15. The Question Of John The Baptist (Matthew 11:1-19)
The next section we will study will be Matthew 11:1-19, which is the account of John’s question from prison and Jesus’ response to it. I have passed over Matthew 10, not because it is not important, but because I wish to focus on a wider variety of kinds of passages in this series.
Matthew 10 records Jesus’ sending the disciples out to preach the message of the kingdom to the people of Israel. It is part of His presentation of the message to His own people first before turning to the Gentiles. The chapter is filled with the instructions that Jesus gave them as they went out, most of which are fairly easy to understand. That commission for the disciples was their first testing in ministry, a field assignment after the teaching, as it were. It certainly required them to make a total commitment to Christ and to rely totally on God’s protection and provision. The passage has provided Christian workers over the years with spiritual guidelines for their work. The only difficulties in dealing with that chapter are the specific instructions that could only apply to the disciples in their situation (such as being sent only to Israelites). Any application of them has to find corresponding situations in the modern setting (we are sent to the whole world now).
But Matthew 11 is a totally different section. It begins with an incident and leads to a teaching, a teaching that first honors John and then explains his question. The explanation that Christ gave for the question serves Matthew’s treatment of the turning point in the ministry of Jesus. His year of popularity has changed to a time of opposition by the leaders and those whom they influenced. So in Matthew 11 and 12 we will see the dramatic change in subject matter from Jesus’ revealing His authority to the nation to Jesus’ refutation of the attacks made on Him. Matthew 11 starts the tracking of that opposition with word of John’s imprisonment.
Reading the Text
1 After Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask Him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 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 cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by in the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in king’s palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears, let him hear.
16 To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others,
17 “We played the flute for you,
but you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
but 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, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and ‘sinners’.” But wisdom is proved right by her actions.
Observations on the Text
There are really three sections of this passage if we think about the progression of ideas. The first is the question from John and Jesus’ answer (1-6). The second is Jesus’ comments about John--some have said it was Jesus’ eulogy of John who was about to be beheaded in prison (7-15). This section was necessary because Jesus needed to remove any doubts in the people’s mind about John’s faith in view of his question. And then we have a third section in which Jesus gives the reason for the question John asked--the fickle nation had rejected John and Jesus (16-19). Had the nation received the message of John and the message of Jesus, John might not have been imprisoned at all. But the rejection brought all kinds of questions about the plan of God.
It is interesting that in each section there are quotations to answer the questions. The first question was John’s about Jesus, and Jesus answered it with a collection of quotations from the Book of Isaiah about what the Messiah should be doing. In the second part Jesus asks a number of questions about John and answers them with the support of the prophecy in the Book of Malachi. In the last section Jesus asks the question about the current generation of people, and then answers it, not with a quotation from the Bible but with a quotation about what children say in their play. It seems appropriate that Scripture is used to comfort John in prison and to confirm his greatness as the prophet who would be the forerunner; and it seems appropriate that a silly ditty would be used to explain the unbelief of the fickle, self-willed people.
Each of the three sections is closed with a wisdom saying. At the end of the first section Jesus says, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” John may have had questions, as indeed others probably did, but he was satisfied that Jesus was the Messiah. At the end of the second section Jesus said, “He who has ears let him hear.” This kind of a statement calls for a faith response to what has been said. And then at the end of the last section Jesus says, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” The results of the ministries of John and Jesus will validate what they were doing.
There is throughout this section a number of questions. They are not rhetorical questions, questions used to make a point but without the expectation of an answer. Rather, they are very effective teaching devices because the answers are either self-evident or answered by Jesus.
Analysis of the Text
It will be easier to deal with the meanings of the words and expressions and with the citations from the Old Testament within the analysis of the sections rather than separately. But once again our method will be the same, even though in slightly different order: determine the meanings of the words in their context, explain the meaning and relevance of the Old Testament quotation in the passage, and decide what the main point of all these statements would be.
1. In response to John’s question Jesus affirms that He is the Messiah (11:1-6). In this first section we can probably skip over verse 1 as a transition verse connecting this event to the preceding instruction of the twelve. The chapter does actually continue their training, for here they will see one, John, who was arrested and killed eventually for Jesus’ sake. John then lived and died what Jesus taught in Matthew 10. This could be a fascinating way to study the last chapter.
