Matthew 11:1-19

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Matthew 11

1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 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.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. 16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

One poet, a lady named Kelly whose last name I cannot find (she runs the “This Contemplative Life” blog), has written a beautiful poem that I think captures the person and life of John the Baptist so very well.

He didn’t see it, but felt it

through the darkness

of his mother’s womb,

the flame that baptized

drawn close enough

to singe his foot,

which caused him to leap.

The wild fire caught

and grew, ruining him

for a life of conformity.

So he moved to the wilderness

somewhere near the river’s edge

where others were drawn

by the smoldering flame.

He doused them each with water,

warning them one-by-one

of the fire to come.

Later, when he leapt

from this world to the next,

leaving his head behind,

he was greeted by the fellowship

of the flame – Isaiah

with his charred black lips,

Miriam who danced

like a flickering wick,

and the others, too many now to name

together they glowed like

so many embers,

lighting the long, dark night.[1]

I love this poem and particularly the way it uses the image of fire to describe John. If ever there was an incendiary figure it was John! He prepared the people for and preached the coming of Christ with shocking boldness and even confrontation. Yet he was a person of humility, drawing back initially from the suggestion that he baptize Christ instead of the other way around and proclaim his own unworthiness before Christ. But there is even more to John and we see it in Matthew 11. Here, John, imprisoned and awaiting the end of his life, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus is really…well…Jesus, the promised Messiah. In this question, and in Jesus’ response, the picture of John the Baptist is rounded out in a full and inspiring way. Truly our brother John provides us with an amazing picture of the life of a Christ-follower. Let us watch and listen closely to what the scriptures reveal.

The Heart of John the Baptist: A Struggling Faith but a Real Faith

John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod Antipas, has a question for Jesus. And Jesus has a most telling answer. Listen:

1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

It is a simple question, but one that catches us off guard: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It catches us off guard because John was such a bold and clear proclaimer of the person and identity of Jesus earlier on the banks of the Jordan River. How could this John who earlier thundered “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” now have to ask if Jesus was, in fact, the promised one who was to come.

What is going on here? Why would John ask such a thing? I would like to argue that John had his disciples ask the question because his faith was real but at this time his faith was struggling. Why? Because John had been thrown into prison and was suffering. Furthermore, the question likely reveals that things were perhaps not unfolding the way he thought they would. I am not arguing that John had some sort of faulty understanding of Jesus. He clearly had great faith in the Lord Jesus and recognized His greatness and power. Even so, a faith that believes may carry certain assumptions that need to be corrected. Craig Blomberg writes:

Why then does one who had such a high view of Jesus (3:11-14) now question him? Almost certainly the main answer has to do with John’s languishing in prison. Why would one who had promised to free the prisoners (Luke 4:18) not get John out of jail?[2]

Furthermore, perhaps John thought that the Messiah would have ushered in the Kingdom by that time. Perhaps John thought that Jesus surely would have made an open and bold declaration of his own power and might by that point.

What I am arguing is that John, the man of faith, doubted in the midst of personal struggle.  In saying this I am breaking with many earlier interpreters of scripture. It is fascinating to observe how many of the church fathers and early interpreters of scripture struggled to assign any sense of doubt to John the Baptist in this text. Some examples:

  • Theodore of Mopsuestia argued that John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question because, “In this way the good news was delivered to his disciples as well.” In other words, John was not struggling with this. The whole point was for his disciples to hear it from Jesus and believe. Theodore went on to say that it was “hardly conceivable that John…wanted to find out for sure” about Jesus, calling such an idea “inconsistent.”
  • Hilary allegorized the passage saying that in this text John represents the Law that has been accomplished.
  • Saint Jerome argued that John did all of this for his own disciples, for them to be sure, not him.
  • Gregory the Great flatly said, “This is not because [John] doubts that he is the Redeemer of the world.”[3]

These early fathers of the church cannot bring themselves to ascribe doubt to John the Baptist. And I suspect this is because of a faulty assumption: that doubt is a sign of faithlessness. But is that so? Is it really the case that one is either a person of great, unwavering faith or one is simply an unbeliever? Is it not the case that doubt pesters even and, at times, perhaps especially the children of God who do believe? In poem 501, Emily Dickinson wrote:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—

Strong Hallelujahs roll—

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul—[4]

No, narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul. But if this is the case, and if even the people of God can struggle with doubts while yet believing, is it not the case that we should draw distinctions between the nibbling doubts of the faithful and hard-hearted doubts of those who simply refuse to take the offered hand of Christ? There is a kind of doubt that arises from the difficulties and sufferings of life. There is a kind of doubt that calcifies under the pressure and heat of disbelief and sin. I believe that John suffered the first kind of doubt, just as many believers do today from time to time.

In fact, I believe this is the doubt exhibited by the poor father of the suffering boy in Mark 9.

