1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
The primary difficulty in this passage is that we can’t quite accept that John who introduced Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:33,34), who recognized him while they were both in-utero (Lu. 1:41), who said, “He must increase and I must decrease,” would be able to ask such a doubt-filled question as is recorded in 11:3.
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
Some have suggested John asked it for his disciples’ benefit, not his own. But there is no evidence in Scripture to support this conclusion.
So we need to dig further. It is helpful to examine John’s preaching and see what kind of Messiah he expected Jesus to be. The question John asks implies that John had been receiving reports on Jesus’ works and that such reports had prompted his question. A quick look at John’s preaching will remind us of John’s famous pronouncement, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).” So John expected that Jesus would bring the Holy Spirit and help to the righteous but also bring judgment to the wicked. There was no one more unrighteous that Herod, against whose immorality John and spoken out (Mk. 6:17, 18). For that outspokenness he had now been in prison for up to a year (Expositor’s). This lack of judgment upon Herod, indeed the lack of any behavior showing divine wrath against evil on Jesus’ part could be the key reason for John’s question.
Jesus’ answer also provides more hints that we are on the right track. He alludes to OT passages in Isaiah 35:5, 6; 61:1 and possibly also 26:19; 29:18,19. While the parts he quotes focus on the type of healing and preaching ministry that he was doing, John would know that some of the passages also contained predictions of judgment (Isa. 62:2 and 35:4 and Isa 62:11) A couple of these passages also use the language of the “one to come” that John uses in his question.
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
This section comes in the period when Jesus’ ministry is beginning to decline in popularity due to conflict and misunderstanding. Jesus’ encouragement to John is also an encouragement to us when we find our ministry misunderstood or when we feel unrewarded or unfruitful. “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me (11:6).” It is another of the beatitudes of the NT.
It contains a warning. When circumstances would discourage us; when we begin to think that God should have done this or that; when we also allow the evils of the world to distract us from who Jesus really is; we are in spiritual danger. We are asking the wrong question. We are probably misunderstanding God’s work, just as John was.
But it also shows us the way forward. We can return to a healthier focus in the same way that Jesus invited John to do so. Jesus encourages us as he did John to look at what God is doing; rather than what we wish he was doing. Celebrate the kingdom’s advances, rather than bemoaning the vacuums that it has yet to enter. Rejoice in the victories God is giving to others, rather than being blinded by our own difficult circumstances.