But the immediate narrative begins with the question from John. We know that John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) because he had preached against the king for taking his brother’s wife. John’s ministry, then, was a short one of a couple of years. He had had the privilege, though, of introducing Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And that prophetic message he was given to proclaim was confirmed to him when he baptized Jesus and witnessed the divine approval from heaven. And still, those events, compelling as they were, lost some of their effect on him when he was in prison.
And so when John heard the things that Jesus was doing, he sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we expect someone else?” This is not such a surprising question for an Israelite. Every king who came to the throne in Jerusalem was “anointed,” was a “messiah.” And each of them knew that God was going to bring in the golden age with His anointed one. Each of the believing kings who came to the throne may have wondered if it might happen in his reign--until there was a war, or he sinned and was denounced by the prophet. And so they would look for another, maybe the next king. John had certainly been convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but things had not been going as he thought they might if Jesus was the promised one.
In considering John’s question you need to think through the Messianic expectations of the people a little bit--it will figure prominently in this chapter. Most people expected a Messiah who would expel the Gentile oppressors from the land and establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace. They did not expect, and did not understand, that Jesus would not do that but would die at their hands. It actually took the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost before the disciple were able to put together what the plan was--even though Jesus tried to explain it to them again and again.
Part of the explanation of John’s question can be learned from Jesus’ answer. He simply told John’s disciples to go and tell John what they heard and saw.1 And then what Jesus listed was a number of works that the prophet Isaiah had said would be done by Messiah or in the Messianic Age. Most of these come from Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61. Messiah was expected to do the miraculous--give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and the ability to walk to the lame. Messiah was also going to heal lepers because they were barred by the Law from the presence of God in the Temple.2 And Messiah would also do away with death according to Isaiah’s prophecies. So good news--the gospel as we call it--was being preached to the poor. These were works that Jesus was doing that would be recognized as works the Messiah was to do, works that only the Messiah could do.
But interestingly Jesus left one significant work out: Messiah would set the prisoner free and loose the captives. John was in prison. Now we begin to see John’s problem. He had heard what Jesus was doing--the works of the Messiah. But why then was he in prison? His question was probably not so much of doubt, but rather a mild prod for Jesus to do the work of Messiah. But Jesus’ answer to John only confirmed that He was the Messiah; the silence about the prison indicated that John was to stay in prison.
Before going on it is helpful I think to make a theological observation here. God has His plan and His timetable for His plan. He knew, as we now do, that Jesus had to suffer and die before entering into His kingdom. Otherwise there would be no redemption. So John, and many others, would have to suffer with Christ and His rejection by the nation. In one sense Jesus’ answer to John was that He was doing the Messianic works, but not all of them yet. He first had to suffer and die to rescue people from the prison of sin, and then He would establish His reign. In another sense Jesus was simply telling John that He was the Messiah but John would have to trust Him because He knew what He was doing. No doubt this was enough for John. If it was part of the Messiah’s plan for John to die in prison, that was fine as long as He received the word from the Lord.
2. Jesus appraised the ministry of John and confirmed His own Messiahship (11:7-15). As the disciples of John were leaving Jesus felt compelled to defend John’s integrity. The crowds may have been shocked or amazed at what John was asking. And so Jesus begins a series of questions to affirm that John was firm in the faith, not swaying in the breeze like the reeds by the river, and that John was a prophet who opposed the finery of the corrupt palaces. John was not fickle, tossed to and fro by public opinion. And John did not have undisciplined weakness--he was not living the fine life with soft (or even effeminate) clothing like the king who was keeping John in prison, but the rugged life of a prophet. So Jesus wanted to disarm their questions and suspicions.
John was a prophet in every sense of the word. He was more than a prophet, because he also was prophesied about in the Old Testament as the one who would announce the inauguration of the “Day of Yahweh.”3 So Jesus reminds the people of the words of the last prophet, Malachi: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” This is Malachi 3:1. Now to get the full impact of what is being said here, you really need to go back and look at the context of Malachi 3. There we read:
See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant whom you desire, He will come.”
