Was John the Baptist a man of misgivings or a living torch of conviction? Let us take a look at how the Gospels sketch him.
‘A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’ (Jn 1:6–7). Numerous passages within the Gospel texts highlight the figure of St. John the Baptist in the most exalting terms.
The grandeur of his calling shines from the beginning, in the narration of his elderly mother’s miraculous conceiving, his sanctification within her womb upon hearing the voice of the Virgin – precious tabernacle of the Lord – and his birth marked by extraordinary facts such as Zachary’s canticle.
We know little of the Baptist´s life before he started preaching; it is only revealed that he lived in the desert, clad in camel skins, and nourishing himself with locusts and wild honey (cf. Mt 3:4).
Leaving the desert and his contemplative existence there, he emerged, mysterious, among the people, and began to announce the coming of the Messiah. As the sole prophet to enjoy personal acquaintance with the Messiah, he closed the Old Testament with a golden key and hailed the New.
St. John prepared the way of the Lord, just as his father Zachary had prophesized (Lk 1:76), announcing the kingdom and, above all, calling to conversion. ‘As a testimony,’ John was set to untiringly, ‘testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’. ‘We can imagine the extraordinary impression that the figure and message of John the Baptist must have produced in the highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at that particular moment of history. At last there was a prophet again, and his life marked him out as such. God’s hand was at last plainly acting in history again. John baptizes with water, but one even greater, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, is already at the door’ (Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration).
His fame spread rapidly throughout Israel. Many thought him to be the Messiah; but John – in his utmost humility – didn’t hesitate to lower himself so that the Messiah might better shine before all. And if St. John the Baptist’s life, however briefly reviewed, doesn’t convince us of how extraordinary a man he was, we also have Jesus’ own testimony where the Gospels record him praising his Precursor (cf. Mt 11:11; 11: 7–15; Lk 7, 24–28, etc.).
This mystical, lofty and, above all, authentic image of the saint, venerated with particular devotion in the Church from the very first centuries onward, leaves absolutely no margin for the idea of a man beset by doubts and uncertainties, as some would like to paint him today…
“But he also suffered in prison – let us say the word – the interior torture of doubt: ‘But maybe I made a mistake? This Messiah is not how I imagined the Messiah would be.’ And he invited his disciples to ask Jesus: ‘But tell us, tell us the truth: are you He who is to come?’ because that doubt made him suffer. ‘Was I mistaken in proclaiming someone who isn’t [who I thought]?’ The suffering, the interior solitude of this man. ‘I, on the other hand, must diminish, but diminish thus: in soul, in body, in everything…” (Morning meditation, Casa Santa Marta, February 5, 2016)
Let us ask from John the grace of apostolic courage to always say things with truth, from pastoral love, to receive the people with the little that they can give, the first step. God will do the rest. And also the grace of doubting. Often times, maybe at the end of life, one can ask, “But is all that I believed true or are they fantasies?” the temptation against the faith, against the Lord. May the great John, who is the least in the kingdom of Heaven, and for this reason is great, help us along this path in the footsteps of the Lord. (Homily, Santa Marta, December 15, 2016)
Enter the various parts of our study
II – Saint John the Baptist never doubted that Christ was the Messiah
III – John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to cure their spiritual illnesses
I – Introductory note: Saint John the Baptist, the greatest man born of a woman. The verdict of Popes, Saints and Doctors of the Church
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. (Jn 1:6)
When the messengers of John had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. What did you go out to the desert to see – a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom scripture says: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (Lk 7: 24-28)
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. What did you go out to the desert to see – a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’ Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear. (Mt 11:9–15)
‘Whose name was John.’ (Jn 1:6) In his name, one senses grace for the name ‘John’ means the grace of the Lord. IO means the Lord, ANNA means grace. Whose name was ‘Ioannes’. Truly, he merits the name he bears (pheronumos). Why pheronumos? Because he is true to his name; he has received a very great grace; hence, in the desert, he searches into the reason and nature of things and keeps himself for the coming of Christ. Because he was to announce Christ, from day to day, he is fed in the desert; there, from day to day, he grows. He has no desire to converse with men; in the wilderness, he communes with the angels. John had always known that Christ would come. Not only had he known Him from infancy, but when he was in the womb of his mother, he had recognized Christ and had already greeted Him. It is written if fact: ‘the babe in the womb leapt for joy.’ Just think, as he was being formed in his mother’s womb, he perceived the advent of the Lord! […] Right after his birth, he lives in the wilderness; he is reared in the wilderness; there, he waits for Christ. He was waiting for Christ, he knew that he would come, and hence his eyes did not deign to contemplate anything else. (Saint Jerome. Homilies of Saint Jerome, Homily 87 on the Gospel of John, 1:1–14, Volume 2, pg. 212)
