MATTHEW 5-13. THE CONTEXT
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee (4:12-17), called the first disciples (4:18-22), and ministered to crowds (4:23-25), but Matthew describes these only briefly. The Sermon on the Mount really introduces Jesus’ ministry and outlines his teachings in detail (chapters 5-7). Miracles (chapters 8-9) constitute the next significant block of material. These two large blocks of material (sermon and miracles) set the stage for verse 4 of our Gospel lesson, in which Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell him“the things which you hear and see.” What they have heard is the Sermon on the Mount. What they have seen is miracles.
Our Gospel lesson, verses 2-11, emphasizes the healing, saving, and empowering ministry of Jesus, which was a surprise to those expecting a fiery, judgmental messiah. However, this chapter then shifts to a judgmental tone, including the woes of verses 20-24. The chapter ends on a soft note, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” (vv. 28-30). In this Gospel, especially, Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Luke reports this same story in Luke 7:18-28.
MATTHEW 11:2-3. ARE YOU HE WHO COMES?
2Now when John heard in the prison the works of Christ (Greek: tou Christou—the anointed one), he sent two of his disciples (Greek: pempsas dia ton matheton autou—having sent by way of his disciples) 3and said to him, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?”
“When John heard in the prison the works of Christ” (tou Christou—the anointed one) (v. 2a). “Messiah” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “anointed” and “Christ” is a transliteration of the Greek word for “anointed.” In the Old Testament, kings and priests were anointed or set apart for their respective offices. The Jewish people looked forward to the coming of the Messiah—the anointed one who would bring salvation—but they thought of the Messiah as a great king like David, a warrior who would restore Israel to its former glory. John’s question in verse 3 is surely occasioned, in part, by this understanding of the Messiah.
Matthew mentioned John’s arrest in 4:12, but offered no explanation. In 14:1-12, he will tell us the sordid story of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, John’s criticism of Herod and his subsequent arrest, and the daughter’s dance that leads to John’s beheading. Josephus tells us that John is imprisoned at Machaerus, Herod’s desert fortress east of the Dead Sea.
“he sent two of his disciples” (v. 2b). A literal translation is “having sent by way of his disciples.”
John is imprisoned, so he cannot go to Jesus personally. Matthew doesn’t tell us how John gets word to his disciples. Apparently some of them have been permitted to visit him in his prison cell.
“Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” (v. 3). We are surprised that John would ask such a question:
• Luke tells us that, even before John and Jesus were born, Mary visited Elizabeth, John’s mother. “It happened, when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, that the baby (John) leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice, and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'” (Luke 1:41-42).
• Matthew tells us that John preached, “Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (3:3).
• When Jesus presented himself to John for baptism, John protested, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” (3:14).
• After the baptism, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). How can John question whether Jesus is the one who is to come?
The reason behind John’s question is found in his messianic expectations. He called people to repent (3:2), because “Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire” (3:10). He warned that the one who was to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (3:12). John clearly expects a fire-and-brimstone messiah.
Jesus has not lived up to that billing. He has pronounced blessings on the poor in spirit, the meek, and peacemakers (5:1-11). He has called his disciples to love their enemies (5:42-48). He has warned them not to judge others (7:1-5). These teachings seem weak by comparison with the actions anticipated by John’s fire and brimstone preaching.
Furthermore, Jesus moved away from Jerusalem, the home of the temple and the center of religious authority, and began his ministry in Galilee (4:12).
Then Jesus worked a series of healing ministries in chapters 8-9—what Bruner calls an “ambulance ministry”—of tremendous significance to those who were healed, but not significant to the nation as a whole. It has been centuries since Israel has heard a prophetic voice (other than John’s). People are looking for a voice of authority—for a fire that will purge the dross—for a powerful leader who will restore Israel’s former glory—for a messiah who will restore the people of God. John keeps watching Jesus hoping to see fireworks, but thus far has been disappointed.
We have the same problem today. The church shuffles along, preaching mostly to the converted, sending a few dollars to disaster victims, shepherding a family through its grief, and teaching Bible stories to children. It doesn’t look like much! Shouldn’t the church be shaking the foundations? Shouldn’t it look more like an urban renewal developer, tearing down and rebuilding—and less like a handyman patching leaks?
John’s imprisonment raises a further question. If God chose John to prepare the way for the one who is to come, what is John doing in prison? If Jesus is the one who is to come, why doesn’t he bring down fire from heaven on John’s oppressors? Why doesn’t an earthquake open the prison doors, as will happen later for Paul and Silas (Acts 16)? Why does God allow God’s prophet to sit through long empty days in prison?
We have the same questions today. Why does God allow the righteous to suffer? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers for healing? If we tithe, why doesn’t God reward us with riches? If we attend church regularly, why doesn’t God find us a job—or a spouse—or whatever it is that we feel that we desperately need right now?
But we must admire John. He has a problem with Jesus, so he approaches Jesus as directly as his imprisonment allows—no behind-the-back criticism! He sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one or shall they look for another? John has doubts, but he seeks to learn what Jesus will say—is open to hearing Jesus say that he is, indeed, the one!
MATTHEW 11:4-6. GO AND TELL JOHN THE THINGS WHICH YOU HEAR AND SEE
4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling (Greek: skandelisthe—also translated “scandal” or “stumbling block”) in me.”
“Go and tell John the things which you hear and see” (v. 4). As noted above, what John’s disciples heard was the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), and what they saw was Jesus’ miracles (chapters 8-9).
