Q: In Matthew 11:2-3, we read that from prison John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is come, or should we look for another?” A similar story occurs in Luke 7:18-23.
John the Baptist was already leading people to Jesus. At the Visitation, John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb as the pregnant Mary approached (Lk 1:44). John later said, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34). After John described Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (Jn 1:36), Andrew and another disciple left John to follow Jesus.
Was John the Baptist having doubts about who Jesus was?
A: John was probably not having doubts but rather was preparing his disciples for the person whom they should follow after John’s death. Christians today are very clear about the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist, but that was not the case for all Christians in the first century AD. After all, John the Baptist was well known before Jesus began his ministry.
In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Benedict Viviano, OP, writes about Matthew 11:2-6: “These verses contain a school of debate, probably of post-resurrection origin, over the nature of Jesus’ mission, held between disciples of John the Baptist and Christians.”
Jesus was not the type of Messiah that most of his contemporaries expected. Always concerned to show Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament, Matthew’s account implicitly links verse 5 to Isaiah 26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; and 61:1—all passages referring to God’s ultimate victory over evil.
Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience would have made this connection.
John the Baptist grew in his faith; his disciples’ encounter with Jesus that you cited helped them grow in their faith. The account in the Gospel of Matthew can help us grow in our faith.
We can always wonder about why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not explain something in more detail in the Gospels, but we should never allow our questions to overshadow what those evangelists very deliberately included.