John is greater than the other prophets in that the one whom they had predicted as coming, he pointed out with his finger as having come, when he said: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” (Jn 1:29) And because in addition to the privilege of being his prophet there also came to the Baptist the reward of baptizing his own Lord, he then adds an auxésis [increase] of merits, producing the testimony from Malachi in which even the angel is predicted. Now here we should not think that John is called an “angel” as one who participates in their nature, but by the dignity of his office, namely, that of messenger. For he brought the message that the Lord was coming. (Saint Jerome. Commentary on Matthew. Book Two, ch.11, [11:8] pg. 129–130)
Truly ardent and vividly lit was he who in such a way anticipated the celestial flame, that he already felt the coming of Christ, even when he was not yet aware of himself. That new fire, that a little while before had descended from Heaven, by the mouth of Gabriel, entering the ear of the Virgin; and then, by the mouth of the Virgin to the ear of John’s mother, entering the child: to fill this his chosen vessel with the Holy Spirit from that moment, and prepare the torch for Christ the Lord. (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Sermon for the nativity of Saint John the Baptist, no. 4)
Regarding the humble and in all ways fervent devotion of John for the Lord, what shall we say? From this proceeds that he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb; from this, that he was filled with fear at the Jordan when Jesus asked him for baptism; from this, that he not only denied that he was Christ, as they considered him to be, but also claimed himself unworthy to unfasten the straps of his sandals; from this, that as the friend of the Spouse, he rejoiced in the voice of the Spouse; from this, that he had received grace for grace, but that Christ had not received the Spirit with measure, but rather the plenitude, of which all received. […] Now you see how John was enflamed; and at the same time how he also shone hereby, if you have pondered well, it is indicated, for neither could you know his ardor, had he not shone. (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Sermon for the nativity of Saint John the Baptist, no. 10)
Then having said, that he is greater than a prophet, He signifies also in what he is greater. And in what is he greater? In being near Him that had come. For, “I send,” says He, “my messenger before Your face;” that is, near You. For as with kings, they who ride near the chariot, these are more illustrious than the rest, just so John also appears in his course near the advent itself. See how He signified John’s excellency by this also; and not even here does He stop, but adds afterwards His own suffrage as well, saying, “Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women, there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVII, no. 2)
Now what He said is like this: “woman has not borne a greater than this man.” And His very sentence is indeed sufficient; but if you are minded to learn from facts also, consider his table, his manner of life, the height of his soul. For he so lived as though he were in heaven: and having got above the necessities of nature, he travelled as it were a new way, spending all his time in hymns and prayers, and holding intercourse with none among men, but with God alone continually. For he did not so much as see any of his fellow-servants, neither was he seen by any one of them; he fed not on milk, he enjoyed not the comfort of bed, or roof, or market, or any other of the things of men; and yet he was at once mild and earnest. Hear, for example, how considerately he reasons with his own disciples, courageously with the people of the Jews, how openly with the king. For this cause He said also, “There has not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVII, no. 2)
It is regarding John the Baptist, not the Evangelist, whose great day of birth we celebrate, that we have a grand testimony of the Lord himself. Our Savior speaks of him; [He who is] our Lord and his. Could Truth say of him anything different? Among those born of women, no one is greater than John the Baptist. Behold the one whose solemnity we celebrate today: he greater than whom there never arose another, among those born of woman. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 293D)
Bear in mind, conserve there the aforementioned testimony of the Lord regarding John; that is, that among those born of woman there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist. This is what Jesus said of John; what did John say of Jesus? Before all else, observe how the testimony of the Lord regarding John was fulfilled. […] consider how easy it would have been for him to abuse the error of men and presume to be Christ. He did not do this, and with good reason; he is more powerful in confessing than neighing with pride. By chance did he have to persuade them that he was Christ? This is what they already thought; he would only have to confirm what they opined; presenting himself as that which he was not, he would deceive them as to who he really was. Where would he be if he had done so? ‘You sent messengers to John’, said the Lord Jesus to the Jews; ‘he was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in its light’. ‘I, however, have a greater testimony than John’. Good lamp; with sound reason it took refuge at under the rock so that the wind of pride would not put it out. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 293D)