14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The famous words of verse 24 are surely a perfect description of what we are talking about here, the nibbling doubts of the people of God: “I believe; help my unbelief!” This dear man had faith, but he was suffering with his suffering son. His expression of “unbelief” must therefore be distinguished from something like atheism. Even the people of God can doubt!

Blomberg, again, offers us some helpful insights.

Understandably, many Christians have been embarrassed by John’s doubts and have tried to minimize them. But we should recognize that “open and inquiring doubt was taken very seriously” by the early church and that “if faith is not simply assent to a proposition but life with God, then it can live only by increasing and decreasing, in experiences that strengthen or endanger it.”[5]

And it is for this reason that Jesus no more rebukes the grieving father of Mark 9 than He does the questioning John the Baptist of Matthew 11. In Mark 9, he heals the man’s son. In Matthew 11, here is what Jesus says in response to John’s question, delivered through his disciples:

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.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

Jesus does two things here:

  1. He answers John’s question by pointing to the works He is doing. In so doing, Jesus answers with a “Yes. I am.”
  2. He turns to the crowd and proclaims the greatness of John as a man of faith and, indeed, a prophet.

What is missing here? A rebuke. A renunciation. Condemnation.

There is none of that here. On the contrary, knowing what was in the hearts and minds of those listening, Jesus moved quickly to assert that John the Baptist was specially anointed by God for the tasks to which he had been called. John was no “reed shaken in the wind,” no “man dressed in soft clothing.” On the contrary, John the Baptist was “a prophet…and more than a prophet.”

Follower of Jesus, do you love Jesus but struggle with doubts? Then voice them to the Lord and know that He loves you and understands and is with you. If your doubts are a result of sin, then repent! You are weakening your own faith! If, however, your doubts simply seem to appear, or appear as a result of suffering, and you are seeking God’s help to understand and to believe, then do not shrink back from saying them aloud! Come to Him! He will not turn you away!

What is more, know that you are among a company of many throughout the years who love Jesus but have periods of doubt. David Platt has pointed out that none other than the great preacher Charles Spurgeon struggled at times with doubt. Spurgeon once said:

Some of us who have preached the Word for years, and have been the means of working faith in others and of establishing them in the knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, have nevertheless been the subjects of the most fearful and violent doubts as to the truth of the very gospel we have preached.[6]

God can handle your honesty.

God can handle your honest questions.

God will not reject you because of your doubts. Keep calling on His name! Keep coming before Him!

The Ministry of John the Baptist: More than Meets the Eye

Jesus continues with His words about John the Baptist by next revealing how and in what way John was “more than a prophet.” What He says next about John is astonishing.

What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. 16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Jesus not only situates John the Baptist among the great prophets of old, He says that John fulfills the special role assigned to one of the greatest prophets. To understand this we need to see what Malachi prophecies in Malachi 4 about the coming day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah. There, in the last book of the Old Testament, the Lord says through Malachi:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

In other words, Elijah was to come before “the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Jesus, shockingly, says not that John the Baptist has somehow become Elijah, but rather than John the Baptist, in his ministry of preparation and announcement, fulfills this prophecy, fulfills Elijah’s task.  Hear again what Jesus says:

10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’…13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Jesus says this after John sends his disciples to ask Jesus his question. Not only, then, does Jesus affirm the faith and greatness of John, He also says that John has fulfilled the special task prophesied of the great prophet Elijah! John’s special ministry was not invalidated by John’s question and John’s ministry was more special than anybody had previously imagined.

Furthermore, Jesus seems to be addressing the question that rested behind John’s question: “How can I be languishing and suffering in this prison if the one I announced truly is the Messiah?” After all, the prophets were treated deplorably in their day. Stephen, in the sermon that led to him being martyred in Acts 7, famously said to his audience:

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered,53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

One thing seemed to be true of prophets: they suffered. So, too, John the Baptist. Jesus paints a dire picture of the reception that He and John received.

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force…16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

To trust in Jesus is not only to see the door of salvation opened, it is also to see the door of temporal suffering opened in many cases. And this suffering can cause a kind of questioning and doubt among the people of God. But the answer to this is the answer we see in our text: the love of Jesus, the continuing empowering of God’s people by God’s Son for ministry, and the faithfulness of Jesus.

Do not despair, church! Do not turn from your King! Even if you question and struggle with doubts, believe! Trust! Hold on! Keep coming before Jesus! He has not turned His back on you.

 

[1] http://www.thiscontemplativelife.org/2014/06/john-baptist-poem.html

[2] Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (p. 185). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Manlio Simonetti, ed. Matthew. Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture. Gen Ed. Thomas Oden. New Testament Ia (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.216-218.

[4] Ralph C. Wood, “Jesus Thrown Everything Off Balance: Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor on the Necessity of Christian Radicalism in the Study of Literature.” Theology in the Service of the Church: Essays Presented to Fisher H. Humphreys. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008), p.205.

[5] Blomberg, pp. 185-186.

[6] Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) . B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

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