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Jesus was so different from the Messiah people expected, even John the Baptist had a moment where he wondered if Jesus was the Messiah. If he’s really a prophet, how could John become confused? In this passage, Jesus answers that question.
After Jesus warns his disciples that people will reject them because they reject Jesus, Matthew records several stories which highlight the growing opposition to Jesus and how he failed to meet their expectations. No story highlights that theme more than the doubts of John the Baptist. How could even John the Baptist become confused? Jesus explains.
NOTE: Matthew 11:7-15 contains several technical, grammatical and interpretative challenges. Please investigate the commentaries for a more complete understanding.
7As 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? 8What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.“ – Matthew 11:7-9
- The disciples of John asked Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another.” The crowds overheard this Q&A. Now Jesus addresses any concerns that discussion may have raised in the crowd.
- John lived in the wilderness far from the comforts of the city (Matthew 3:1-4).
- We don’t expect a man who lived in the wilderness to be like a reed shaken by the wind (as opposed to a tree which barely moves in the wind). Nor do we expect him to dress in luxurious clothes. We do expect someone living like John to be a prophet.
- At the moment, John is confused because Jesus is not acting like he expected the Messiah to act, but that confusion does not call his whole ministry and message into doubt
- John is indeed the rock steady prophet that the people went out to see. In fact, John is even greater than the rest of the prophets.
10This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly, 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. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” – Matthew 11:10-15
- Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 to support his point that John is “more than a prophet.”
- In God’s plan of redemption, no prophet has a more important role than John the Baptist, because John announced the Messiah and was blessed to see him face-to-face. No prophet had a more important announcement.
- Like many Jews of his day, John expected the Messiah to come once in judgment. He’s confused by the fact that Jesus isn’t handing out more judgment.
- Even John could stumble over this confusion. He must decide to trust Jesus even when Jesus does not meet his expectations. In this sense, those who have already decided to trust Jesus are “greater” than John in his confusion.
- Matthew 11:12 is difficult to translate. Compare with Luke 16:14-17.
- The ESV translates “force” (Strong’s G971) in Matthew 11:12 as the passive voice (‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence’) and translates it in Luke 16:16 as the middle voice (‘everyone forces his way in’). The middle and passive have the same grammatical form.
- As best I understand it at this point, when this word (G971) is in the middle voice it leans toward meaning: to overpower or apply force. When this word is used in the passive voice, it leans toward meaning: to strongly urge or compel.
- IF Matthew 11 & Luke 16 are parallel, IF they speak to the same issue in different contexts, and IF this word is passive in both, then Matthew becomes something like this: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is strongly compelling (making its case) and those who respond grab hold of it for themselves.”
Does Jesus believe that both Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5-6 are predictions of John the Baptist? Or is Malachi 4:5 predicting something in our future and an Elijah coming at the end of the age?
- Isaiah 40:3-5 clearly applies to John the Baptist. John himself says he is the voice of Isaiah 40 but he is not the Elijah of Malachi 4 (John 1:19-23).
- Mark 1:1-4 applies both Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3:1 to John the Baptist.
- An angel tells the father of John the Baptist that John will have “the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:16-17). Malachi 4:5-6 is either: 1) a prediction of John the Baptist; or 2) Malachi is predicting another “Elijah” who will come at the end of the age, and John the Baptist is acting in the spirit and power of that “Elijah” who is to come.
- In Matthew 17:9-11, Jesus could be saying: 1) the “Elijah” Malachi predicted is John the Baptist; or 2) an “Elijah” is coming at the end of the age and John the Baptist is a kind of forerunner or foreshadow of the Elijah to come.
- How you choose between these options often depends on your prior view of eschatology.
Jesus wants the crowd to understand the sense in which John really gets it and the sense in which he does not get it. On the one hand, they should listen to John the Baptist and heed his call to repent. On the other hand, Jesus is somewhat unexpected. Personally, each person is must come to terms with Jesus’ message. John is the important prophet we think he is, and like everyone else ,he needs to make the choice to follow Jesus.
Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.
Next: 61 Matthew 11:16-24 Woe to unrepentant cities
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Series: Gospel of Matthew 8-13 Behold the King, Part 2
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Podcast season 20, episode 19