I have always been a little troubled by the story of John the Baptizer in Luke 7 where he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the coming one or should we expect someone else?” What happened to John the Baptist? Was John now doubting that Jesus was the Messiah? A little research into history and the culture of the day made me realize there was more to the story than a casual reading of the Text would suggest. Perhaps John’s question was more complex than it seemed on the surface.
First of all, we need to establish a little background. The Luke narrative doesn’t say it, but John the Baptist was in prison at the time of this story (Matthew ll:2). We also need to read Mark 6:17-20 to understand why John was put into prison. Herod Antipas had put him in prison for publicly criticizing the fact that Antipas married his brother Philip’s wife. Because John was in prison, he had to send two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question that was troubling him. Did John the Baptist lose his faith? Had this fiery, passionate desert man lost his fire? Does he think that he has made a big mistake in promoting this man, Jesus? Or is there more to the story?
I’m going to contend that John did not lose his faith; how could he? He had seen heaven literally ripped open and God’s spirit descending on Jesus like a dove (Mark 1:10). He had heard God’s voice speaking from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, whom I love, I am well pleased with Him.” He baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:14) to fulfill Scripture. In John 1:24-34, John had publicly declared about Jesus, ”This is the Son of God.” Could this question then of Jesus being the “coming one” be more complex?
Could the “one to come” and the Messiah possibly be two separate figures in John’s theology? We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essene community was looking for two Messiahs. One was to be a prophet / priest and the other was to be a warrior / king. Together these two figures would come and rescue the Israelites, set up a new priesthood, and establish a new kingdom on the earth. Also, there were several different schools of thought at that time as to what the promised Messiah or Messiahs might look like and what they would have to do to usher in the new kingdom. John had definitely gravitated to the fire and brimstone and day of judgment theology. He read Malachi 4:1-5, and knew that he was the Elijah of verse five that would usher in that dreadful day of the Lord (John was told that he was like Elijah from birth; see Luke 1:17 and read The Kingdom of Heaven if Forcefully Advancing). John quoted the Isaiah passages where the mountains and hills would be made low and he told the people that the ax was at the root of the tree and that the winnowing fork was in the Messiah’s hand. John got the part about the warrior king and fire and judgment, but he wasn’t seeing or hearing about any of this kind of activity from Jesus. All he was hearing about Jesus was the Zechariah 9:9 Messiah that was meek and lowly and a servant. If the coming one was going to do the things John was thinking, there was going to have to be more fireworks, more war-like actions on the Messiah’s part. John could have been saying, “I know you are the Messiah, but are you the Coming One? If you are the Coming One, why am I still in jail? Why can’t you bust me out of here, I am one of your right hand men in the coming kingdom? When are you going to start the judgment part?”
Look at how Jesus answers John by re-reading Luke 7:22-23. Jesus quoted prophetical scriptures from Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5-6, Isaiah 61:1-2) that tell what the Messiah will do; such as healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and even raising the dead. Notice, however, Jesus purposely leaves out the part where the Messiah will set the captives free. Jesus was saying to John – in code through the Old Testament Text – “John, your end times charts are off. It won’t be with fire and judgment this time; that will be later. And no, you are not getting out of jail. There’s no military might this time, it will be me coming to die as a servant.” Then Jesus turned to the crowd and begin to brag on John and told them there was no greater man born of woman than John and that he was the Elijah that would prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 7:24-28 and Matthew 11:14).
In summary, John the Baptist didn’t lose his faith or doubt that the person that he had earlier baptized in the Jordan was the Messiah and the Son of God. He was just confused about how all this was going to take place, because it didn’t look like the fire and judgment part was coming to pass like he thought, especially since he was now in prison. John was not going to see the results or fruit of what he had tried to do, but he was as great as any person in Scripture because everything he did pointed to Jesus as the Messiah.