Before John there were prophets; there were many, great and holy, worthy and filled with God, announcers of the Savior and testimonies of the truth. Nonetheless, of not one of them could be said that which was said of John: Among those born of women, no one is greater than John the Baptist (Mt 11,11). What does this greatness sent before the Great One signify? It is a testimony of sublime humility. He was, in effect, so great that he could pass for Christ. John could have taken advantage of the error of men even without effort and convince them that he was the Christ, since although he was silent on this those who heard and saw him already attributed this to him. He did not have to sow the error; it would be enough for him to confirm it. But he, as a humble friend of the Bridegroom, full of zeal for him, without adulterously usurping the condition of Bridegroom, gives testimony in favor of the friend and confides the bride to the authentic Bridegroom. To be loved in him, he loathed to be loved in his place. […] Here the grandeur of John appears with all evidence. Being able to pass as Christ, he preferred to give testimony of Christ and make him increase; humiliate himself before usurping His place, and failing himself. Justifiably it was said that he was more than a prophet. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 288)
St. John the Baptist, the greatest among the prophets of Christ, who was able to deny himself to make room for the Saviour and who suffered and died for the truth. (Benedict XVI. Angelus, August 29, 2010)
‘A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.’ In order to give testimony of he who was not only man, but also God it was becoming that a man so great that it could be said that among those born of woman there was none greater than John. In this manner, He of whom John, himself greater than the others, gave testimony, surpassed even him precisely because he was not only man, but also God. John was, then, light also, but such a light, that the Lord himself proclaimed it by saying: ‘He was a burning and shining lamp.’ (Saint Augustine. Letter 140, no. 7)
In the praying life of the universal Church the first place is held by the adoration and glorification of the August Most Blessed Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There follows, at a due liturgical distance, and with the very light of the Trinity Itself, the veneration of Mary the Mother of Christ our Savior, and, by this title, our powerful and beloved Mother. In the ancient prayers, Saint Michael is named next, prince of the countless and invisible heavenly hosts. But the first figure of a man, with body and soul, that comes before our gaze, for our respect and veneration, is Saint John the Baptist, sole and delayed flower of Zachary and Elizabeth, called to prepare, through the voice of this unexpected son, the celestial message and the invitation to the universal generation that the prophets had promised, for centuries. (John XXIII. Allocution on the second vespers of the Feast of Saint John, June 24, 1962)
John the Baptist, whose mission is to point Him out to the expectation of Israel, had himself leapt for joy, in His presence, in the womb of his mother (cf. Lk 1:44). When Jesus begins His ministry, John ‘rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice’ (Jn 3:29). (Paul VI. Apostolic exhortation Gaudete in Domino, no. 22, May 9, 1975)
‘None born of woman is greater’ (cf. Lk 7: 28). He gave to God the supreme witness of his blood, sacrificing his life for truth and justice; indeed, his head was cut off at the orders of Herod, whom he had dared to tell that it was not lawful to take his brother’s wife (cf. Mk 6: 17–29). (John Paul II. Angelus, no.1, August 29, 2004)
With the festivity of Saint John the Baptist, celebrated today, the Church presents us the figure of an exceptional witness of Christ […] eliminated by Herod in the obscure Machaerus prison, he is honored today all over the world. The humiliation of his apparent defeat has opened the way for the glory of triumph. (John Paul II. Angelus, no.1–2, June 24, 1990)
For he, who comes into the world in such unusual circumstances, already brings the divine call with him. This call comes from the plan of God himself, from his salvific love, and it is written in the man’s history right from the first moment of conception in his mother’s womb. All the circumstances of this conception, as well as the circumstances of John’s birth at Ain-Karim, indicate an unusual call. Praeibis ante faciem Domini parare vias eius. ‘You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.’ (Lk 1:76). We know that John the Baptist answered this call with his whole life. We know that he remained faithful to it until his last breath. And he breathed his last in prison by order of Herod, as a result of the wish of Salome who acted on the instigation of her revengeful mother Herodias. (John Paul II. Homily no. 1, June 24, 1979)
In the Roman Calendar, he is the only saint whose birth and death, through martyrdom, are celebrated on the same day (in his case, 24 June). […] His role in relation to Jesus stands out clearly in the Gospels. St Luke in particular recounts his birth, his life in the wilderness and his preaching, while in today’s Gospel St Mark tells us of his dramatic death. […] John the Baptist did not limit himself to teaching repentance or conversion. Instead, in recognizing Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who came to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), he had the profound humility to hold up Jesus as the One sent by God, drawing back so that he might take the lead, and be heard and followed. As his last act the Baptist witnessed with his blood to faithfulness to God’s commandments, without giving in or withdrawing, carrying out his mission to the very end. […] And he did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path. (Benedict XVI. General audience, August 29, 2012)
