John the Baptist was a great prophet commissioned with a unique task. In fact, Jesus referred to John as the greatest prophet. Yet when in prison, facing death, even he had a season of doubt. John wanted to know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Many had come claiming to be the one, and from his prison cell, John was beginning to think he made a mistake. Even the greatest of the prophets had moments of doubt, and unbelief. Understanding his season of doubt will help us as we endure difficult seasons of life, and ministry.
John continued his ministry of preaching the good news, and calling the people to repentance (Luke 3:18). However, his boldness would ultimately get him into trouble. He confronted Herod about his adulterous relationship with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias (Luke 3:19-20, Mark 6:17-18). Herodias was furious, and wanted John killed, but Herod kept him safe in prison because he feared him (Mark 6:19-20, Matt 14:5).
During this time in prison, John began to reflect on the ministry of Jesus, and doubt crept into his heart. John taught that the Messiah would bring great blessing and judgment, yet from his prison cell it seemed all Jesus was bringing was blessing. There seemed to be no judgment, especially on the evil Herod who had imprisoned John. Out of discouragement and a misunderstanding of the ministry of Christ, John found himself doubting if Jesus really was the one to come.
From his prison cell, John heard of the teaching and miracles of Christ (Matt 11:2). In response, he sent two of his disciples to inquire of Jesus if he were the one to come (Luke 7:19-20, Matt 11:3). John was confused because the ministry of Jesus did not fit into his preconceived notions, and this led him to question the Lord.
Jesus did not respond harshly to John’s question. Instead, he performed many miraculous works. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and gave sight to the blind (Luke 7:21). Rather than chastise John for his doubts, Jesus did these things in order to affirm himself as the Messiah, and give John the confidence he needed to endure prison.
Then he sent John’s disciples back to him, instructing them to tell John all that they had seen, and heard (Luke 7:22a, Matt 11:4). The blind received their sight (Is 35:5a), and the lame walked (Is 35:6a, Matt 11:5a, Luke 7:22b). The lepers are cleansed (Is 53:4, Matt 8:16-17), the deaf heard (Is 35:5b), and the dead are raised up (Matt 11:5b, Luke 7:22c). Although raising the dead was not prophesied of the Messiah, it far exceeded the other miracles in power, and further authenticated Jesus’ ministry.
The last evidence Jesus gave, was the preaching of good news to the poor (Matt 11:5c, Luke 7:22d). This was a direct reference to Isaiah 61:1-2, which was an explicit Messianic passage. The Lord’s message to John was clear, he is the Messiah, and though he was working in a way that John did not expect, John could confidently trust in him. If John would continue in faith he would be blessed (Matt 11:6, Luke 7:23).
Jesus then addresses the crowds in reference to John; this is significant in light of John’s doubts. Jesus asked if the people had gone to see a reed shaken by the wind (Matt 11:7, Luke 7:24). Jesus makes it clear that John was not a double minded man tossed to and fro (James 1:6). John was a man of faith, who in a time of deep discouragement, resulting from his imprisonment, and a misunderstanding of the ministry of Jesus, had a season of doubt. He also asks about John’s physical appearance, as he was not a man in fine clothing (Matt 11:8, Luke 7:25). Jesus asked both of these questions to focus the people’s attention on the person, John really was.
Jesus verifies that John was a prophet; indeed more than just a prophet (Matt 11:9, Luke 7:26). Jesus clarifies that John was indeed the forerunner that was prophesied in Malachi 3:1 (Matt 11:10, Luke 7:27). All of the prophets had spoken of the coming Messiah, but John alone held the special privilege of announcing his arrival. This made him the greatest of the prophets.
In fact, as Jesus’ confirmation of this fact, made John the greatest person ever (Matt 11:11a, Luke 7:28a). Next, Jesus makes a statement that is somewhat difficult to understand. He states that as great as John was, even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt 11:11b, Luke 7:28b). The question we immediately have is, was John not in the kingdom?
John was on the cusps of the kingdom; he heralded its coming, but did not live to see it inaugurated. His role was of great importance, but he did not live to see, or experience life in the kingdom. While John’s ministry pointed to the coming kingdom, Christians who now live in, and thus, according to the principles of the inaugurated kingdom more clearly point to Jesus Christ.
Jesus confirms that John was indeed the answer to Malachi 4:5-6 (Matt 11:13-14). John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He came in the fullness of time, to fulfill the role of Elijah, and prepare the way for the Lord Jesus. However, just as he himself said, the time came for Jesus to increase, and John must necessarily decrease.
While John was still in prison, Herod’s wife Herodias finally seized an opportunity to have him killed. Her daughter danced for Herod, and his guests. He was so pleased that he offered her anything, up to half of his kingdom (Matt 14:6-7, Mark 6:21-23).
She immediately asked her mother what to request, and Herodias instructed her to ask for John’s head on a platter (Matt 14:8, Mark 6:24). This she requested, and to save face, Herod obliged her request (Matt 14:9-11, Mark 6:25-28). John was killed by a ruthless king, because he made a hasty oath. Nonetheless he was able to face death with the confidence that he had been faithful to his calling of preparing the people to receive their Messiah.
John was described by Jesus as the greatest person ever born, and as the greatest prophet yet, even he had a season of doubt. John expected Jesus to bring immediate judgment on sinners, and when he found himself wrongly imprisoned by Herod, he began to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. Jesus did not work according to the way John expected, so his faith was shaken. However, Jesus was not angry or disappointed with him. Instead, Jesus used the opportunity to once again demonstrate that he was the Messiah, by reiterating the message he had proclaimed earlier in his ministry (Luke 4:17-19). It is always in our times of trial, and struggle that our faith in Jesus is ultimately strengthened.
 D. A. Carson, Walter W. Wessel, and Walter L. Liefeld, “Matthew, Mark, Luke” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Vol. 8. Edited by Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 261-262.
 W. MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. A. Farstad, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995). Logos Bible Software 4 (accessed November 23, 2011).
 Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 262.