Matthew – Part 5 – (Chapter 11)

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PART FIVE

Jesus Conceals His Kingdom
from Some and
Reveals It to Others

(chapter 11, verse 1 through chapter 13, verse 52)

 

Jesus commends John the Baptist

Matthew chapter 11, verses 1-15
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” 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. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 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 of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.

Commentary

The words “After Jesus had finished . . .” mark the next major division of Matthew’s gospel according to our outline. In the previous chapter we heard the instructions Jesus gave to the Twelve as he sent them out to proclaim the coming of his kingdom. He did not then idly wait for them to report back to him. He busied himself traveling from town to town in Galilee preaching the same message he had told the Twelve to proclaim. Now as then, everybody needs to know about his own sins and about God’s gracious forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, and those who know these basic truths of the Christian faith are responsible for sharing God’s way of salvation with the rest of the world.

In prison John the Baptist heard about Jesus’ activities, and he was somewhat puzzled or confused. So he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Was it possible that John really was unsure about Jesus at this time? If not, why would he send two of his disciples to ask Jesus this question?

Bible commentators disagree on the answer to this question. Some are of the opinion that John did this for the sake of his own disciples. The situation was this: John the Baptist had fearlessly rebuked King Herod for taking his brother Philip’s wife (chapter 14, verse 3). This enraged Herod. So he arrested John and cast him into prison. Jesus performed many mighty works, but he did nothing to free John from prison. So John’s disciples might have been discouraged. They might have wondered whether John really was God’s special messenger. If they had doubts about John, they would also be unsure about Jesus, whom John had pointed to as the promised Messiah. Many believe that under these difficult circumstances John wanted his disciples to go to Jesus for reassurance—even though John himself had no doubts about Jesus.

It seems preferable, however, to regard John as troubled and unsure at this point. John was aware of the mighty works of mercy that Jesus was performing, but where were his acts of judgment? Even before he baptized Jesus, John described Jesus’ work in terms of an ax at the root of trees about to be cut down and as wielding a winnowing fork to separate the chaff from the wheat and to burn the chaff in unquenchable fire (chapter 3, verses 10 and 12). But those acts of judgment had not taken place. And John, the special forerunner of the Messiah, was sitting in Herod’s prison. John was a courageous man of God, but he had his human weaknesses. The prophet Elijah, to whom the Scriptures compare John, had his weak moments too. At one time he was convinced that his faithful ministry had been a failure, and he wanted to die. Do you suppose that there has ever been a man of God who has never had his doubts about himself and about at least some of his Lord’s promises? Would that not be expecting the impossible of anyone with a sinful human nature?

To say, then, that John had his doubts about Jesus as the Messiah is not to judge him as having rejected Jesus. Doubts may threaten faith, but they do not automatically rule it out or destroy it. It is significant to note what John did about his doubts. He took them to Jesus! When doubts of any kind assail our Christian faith, we too need to go to Jesus for reassurance. When we consider everything he endured for our sakes, everything he did to demonstrate his divine powers—his voluntary death and his victorious resurrection on the third day—we are reassured that we can rely on all his promises and trust him to take us safely to himself in heaven in his own good time.

Note how Jesus reassured John. He did not just say, “Yes, I am the promised Messiah.” He pointed instead to his mighty works. Giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk, curing lepers, making the deaf hear, and even raising the dead—these were not only mighty works that demonstrated Jesus’ divine power. They were also the very works that Isaiah the prophet had foretold of the Messiah (see Isaiah chapter 35, verses 5 and 6). The same prophet had promised that the poor in spirit would be evangelized (chapter 61, verse 1). Jesus had opened his most famous sermon by declaring, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew chapter 5, verse 3).

Jesus described the same people when he said, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” John the Baptist in prison may have been in danger of falling away. Jesus reminded him of the blessings in store for anyone who would remain faithful unto death—the crown of everlasting life! With that goal before him, John would be able to persevere.

Before John’s disciples were out of earshot, Jesus addressed the assembled crowd with words that would also reassure those disciples. He reminded the people of John’s ministry and how they had responded to it. Usually prophets would have to go where the people were if they were to get a hearing. In John’s case, the people flocked out to him, even though he was out in the wilderness along the Jordan River. If he had been an unstable character, like the reeds along the riverbank that would sway back and forth in every breeze, not many would have bothered to go and hear him. If he had worn luxurious clothing, instead of camel’s hair and leather, he would have been regarded as just another lackey of King Herod, and he would have received nothing from the people but their contempt. No, the people had recognized him as a prophet, a messenger of God—even if they did not always like what he had to say to them.