As an authentic prophet, John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He denounced transgressions of God´s commandments, even when it was the powerful who were responsible for them. Thus, when he accused Herod and Herodias of adultery, he paid with his life, sealing with martyrdom his service to Christ who is Truth in person. (Benedict XVI. Angelus, June 24, 2007)
John the Baptist was the forerunner, the “voice” sent to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Thus, commemorating his birth actually means celebrating Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of all the prophets, among whom the greatest was the Baptist, called to “prepare the way” for the Messiah (cf. Mt 11: 9–10). (Benedict XVI. Angelus, June 24, 2007)
The four Gospels place great emphasis on the figure of John the Baptist, the prophet who concludes the Old Testament and inaugurates the New, by identifying Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the Anointed One of the Lord. In fact, Jesus himself was to speak of John in these terms: “This is he of whom it is written ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you. Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he!” (Mt 11:10–11). (Benedict XVI. Angelus, June 24, 2012)
There are many things that could be said of Saint John the Baptist; but I have not the means to express them all, nor you, to hear them. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 293D)
II – Saint John the Baptist never doubted that Christ was the Messiah
But how could it come to pass, that Him of whom he said, Behold, him who takes away the sins of the world, he should still not believe to be the Son of God? For either it is presumption to attribute to Christ a divine action ignorantly, or it is unbelief to have doubted concerning the Son of God. But some suppose of John himself that he was indeed so great a prophet as to acknowledge Christ, but still as not a doubting, but pious, prophet disbelieved that He would die, whom he believed was about to come. (Saint Ambrose of Milan quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Lk 7:18)
And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the people concerning John, what went you out for to see? A reed shaken in the wind? As if He said, you marveled at John the Baptist, and oftentimes came to see him, passing over long journeys in the desert; surely in vain, if you think him so fickle as to be like a reed bending down whichever way the wind moves it. For such he appears to be, who lightly avows his ignorance of the things which he knows. (Saint Cyril of Alexandria quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Lk 7:24-28)
“Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me”, had been brought forth against John, as many think, how is it that now John is preached with such great praises? Rather, it was because the crowd standing around was not aware of the mystery of [John’s] question. They thought that John was in doubt about the Christ, whom he himself had pointed out. Therefore, in order that they might understand that John had asked not for himself but for his disciples, he says: “Why did you go out into the desert?” Surely it was not to see a man who is borne about by every wind like a reed, and that wavers with a fickleness of mind concerning the one whom he had previously predicted? (Saint Jerome. Commentary on Matthew. Book Two, ch. 11, [11:7] pg. 129–130)
“Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” That is, he that knew Him before His miracles, he that had learned it of the Spirit, he that heard it of the Father, he who had proclaimed Him before all men; doth he now send to learn of Him, whether it be Himself or no? And if yet thou didst not know that it is surely He, how thinkest thou thyself credible, affirming as thou dost concerning things, whereof thou art ignorant? For he that is to bear witness to others, must be first worthy of credit himself. Didst thou not say, “I am not meet to loose the latchet of His shoe?” Didst thou not say, “I knew Him not, but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and resting upon Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost?” Didst thou not see the Spirit in form of a dove? didst thou not hear the voice? Didst thou not utterly forbid Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized of Thee?” Didst thou not say even to thy disciples, “He must increase, I must decrease?” Didst thou not teach all the people, that “He should baptize them with the Holy Ghost and with fire?” and that He “is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world?” Didst thou not before His signs and miracles proclaim all these things? How then now, when He hath been made manifest to all, and the fame of Him hath gone out everywhere, and dead men have been raised, and devils driven away, and a display made of so great miracles, dost thou after this send to learn of Him? What then is the fact? Were all these sayings a kind of fraud: a stage play and fables? Nay, who that hath any understanding would say so? (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1)
I say not, John, who leaped in the womb, who before his own birth proclaimed Him, the citizen of the wilderness, the exhibitor of the conversation of angels; but even though he were one of the common sort, and of them that are utterly outcast, he would not have hesitated, after so many testimonies, both on his own part and on the part of others. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1)
