Seeing this is a potential issue, it’s important to ask: “Did John the Baptist know Jesus was the Messiah?”
John’s Testimony of the Lamb of God
During the Jordan wilderness period of John the Baptist’s ministry, John was openly proclaiming that he was just a messenger and that the coming Messiah was greater than he (John 1:23–281). Then when Jesus came down to the Jordan River to be baptized, John immediately proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He also recognized Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:29–34).
He then pointed out Jesus to two of his disciples (vs. 35–36), and when they followed Jesus, one of them (Andrew) recognized that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah (vs. 41). It is plain to see that John understood and recognized Jesus as the Messiah during this time of his ministry.
The Disciples of John Struggle with the Lifestyle of Jesus
After John had been put in prison, his disciples kept him informed of the ministry of Jesus. Then either on John’s own prompting, or more likely on their own initiative, the disciples of John came to Jesus and asked him why Jesus’ disciples did not fast often, like they did (Matthew 9:14).
We do not know for sure what motivated John and/or his disciples to ask this question, but in the expanded context (and in the parallel passages of Mark 2:16–20 and Luke 5:29–35), the Pharisees had just asked why Jesus ate and even attended great feasts (Luke 5:29–30) with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded to the Pharisees that he had come to call sinners (not the self-righteous) to repentance (Luke 5:32). He then responded to the disciples of John (Matthew 9:15) that the friends of the bridegroom could not fast while the bridegroom was present with them.
It is possible that the Pharisees and the disciples of John were both in agreement that Jesus and his disciples should have been more self-effacing and ascetic. Perhaps John, while in prison, heard that Jesus was gathering large crowds, feasted at rich men’s houses, and did not make his disciples fast (and pray as often) as he and his disciples had (Luke 5:33). John may have struggled with the fact that he was afflicted and, even before being put in prison, lived a spartan and minimalistic lifestyle. Yet he kept hearing of Jesus’ popularity and his support by wealthy benefactors, tax collectors—who were often viewed as traitors to the nation of Israel.
John the Baptist’s Question
Then some time later, John’s disciples carry another message to Jesus from John, this time asking if Jesus was the promised Messiah (“the one who is to come”) or if they should look for someone else Matthew 11:2–3 and Luke 7:19–20. This is where the supposed contradiction comes in. John, who was so sure of Jesus being the Christ, the Son of God, earlier in his ministry now appears to be experiencing some doubts.
Before we even address the issue of doubting, we need to consider John’s methodologies from earlier in his ministry to see if they may shed more light on this.
But before we even address the issue of doubting, we need to consider John’s methodologies from earlier in his ministry to see if they may shed more light on this. Keep in mind that it was John who pointed out Jesus to two of his disciples and showed no concern that they left him to follow Jesus (John 1:35–37). Then in John 3:26–30, John’s disciples saw that Jesus had attracted a larger following and were concerned that John would be eclipsed by Jesus and his swelling popularity. But John’s response to this was to reiterate that he was not the Messiah—Jesus was—and that Christ must increase while he decreased. This hardly seems like the response of someone worried of his own position being threatened. Nor of someone who doubted the Christ’s ministry.
The Friend of the Bridegroom
In regard to John’s disciples asking about fasting, we even see that John forestalled this very question, using the same words as Jesus would use later when he responded. John while still in the Jordan wilderness said “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled” (John 3:29). John may very well have been thinking of the extended passage of Isaiah 61–62, where twice (Isaiah 61:10, Isaiah 62:5), the imagery of the groom and bride are used in conjunction with Messianic prophecies. Interestingly, Jesus reminded John of this later when he gave proof of his Messianic credentials (Matthew 11:4-6).
Jesus responded to the “fasting” question of John’s disciples by equating his own disciples with John’s earlier sentiment. They were also joyful because they were with the bridegroom. In light of this, it seems likely that John had not asked his disciples to ask Jesus this question, but they had done so on their own initiative, and quite possibly at the instigation of the Pharisees. When they returned to John, he quite possibly sensed a discontentment among his own disciples about Jesus when they told him about the question they asked Jesus regarding fasting and praying, which they did because of their own petty jealousies (e.g. John 3:25–26).
Could John’s Question About the Messiah Have Been Asked for His Disciple’s Sake?
As for the Matthew 11:2–3 and Luke 7:19–20 passages, remembering that John had previously pointed his own disciples to Jesus (John 1:35–36), could this question John had his disciples ask not have been a similar case of pointing people to the Messiah? Perhaps it was not that John doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, nor was it for his own satisfaction so much that he sent these disciples of his with this question, but for theirs: to remove all doubt and hesitation from them about Jesus. He knew that he might soon be killed, and he wanted his disciples to follow after the Messiah he himself had pointed out. John perhaps knew that Jesus when asked this question would offer undeniable truth that he was indeed the Christ, and isn’t that what Jesus did? Jesus in their sight performed great healing miracles and preached the gospel, and then tied these back to Scripture (Luke 7:21–22) by using imagery from the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1.
Possible Reasons for Doubt?
But we must address that there is also the possibility that John the Baptist, as he was in prison (and this was probably over a year later than his statements recorded in John 1:29–36), actually began to wonder whether Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps he expected Jesus to get him out of prison since he was the forerunner of the Messiah, or he expected that by now Jesus would have openly proclaimed himself Messiah and King of Israel. Since neither of these had yet happened, John may have begun to have doubts. But even if this is a possibility, we have to consider that John never openly denied Jesus, nor did he make this an accusation. He asked his disciples to ask Jesus. He didn’t start a smear campaign, nor put forth his own thoughts on who he thought the Messiah should be. He accepted that Jesus was the Christ, until and unless Jesus told him otherwise. He deferred to Jesus even amidst his own doubts (if this hypothesis is correct).
Notice also that after Jesus had spoken with John’s disciples and they had left, Jesus did not rail on John’s “lack of faith,” nor did he question John’s integrity. Instead, Jesus called him the greatest prophet and the messenger of God tasked with preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ response to John's disciples would either serve as a mild yet loving rebuke to John for doubting or it would serve to cause John's disciples to follow Jesus once John was dead (and maybe it did both). Regardless, this is not a contradiction. It was either a moment of weakness (not an outright retraction or denial of Christ) for the imprisoned John or, perhaps knowing his death was imminent, John wanted his disciples to encounter Jesus personally in the hopes that they would follow him. Just like John the Baptist had pointed Andrew and another disciple to Jesus previously, it is likely that John’s last question for Jesus had the same effect. And for any follower of Christ, isn’t pointing people to Jesus what we are supposed to do?