Reading: Matthew 11
Occasionally in our reading we run across verses that are difficult to understand. In Matthew 11 we have 3 of those in one story. The first is John the Baptist's question from Herod's prison.
"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matthew 11:3)
Why does John the Baptist seemed confused over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah? Wasn't he the one who had told everyone that Jesus was the Messiah? The second one is something Jesus said about John that is hard to understand.
“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.” (Matthew 11:11)
So let's see, John is greatest among those born of women but not as great as the least in the kingdom. Is John not going to make it to heaven? Is he in trouble because he questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah? Is this some sort of back-handed compliment? And the third difficult verse flows right out of the second.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (Matthew 11:12)
Reading that verse for years I generally responded with Bill Cosby's line in the Noah's Ark routine. Noah hears someone, asks who it is, and God announces, “It's the Lord, Noah,” to which Noah answers, “Right!” I read this verse and think, “Right!” But each of these difficult verses are very much tied together, and help us understand the others.
What's wrong with this picture?
Chapter 11 begins with Jesus teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee, and John the Baptist sitting in Herod's prison. What's wrong with this picture? From John's perspective, plenty; from Jesus' perspective, nothing at all. But honestly, if I'm the one suffering, I can relate to John. I can imagine John thinking, “Jesus, enough with all this teaching and preaching, I don't think you are going to teach me out of prison.”
John was in Herod's prison. Herod was the false king of Israel. He wasn't the messiah... he couldn't be. He wasn't David's son. He was a usurper. But the Messiah of John's expectation was going to straighten all this out. John may have been holding onto the promise of Isaiah 35:3-6.
3Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." 5Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy....
John knew he was facing death. He may have identified with having feeble hands and knees that were giving way. He may have been strengthened by the promise that God would come with vengeance and retribution. Retribution to Herod would mean freedom for John. Jesus sends John's disciples back with this answer:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The 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. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
Jesus applies the Isaiah text to Himself (see also Isaiah 61:1-2), leaving out the part about vengeance and retribution. This is great news for the blind, lame, lepers, deaf, dead and poor; but it doesn't bode well for John. Sounds like he isn't going to get rescued from prison.
How do you respond when it becomes apparent that you may not get rescued from your plight? Personally, I never like it. But I have the cross to go to, and remember that my Savior has paved the way, and I can look to Him. He entrusted Himself to the Father, and we are called to cast our cares on Him, knowing He cares for us, even when it looks desperate. After we have suffered a while, He will restore us (1 Peter 5:10). Sometimes that restoration comes on the other side of the grave.
A Different View of the Messiah's Kingdom
John saw clearly enough to know that Jesus was the Messiah, but barely. He didn't understand the kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be. John saw more about who Jesus was than any of the Old Testament prophets. He was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament era, and the last. Each of them had a glimpse, but John had the clearest vision. But, the least in the Kingdom would have a clearer vision of who Jesus is than even John had (Matthew 11:11). Why? Because we will see Christ through the lens of the cross. The cross will bring clarity to the kind of Kingdom Christ would have. The prophets would long to see into what we see as disciples of Jesus (Matthew 13:16-17). John would long to see it.
That brings us to Matthew 11:12, and its somewhat convoluted talk about the kingdom and violence. But I think it gets right to the heart of what John wasn't seeing. D.A. Carson, in his commentary on Matthew suggests that most natural way to read the front half of this verse as the NIV has it, and that the most natural way to read the second half of this verse is as the ESV or NASB have it. The result would read something like this:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.
The kingdom of God is on the advance with the ministry of Jesus... 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....Christ's kingdom is on the advance. But, contrary to what John was expecting, the violent are still plundering that kingdom...and will continue to for some time. Herod is plundering that kingdom. As this section develops we find the Pharisees and teachers of the law joining into the violence. In fact, Jesus Himself will go to the cross; the disciples will be hated by all men because of Him. The advance of the Kingdom comes at a cost. It cost John his head. It cost Jesus crucifixion. It will cost us too.
What expectations do you have of Jesus as to what His reign will mean to your life? Do your expectations, like John's, needs adjusting? How does the cross give you greater clarity about the mission and purpose of Christ than John could have had at that time?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,