What then is the meaning of this; that John sent his disciples to Him when He was shut up in prison, on the eve of being put to death, and said to them, “Go, say to Him, Are You He that should come, or do we look for another?” Is this then all that praise? That praise is it turned to doubting? What do you say, John? To Whom are you speaking? What do you say? You speak to your Judge, yourself the herald. You stretched out the finger, and pointed Him out; you said, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.” Thou said, “Of His fullness have we all received.” Thou said, “I am not worthy to unloose the latchet of His shoes.” And do you now say, “Are You He that should come, or do we look for another?” Is not this the same Christ? And who are you? Are you not His forerunner? Are you not he of whom it was foretold, “Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who shall prepare Your way before you?” How do you prepare the way, and you are yourself straying from the way? So then the disciples of John came; and the Lord said to them, “Go, tell John, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have the Gospel preached to them; and blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me.” Do not suspect that John was offended in Christ. And yet his words do sound so; “Are You He that should come?” Ask my works; “The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them;” and do you ask whether I am He? My works, says He, are My words. “Go, show him again.” (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 16, no. 3)
But in order to our making the truth more evident to you by the comparison of the several statements, producing not only our own sayings, but also what is stated by others; we must needs add some account of them. What then do some affirm? That this which we have stated was not the cause, but that John was in ignorance, yet not in ignorance of all; but that He was the Christ, he knew, but whether He was also to die for mankind, he knew not, therefore he said, “Art Thou He that should come?” that is, He that is to descend into hell. (Jn 8:13) But this is not tenable; for neither of this was John ignorant. This at least he proclaimed even before all the others, and bare record of this first, “Behold,” saith he, “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Now he called Him a lamb, as proclaiming the cross, and again in saying, “That taketh away the sin of the world,” he declared this same thing. For not otherwise than by the cross did He effect this; as Paul likewise said: “And the handwriting which was contrary to us, even it He took out of the way, nailing it to His cross.” (Jn 1:29) And his saying too, “He shall baptize you with the Spirit,” is that of one who was foretelling the events after the resurrection. […] To whom it were seasonable to say, “Brethren, be not children in understanding, howbeit in malice be ye children.” For the present life indeed is the season for right conversation, but after death is judgment and punishment. “For in hell,” it is said, “who will confess unto thee?” (1Cor 14:20) (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1)
III – John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to cure their spiritual illnesses
Whence it is evident, that neither did he send as being himself in doubt, nor did he ask in ignorance. Since no one surely could say this, that though he knew it fully, yet on account of his prison he was become rather timid: for neither was he looking to be delivered therefrom, nor if he did look for it, would he have betrayed his duty to God, armed as he was against various kinds of death. For unless he had been prepared for this, he would not have evinced so great courage towards a whole people, practised in shedding blood of prophets; nor would he have rebuked that savage tyrant with so much boldness in the midst of the city and the forum, severely chiding him, as though he were a little child, in hearing of all men. And even if he were grown more timid, how was he not ashamed before his own disciples, in whose presence he had so often borne witness unto Him, but asked his question by them, which he should have done by others? (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1)
Since in truth John’s disciples were always disposed to be jealous of Him, and reasoned against Him: being then only humbled, when first John abode in the prison. They came at least then, “and told Jesus;” but afterwards they returned to their former envy. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXX, no. 3)
“Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Jesus, he sent two of his disciples, and asked Him, saying, Art thou He that should come? or do we look for another?” (Mt 11,2–3) But Luke saith, they also told John of the miracles, and then he sent them. However, this contains no matter of difficulty, but of consideration only; for this, among other things, indicates their jealousy towards Him. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1)
