John's disciples are sent to question Jesus. He answers and highlights the importance of John's role as a prophet.
John's disciples are sent to question Jesus. He answers and highlights the importance of John's role as a prophet.
Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 3, in which we see a discussion between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist. We're going to follow the account that comes in Matthew 11: 2 - 19. There's a parallel account in Luke 7, and we're going to refer to a number of other texts that relate to this particular topic.
Introduction and Recap
We're in series 5 and the story is moving on fast. In series 2 and 3, we saw the gradual momentum of Jesus' ministry in Galilee increasing. We saw the first tour of Galilee in series 3, at the end of which he appointed his 12 apostles. We studied the Sermon on the Mount in series 4 and now, in series 5, we're in the second tour of Galilee. Lots of exciting events take place at this time. We've already looked at a couple of remarkable miracles that are both recorded in Luke 7, which were the first two episodes of series 5 - the healing of the centurion's servant and the raising from the dead of the son of the widow of Nain which was the last episode. That was one of the great miracles that Jesus performed very surprisingly and very suddenly, as Jesus entered the town of Nain.
The scene shifts for this episode because we're now going back to the fascinating story of John the Baptist which is interwoven with the life of Jesus in the Gospels, particularly in the first half of the ministry of Jesus. There's a very interesting discussion between Jesus and some of John the Baptist's disciples that we're going to look at closely in a minute. Before that I want to recount the story of John the Baptist again because he comes and goes from the narrative and it's easy to forget some of the things that have happened beforehand. A story always makes the best sense if you see it in its biggest context.
If you were with us in series 1, you'll remember that the miraculous birth of Jesus was paralleled by an also miraculous birth of John the Baptist. Jesus was born by virgin birth but John was born to an elderly couple who had never had children, and never been able to have children - Zechariah and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Mary, Jesus' mother, and so John the Baptist was indeed a relative of Jesus. Right back at the beginning, there is a prophecy concerning John which is given by his father, Zechariah, at the time of his birth. I want to read a couple of verses that summarise the calling of John. Luke 1: 76 and 77:
‘“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”’Luke 1:76-77, NIV
Even as John was born, he was appointed by God miraculously as a prophet, who was going to prepare the way for the coming Messiah who turned out to be his relative, Jesus of Nazareth. The public ministry of John took place some 30 years later, when he appeared by the River Jordan and started preaching, quite suddenly. He'd been in seclusion in the Judean wilderness nearby, in a desert area away from normal human civilisation for some time and then he suddenly appeared and started preaching a very provocative message about people needing to change their lives and prepare for God to visit the nation, with a fresh message and a fresh initiative which turned out to be the coming of the Kingdom of God, through Jesus the Messiah. He was a real sensation in Israel. One day Jesus turned up at the River Jordan where John was baptising, and very remarkably John baptised Jesus as well. He heard the voice of the Father, affirming Jesus as the Son of God and he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus, in the bodily form of a dove. Not long after, as recorded in John 1: 29, when John saw Jesus coming towards him,
‘He said, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’”John 1:29, NIV
He prophetically pointed to the ministry of Jesus.
John's own ministry was cut short. His public ministry didn't last that long because Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch, who ruled Galilee and some other areas to the east of the River Jordan but particularly Galilee, took a disliking to John because John challenged him and this is recounted in Luke 3: 19 to 20.
‘But when John rebuked Herod the Tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all - he locked John up in prison.’Luke 3:19-20, NIV
John had noticed that Herod had divorced his wife, and seduced the wife of his brother, and persuaded her to divorce her husband and to marry him which was against the Jewish law. John challenged him over this which led to his imprisonment. During the course of most of Jesus' ministry, John is imprisoned by Herod. Therefore, he's unable to engage fully with what Jesus is doing. Having paved the way for Jesus, and helped him to become well-known, he suddenly finds himself secluded in prison. This is the point at which we take up the story. John still had his own followers, or disciples. They came to him and told him things while he was imprisoned about what Jesus was doing, and what was happening in the country.
