Does John the Baptist's questioning of Jesus' messiahship constitute a contradiction?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Do Matthew 3:13-14 and 11:2-3 contradict John the Baptist's knowledge of Jesus?

Answer: Greetings friend. That is a great question! In fact, I find it curious not to have fielded this one before, because even a casual reading of the gospels shows that John the Baptist had a unique and God-given knowledge of Jesus Christ. Yet while in prison, he suffered a spiritual and emotional meltdown! Since your question emphasizes John’s knowledge, I will assume that you are wondering if the Bible is in contradiction since he later acts as if he had no such knowledge. Let us explore.

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13–14, ESV)

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2–3, ESV)

The Bible is clear that John the Baptist had a special relationship with Jesus Christ. First, he was supernaturally acquainted with the Messiah even in the womb! Second, Isaiah prophesied his coming as the forerunner and the announcer of Jesus’ immanent ministry. Third, he was the one to baptize Jesus. In combination, these experiences were unique to John the Baptist, and as such, he was the most qualified person on earth to recognize the Christ.

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby [John the Baptist] leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,” (Luke 1:41, ESV)

“For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’  (Matthew 3:3, ESV)

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16–17, ESV)

With only these three passages, we have three different witnesses to the fact of John’s knowledge — one from the flesh, one from the prophets and one from God the Father. Furthermore, the Baptist himself testified that he understood exactly who Jesus was.

“The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, ESV)

John’s “faithless” moment was not due to a lack of knowledge about the person of Jesus. It was due to a lack of knowledge about the office of Jesus — as the Christ — the Messiah!  John did not understand (and in his defense, no one understood at that time) how the Christ must suffer and die. The Jews understood that when the Messiah came he would save their nation politically by establishing his rule upon the earth — and indeed he will! But Christ will do this on his next trip because such glories cannot come before the cross.

Only a few people were even beginning to understand how the Christ must suffer and die (Mark 8:31), and as Jesus continued to teach (and to confound the people’s expectations), many disciples ceased to follow him (John 6:66). Virtually every Jew expected some type of political vindication to be part of the messianic program — and well they should have! But that glorious moment will be at a time even future to us. As for Jesus’ contemporaries, they did not understand that the route to messianic glory included a street called sorrows, and therefore the greatest moment in human history was largely dismissed as a sad and confusing event—rife with tears, grief and disbelief.

Who could blame the Jews for being disappointed? Even the apostles succumbed between the cross and the resurrection — and if any people were supposed to “get” this stuff it would be they.  So, can you blame John the Baptist for his moment of despair? Remember that during this trial of his faith, John was in jail — a political prisoner, no less — and if Messiah would have only grabbed the political reigns as he was “supposed to,” then John would have been released. But time was running out for John, so he sent his disciples on that desperate errand, the errand that tipped his hand.

John did not lose faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He lost faith in his own version of Jesus as the Messiah. That is quite different than losing true faith. In fact, it is an appropriate response. We should lose faith in all our untrue assumptions about the Christ. Remember, adding Jesus’ name to a lie does not make the lie true, and that was exactly what the Jews were doing. They were lying to themselves about how the Messiah should behave in their age, and some went on to glue Jesus into their lies.

John the Baptist knew some great truths about Christ — but he knew him only in part. John also assumed that some of the non-truths about Christ were true — and these also, only in part. Since these particular parts do not collide, the Bible is not in contradiction concerning John the Baptist.

Two lessons jump right out at me. First, even we who have “heard the voice of God” and who are thereby his children can have a season of disbelief. This is not apostasy. This is merely a spiritual and emotional dip. Second, it is all too easy to attach our own expectations onto God or onto his people — expectations that have no biblical warrant. It is difficult enough to keep believers together under the best of circumstances, but it is designed failure to add extra-biblical burdens to God or to people and then expect them to toe your mark instead of Scripture’s. That is what John did, and he suffered for it.

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