[August 10, 2008] The Gospel according to Matthew presents Jesus as the Messiah: the fulfillment of Israel’s relationship with God, “the Law and the Prophets,” in fact everything in the Old Testament. He is in His own Person the kingdom of the heavens drawn near to Israel. At His baptism the Father speaks from heaven and declares that “This One is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight.” (Israel was God’s beloved, God’s son, in the Old Testament, but this longing of God was never fulfilled. It awaited the coming of the kingdom.) After Jesus was tested in the wilderness, He presents Himself to Israel as the awaited kingdom, performing signs and calling people to Himself. This section concludes with the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), Jesus’ description of discipleship. The next section describes the Mission (8-10), ending with Jesus sending out His disciples to do as He had done and to call people to faith in and allegiance to Him.
Beginning at 11:2 Matthew presents the People’s Reaction to Jesus. This section concludes with the seven parables of chapter 13. In chapter 11-12 things move from bad to worse, from offense and disappointment to confrontation, accusation and rejection. As this happens, we watch Jesus’ reaction to their reaction. (I already preached on 11:20—12:8 on January 27.)
Chapter 10 concluded with Jesus preparing His disciples for persecution, and warns them that they must suffer it—when it cannot be avoided—even unto death, yet always remain as harmless as doves. He also said that if anyone so much as gives one of His disciples—whom He calls “little ones” (verse 42)—a cup of cold water to drink, they will by no means lose their reward. Nevertheless, the outward reward for both disciples and those who receive them must wait until the Son of Man comes in Judgment.
Is Jesus the “Coming One”? (Matthew 11:2-6)
The beginning of today’s gospel reading (11:2-19) comes as a surprise. God revealed to John the Baptist that Jesus was the Coming One, and John announced Him as such. His calling was to prepare the way for the coming of God (according to Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3) by calling people to repent. The Coming One was to baptize people in the Holy Spirit and execute God’s judgment. Yet now it seems John has doubts.
Does he really have doubts? I think not. Do not forget that John is in prison, and things are not going well. Herod, who had him arrested, will cut off his head in chapter 14. I think John is confused and on the verge of offense, because this is the issue that Jesus addresses. It is not much different that what we see in chapter 16 when Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God and then is immediately offended when Jesus speaks of the cross. In both cases, with John who proclaimed that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near (3:2) and Jesus who proclaimed the same (4:17), the kingdom of the heavens suffers violence (11:12; cf. ch. 2). This causes offense.
Jesus says, “Go, report to John the things that you hear and see.” These things are actually fulfilled. What things? That which the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 26:19 and 61:1). Jesus literally did these things, as we saw in chapters 8-9, and they also have a spiritual meaning. These things were signs that the kingdom of the heavens had indeed come in His Person. Isaiah 61:1 also speaks of the Servant of the Lord “proclaiming liberty to the captives,” a prophesy that John would not have missed.
Isaiah 61:2 goes on to say that the Servant (the Messiah) will “proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD and the day of vengeance of our God.” Two things are here: the proclamation of the Year of Jubilee and the proclamation of the Day of Judgment. Jesus announced that the prophetic “Year of Jubilee” was beginning for all who gave their allegiance to Him. He also declared that the Day of Judgment was coming and that the disciples were not to anticipate it on their own. Until that Day came, the disciples needed to exercise patience and endure suffering.
This is the part of Jesus’ message that John—and many in Israel—did not understand. If Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, why was he, John, rotting away in prison? John knew Jesus was the One, but he could not understand why Jesus was not doing anything. What about Herod? What about the Roman occupation of the holy land? What about the Sadducean high priestly establishment in Jerusalem? Perhaps John thought that Jesus needed some prodding. Jesus had a political mission to fulfill, did He not? In his view, Jesus was being passive; He was not taking the reins of the kingdom into His hands.
Others, in fact, were doing something. These were the zealots who were under the leadership of some hard line Pharisees (the followers of Shammai). Ever since the days of John and Jesus’ childhood, zealous Galileans had been trying to seize the kingdom of the heavens by force, by the use of violence (Matthew 11:12). They followed the example of Phineas in Numbers 25 and Judas Maccabeus in more recent history. In particular, they recalled the example of the prophet Elijah who roamed the hills of Galilee. Elijah called down fire from heaven against the enemies of God.
But Jesus was not being passive. His signs evoked associations with the prophet Elisha (2 Kings), the successor of Elijah. Elisha’s ministry was one of grace, healing the sick, reconciling enemies, and even raising the dead. Jesus knew what He was doing. The time of judgment was not yet. Now was the time of grace. God’s faithful ones must continue to suffer from the world. So Jesus sends the message to John, “Blessed is he who is not stumbled because of Me.” In other words, “Trust Me.” “Blessed” recalls the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Jesus was calling John to the prophetic “patience” that He spoke of in that chapter.
