In John 1:29–34, John the Baptist boldly proclaims Jesus as the Son of God. But in Matthew 11:2–3, John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the coming one or if they needed to look for another—Why? Was he discouraged in jail and doubting everything?
Yes, John was “discouraged in jail and doubting.” But, we too often have doubts. So, it is important to consider how John, who was “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9), would find himself in doubt.
The first thing to notice is that John’s doubts in no way diminished his greatness in the estimation of the Lord. For context, it is good to read from the beginning of the chapter through verse 15. In verses 1–6 we have the incident that is referred to in our question. It gives John’s doubt followed by the witness of the Lord’s works which verified His claim to Messiahship. This witness was to be carried by John’s disciples back to John. The final verse is a very gentle rebuke to John that he must trust his Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., “Messiah”). John was looking for the Kingdom for which he was the designated herald (Isa.40:3 with Mk. 1:2–3). But, now he was in prison. So, events were not unfolding as John thought they would.
Verses 7 through 15 give the commendation of John that the Lord gives to the crowd. Most noteworthy for our question is verse 12. This is a foreshadow of the rejection that the Lord was to face. He came to the nation as their King, John being His herald. But they would not have him (Matt. 27:22; Jn. 19:15). Thus, those who would follow the Lord would need to “force” their way against the resistance of unbelief. John being in prison was just the beginning of the rejection by the nation of their Messiah. We too may have expectations that do not seem to be working out. In such cases, we may become discouraged so we need to remember that the Lord is indeed over all the circumstances in our life.
It is easy for us to forget, or not realize, the strong hope that the Jews had that the Messiah would come to free them from foreign domination and bring in national prosperity and prominence. But, they had not appreciated the necessity of national repentance (Isa. 53). When Nicodemus came to the Lord acknowledging the Lord’s credentials in the “signs” (Jn. 3:2) that He did, the Lord had to basically stop him in his tracks with the words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3).” Nicodemus, like the rest of the nation, needed to be “born again.” That is, the nation, like every individual, in its natural state was not fit for the kingdom.
It is interesting that the witness of John to the glory of the Lord Jesus as “Son of God” referred to in our question precedes the incident with Nicodemus by only a chapter. John, even more than Nicodemus, could see the real glory of the Lord. Yet, like Nicodemus, John did not realize the deep divide that existed between the state of the people and that which is required by the Lord to bless the nation. To bridge that divide required something entirely new: a new man (2 Cor. 5:17). To be born again is to introduce us to the domain of the Second Man (Col. 3:10). This doctrine was not clearly laid out until later in the New Testament. Any believer from Adam on down must be born again to have life that pleases God (Jn. 3:6–10).
John was not alone in expecting the Messiah to usher in an earthly kingdom. Even the disciples who could also acknowledge Jesus as “the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) were unable to understand His determination to go up to Jerusalem to be “crucified and set at naught (Mk. 10:32–34).” They all had their eyes so fixed on the glory of the hoped-for Kingdom that they did not realize the work of redemption must come first. Or, if they did, they did not realize that even with a risen Messiah the nation would not repent. This the history of Acts shows.
But, God is greater than all of man’s failure, no matter how profound and pervasive. The witness to this we have clearly in Romans chapters 9 through 11. The climax of God’s work with Israel is that “he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). This great salvation leads the great apostle to break out in one of the most beautiful doxologies in the New Testament. (See Rom. 11:33–36). Like John, things may not work out as we planned, yet we can have complete confidence in God’s providential care for us in spite of our circumstances (Rom. 8:28; 1 Pet. 5:7).