In John 1:29, John the Baptist declared of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” On several occasions, John communicated his own unworthiness compared to Jesus (Matthew 3:14; John 1:27). And he famously said of the Lord, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). John the Baptist recognized Jesus to be the Messiah and had faith in Him.
However, later, as recorded in Matthew 11:3 and Luke 7:19, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus to ask Him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” What is happening here? Was John the Baptist’s faith faltering? Was he doubting whether Jesus was truly the Messiah? Or is there another motivation for the question?
There are two main theories concerning John’s question:
Theory Number 1: John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” because his current situation caused him to doubt. John the Baptist was in prison when he asked this question via messengers. He had been thrown in prison by Herod, a wicked ruler (Matthew 11:2; Luke 3:20). John had perhaps been confined for over a year by the time he asked his question. He likely knew that he would eventually be executed (and he was, shortly after he sent the message to Jesus; see Matthew 14:1–12). Also, Jesus was not being received as the Messiah by the majority of Israelites. In fact, Jesus was meeting strong resistance from the leaders of Israel: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.
The Messiah was to inaugurate the kingdom of God, and no kingdom had yet appeared. John had told the crowds that the Messiah was coming soon, and “the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). John described the judgment the Messiah would bring: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). But now, in chapter 11, John is in prison. There was no ax, no winnowing fork, and no fire. Perhaps there was no Messiah. Given these circumstances, it is understandable that the faith of John the Baptist would waver. Why would the Deliverer of Israel not deliver His own messenger?
Theory Number 2: John the Baptist’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” was asked for the sake of his disciples, to point them to Jesus. That is, it was John’s disciples who were doubting, and John sent them to the Lord to hear and see His answer for themselves. John’s faith remained strong, but, knowing his time on earth was short, John sent his followers to the one they needed to follow from then on. He sent them to ask a question—a common teaching method—and the answer they received was faith-affirming. Ever since John had pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29), he had been pointing people to Christ. He continued that mission even from prison.
Jesus’ response involved a time of show and tell. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:4–5). All the works that John’s disciples witnessed that day indicated that Jesus was the Chosen One. Isaiah 61:1 was being fulfilled before their very eyes: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
Jesus then says to the disciples of John the Baptist, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:6). Was this meant for John? Or was this meant for John’s followers to whom Jesus was speaking? A case can be made either way.
John’s disciples return to the prison to report on Jesus’ words and actions. There, either John was strengthened and encouraged in his faith (theory 1), or seized the teachable moment to emphasize to his disciples that Jesus is the Messiah (theory 2).
After speaking to John’s disciples, Jesus turns to the rest of the crowd and proceeds to praise John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:7–11; Luke 7:21–27).
Jesus does not rebuke of John the Baptist for asking the question. If John had doubts, Jesus’ response shows the caring, tender way He handles wavering faith (see Matthew 12:20). If John was simply teaching his disciples, Jesus provided incontrovertible evidence that faith in Him is not misplaced.