When John the Baptist was imprisoned he probably had a good idea of what his fate would be. He’d gone from being the most impactful evangelist of his day to a dark, dank prison cell, and now his faith was shaken despite his track record with Jesus. He’d reluctantly baptized Jesus (Matt 3:13-15) while acknowledging that he himself should be the one being baptized, he’d seen the Holy Spirit alight upon Jesus like a dove (John 1:32), and had seen his closest disciples become the followers of Jesus (John 3:30). He had an accurate awareness of his own redemptive-historical role (John 3:27-29).
But in the darkness of a prison cell he wrestled with nagging doubts. Finally he succumbed to his fears and sent a delegation of his remaining disciples to ask Jesus point blank: Are you really the Messiah? (Matt 11:3). Perhaps John expected that, as the herald of the Coming One, he himself would have a glorious end, would see the kingdom inaugurated, and would see Herod and the Romans overthrown. Perhaps he didn’t expect his life to end this way. Are you really the Messiah?
The answer he received was interesting. It was oblique, not direct. Go and tell John what you see and hear (Matt 11:4). Jesus went “full Isaiah” with John, citing Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1. Both passages are of the glories of the coming kingdom (see all of Isaiah 35 and 61).
But here are two interesting points: first, instead of giving a direct yes, Jesus was saying, John, here is the Scripture, and here is what you see: compare them and draw your own conclusions. Jesus was gently nudging John back to his wavering faith.
The second point is that both Isaiah passages Jesus cites are passages of comfort—not rebuke: “to bring good news to the afflicted… to comfort those who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2); “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble, say to those with anxious heart, take courage, fear not…” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
This is especially remarkable when compared to the way Jesus addresses the crowd around him when the disciples of John depart (Matt 11:7-19). He goes “full Malachi” which, contextually, is a book of dire warning: God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord, to restore His people to repentance, lest He “come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:6).
The difference between the modes of address has to do with the difference between the two audiences: fearful doubt in the darkness of great trial, versus persistent unbelief in the face of obvious evidence.
Be not shaken, Christian, by nagging doubt in the presence of unexpected trial and suffering. John the Baptist was the greatest of prophets, yet even he fell into fearful doubt in the gloom of his prison cell. Jesus dealt with him very gently, sending him back to the Scripture to strengthen his faith. Paul was the greatest of apostles, yet there were times when he, too, despaired of life during his own sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:8). When Paul came through his trial, looking back he saw that the same events which had shaken his faith eventually worked to strengthen it (2 Corinthians 1:9).
“A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:3)