John Doubting Jesus?

Q. In Mt 11:3 John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Didn’t he baptize Jesus? How can he ask, “are you the one”?

A. This question was raised by our 10-year-old granddaughter. I am particularly pleased as it shows that she thinks through what she reads.

Some commentators note from v 2 that John was in prison. They, therefore, infer that the confinement made him lose hope and he started to doubt. While this is possible, I believe that is not the case as Jesus went on to pay tribute to John, asserting in v 11 that among those born of women (who isn’t?) there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” So if John was greater than anyone else in Old Testament times, his faith ought to be able to stand up to the test of imprisonment.

Others feel that it was John’s disciples who doubted, not John himself. He simply sent them to ask Jesus so that they could be reassured by Him directly. But the text said in v 3, “he (John) sent word by his disciples”, and Jesus answered in v 5, “Go and report to John”. So the question came from John, and the reply was for John, not for his disciples as some assumed.

I think the explanation is in the words of the question and reply themselves. John’s question was, “Are You the Expected One?” Who was he expecting? The Expected or “Coming One” was the Messiah. What was John’s understanding of the Messiah? His preaching of the coming Messiah is in Mt 3:11-12,

  •  “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John used the image of someone winnowing threshed grain to describe the Coming One. The wind blew away the light chaff, while the heavy grains fell to the floor. He then gathered His wheat into the barn, while the chaff was swept up and burned. The unquenchable fire represents the fire of hell. The Jewish people in Jesus’ days believed that when the Messiah comes, He will deliver His people (the wheat) and judge Israel’s enemies (the chaff). However, Jesus’ actions did not fit that mold. He did not come as a military conqueror to deliver Israel from the Roman oppressors but as a healer and a friend of tax collectors and sinners (v 19). He will come as a Judge only during His Second Coming, but as a Savior the first time He comes, hence John’s question.

Jesus’ reply was:

  • Mt 11:5 (1) the blind receive sight and (2) the lame walk, (3) the lepers are cleansed and (4) the deaf hear, (5) the dead are raised up, and (6) the poor have the gospel preached to them. 

Six things are quoted which the disciples heard and saw, as labeled above.

Four of these (1, 2, 4, and 6) are quotations from Isaiah about what the Messiah will do:

  • Isa 29:18 On that day the deaf will hear (4) words of a book,
    And out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. (1)
  • Isa 35:5-6a Then the eyes of the blind will be opened (1)
    And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. (4)
    Then the lame will leap (2) like a deer,
    And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.
  • Is 42:7a To open blind eyes, (1)
  • Isa 61:1a The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    Because the Lord has anointed me
    To bring good news to the afflicted; (6)
    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

The other two (3 and 5) are not OT quotations, but works of the Messiah consistent with what He would have done:

  • Mt 8:2-3 And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
  • Mt 9:24-25 He said, “Leave; for the girl has not died, but is asleep.” And they began laughing at Him. 25 But when the crowd had been sent out, He entered and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.
  • Lk 7:14-15 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

I did not cite the raising of Lazarus, as chronologically that would occur after Mt 11 and not known to John’s disciples at that time.

But there is one more point I need to raise before drawing my conclusions. If you read Isa 42:7 and 61:1 in its entirety, you will note that the Lord omitted one item from the six He listed – to set prisoners free:

  • Isa 42:7b To bring out prisoners from the dungeon
    And those who dwell in darkness from the prison.
  • Isa 61:1b To proclaim liberty to captives
    And freedom to prisoners
    .

What is my point? I believe John the Baptist knew Jesus to be the Son of God (Mt 3:17) and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), but he expected Him to judge Rome and deliver Israel, just as the Jews in Jesus’ days commonly believed. Jesus corrected his misunderstanding by pointing out what the word of God actually said about what the Messiah would do, as His works are the proofs of who He claims to be (Jn 10:25, 37-38, 14:11), not man’s expectations. Since Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies and also cleansed lepers and raised the dead, they need not look for someone else.

Furthermore, by leaving out setting prisoners free from the two Isaiah quotations, Jesus may be implying to John that He would not be bringing him out from prison then but rest assured that the Messiah had come and knew what He is doing. By way of application, we too should decide based on what the Bible says, not what we expect. God knows all things while our understanding is limited, so rest in His word.

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