I’m sure some of you, unlike me, grew up in Sunday schools that painted coloring book depictions of the biblical characters in the Bible. Even in adulthood, many people who adhere to these same scriptures can be in danger of maintaining a child-like, naive view of them. Certainly, it’s good to have an innocence when it comes to simple faith. Even Jesus prescribed this (Matt. 11:25; 19:14). However, as we mature in our understanding of the ancient scriptures, we must study and probe, going deeper into the true meaning of the text, the context surrounding the text, and the overall consciousness of the people involved in the text. By this, we step into the shoes of these non-fictional, historically present characters, and gain insight into the Kingdom of God that can deeply empower and inspire our lives.
With all of this in mind, I want to look at Matthew 11:1-19…
The scenario is this… John the Baptist, a powerful, wild renegade prophet, (whom I have always pictured being a little dirty with sweet dreadlocks), has been thrown into prison by Herod Antipas, and is serving a death sentence.
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John the Baptist is rotting in prison, and it seems that he is doubting that Jesus is the true Messiah! The promised expectation of this time was that the Messiah would come as a conquering Davidic King, and likely wipe out Rome to restore Israel to the powerful status they felt they deserved. John had “prepared the way” for Jesus, baptizing him in the Jordan river. He had spent his ministry calling the religious and unreligious alike to true repentance. But ultimately, he was like everyone else in his era, merely a human being that was hoping a Messiah would come and conquer the evil powers that be- the oppressive pagan empire of Rome and the corrupt, hypocritical religious institutions of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Here he was, rotting in prison instead…
4 And Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus sends correction… a mild rebuke back to John through his messengers! In the midst of this correction, Jesus confirms His messianic identity. He quotes passages that John would have studied and likely known by heart… and all from the book of Isaiah which had prophesied of the coming of the Messiah (Isa. 29:18; 35:5-6; 53:4; 29:18-19; 35:5; 26:18-19; 61:1 and 62:1). Then He even shockingly states, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”. This is almost to say- “Look John, you thought I was going to come and take over the world and save your life? God has a different plan to invade the hearts of humankind… trust Him and trust me, His true Son!”
It’s not much of a Sunday school coloring book picture of John the Baptist, rotting in prison, potentially sinking into misery, doubt and confusion over what is happening. But you tell me, would any human being rot in prison with some kind of glad little Ned Flanders smile on his face? I think not… This is true faith at work. John was probing into the deeper things of God, and Jesus was giving Him an answer that would give him hope… hope to share the promises of the Lord with his eventual killer (Matt. 14:1-5)… hope even to endure being beheaded by evil people and having his head served on a plate in the middle of what was likely a drunken orgy. (Matt. 14:6-12)
Does Jesus only rebuke John for his unbelief? No… He restores him and lifts him up to a beautiful exalted place in the eyes of God and men.
7 As 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly, 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. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus was saying that John was He whom Malachi had prophesied of. (Mal. 3:1; 4:5) John was not a reincarnated Elijah, but rather had come in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. Much like Jesus, John would suffer an unjust death at the hands of corrupt leaders. John was final in the line of Old Testament prophets, and after the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, everyone after would have an even more effective direct line to God, and therefore even the least of the new believers in the church of Jesus would be greater than John. John was not some softy rich dude dressed in velvet robes with a crown, and neither was Jesus. The kingdom of heaven would not come by violence and world domination either. This kind of attitude is what had led the corrupt religious leaders of the first century to become legalistic hypocrites. The Kingdom would come in an unexpected way. Jesus had to inform John and remind him of this, so that he would be given strength to remain faithful.
Jesus then would go on to address the crowd…
16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’
People during the time of Jesus were so deluded by the corrupt, legalistic false teachings of the religious elite, that many wouldn’t receive the ministry of a truly righteous man like John the Baptist. John balked at the materialism of his day, and had an ascetic appearance, living like a wild minimalist hippie, but never drank a drop of wine (Luke 1:15). He baptized wily sinners and offered them true repentance, and rebuked the religious leaders publicly. They responded in jealousy and made up slanderous rumors about him, saying that he must have “had a demon”. Unfortunately so many “followers of Jesus” say nasty things about people like this, and could go so far that they may completely miss the righteous and holy, yet radically gracious heart of God Himself.
The religious elite had spread rumors about Jesus as well. Ultimately, they were so bitter, that they wanted to discredit his ministry, and eventually Jesus would prove them so wrong, and prove His messianic identity by being above reproach, that they would murder Him. They accused Him, the Son of God Himself, of being a glutton and drunkard, and a friend to sinners. Jesus certainly never got drunk, but occasionally publicly sipped on the tremendously weak wine that was a necessary, sanitary replacement for water in this culture. Jesus spent time defending those whom the religious leaders had condemned to hell. The religious leaders were always busy judging people- calling them adulterers, sinners, and fools. Jesus would stick up for these “sinners”. The religious elite did the same thing that unrepentant religious people do today. They slandered and gossiped about Jesus, gathering a consensus of angry legalists around them to justify their ungodly hatred.
But, as it is true now and has always been, “wisdom is justified by her deeds”. God is looking for changed hearts, or even just hearts whom are willing to consider change. His plan is being worked out in time and history, despite the limited human ability to comprehend it at times… Jesus still makes His grace and goodness available to us, whom He calls His own. As John Foreman of Switchfoot puts it so poignantly:
We are a beautiful let down,
The church of the dropouts
The losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools
Oh what a beautiful let down
Are we salt in the wound?
Let us sing one true tune
I don’t belong here…