Jesus declared that the people had been correct in their assessment of John, for John was a very special prophet indeed. He was a prophet who had himself been prophesied about by both Isaiah and Malachi. He was the prophet who bridged the chasm between the Old Testament and the New. Unlike all the Old Testament prophets, who could speak only of a Messiah who would appear sometime in the distant future, John had prepared the way for the Savior. He was Jesus’ forerunner, and he pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. As Jesus was on the threshold of his public ministry, John had the honor of baptizing him. For reasons such as these, Jesus commended John as the greatest of God’s prophets.

But what did Jesus mean when he went on to say, “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 of heaven is greater than he”? Here again orthodox Bible commentators disagree on the interpretation. Some point out that John did not live to see Jesus complete his ministry, sacrifice himself on the cross for the sins of the world, and rise again victorious on the third day. In that respect, each of us, even the lowliest Christian, has advantages over John. Those observations are obviously true.

Martin Luther, among others, believed that Jesus here was referring to himself. In his state of humiliation, when the Son of God “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah chapter 53, verse 3), when he was cruelly mocked and mistreated and unjustly put to death by crucifixion—under such circumstances he appeared to be “least in the kingdom of heaven.” When he humbly washed his disciples’ feet, he even demonstrated that lowliness is the way to greatness in the kingdom of God. So Jesus would eventually prove himself to be greater than John or any other heroic men of God.

You may not decide as you read this whether to accept Martin Luther’s interpretation or the opinion of other Bible scholars. That is not a serious problem. Keep both interpretations in mind as you hear and study the Scriptures. In the process, you will grow in your Christian faith—even if you do not reach a definite conclusion about this particular point.

Jesus went on to point out the great significance of John’s ministry for the kingdom of God. Beginning with the powerful preaching of John, God’s kingdom was moving relentlessly onward. As they heard John and Jesus calling them to repentance, many common people, publicans, sinners, harlots, and others were brought to repentance and were storming into the kingdom. Martin Luther observed, “Men whose consciences have been aroused, when they hear the gospel, press upon it, so that they cannot be stopped.” Nor could Satan and all his evil henchmen prevent Jesus from gaining the victory over them, a victory accomplished by his sacrificial death and demonstrated by his glorious resurrection. Finally, when Jesus comes again, every knee will be compelled to bow before him, and every tongue will have to declare that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

No wonder Jesus commended John as the greatest of the prophets. He concluded his remarks about John by declaring that John was “the Elijah who was to come.” He was not the Old Testament prophet Elijah raised from the dead; he was the second Elijah. He was like Elijah in forcefulness and courage. Through the prophet Malachi, the Lord had promised, “I will send you the prophet Elijah” (Malachi chapter 4, verse 5), and the Lord’s angel had told the priest Zechariah that his son, John the Baptist, would “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke chapter 1, verse 17). Now, Jesus says, these prophecies have been fulfilled. John is this second Elijah. He warns that anyone who has ears to hear this message had better pay attention to it. The Savior to whom John pointed is the only Savior sinners will ever have.

Jesus denounces those who reject John’s message

Matthew chapter 11, verses 16-19
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 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.”

Commentary

The trouble with the generation of Jesus’ day was that they had ears to hear and opportunities to hear, but they failed to hear. The pleas of John the Baptist and of Jesus to repent of their sins fell on deaf ears. They could not escape the sound of the voices of God’s messengers, but they rejected the Lord’s message. They were critical of John the Baptist’s conduct, and they also disapproved of the way Jesus lived. That was why Jesus compared them to children playing in the marketplace. The children called upon their playmates to dance when they made music on the flute, but they did not want to play that game. So they tried the opposite and asked their playmates to play funeral, but that did not suit them either. The people of that generation were like such children who were impossible to please.

John the Baptist had led a very ascetic life. He lived in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair and leather, and ate locusts and wild honey. As a Nazirite, he never drank wine. The people’s reaction was to accuse him of being possessed by a demon. What they criticized in John, they demanded of Jesus, and vice versa. Jesus followed no particular dietary restrictions except for the requirements of the Law of Moses that all good Jews obeyed. He ate what others ate, and he drank wine as was customary among the people. He associated with tax collectors and others who were despised by their fellow citizens. The people’s reaction to him was to call him a glutton and a drunkard, and as a friend of sinners, they implied that he must also be a vile sinner.

“But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” The wisdom, the divine truth that Jesus proclaimed, proved itself in Jesus’ actions. He lived a sinless life, so that his enemies could not point to a single sin he had ever committed when he challenged them to do so. He went throughout the land doing good, healing the sick, casting out demons, making the deaf hear and the blind see and the lame walk. He even raised the dead. He accomplished his mission in this world, reconciling the whole world of sinners to their righteous God by suffering the punishment all people deserved because of their sins. The wisdom Jesus proclaimed literally changed the world and is continuing to do so. Jesus’ actions clearly speak for themselves!

