Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Matthew 11:1–19

Matthew 11:1–19 (ESV): Messengers from John the Baptist


In the last chapter Jesus chose his Apostles and sent them out on their first missionary journey, giving them some instructions on what to expect as they went. This passage begins with a statement that after giving these instructions, Jesus went to “teach and preach in their cities” (verse 1 (ESV)). (By “their” does it mean the Apostles’ cities?)

John the Baptist hears about all that Jesus is doing, and sends his disciples to him, to ask Jesus if he’s really the one, or if they should expect another. Jesus’ answer is succinct:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (verses 4–6 (ESV))
But don’t think that Jesus is running John down, because as John’s disciples are leaving, Jesus addresses the crowd, and reminds them what they went to see, when they went to see John in the desert. Which is: a prophet.

What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

(verses 9–11a (ESV), Jesus speaking)

High praise indeed. But the second half of verse 11 is more astounding:
Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (verse 11b (ESV))
That’s me! (And anyone else who’s saved.)

Jesus goes on to say something that I don’t understand, so I’ll simply quote it here:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (verse 12 (ESV))
I’m afraid I just don’t know what that means.

Jesus then says that up until John came the prophets had been prophesying, and even the Law had been prophesying, and says that John is Elijah, who was to come. (This is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi; see the Thoughts section below.)

Finally, Jesus berates the generation of people he is speaking to, for finding any pretext they can not to believe that he is the Messiah. John came, and didn’t eat or drink, so the people said he had a demon; then Jesus came along, and he did eat and drink, and the people called him a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners—but “wisdom is justified by her deeds” (verses 18–19 (ESV)).


This is a longer passage than usual, with more crammed into it, so let’s just jump right into it.

One question that this passage raises is: Why did John the Baptist send his disciples to Jesus to ask if he’s really the Messiah? Especially since this takes place after Jesus’ baptism, when John didn’t feel worthy to baptise his Messiah. More than likely, John was expecting the same thing from his Messiah that all of the other Jews were expecting: a political king, who would smite the Romans with God’s wrath and make the Jews their own nation again, as they had been under David. I have a feeling John expected more than that, he didn’t just expect a political leader, but he did expect that as well. Interestingly, Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is very simple: Look at all that I have done; do you really expect someone to come with more power than this? But verse 6 is even more interesting:
And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. (verse 6 (ESV))
Which indicates to me that John and his disciples probably were offended by Jesus (or he wouldn’t have felt the need to say that). But why be offended?

Actually, the answer goes back to what I just said about their expectations: they were expecting a certain kind of Messiah to “save them” (according to their understanding of what they needed to be saved from—i.e. the Romans), and Jesus has been showing no inclination to do so. Instead, he’s been calling everyone sinners, and helping poor people, and talking about God a lot. We know that that’s because Jesus was worried about more important things—our eternal souls, and our relationship with God—but it’s not surprising that people in the midst of the Roman occupation, who had been expecting a political Messiah for so long, missed the point. (It raises the question: What points do we miss, because we’re too concerned with our own situation to see what God’s Word says? It’s not necessarily a question I can answer, because I put myself in the same category as everyone else. I’m a man of my times, just like everyone else is.)

What does Jesus mean when he says that nobody who has been born (up to the point he was speaking) was greater than John the Baptist, and yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? John was “great” because he was entrusted with an important message to give to the world: The Messiah, the Christ, has come! But even John, great as he was, didn’t understand the full implications of what was going on (as this passage illustrates). He didn’t understand all of the ins and outs of how Jesus was going to save us, and that this was about sin and everlasting life rather than just this life. But we, who have been saved, who now have the full body of Scripture to learn from, who now have the Holy Spirit helping us to understand those Scriptures, understand things even better than John could have. This knowledge (and the ability to worship God in Spirit and in Truth) makes us even greater than John was at the time Jesus said this. (Of course, John now has the same greatness we do.)

Note also the wording Jesus uses, when he says that there is none greater than John “among those born of women”—that’s not just an idiom. He’s also contrasting that with those who are greater than John: those who are born of the Spirit.

Because I didn’t understand verse 12 (quoted above), I’ll just copy and paste what the ESV Study Bible says about it:
That the kingdom has suffered violence (Gk. biazo) probably indicates opposition from the religious establishment, and the violent take it by force probably refers to the actions of specific evil people like Herod Antipas, who had arrested John.
Jesus refers to John as being Elijah because of a prophecy in Malachi that Elijah would be sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, (Malachi 3:1 (ESV), 4:5 (ESV)), and yet John denied that he was Elijah in John 1:21 (ESV). This just means that John is being sent sort of “in the spirit” of Elijah, but, as John correctly states, he’s not literally Elijah, back from the dead.

As mentioned, people will find any reason they can to not believe in God, or in Jesus His Son. If those reasons happen to be contradictory, they won’t necessarily even notice. (I’m sure the people in Jesus’ day weren’t thinking to themselves, “Wait a second, we’re ridiculing John for fasting and condemning Jesus for not fasting—that doesn’t make sense!” But, as Jesus mentions, wisdom will be justified by her deeds—in this case, we could point to what Jesus has just said about himself, and his own deeds: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (verse 5 (ESV)).

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