Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and J.C. Ryle all agree that John did not doubt, but rather, that he asked this question for the sake of his disciples. I see nothing to support that interpretation and much to indicate that John doubted. But why did John doubt?
While in prison John hears of Jesus deeds, and he doubts, doesn’t this seem strange?
“John, Jesus is restoring sight to the blind! (Matthew 9:27-31)”
“John, Jesus is healing the lame so that they walk! (Matthew 8:5-13)”
“John, Jesus is cleansing lepers! (Matthew 8:1-4)”
“John, Jesus is casting out demons! (Matthew 8:28-34)”
“John, Jesus is raising the dead to life! (Matthew 9:18-26)”
And John’s response to this news is… doubt? Notice John doesn’t doubt that Jesus does the deeds. He doesn’t doubt the deeds of Jesus but the identity of Jesus. Imagine, John hears the news of Jesus raising the dead, believes the report, but thinks, “Yea, I don’t know… is He the one?”
What condition can there be in our hearts and minds such that when we hear of Jesus’ authoritative words and deeds that call for a response of complete abandonment and surrender to His supremacy, we doubt instead of taking up our cross and following Jesus? Why does John doubt?
Let’s start at the surface. John hears of Jesus’ deeds while he is in prison. One very likely reason for John’s doubt is his imprisonment. While circumstances are not everything, that does not mean that they are nothing. Few of us doubt when times are happy. This isn’t necessarily because our faith is strong, but more often because our hearts are wrong. When doubts only flee when circumstances are optimal, this does not mean we are people of great faith, but people of great sin. When a change in circumstances deeply affects a change in heart, idols are being exposed. Thus, circumstances are only surface.
I believe at root John doubts because Jesus isn’t meeting John’s expectations. I don’t think John expected less from Jesus, but more. It is not that John is disappointed by the salvation Jesus is bringing, but He was expecting judgment as well (Matthew 3:11-12). John is the forerunner to God’s king, and he is in prison, so where is the King’s full salvation? You see John expected Jesus’ salvation to include judgment, as he should. Jesus’ reply to John alludes to many passages in Isaiah, many of which include predictions of salvific judgment upon the enemies of God, who are also the enemies of the people of God (Isaiah 35:4-6, 61:1-2). Jesus will preach both salvation, and judgment; a judgment He will bring, but right now He is bringing salvation.
So then, John’s doubts don’t arise because of unbiblical expectations of Jesus, but because of a misunderstanding of God’s timeline. The problem is not John’s theology, but His chronology. There are some sins that only a faithful Christ-follow can sin.
Why do you doubt? Ask yourself two questions:
- Am I expecting something unbiblical of Jesus?
- If my expectations are Biblical, is my timeline different than God’s?
Drop your expectations, they are small and sinful; if not in the thing desired than in the motive behind them. Instead, look at Jesus, not in the light of your sinful expectations, but in the light of Scripture’s holy promises and realize Jesus will always be more, not less than you could expect.