And yet surely he knew full well, that they too were jealous of Christ, and desired to find some handle against Him. And how could he but be abashed before the Jewish people, in whose presence he had proclaimed such high things? Or what advantage accrued to him thereby, towards deliverance from his bonds? For not for Christ’s sake had he been cast into prison, nor for having proclaimed His power, but for his own rebuke touching the unlawful marriage. And what child so silly, what person so frantic, but that so he would have put on himself their character? What then is it which he is bringing about? For that it belongs not to John to have doubt hereupon, no nor to any ordinary person, nor even to one extremely foolish and frenzied; so much is evident from what we have said. And now we have only to add the solution. For what intent then did he send to ask? John’s disciples were starting aside from Jesus, and this surely any one may see, and they had always a jealous feeling towards Him. And it is plain, from what they said to their master: “He that was with thee,” it is said, “beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come unto Him.” And again, “There arose a question between John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying.” And again they came unto Him, and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but Thy disciples fast not?” For as yet they knew not who Christ was, but imagining Jesus to be a mere man, but John greater than after the manner of man, were vexed at seeing the former held in estimation, but the latter, as he had said, now ceasing. And this hindered them from coming unto Him, their jealousy quite blocking up the access. Now so long as John was with them, he was exhorting them continually and instructing them, and not even so did he persuade them; but when he was now on the point of dying, he uses the more diligence: fearing as he did lest he might leave a foundation for bad doctrine, and they continue broken off from Christ. For as he was diligent even at first to bring to Christ all that pertained to himself; so on his failing to persuade them, now towards his end he does but exert the more zeal. Now if he had said, “Go ye away unto Him, He is better than I”, he would not have persuaded them, minded as they were not easily to be separated from him, but rather he would have been thought to say it out of modesty, and they would have been the more rivetted to him; or if he had held his peace, then again nothing was gained. What then doth he? He waits to hear from them that Christ is working miracles, and not even so doth he admonish them, nor doth he send all, but some two (whom he perhaps knew to be more teachable than the rest); that the inquiry might be made without suspicion, in order that from His acts they might learn the difference between Jesus and himself. And he saith, Go ye, and say, “Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” But Christ knowing the purpose of John, did not say, I am He; for this would again have offended the hearers, although this was what it naturally followed for Him to say, but He leaves them to learn it from His acts. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 1–2)
For it saith, “when these were come to Him, then “He cured many.” And yet what congruity was there, that being asked, “Art thou He,” He should say nothing to that, but should presently cure them that were sick; unless it had been His mind to establish this which I have mentioned? Because they of course would account the testimony of His deeds surer, and more above suspicion than that of His words. Knowing therefore, as being God, the mind with which John had sent them, He straightway cured blind, lame, and many others; not to teach him (for how should He him that was convinced), but these that were doubting: and having healed them, He saith, “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see; the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached unto them.” And he added, “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me;” implying that He knows even their unuttered thoughts. For if He had said, “I am He,” both this would have offended them, as I have already said; and they would have thought, even if they had not spoken, much as the Jews said to Him, “Thou bearest record of Thyself.” Wherefore He saith not this Himself, but leaves them to learn all from the miracles, freeing what He taught from suspicion, and making it plainer. Wherefore also He covertly added His reproof of them. That is, because they were “offended in Him,” He by setting forth their case and leaving it to their own conscience alone, and by calling no witness of this His accusation, but only themselves that knew it all, did thus also draw them the more unto Himself, in saying, Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” For indeed His secret meaning was of them when He said this. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 2)
For the matter indeed of John’s disciples had been ordered well, and they were gone away assured by the miracles which had just been performed; but there was need after that of remedy as regarded the people. For although they could not suspect anything of the kind of their own master, the common people might from the inquiry of John’s disciples form many strange suspicions, not knowing the mind with which he sent his disciples. And it was natural for them to reason with themselves, and say, “He that bore such abundant witness, hath he now changed his persuasion, and doth he doubt whether this or another be He that should come? Can it be, that in dissension with Jesus he saith this? that the prison hath made him more timid? that his former words were spoken vainly, and at random?” It being then natural for them to suspect many such things, see how He corrects their weakness, and removes these their suspicions. […] Wherefore neither doth He discourse unto them in the way of rebuke, but merely sets right their understanding, and defends John, and signifies that he is not fallen away from his former opinion, neither is he changed, not being at all a man easily swayed and fickle, but steadfast and sure, and far from being such as to betray the things committed unto him. And in establishing this, He employs not at first his own sentence, but their former testimony, pointing out how they bare record of his firmness, not by their words only, but also by their deeds. […] And see how He omits all wickedness, and mentions this, which then especially haunted them; and removes the suspicion of lightness.
