Question: Could you please tell me why in Matthew 11:2 John said "are you the One to come or should we expect someone else? I don't understand why John had to ask if Christ was the One to come since he had seen the Spirit as a dove descend upon the Lord (John 1:33-34).
Response: This was indeed a troubling thing for John to say. How much more would it not have been a difficult thing for our Lord to have to listen to from the very man who was His herald. The amount of personal suffering and disappointment Jesus had to contend with throughout His earthly life and especially during His three and a half year ministry even before His ordeal at the end is very much under-appreciated. Here, in John's case, we have the man who was His forerunner, His messenger, the one who proclaimed His ministry, who pronounced Him "the Lamb of God", now expressing open doubts. Only someone of complete dedication and absolute commitment could handle such a potentially demoralizing slap in the face from someone so important to Him - the one person who ought to have known better - and handle it with such grace, such restraint, such wisdom, such humility, and such truth.
John, you are right, had every reason to know that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was His herald. After all, this had been the prophecy from the birth of them both, and John would have been brought up with this knowledge. When he proclaims Jesus "the Lamb of God" in Andrew's hearing (Jn.1:29), he had, as you say, seen this remarkable miracle. Even though he may not have recognized Jesus at first without this miraculous sign - a sign he had been told about by God Himself (Jn.1:33) - they were cousins, after all, and after the fact that would have been known to John (just as we may have relatives we haven't seen since childhood, or maybe have never seen, but once we've met them it is easy enough to confirm that they are our kin). So John had 1) the prophecy of scripture; 2) the promise of the sign from God; 3) the miraculous fulfillment of the sign, and 4) the repeated reports if not personal observation of Christ's miracles over roughly a two and a half year period by this time. For this event occurs about the time of Jesus' sending out of the twelve, an action which heralds the Messiah's year of salvation, the final year of Christ's earthly ministry, just before the death of John (Mk.6:1-13 with Mk.6:14-29; cf. Lk.9-10).
To be fair to John, he had been languishing in prison for some two years by this point, and in such straits it is at least understandable if not excusable that he fell into the trap that many of our Lord's contemporaries did, namely, he was no doubt expecting that by this time, well over two years after the miraculous sign he had witnessed, the Messiah would forcibly take control of His kingdom. In such circumstances, "a man's misery weighs heavily upon him" (Eccl.8:6), so that it would have been easy for John to doubt the reality he had seen with his eyes several years before and assume that he had been mistaken about Jesus (after all, he was still languishing in jail for what must have seemed an eternity). He might have been able to give in completely to doubt, that is, except for the fact that Jesus continued to perform the miraculous signs which all the country was taking about. The phrase in Matt.11:2 "when John heard in prison what Christ was doing" (and also Lk.7:18 compared with Lk.7:11-17) makes it clear that it is indeed these great miracles and signs which provokes John's doubting inquiry. To put it in the terms used by the Pharisees, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you really are the Christ, tell us plainly." To which Jesus replies "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in My Father's Name speak for Me." (Jn.10:24-26). When John asks whether Christ is "the One" or if they should look for someone else, he is clearly falling into the classic trap of his generation to look for a King rather than a Savior. If He were the Messiah, then why was He still humbly walking the land and not assuming regal power? But if He were not, then how could He be doing these miracles? But our Lord came to establish a kingdom greater than any earthly kingdom and to accomplish a salvation greater than any earthly deliverance. John should have had more patience (easy for me to say, not sitting in a dungeon months on end while events proceed contrary to all my expectations). After all, he did say that this Lamb "takes away the sin of the world" (Jn.1:22), but it was apparently still not clear to John, just as it continued to be unclear to the disciples until after that fact, that Jesus would have to suffer in the intense and humiliating way He did in order to purchase our lives and cover our sins (Mk.9:32: "but they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it"; cf. Mk.8:31-33).
There is a lesson here about patience and about trust. God always hears our prayers, but He does not always answer on our timetable. As to patience, for a God for whom "a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day", a month, a year, even a decade are not to be considered a negative answer - He will answer in the perfect way and at the perfect time if we do not give up (Lk.18:1-5; cf. Matt.7:7-8; Lk.11:5-10; Gal.6:9; Heb.12:3). As to trust, very often things do not turn out the way we expect they will (that has been the theme of my life thus far). This is really a good thing, because if we truly had the power to choose in detail how our lives would develop, we would make a mess of it and would never get around to achieving for Christ what we have been called to do.
John was, in fact, fulfilling God's purpose for his life. As long as he was alive, in severe difficulty though he was, he gave Jesus and His ministry a certain measure of "cover" without which it might have otherwise been impossible to proceed (both from the standpoint of increased celebrity and of increased opposition). It was no accident in the divine plan that John died precisely at the beginning of the last year of ministry, the year many commentators et al. call "the year of opposition". In this final year Jesus and His ministry ran on ever more rapid and unavoidable collision course with the religious establishment of His day, culminating in their execution of Him - at the exact right time, at the conjunction of the ages, the central point and the focal point of all history (Rom.5:6; Heb.9:26).
John had a wonderful role to play in all of this, but it is a near universal human failing that we tend to focus on the unimportant and non-essential points of our lives (especially when they are causing us pain, grief, trouble, anxiety, etc.), and to forget the fact that every positive step we take in our Christian lives, and every legitimate act of ministry we accomplish, no matter how small, is working out an eternal weight of glory which cannot be compared with the greatest temporal successes (Rom.8:16; 2Cor.4:17). Would any of us have done any better than John? No doubt there are few of us who would have the nerve to claim we would have done half as well. But we can in any case learn from his mistake and make a point of remembering to patiently wait for God's deliverance from every trial, and to trust and believe in that deliverance even if everything our eyes see tells us that it is impossible - even to the point of death, for our God is a God who delivers from death, who has conquered death, and who raises the dead. And we should also make a note to trust Him even if the answers to our prayers may sometimes seem to our ignorant perspective exactly the opposite of what we need and for what we asking. For our God is a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and will ever give His children only good things, truly good things, whether or not we have the spiritual acumen to appreciate them for what they are (Matt.7:11).
For more on the interrelationship between the ministries of John and our Lord see:
John's Baptism of Jesus
Zechariah (John's Father)
The Life of Christ.
And here is a chart from part 5 of the Satanic Rebellion series comparing chronologically the ministries of Jesus and John:
Yours in Him who knows the end from the beginning, and who is ever working everything out for our absolute good.
In Jesus Christ,