Mat 11:2 Now when John heard in prison about the works of the Messiah, he sent word through his disciples
Mat 11:3 and said to Yeshua, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Mat 11:4 Yeshua replied, “Go report to John what you hear and see….”
Generally when we read this passage, or hear it preached or taught on, we understand that after John had been locked up in prison by Herod; he had become discouraged, doubts came upon him, and now he wasn’t sure if Yeshua was the expected one.
Perhaps, but I personally tend to doubt that theory, as it doesn’t particularly flow with the context of the whole story. Right after sending a reply back with John’s disciples, Yeshua spoke of John, and said these things of him: “What did you go out to the desert to see? Reeds swaying in the breeze? (Matt 11:7)…I tell you that among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Immerser! (Matt 11:11)…if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:14). “He IS”…indicating that John was not weakened, but that he was still a mighty man of God.
Now we know that during his prophetic career, Elijah was pretty much ready to hang it up at one point (1 Kgs 19:1-4), but in context John gave no indication of such a thought with the question he had sent to Yeshua.
John had earlier spoken of Yeshua with these words (Mat 3:11-12): “…the One coming after me is mightier than I am; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will immerse you in the Ruach Kodesh [Holy Spirit] and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He shall clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn; but the chaff He shall burn up with inextinguishable fire.” Some scholars have suggested that the “threshing floor” might be an oblique reference to the Temple, which had been built upon land that previously had been a threshing floor (2 Chronicles 3:1), and at the time of John and Yeshua it certainly needing some “clearing out.”
The Essenes, a strict branch of Judaism, and of Dead Sea Scrolls fame, had little to nothing to do with the Temple in Jerusalem, having concluded that the Priests had corrupted the Temple. Neither did they trust the Pharisees or the Sadducees. John, a son of a Priest, was never reported in the Gospels to have any Temple involvement, but stayed out in the wilderness areas. Some Bible scholars believe that if John was not an Essene, his beliefs and practices were very similar. We can then better understand him saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Mat 3:7). So if John had perhaps been aware, via Ruakh HaKodesh or word of mouth, that he was, in essence, Elijah, then he was possibly expecting Yeshua as Messiah to follow behind him and start straightening things up in Israel, removing the corrupt system of Cohanim, and installing a righteous Priesthood. But what John apparently had not had revealed to him was that this was not yet Yeshua’s time for such action. These truths would be revealed in their time: “It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him” (Dan 2:22).
The parallel account of John’s announcement about the wheat and chaff is found in Luke 3. In Luke 4, Yeshua then gives the announcement that the words from Isaiah 61 are about Himself. It is to be pointed out that when Yeshua gave His mission, He stopped short of declaring the “day of vengeance of our God.” His first walk upon earth was not for that. So Yeshua sent word to John that, “the blind see and the lame walk, those with tza’arat are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.”
John was no doubt expecting the “fiery messenger” spoken of by the prophet Malachi in 3:1-4, later identified in 3:23 (4:5 Heb) as Elijah. So if Elijah was expected to come and prepare the way for the Lord, then surely following that the Messiah would suddenly come to the Temple and the Land, for “Who can endure the day of His coming? Or who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire, and like soap for cleaning raw wool” (Mal 3:2).
John was looking for “the one [who is] coming after me [who] is more powerful than I.” “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?” John was possibly expecting an immediate cleansing of the Temple and the Priesthood, but Yeshua essentially told him, “I am He, and things are going as planned, John. It is not yet time for the day of vengeance. That will come at a later point in time, in agreement with My Father’s will.”
So I have to conclude that John was not discouraged and losing faith; but rather, he remained faithful to the God of Israel, and was highly anticipatory, or extremely zealous, for the cleansing of the Temple and the Land, via the arrival of a fiery Elijah,followed by a fiery Messiah.
The lesson for us today? It’s easy to grow weary in well-doing, and perhaps become discouraged, become doubtful even of our faith. If you can, take a few moments to step back – when Elijah was ready to quit, he had a nap, had something to eat and drink, and another nap. Then he woke up refreshed and was ready to go again. “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Sometimes we have to be a good Samaritan to ourselves.)
John did not give up. He did not become a doubter, in spite of situations that were not going as he thought they should. So arise, pray off the doubting, realize that our ways are not always His ways (Isa 55:8), and go in the zeal of the Lord.