"Go Tell John..."
Though in prison, John apparently was allowed to have visitors, for he sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question asking, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
John’s question is clear, yet his motivation in asking it is somewhat clouded. Was John discouraged while in prison and beginning to wrestle with doubt? Or, was there some other motivation behind John’s question?
It must be remembered that John was a man of the wilderness who had lived an ascetic lifestyle (Matt. 14:18-19) and of whom the Lord asks the rhetorical questions, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matt. 11:8). In preaching, John was fearless and so direct that most people today would faint if he stopped through their congregation on a visit (Matthew 3, 14:4). Jesus described John as “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9) placing John in a class all his own (as we would say a “man’s man”). John is never portrayed as weak, sensitive, or doubting; such a portrait of John is so foreign to all that Scriptures reveal concerning his life and character that it is highly doubtful such is the case. John was accustomed to being alone in the harshest of conditions; it is therefore doubtful that isolation in a cell would cause the mighty reed to sway, let alone break.
Yet again the question is asked: Could not John’s impending death, coupled with his isolation and surroundings cause him to doubt?
First, to argue that John knew he was about to die is to credit him with knowledge that Herod his killer did not possess at the time. From Matthew’s account in chapter fourteen, it appears Herod had no intention of killing John, and that when he did kill him it was with sorrow and regret. Thus, the “doubting John” position is based on an assumption at best, and a rather faulty one at that.
Secondly, if prophets of God were able to endure imprisonment and persecution in the past without doubting their purpose or preaching, could not one of the greatest born of woman (Matt. 11:11) do the same?
Third, John’s disciples posed John’s question in the midst of a large crowd of people (Matt. 11:7). If John was doubting, would his question not have been asked in private rather than in public where it might have caused others to doubt as well?
If John was not filled with doubt, and it is doubtful he was, why would he send messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
The likely answer is found in the nature of John’s teaching, Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ response. John had come preaching a message of “Repent or perish!” (Matt. 3:7-8), and expected the Savior to come bringing judgment and cleansing (Matt. 3:10-12). Yet Jesus came healing the sick and the lame (Matt. 11:4-6), and up until this point had not called down the wrath of God on the wicked Jewish state.
Jesus’ reply to John’s disciples concluded with, “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” J. W. McGarvey’s comments seem to capture the essence of this statement:
“The chief reason why the scribes were offended at the claims of Jesus, was because he did not come up to their expectations concerning the Messiah; and now John seemed in danger of falling into the same fatal error: hence the warning to John, “Blessed is he who shall not be offended in me.”
Jesus was warning John not to stumble over the nature of the Savior’s mission. It was not yet time for judgment; it was time for saving and healing.
Jesus reminds the multitude of John’s mission and then teaches the crowd something that John seems to be unaware of. John’s mission was to prepare the way for the kingdom and he did so par excellence to the praise of the Savior (Matt. 11:11-15), yet John would not be allowed to enter into the kingdom as he undoubtedly hoped to do (Matt. 11:11).
In short, John seems to be urging Jesus to get with the program and bring about the Kingdom of Heaven as John had been preaching he would do (Matt. 3:2,12). Jesus in turn is telling John thanks for his unselfish service, that the Kingdom must come on God’s terms, and that John’s role is limited and fading.
A Side Point:
You do not have to witness a miracle in order to benefit from it. Though in prison, John could still benefit from the working of miracles through the eyewitness testimony of his disciples. God does not have to re-prove Himself over and again for our benefit; we have the testimony of witnesses and the message the miracles confirmed (Matt. 18:16, Acts 2:22; 5:12).