There are a couple of things worth noting here that inform the New Testament use of the passage. First, Jesus changed the pronoun from “me” to “you.” In the oracle in Malachi if you read the whole paragraph, verses 1-5, you will see that the speaker is Yahweh--God Himself. He is sending the messenger before Himself, because according to verse 5 He will come in judgment. The great event was the coming of the Yahweh; and the announcement of it would be through the messenger. Jesus wanted His audience to be clear on that point, and so by changing the pronoun in His use of the verse He affirms that if John the Baptist was the messenger preparing the way for the Yahweh, then He, Jesus, is Yahweh in the flesh, the God of Israel who was coming into the world.
The second thing is to observe that in Malachi the messenger of the covenant--Jesus the Lord--will come to “His temple.” Here too we have a subtle indication of the deity of Christ. All through the Old Testament the temple is called “the house of Yahweh” (the house of the LORD). Malachi prophesied that the messenger of the covenant would come to “His” temple--He is the LORD.
Now in the next few verses the sayings of Jesus get more difficult. When you run into a section like this, you can read it and study it and try to capture what the sense of it is, but you may need to go to a commentary or two in order to see what some of the options are for interpretation. The first difficult saying is that John was greater than all born of women, and yet the least in the kingdom will be greater than he (v. 11). On the one hand John is acclaimed as the greatest human being because he was a prophet, he was prophesied about, and he was the one who introduced the Messiah and the Day of the LORD to the world. But who is the least in the kingdom and in what sense is he greater than John? One view takes the “least” to be the “younger,” referring to Jesus Himself--he is the younger one and greater than John. No one would argue that he is greater, but “younger” is forced. Another view takes “the least in the kingdom” to refer to the future phase of the kingdom, in all its glory. John only got to announce it, but others will see it in all its glory. But that view would suggest John will not be in the kingdom. The third and better view has to do with “greater” in the sense of ministry or witness. John was great because he could point unambiguously to Jesus as the Messiah. But now that the New Covenant has been inaugurated in the Upper Room, and Christ has died, risen and ascended to heaven, the least in the kingdom has a greater witness than John. And this fits the context which is about John’s ministry, and the previous chapter which focused on the disciples’ task of acknowledging who Jesus is to the world. The most humble Christian has greater knowledge and greater opportunity than John the Baptist had. Of course, if they do nothing with that, then the description does not fit. But potentially they are greater.
The second difficulty in this section is the idea of the kingdom being taken by force (v. 12). Here too there are a lot of suggestions and interpretations. It is worth noting that the interpretation of the whole passage is not greatly affected by the decision of interpretation of this one verse. Nevertheless, we may come to our ideas and present them with the caution that other good interpreters disagree. The work would involve word studies here to see the range of uses for “force” and “lay hold of.” The text says that the kingdom has been forcefully advancing from the time of John until now, as Jesus was speaking. That has to be in either a good sense (the Gospel is working) or in a bad sense (the zealots are trying to force the issue with Rome). The good sense works better. If it meant that the kingdom was under attack or being pushed by the zealots, that did not start in the days of John. But with John and then immediately Jesus, the message of the Kingdom and the Gospel was being proclaimed and was being received by multitudes. John heard about this in prison.
The next clause then states “and forceful men take hold of it.” One view is that if the kingdom is steadily advancing, those who join in its cause must be courageous and openly promoting it. But this verb “lay hold of” almost always has a negative or evil sense. The violent or forceful4 “men” here could be zealots, Pharisees, Herod, or even spirits. This would then mean that the two clauses are different: the verse would then say that from the time of John the Kingdom preached by Jesus has been making great inroads, but at the same time wicked men have been trying to plunder it for their purposes--such as by beheading John. The point would be that the kingdom has been advancing, but it has not swept aside all opposition as John had expected. As the kingdom advances, the attacks on it by violent men increase. Jesus will later explain why this is the case; but for now it explains why John is in prison and wondering.
