Understanding John’s doubt
After witnessing such a sight, surely John the Baptist would never have any reason to ever doubt who Jesus was. And yet just eight chapters later in Matthew’s gospel he is sending his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the one who they have been waiting for. How can this be happening? Why is John doing this? What on earth is going on?
Well, if we just look back two verses in Matthew 3, I think we can start to piece together our answer. This is what John the Baptist says about the coming Messiah in verses 10-12 of chapter 3:
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John the Baptist was clearly expecting that when the Messiah came he would come with vengeance. He would bring God’s justice to this world and make right everything that is wrong. You can imagine his perplexity, therefore, when following this supernatural baptism, Jesus is subjected to Satan’s tempting taunts (Matthew 4:1-11), and then John, the very prophet who was to prepare the way for the Messiah was arrested (Matthew 4:12) and became a prisoner of the very authorities that the coming Messiah was supposed to dominate over and bring to justice. This was hardly how John would have imagined the Messiah’s earthly ministry to begin!
And then to make matters worse, nothing seemed to change. You can imagine John sitting in prison, waiting expectantly for reports of the wrath of the Messiah. But his wait would be in vain. This is what Jesus did after John was arrested: he chose twelve no-name disciples, and then wandered like a nomad around the near east, telling parables and performing the odd miracle.
By chapter 11 of Matthew gospel his faith has been pushed too far and so he sends his disciples to find out if he’s actually the Messiah.