About John the Baptist (11:7-15)
What about John? What did people go out into the wilderness to see? Reeds—a symbol of weakness (12:20; 1 Kings 14:15)—are common along all the rivers and seas (Job 40:21; Psalm 68:30; Isaiah 19:6; 35:7). But John was utterly extraordinary. Kings (such as the Herods) also had vacation palaces in the wilderness. John was obviously different than such “soft” people. In the Old Testament, the wilderness was a place of revelation and utter dependence on God. John was a prophet but also more than a prophet.
Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 (with Exodus 23:20) to say that John’s role was greater than that of any other human being. The prophets of old foretold the coming of the Messiah, but it was John’s place to actually point Him out. All the prophets and the law prophesied (pointed forward to the Messiah) until John. In John’s day the Messiah actually came and it was his job to lay out the carpet. He is thus the Elijah of Malachi 4:5-6. There it was foretold that Elijah—the prophet who never died—would be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” to turn the hearts of the people around. Jesus says that John is His messenger who will clear the way before Him. What makes John so great is His connection to Christ.
But John is only the friend of the Bridegroom. He declared that the Messiah, when He comes, will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. The disciples of Jesus, those whom Jesus called into His own sphere, are those whom He will make into His church (16:18), which will be built on Peter’s confession that He is the Messiah and Son of God. But neither the infusion or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit nor the beginning of the church will take place until after Jesus offers Himself as a sin offering for Israel (Isaiah 53:10), that is, not until after He suffers death and rises from the dead. Adam must fall into a deep sleep before God takes His bride from His side. It is only after the resurrection that the Bridegroom has a bride. In John 3:29-30 John says, “He who has the bride is the Bridegroom; but the friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears Him, rejoices with joy because of the Bridegroom’s voice. This joy of mine therefore is made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
So it is true: Even though John is so great, the least (the little ones of Matthew 10:42) in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is (11:11).
Are We Disappointed In Jesus? (11:16-19)
John was on the verge of stumbling because Jesus disappointed him. Jesus did not act according to his expectations. What about us? Does Jesus cause us to stumble because He does not do what we want? He lets us suffer the way He allowed John to linger in prison until Herod cut off his head. We have an idea in our head about who Jesus is and how He should act, and He does not cooperate. He does not do what we want. Are we offended? God did not act the way Jonah expected and Jonah became angry. God asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9). What about us?
Jesus is not a domesticated pet, but rather a wild Lion. He does not behave for us. Always He is our LORD and demands of us that we surrender to Him without being so “wise and intelligent” (11:25) on our own. He does not have to answer our questions, especially before we are willing to do His will.
The children in the marketplace want the other children to play with them. They play the flute, pretending to have a wedding, or they sing a dirge, pretending to have a funeral, but the other children will not join them. John preaches repentance. He is out in the desert wearing skins and calls people to confess their sins and turn their lives around. People think he is crazy—“he has a demon.” Jesus gives hope to the hopeless and dines with sinners and outcasts. People think he is loose. Either way, the people are not pleased.
They want John and Jesus to give them what they want. They want God to bless them, give them children, make them rich, and defeat their enemies. They want God to solve their problems and satisfy their desires. Instead, both John and Jesus demand that they repent. This is not the message that they want to hear. It is good if other people repent, then our lives will be easier. But Jesus demands that we give up our own life and give everything to Him. He does not promise to solve our problems or give us what we want. He tells us to take up the cross and follow Him. He promises rejection and persecution.
Many preachers deceive the people by promising them prosperity if they believe in Jesus, or by giving them a political Jesus of the right or the left. Sometimes preachers promise healing. Jesus comes to serve us, this is true, but NOT according to what we think we need or according to what we want.
Jesus serves us according to what He says we need. He is always the Lord even when He lays down His life for us. He does not let us be our own master. What He asked of John, that he submit to his circumstances—his imprisonment and execution—as the will of God, was very hard. What He may ask of us can be very hard. He does not promise to help us understand. He may never give us answers. He only asks that we trust Him and not rebel.
Can we do this? Can we praise God in our darkness? Can we praise Him in our confusion and pain? This would be a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and it would please God. It was what Jesus Himself did. “I extol You, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for thus it has been well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one fully knows the Son except the Father …” (11:25-27). Jesus accepted the will of the Father for His life, even though it meant rejection and an early and shameful death. But in all things, He offered Himself up to the Father—out of infinite love for you and me.
Even though He may not give you what you want, do you still want Him? Do you trust Him? Will you lay down your own lordship and accept Him as Lord. What does your heart tell you? Like John, what do you already know?