Then the third difficulty is verse 14: “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who was to come.” Now you have to go back to Malachi to get the background for this. Malachi 4:5 announces that the LORD is sending Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the LORD (you might want to read Malachi 3 and 4 through to see his vision. There is some ambiguity in Malachi, because he does not say the “messenger” of 3:1 is “Elijah” of 4:5. They are separated by a description of the judgment to be poured out on the earth. If you only had Malachi, you could conclude they are different, and you could conclude they are one and the same. In the New Testament John was asked if he was Elijah, and he said he was not (John 1:21). But Jesus here says, “If you receive it” he is Elijah.
Most commentators say that John (in John 1:21) was wrong. He saw himself as the voice crying in the wilderness but did not see himself as fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy. This is possible, for in our passage we have already seen that John may have been perplexed on how things were working out. But if this view is correct, then Jesus was saying that John fulfilled the prediction of an Elijah who would prepare for the great and terrible Day of the LORD. Obviously, John was not literally Elijah, for that would involve something phenomenal, akin to re-incarnation, since John was born of natural means. But it would mean that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, an Elijah figure.
Others are not satisfied with this view and suggest the key is in the contingency clause, “If you receive it.” This would not be interpreted as “if you like” or “if you are willing to accept this saying” but “if you receive the whole message of the kingdom.” It would be understood in the sense of “He came to His own, and His own received Him not.” If they had received Him and His message, John would have fit all the conditions of the promise of Elijah. But they did not, and so the prophecy of an Elijah still stands and may be fulfilled literally before the second coming. And some even point to the appearance of Elijah with Moses at the Transfiguration as a preview of this.
There are many other views offered, but these are the more plausible in my estimation. The whole Elijah prophecy deserves a thorough study before you make up your mind. The solution does not change the interpretation of the whole passage, which essentially is acclaiming the greatness of John the Baptist.
3. Jesus explains the problem of John (11:16-19). Obviously something has happened that led to John’s question, something hinted at already with the men of violence plundering the kingdom--the king and the kingdom is being opposed and rejected. So Jesus offered this explanation with a simile: He compared that generation to children playing in the marketplace. What is so helpful in Bible study here is that not only did Jesus give the figure but then explained it. So He said that generation was a fickle generation, fickle like children, who want things to go their way. But John, and then Jesus, did not play their game.
First he takes the line of the little song, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance.” If John was the forerunner announcing the Day of the LORD, and if Jesus was the Messiah he introduced, then there should have been celebration and rejoicing. But John did not dance. He did not even come eating normally or drinking wine. He came turning his back on the society and demanding that it repent. He announced that the axe was at the base of the tree and judgment was coming if they did not repent. The people said he had a demon.
They also sang, “We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” If Jesus was their Messiah, He should have taken up their cause as an oppressed people. He should have lamented with them over their suffering at the hands of the Romans. But instead, He came eating and drinking, as if celebrating life as it was. He ate with sinners, even with Romans and tax-collectors. And so of Him they were saying that He was a glutton and drunkard.
All that generation did was demand that John and Jesus conform to their way of thinking, and when they did not they criticized--or killed them. They hated the message of repentance and of the proclamation of the Gospel, and so they played their control game while Rome burned (as it were). But if they had understood John and had come to repentance, then they would have understood Jesus. So once again the issue seems to be that the unbelief and opposition of people not only criticized and attacked the messenger and the Messiah, but by doing so raised all kinds of questions about the Messiah. And Jesus, in answering the questions, affirmed that John was the messenger and He the Messiah.
The last statement, which is difficult to interpret, was designed to say that wisdom, which throughout the Bible is concerned with right living, has been vindicated by her actions. Or, both the lifestyles of John and of Jesus must be acknowledged as authentically what wisdom produces. John had a mission to call the nation to repentance, and his lifestyle harmonized with that mission. Jesus presented the message of the kingdom to all who would receive it, and his lifestyle harmonized with that part of His mission. And through the ministries of John and Jesus, the kingdom made steady advances, even though men of violence like Herod tried to subvert it.
I did not do a great deal with synoptic comparisons because there is not a great need to do so with this passage. The ongoing discussion of the sequence of events and whether or not Matthew has rearranged the speeches of Jesus will be of interest to some students of the Bible, but will not change the meaning of what Jesus said about John and about the Kingdom.
