John’s humility and preparation to diminish so that Jesus would be elevated, does not mean he was a footnote to the biblical account. Jesus’ own testimony of John shows us this.
“When the messengers of John had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. “What did you go out to the desert to see—a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom scripture says: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you. I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John . . . . (Luke 7:24 – 28 emphasis mine)”
John was more than a prophet. In fact in Matthew’s account Jesus adds,
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear (Matthew 11: 12 – 15).”
John, the awaited Elijah? The precursor to the arrive of messiah? Jesus says – yes.
But we have this account immediately before Jesus’ announcement about John in which John seems to question Jesus’ identity.
“After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor (Matthew 11: 1 – 5).”
Was he despondent? While it has been argued that it was the despair of captivity and impending death which clouded his faith? Was this the same man who had seen the Spirit descend on Jesus? Had he not proclaimed Him to be the lamb of God? Is he doubting now?
Many pastors have drawn on this seeming crisis of faith to use as an analogy of our own doubts, and struggles. But this approach seems problematic (though not impossible) based on the scriptures. Let us remember that John had a loyal supporter base. Even in Acts, Paul encounters “those who only knew the baptism of John,” but not the gospel.
If we explore John’s attitude about his disciples “abandonment” of him in favour of Jesus (see Andrew and John) we might have a clue. The question may well have been for the sake of the messengers sent to Jesus, not for John himself. He may well have seen that his remaining followers needed to hear Jesus’ testimony for themselves.
John Chrysostom suggests a more consistent view that the question was intended for his disciples’ instruction, rather than his own benefit. He was passing the mantle of “master” from himself to his cousin, much as he had 2 or so years earlier with Andrew and John (John disciples who had witnessed Jesus’ baptism).
While we may never know while on this Earth the answer to this question, it does seem that John’s question offers an insight into the man. Whether as some suggest, that his humanity (even as one of the greatest men ever born of a woman) remained nonetheless human, with doubts and fears; or as a prophet to the end, giving direct teaching to his disciples by sending them to the source – this was a man of God.
John: Levite, prophet, teacher, and above all example. We have much to learn from this cousin of Jesus.