Jesus denounces Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum

Matthew chapter 11, verses 20-24
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Commentary

Jesus’ mighty works had spoken powerfully to the inhabitants of those three cities. We do not know the exact locations of Korazin and Bethsaida, but we know they were on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee not far from Capernaum. Jesus had made his home at Capernaum after he left Nazareth at the beginning of his public ministry. The people of those three cities had numerous opportunities to see and hear Jesus and to recognize him as the Son of God and the promised Messiah. But they hardened their hearts against him. We may not be able to understand why they reacted to Jesus as they did, but the facts are clear.

But the other observation Jesus made is something of a mystery to us. The pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom would have repented in sackcloth and ashes if they had had those same opportunities. So why did Jesus waste his time in those three cities of the Jews and not go to those gentile cities instead? We must leave that question unanswered because we cannot look into the mind of the Lord. We must rather exclaim together with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans chapter 11, verse 33). Christian humility must shrink back from demanding that God explain to us why he deals with people and nations as he does. He doesn’t owe us an explanation, and we have no right to judge him on the basis of our limited understanding and feeble human wisdom.

On the day of judgment, these matters will be made clear to us. When they stand before their Judge, the people of Capernaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida will be completely without excuse, and the people of Sodom will not be able to challenge the earthly destruction God sent down on them in the form of fire and brimstone or the eternal destruction in the unquenchable fires of hell to which they will be consigned, body and soul. And the Lord will take into account how the people of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom would have responded to Jesus’ mighty works if they had had the opportunity. On the basis of that knowledge, God will make matters more bearable for them on the day of judgment. We cannot say precisely what this means, but it seems to be telling us that there will be different degrees of punishment in hell. Those who knew their Savior but later turned away from him, as well as those who had every opportunity to know their Lord but stubbornly rejected him, will be condemned to the most severe punishment. At the same time, those whose opportunities were more limited will be judged by the Lord on that basis. Unbelief always condemns, but there will be these differences, as Scripture clearly tells us.

Jesus offers rest to the weary

Matthew chapter 11, verses 25-30
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 was your good pleasure. “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.”

Commentary

In what way did the Father hide spiritual truths from the wise and learned and reveal them to little children? Jesus is speaking of worldly wisdom, which is hostile toward God’s truth, both the law and the gospel. Those who cling to such human wisdom and judge all things on the basis of such wisdom exclude themselves from the kingdom of God. In 1st Corinthians chapter 1, verse 19 the apostle Paul quotes Isaiah chapter 29, verse 14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Recalling their unbelieving past, Paul continues and reminds the Corinthian Christians, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. . . . Christ Jesus . . . has become for us wisdom from God” (1st Corinthians chapter 1, verses 26-30). Jesus also said that it is necessary for us to become like little children if we are ever to enter the kingdom of God.

In other words, saving faith is not an accomplishment possible only for the educated people of this world. Even a little child can believe and be saved. Saving faith is, of course, a gift of the Holy Spirit through the power of the gospel in Word and sacrament. Worldly wisdom may be an obstacle to such faith, but little children don’t have that problem. We too should thank our heavenly Father that he is pleased to deal with us in this way.

Jesus also came into this world as a little child. The almighty, omniscient, and eternal Son of God could also say of himself that all things were committed to him by his Father. This was true of him as true man, in his state of humiliation. Even then he could claim superior knowledge of the Father, and he could tell us that apart from him no one can know the Father at all. Anyone who does not know Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world does not know the Father at all. Any god without Christ is a false god, an idol.

The weary and burdened are the ones to whom Jesus chooses to reveal the Father. These are the same people Jesus has described as the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who acknowledge their sinfulness and realize that it is a burden too heavy for them to bear, that this load will drag them down to hell if they must bear it by themselves—they are the ones to whom Jesus promises rest. And this rest is his gift. “I will give you rest,” Jesus says.

The yoke Jesus asks us to take upon ourselves might be defined as the whole Christian life and hope. Once we have assumed that yoke, God’s commandments are no longer a heavy burden that weighs us down and destroys us. Instead, they are expressions of God’s will in which we delight, for we look for ways to express our thanks to God for the blessings of his grace. Crosses we are called upon to bear on account of our loyalty to our Savior are faith-strengthening experiences, for they help us understand what Christ endured for us, and we have our Lord’s promise that he will give us the strength to endure them and that he will make them channels for all kinds of blessings. The more faithfully we follow Christ, the easier his yoke and the lighter his burden becomes.