Other New Testament passages will undoubtedly come up when studying this passage with its many themes. Most importantly will be the distinction between the present form of the Kingdom, the advance of it through the Gospel, and the fulfillment of it at the second coming. Many passages address these things, and a good article or discussion on the Kingdom or on the Gospel will open them up to you.
The nature of the ministry of the prophet to prepare the way for the Lord is an interesting theme that the church has picked up on for its prophetic ministry. Believers today have the task of preparing the way for the Lord at his second coming. And that involves calling people to repentance.
The Old Testament passages to be connected with this passage were discussed in the preceding section.
Conclusions and Applications
The meaning of the passage should now be pretty clear, in the whole if not in every part. The passage is really about John the Baptist, his concerns, his vindication and his appraisal. But in dealing with John the passage affirms that Jesus is the Messiah, that the Kingdom of God had come and was beginning to take hold, and that the Day of the LORD was beginning. But these great events would not fully come until the second coming, as the rest of Scripture will affirm again and again.
The lessons that can be drawn from a passage like this are many. You should first try to capture the main point of the whole passage if you can. In this chapter that may be that God’s kingdom program is on course in spite of opposition and confusion. The passage makes it clear that John was the forerunner, and Jesus the divine Messiah. With those truths in mind we can build our faith in Him. We know that He does what the Messiah was to do, and so like others we can avail ourselves of His wonderful provisions of meeting all our needs. This was the vision Isaiah presented of what the Messiah would do; and it has always made steady growth throughout the world.
Those who oppose it, unbelievers all, are those who in their pride think they know how the faith should be developed, and it usually is in harmony with their own will. But repentance involves submitting to the will of God.
But we must acknowledge that the kingdom is already here but it has not yet come. That means that some aspects of it are working out, but some are not. John died in prison. And if the Lord tarries we may die before His return. We still are in the faith phase of the program, not the sight or the completion. There will be many things that happen in opposition to the program of God that will make us wonder if He really is the Coming One, or at least why these things happen. But Jesus’ words to John help us here: Trust me, I am the Divine Messiah. There is opposition, and until that opposition is put down, things will at times seem to go awry.
Another lesson would be that the least in the kingdom is greater than John. Every believer, no matter of what rank in the church pecking order, knows more than John knew, and therefore has the greater opportunity to tell the world about Jesus the Messiah. Most of the world will be like the marketplace children, because they want the religion to conform to their own way of thinking. But others will hear and repent and enter the kingdom by faith. We like John should be focused on our mission, not wavering like the reeds, and not seduced by the finery of a comfortable life that can deaden the zeal and commitment. And we like John may find opposition when we stand up and tell the world the truth. But greatness with God is determined by faithfulness.
There are many other observations and lessons that could be drawn from this passage. With this study in mind, though, the framework for thinking about those smaller points is set. We can think about the present ministry of Jesus in meeting the needs of people, the hard heartedness of unbelief that will not submit to Christ, the criticism of the world that does not understand because it has not received the wisdom of God, the reality of the nature of Jesus as the LORD who comes to His temple, and the predictions about John, Jesus, and how their fulfillment conform the truth of God’s word.
1 The Bible does not say where John was held in prison, but Josephus the Jewish historian says it was in Macharius, a fortress Herod the Great had built across the Dead Sea in the hills. That makes some sense because Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and that section on the other side of the Dead Sea. He had no jurisdiction over Jerusalem and Judea, and so John would not be held there. If this is correct, the journey of John’s disciples would have taken a few days.
2 We are probably not to think here of actual leprosy, Hanson’s Disease, which was rare, but all kinds of skin diseases, because in Leviticus such “leprosy” would in time and with proper care and quarantine clear up. That would not happen with true leprosy. But there would have been some cases of true leprosy, and it is hard to say if that is what the word refers to or not in some of those passages where Jesus healed the lepers.
3 If you do some reading on the “Day of the LORD” you will see it is a rather involved concept but essentially describes the intervention of the LORD in this world for redemption and judgment. It often is limited to the Messianic Age.
4 We should note here an important figure of speech called antanclasis, a figure of speech in which the same word is repeated in a different and contrary sense. The verb “advancing forcefully” was used in a positive sense; then its derived noun :forceful men” was used in an evil and negative sense.