Why Did John Question if Jesus was "The One"?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jesus, Men in the Bible


The Bible states that John sent messengers from prison to Jesus to ask if He was the one, the Messiah. Or "do we look for someone else?" Why did John question whether Jesus was "the one"? Surely John knew who Jesus was.


It's never easy to know the mind of someone thousands of years after the fact, but there are a few points that can be made about this. This question is recorded in Matthew 11. This chapter marks the beginning of a new phase of Matthew's story. Since chapter 10 warned about those who might not be receptive to the gospel, it should come as no surprise to see that opposition is building. The next three chapters focus on various responses to Jesus; they will be quite negative and really reflect the negative response of "this generation." The first one comes from John the Baptist. He has been in prison all this time and has had plenty of time to think - and to doubt. It states that when he "heard about the deeds of the Messiah (i.e. the Christ), he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 'Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?' " His question breaks in unexpectedly, but the narrator presupposes the correct response by identifying Jesus as the Christ. John is the first one to use this term since the genealogy. Speculation about what circumstances might have happened during his imprisonment that might have caused John to doubt his own earlier conviction concerning Jesus is pointless. Remember how at Jesus' baptism, John had said, "I should be baptized of you." But now, after being in prison for some time, is it possible that John had become filled with doubt under persecution?

The first century historian, Josephus, states that John was held in the dungeons of the fortress Machaerus, located on the east shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars know little about the actual conditions of his imprisonment, but it was common for families or disciples to tend to the needs of prisoners. If so, then his disciples potentially kept him well-informed of Jesus' activities in Galilee. The text reads that he had "heard about the deeds of the Messiah," the good works of the Christ. Nonetheless, the general populace expected that the Messiah would inflict judgment upon the wicked, and John had specifically predicted this in Matt. 3:10. But to date there were no signs of impending judgment. This reminds us, once again, how little Jesus' "messiahship" resembled the political and military aspects that many Jews anticipated.

Nonetheless, Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:…" Generally we would read, "see and hear." But by reversing those verbs, Matthew is keeping with his own agenda that maintains one has to, first of all, hear the word of Jesus. Without hearing the word, people will never understand what they see, i.e. the healing works. Jesus is, of course, referring to hearing his teachings, perhaps most notably, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus continued, "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." All of these are prophesied in Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1-2. The argument would be that in his teachings and healings and exorcisms, Jesus has already demonstrated that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

He followed this with a beatitude. "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." It is not clear in what capacity one might be offended. Is it his failure to conform to popular messianic expectation? Was it his lack of asceticism or perhaps because he associated with the poor, the publicans, and sinners? Might it have been predictions of his coming death? It is hard to know what he had in mind. Perhaps his wording was deliberately general to allow for all kinds of offense-taking. Perhaps this blessing was also intended as encouragement for those who would later be persecuted and might also struggle with doubts.

There is no follow-up information regarding whether or how John's disciples carried the message to John or how John might have responded. As they are leaving, however, Jesus asks the crowd, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?" Scholars think that could be an ironic reference to Herod Antipas, who used the symbol of a reed on his coins. If it does refer to Herod as a swaying reed, the fact is that people did not go out into the wilderness to see a powerful political figure. They went to seek a prophet. And among the prophets, there was none like John the Baptist.

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