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (v. 5). John will surely recognize the scriptural allusions in Jesus’ answer. Isaiah 29:18 speaks of the deaf hearing and the blind seeing. Isaiah 35:6 speaks of the lame leaping like a deer. Isaiah 26:19 speaks of the dead living. Isaiah 61:1 speaks of good news for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. These are signs of the messiah’s coming (Bergant, 20).
In chapters 8-9, Jesus has given sight to the blind (9:27-31)—made the lame walk (9:2-8)—cleansed lepers (8:1-4)—healed a mute (and presumably deaf) man (9:32-34)—and raised the dead (9:18-26). He also worked miracles that were not part of the Isaiah list: healing a centurion’s servant (8:5-13)—healing Simon’s mother-in-law and many others (8:14-17)—stilling a storm (8:23-27)—and exorcising a demoniac (8:28-34). Jesus will get to fire-and-brimstone soon enough (see Matthew 24-25), but first he is establishing a healing, saving ministry.
In his catalog of miracles, “the poor have good news preached to them” (v. 5b) seems minor by comparison with giving sight to the blind and cleansing lepers (v. 5a). Most people save the best for last, and the most dramatic miracle was raising the dead (9:18-27). Why not stop there? Because the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners matter to Jesus! There are so many poor people—like the dust of the earth. Their poverty (oppression, imprisonment) squeezes life from them. Just imagine if someone could breathe into that dust the breath of life—allowing them to experience their full humanity! Jesus does that! He did it as he walked the dusty roads of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. He continues to do it today through the ministry of the church.
Jesus’ answer demands much of John. He asks John to stretch his understanding to fit a very different messiah than the one whom he expected. We must admire John for not breaking with Jesus at this point. Jesus asks us, too, to stretch our understanding to fit a different model of the messiah than the magic problem-solver and giver-of-good-things that we would prefer.
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense (skandelisthe) at me” (v. 6). John has not taken offense, but he has expressed doubt. He must now try to come to grips with a new understanding of messiahship– one that does not bring immediate judgment on Israel’s oppressors. The judgment which John has been waiting will not take place until Christ’s second coming
Jesus could rebuke John for his doubts, but instead offers him a blessing. Jesus has not lived up to John’s expectations, but John has not allowed that to be a stumbling block (skandelisthe). Soon enough, Jesus will deal with cities that refuse to repent (11:20-24)—hometown people who take offense (13:57)—Pharisees who take offense (12:1-8; 15:12) and conspire to kill Jesus (12:9-14) and charge that Jesus gets his power from Beelzebul (12:24)—and even disciples who desert him when the chips are down (26:31-33). John has done none of those things, but simply asks Jesus to confirm that he is the one for whom everyone has been waiting.
Jesus offers the blessing, not just to John, but to all who do not take offense—all who do not stumble—all who are not scandalized. Jesus blesses us when we remain faithful in the face of prayers that seem not to be answered or hopes that go unfulfilled.
MATTHEW 11:7-10. A PROPHET! AND MUCH MORE THAN A PROPHET!
7As these went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. 9But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. 10For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.'”
“As these went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John” (v. 7a). Jesus has been responding to the messengers from John, but now, as John’s messengers depart to take Jesus’ response to John, Jesus turns to address the crowd.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses” (vv. 7b-8). Jesus has been quick to define himself; now he defines John. The references to a reed, soft robes, and royal palaces point to Herod Antipas. Herod’s coins include the symbol of a reed. He wears fine clothing and lives in palaces, including Machaerus. The irony is that John now lives in Herod’s Machaerus palace, but he occupies only a prison cell there.
John is not a reed leaning in whatever direction the wind happens to blow, but an oak standing tall and strong. He is dressed, not in soft robes, but camel hair and a leather belt. Everything about him exudes strength.
“But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet” (v. 9). Israel endured four hundred years without a prophet. When John burst onto the scene with his fiery preaching, the authenticity of his ministry generated enormous public appeal. “The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (3:5-6).
“For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you'” (v. 10). Jesus says that John is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1a, which says: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
John differs from other prophets in that he:
• Fulfills prophecy as well as prophesying
• Is an end-time messenger and
• Is a forerunner of the messiah.
John prepares the way of the one who is to come. People check roads before the king travels them. Servants repair potholes and scouts insure security. Today, executives have assistants who plan their travel, secretaries who make their reservations, chauffeurs who drive their cars, and pilots who fly their planes. Just as the services of those who prepare the way enhance the executive’s ability to accomplish work, so also John smoothed Jesus’ entry into the world by calling people to repentance.
MATTHEW 11:11. HE WHO IS LEAST IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
11“Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
“Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer” (v. 11a). Jesus declares John to be, not just the greatest prophet, but the greatest figure ever. Given Israel’s pantheon of heroes, such as Abraham, Moses, and David, this is an astonishing statement, indeed. What makes John so special is not his personal characteristics, excellent though those might be, but his privileged place in salvation history. All the other heroes of the faith have done mighty works, but only John has the privilege of introducing the Messiah.
There is a great dividing line down the center of history, with the prophets on one side and Jesus on the other. John is a transitional figure (see vv. 12-14).
“yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he” (v. 11b). John stands at the pinnacle of the old era, but even the greatest representative of the old era is less than the humblest representative of the new. An appropriate metaphor is the ancient astronomer whose observations were limited by a small, primitive telescope. The most brilliant person, so limited, could never match the work of a more ordinary person with access to today’s space-based telescopes.
Like Moses, John marched up to the border of the promise without actually entering it himself. He was Jesus’ forerunner—not his disciple.
If the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, consider where that places us. We may be very ordinary Christians, but God considers us to be great.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan