recognize the possibility of preconceived notions at work in your life. Go back to the facts. Go back to your relationship with Christ. And do not stumble over Him!
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams