The burning question
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
John the Baptist’s question could not be more puzzling. This is Jesus’ forerunner, his older cousin, John. This was the John who went around telling people about Jesus! But John and Jesus could not be more different.
- While both were prophesied in OT scripture, John was the prophesied forerunner (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:20-23), while Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.
- John was dressed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). This could have been woven fabric from rough camel’s hair or camel’s skin, as worn by some OT prophets (Zechariah 13:4; 2 Kings 1:8). This fit the symbolic cast of Elijah on John (Malachi 4:4-5; Matthew 11:12-15; Luke 1:16). Jesus wore a pretty normal seamless tunic (John 19:23-24) and sandals. Nothing fanciful.
- While John had a strict diet as a Nazarite and had an additional (perhaps self-imposed?) diet of locusts and wild honey – food that the poor ate (Numbers 6:1-21; Matthew 3:4). Jesus ate loads of other stuff, like roasted lamb with unleavened bread (Exodus 12:3-4; Numbers 9:10-13; Luke 22:7-8), broiled fish (Luke 24:42-43) and probably even had wine (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25).
- John was a bit of a private person. He lived in the dessert wilderness (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:80), he was not known to socialise (Matthew 11:18 – some say “eating and drinking” meant socialising). Jesus was known for socialising with many (Matthew 11:19) and living amongst the people!
- John didn’t perform signs and wonders (John 10:41), but Jesus had tons (Matthew 9:35,10:1,11:5).
- While John sat in prison (Mark 1:15), for speaking up against ungodly authority (Matthew 11:2), Jesus was roaming around the countryside (having not said much about King Herod)!
You can well see why John would start wondering about Jesus. It looked like he was having a ball outside while His forerunner was suffering in prison. But the main push came from what he believed the Messiah looked like. John the Baptist was a prophet and as a prophet, he knew full well the prophecy relating to the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10-11).
He prophesied about the son of God who would be rejected by men and die sacrifically for our sins as the prophets in the OT did (Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Look at John’s wonderful testimony of Jesus:
- John identified Jesus as one whose sandals he was not worthy to carry and whose sandals he was not worthy to untie (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; John 1:27). Showing John’s view of Jesus’ superiority.
- John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). He foresaw that the passover lamb was symbolic of Jesus, who is slain for our sins.
- John spoke of Jesus’ eternal nature (John 1:1) when he declared that “he (Jesus) was before me (John).” (1 John 1:15,27,30). He was older than Jesus by about 6 months (Luke 1:26), but Jesus surpassed him by being eternal.
- John refused to baptise Jesus (Matthew 3:13-14) as his baptism was one of “forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). He recognized Jesus’ sinlessness and perfection as the lamb of God (1 Peter 1:19).
- John’s testimony of Jesus is that He is “God’s Chosen One (God’s Son)” as he saw first hand the descending of Spirit on Jesus in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:33-34).
But wait, John didn’t just declare the coming of any kingdom. He prophesied that this kingdom would come with power and with the doom of the unrighteous. He used forceful words and strong analogies such as:
- “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matthew 3:7)
- “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
- “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)
He prophesied that the kingdom would come with God’s righteous judgement and condemn the unrighteous just as previous prophets in the OT prophesied (Psalm 2; Malachi 3:1-3). You could say that he was a dooms day, hell and brimstone kind of preacher. That was what he prophesied because that was what he believed and expected.
The great discrepancy
Jesus looked like a perfect match for the first bit, but where is the hell and brimstone? Where is the the forceful righteous zeal to condemn the unrighteous? Where is the glorious kingdom of God that the OT prophets spoke about? He was waiting for the kingdom to come in awesome power but Jesus went around preaching pretty much the same message as he did, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near!” (Matthew 3:2,4:17; Mark 1:15,6:12) More than that, he seemed to be having a ball of a time doing it!
Problem is he prophesied both Christ first coming and second coming together as if it were the same event. We begin to see how Jesus didn’t quite match up to John’s expected messiah image. We see this mismatch in the question raised by John’s disciples to Jesus as well (Matthew 9:14-17).
We know that prophets had limited knowledge of God’s redemption plan (1 Corinthians 13:9), but not the omniscient “my thoughts are higher than yours” knowledge of God (Isaiah 55:8-9). They prophesy in small bite sized parts, and understood the redemption plan with limited scope. With what John knew, he earnestly wanted to see this kingdom come in its fullness and wholly believed it was coming! You could say it was an honest mistake.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Jesus’ answer was straight forward. Well, not quite. The teachings and deeds that Jesus did were signs of the foretold Messiah (Isaiah 29:18-19, 61:1-3). Jesus was basically saying that He is the prophesied Messiah that they have been waiting for, he meets the prophesied criteria – but this is only the first coming.
Jesus’ last words to John’s disciples encouraged John to not be offended because of Himself. Echoing what Isaiah had foretold in Isaiah 8:13-15. Christ says the same thing to us today. Don’t be offended when what He is doesn’t match up to what we believe Him to be or how we think He works. It is a problem that we all struggle with. Ever so often, we need a little correction about the little picture of God we have in our minds. We create God in our own image and imagine that we are the creator.
This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’”
In front of his disciples who had overheard the question, Jesus affirms that John is the prophet that had been prophesied about by Malachi. This prophet that they travelled into the wilderness to listen to, this messenger that everyone had expected, this forerunner that heralds the coming of the King, that’s John the Baptist! That is the man right there! They didn’t go into the dessert for swaying political commentary or the latest men’s fashion, they went to the wilderness to listen to the true prophet, and the prophet John is (Matthew 11:7-9)! Even though John had his doubts about Jesus (and himself, John 1:21), Jesus had no doubts about John.
But wait, as grand as John is (being the last of the OT prophets), even the “least in the kingdom is greater than he” is (Matthew 11:11). What great news! If Jesus affirms John (who had doubt about the Messiah and himself) to be someone great, what then does He affirm you and me to be? My imagination just runs wild with what He is saying about me!
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”
Israel had awaited the messiah for such a long time till the Messianic atmosphere was just exploding! The nation was pregnant with expectation about the coming messiah! John came at a time when people were trying to bring about God’s kingdom politically and forcefully by their own means (Acts 5:33-39). There were others claiming to be the messiah, trying to reclaim Israel, only to be killed in revolt. Jesus himself experienced this during his ministry (John 6:14-15). Even His disciples expected that of Jesus (Luke 22:35-38; Matthew 26:50-54) and they had no qualms using force/violence. The expectations reflected the people. They were people who trusted in their own wisdom and works, who tried to forged their own version of God’s kingdom. They wanted their version of His kingdom so badly and they wanted their version of the Messiah.
“And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Going further, Jesus affirms John to be the last and greatest of the OT prophets (Matthew 11:13). The cumulation of OT prophecy happened until the revelation of Jesus by John. It was like a tower built with bricks, stacking one on another, until John came along, the one who had all the bricks of revelation put together, and Jesus was finally revealed. John was this cumulation of prophesy. He was so significant that he is likened to Elijah! Jesus says, “if you agree with me…” because some don’t, but we should. Then Jesus says “Whoever has ears, let them hear”. This phrase is often used in the gospels after a parable (Matthew 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9,23; 7:16; Luke 8:8; 14:35) as if to say “think carefully about what I am saying to you and make the connections”. He points out a significant symbolic connection between John and Elijah and Himself and Elisha. He affirms again, not just John’s role and function, but His own role and function.
Jesus has gone from city to city preaching the good news in powerful deeds and teaching. His 72 disciples have gone out (Matthew 11:1) with the same power and said “even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17-24). We know of crowds following Jesus and others rejecting him (Matthew 4:24-25; 7:28-29; 8:34; 9:1-17, 33-34). Now Jesus makes an assessment of this generation, the cities He has been to and the crowds that follow Him around. He makes an assessment of their belief in Him.
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.'”
Matthew 11: 16-17
The results weren’t pretty. Even though Jesus had crowds following Him, they didn’t follow Him for the right reasons. Their belief in Him wasn’t based on repentance (Matthew 11:20). He was popular, but that didn’t necessarily mean repentance. It seems to say that they followed Him expecting a violent and forceful political upheaval – the kind of Messiah they wanted. They were like children who complained that the Saviour didn’t dance to their tune.
Then Jesus makes a final connection between John the Baptist and himself. John was demonised and rejected for “neither eating nor drinking” (some say this meant fasting, others say this meant , perhaps both), Jesus was rejected for eating and drinking and with sinners (Matthew 11:18-19). This generation has rejected them both. This wasn’t a problem of the generation being fickle as fashion, but that they rejected them both simply because the picture of Messiah they had in their head weren’t met. To put it in Jesus’ terms, they stumbled on account of Him.
He then points out these cities, by name, that had been frequented most but yet rejected him and curses them (Matthew 11:21-24). You can almost feel the anger of God against these unrepenting people. This generation doesn’t seem that different from the generation then. Even now, Jesus has to jump through hoops of fire, juggle and tell a joke to be accepted as Saviour of the world (and of you and me). Even now, we have expectations of what a Messiah should look like, sounds like, behave like. Even now, people stumble because Jesus doesn’t fit their mould.
Was Jesus’ mission a failure then? The huge crowds that followed all came for the wrong reasons! How can He allow entire cities to descend eternally to Hades? Even stranger was Jesus praising God for hiding His truth from these people and being happy about it!
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
Matthew 11:25-26 (see also Luke 10:21-24)
It seems to say that they couldn’t accept God because God didn’t enjoy revealing it to them. So God effectively condemned them just because He liked it. Well, thats exactly what it is saying here. Here we have a picture of Divine Election, perhaps the hardest pill to swallow in understanding God’s sovereignty. In His sovereignty, He chooses who to save. It is the ultimate demonstration of His sovereignty.
Jesus was praising God for His sovereignty, not for success or failure of Jesus’ ministry. Also, there are those who are elected and earnestly believe. What is in focus here is God’s sovereignty over man’s salvation. He does exactly as He pleases. His plan is a success, 100%.
Jesus the bridge
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew charts the rise in the demonstration of Jesus’ authority over all things. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus demonstrates his authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, control nature and raise the dead. In Matthew 9, Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. In Matthew 10, Jesus has the authority to call disciples and empower them. Now in Matthew 11, Jesus has the authority to choose who will believe in Him! Jesus has the authority to choose who will know the Father as He knows the Father and the Father knows Him. He gets to choose who to mediate.
Just when we think the sovereignty of God is a cruel thing, Jesus offers an invitation to Himself. Although He is sovereign over man’s salvation, we have the responsibility in making a choice as well. What Jesus offers is different from what others offer, He offers rest and not burdens (Matthew 23:4). A rest that can only come about knowing that our burden is carried by God, that our salvation is in the sovereign hands of Jesus and not yourself.
To a people who are heavily burdened under oppressive Roman rule, they longed for the kind of saviour who would free them. They imagined the violent political leader who would lead a revolt against their oppressors, for these were the kind of people this generation is. They were forceful. They wanted out by any means. Mostly their own means. They trusted in their own powers, their own works, their own wisdom for a saviour. But this invitation wasn’t to the forceful, powerful or self-righteous. This invitation was to the gentle and humble, those who realised that God’s kingdom wasn’t about to be birthed through their will or works. This was a different kind of freedom (Matthew 23:1-4), a freedom much more precious than political freedom or their version of spiritual freedom.