“But what went ye out for to see? a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Now His meaning is like this: He was not of himself a waverer; and this ye yourselves showed by your earnestness. Much less could any one say this, that he was indeed firm, but having made himself a slave to luxury, he afterwards became languid. For among men, some are such as they are of themselves, others become so; for instance, one man is passionate by nature, and another from having fallen into a long illness gets this infirmity. Again, some men are flexible and fickle by nature, while others become so by being slaves to luxury, and by living effeminately. “But John,” saith He, “neither was such a character by nature, for neither was it a reed that ye went out to see; nor by giving himself to luxury did he lose the advantage he possessed.” […] See how He signified John’s excellency by this also; and not even here doth He stop, but adds afterwards His own suffrage as well, saying, “Verily I say unto you, among them that rare born of women, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.” (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint Matthew, Homily XXXVI, no. 2)
John then sends his disciples to Christ, that they might obtain the filling up of their knowledge, for Christ is the fulfilling of the Law. And perhaps those disciples are the two nations, of whom the one of the Jews believed, the other of the Gentiles believed because they heard. (Saint Ambrose quoted by Saint Thomas of Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Lk 7, 18–23)
An earlier question also demonstrated, however, that the disciples of John were puffed up against the Lord. They had caustic feelings toward him that sprang from resentment and envy. The evangelist reports: “Why do we and the Pharisees often fast, but your disciples do no fast?” (Saint Jerome. Commentary on Matthew. Book Two, ch. 11 [11:1–2] pg. 128)
But when John heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples to say to him: “Are you he who is to come, or do we wait for another?” He asks, but not as one who is ignorant of the answer. For he had pointed him out to others who did not know about him when he said: “Behold the I am of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. (Jn 1:29) Also, he had heard the voice of the Father, thundering: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:17) Rather, it is just as when the Savior asks where Lazarus has been laid. He did this so that those who pointed out the location of the tomb would at least be thus prepared for faith and see the dead man rising. (cf. Jn 11:34) Thus, when John was about to be killed by Herod, he sends his disciples to Christ, so that on this occasion, when they see the signs and miracles, they may believe in him and, with their teacher asking, learn for themselves. (Saint Jerome. Commentary on Matthew. Book Two, ch. 11 [11:1–2], pg. 128–129)
“Go, show him again. And as they departed.” Lest haply any one should say, John was good at first, and the Spirit of God forsook him; therefore after their departure, he spoke these words; after their departure whom John had sent, Christ commended John. […] Therefore because John’s disciples highly esteemed their master, they heard from John his record concerning Christ, and marvelled; and as he was about to die, it was his wish that they should be confirmed by him. For no doubt they were saying among themselves; Such great things does he say of Him, but none such of himself. ‘Go then, ask Him;’ not because I doubt, but that you may be instructed. ‘Go, ask Him,’ hear from Himself what I am in the habit of telling you; you have heard the herald, be confirmed by the Judge. ‘Go, ask Him, Are You He that should come, or do we look for another?’ They went accordingly and asked; not for John’s sake, but for their own. And for their sakes did Christ say, ‘The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.’ You see Me, acknowledge Me then; ye see the works, acknowledge the Doer. ‘And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me.’ But it is of you I speak, not of John. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 66)
John then is providing not for his own, but his disciples’ ignorance; that they might know that it was no other whom he had proclaimed, he sent them to see His works, that the works might establish what John had spoken; and that they should not look for any other Christ, than Him to whom His works had borne testimony. (Saint Hilary quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Mt 11:2–6)
It is indeed certain, that he who as forerunner proclaimed Christ’s coming, as prophet knew Him when He stood before him, and worshipped Him as Confessor when He came to him, could not fall into error from such abundant knowledge. Nor can it be believed that the grace of the Holy Spirit failed him when thrown into prison, seeing He should hereafter minister the light of His power to the Apostles when they were in prison. (Saint Hilary quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Mt 11:2–6)