The story moves on from there in the text of Matthew 11. We'll read it in sections, to help us go through it and understand it. Matthew 11: 2 and 3:
‘When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’Matthew 11:2-3, NIV
On the face of it, this seems odd because he had earlier proclaimed that Jesus was the one that should be expected, as I've just described to you and quoted from something he said concerning Jesus being the ‘Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world’. John is asking a difficult question here and we need to work out why is he asking this difficult question? Maybe he is experiencing some doubt because of imprisonment, which can affect your mental state. Possibly Herod Antipas fed bad information to John about Jesus' ministry, through his soldiers and the prison guards. Possibly John was confused by the fact that Jesus had not immediately brought the judgement on Israel, that was implied in his statement concerning Jesus' ministry in Matthew 3: 11 and 12. John famously says these words,
11‘“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”’Matthew 3:11-12, NIV
This ‘burning up of the chaff’ is a reference to judgement on Israel. John knew that Jesus was bringing the power of the Holy Spirit but he didn't hear anything about the judgement on Israel. It hadn't yet happened. Maybe, he wondered why Jesus hadn't yet got to judge Israel for the failure of many people to respond to his message. If that was the case then John got his timing wrong because this was to happen; there was to be a great judgement on Israel but it would be several decades after Jesus died.
Jesus answered John, Matthew 11: 4 to 6:
4‘Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”’Matthew 11:4-6, NIV
Jesus first of all articulates and describes the signs of the Kingdom which are absolutely remarkable and they're all true and happening. In the last episode, we saw an example of someone being raised from the dead - the widow of Nain's son. Jesus is basically saying to John, through the message he's sending to him, all the signs of the Kingdom are taking place and he's encouraging John not to stumble on account of him - not to doubt, not to be hesitant just because he doesn't understand the timing of events and why the judgement that Jesus promised to bring has not yet happened, and why the Kingdom is just coming in steps, rather than in one dramatic moment.
John's Role as a Prophet
Then Jesus goes on, in verses 7 to 11, to talk to the crowds around about really who John was.
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 the wind? 8If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. 9Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it's written: ‘I'll send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”’Matthew 11:7-11, NIV
Who did they expect to see when they went out into the wilderness? The wilderness was the place where John operated - the Judean wilderness. Did they go to see someone weak like a reed swaying in the wind? No. Did they expect to see someone strong and rich and well-dressed? No. They saw a prophet - someone who brings directly the message of God. Yes, John was a prophet. In verse 10, Jesus says:
‘“This is the one about whom it is written, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you.’”’Matthew 11:10, NIV
This is a quotation from the book of Malachi. At the end of the book of Malachi, which in our Bibles is the last book of the Old Testament, and the last prophet recorded in the Old Testament. Malachi 3:1 predicts,
“‘I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before you. Then suddenly the Lord who you are seeking will come into his Temple. The messenger of the covenant whom you desire will come” says the Lord Almighty.’Malachi 3:1, NIV
That verse in Malachi 3, Jesus identifies as prophesying John the Baptist's coming, to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, or the coming of the Messiah - who is here described as the messenger of the covenant. In that sense, John is the greatest of all people to be born amongst women because he was the prophet given the responsibility of ushering in the age of the Messiah. He is a figure a bit like Elijah. In Malachi 4: 5, we have another prophecy about an Elijah-type figure.
‘“See I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”’Malachi 4:5, NIV
As we look at these prophecies from the point of view of the New Testament, we have the messenger in Malachi 3: 1, who's an Elijah-type figure, and then we have another Elijah-type figure who's coming before the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Our best understanding of how these link together is that Malachi 3 1, which is associated with John the Baptist, refers specifically to the first coming of Jesus but Malachi 4 5 is referring to a prophet anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus. John is identified as the Elijah-type figure who's ushering in the coming of the Messiah for his first coming. John was the last prophet of the Old Testament era, and yet paradoxically whoever is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. This is a matter of chronology because John died - he was shortly going to be executed - before the full coming of the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost in the Kingdom of Heaven, which allowed the full power of the Holy Spirit to operate in every single believer. That meant that they had a greater understanding of the Kingdom, greater empowerment of the Kingdom, than even John had because he died before the Kingdom had fully come in through the death of Jesus, the resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. There's a paradox here. John is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets but because he dies just before the great outpouring of the Spirit after Jesus' death, those who are ‘least in the Kingdom are greater than John’ because they have more experience of the Kingdom coming than John would ever have. This was a matter of timing and chronology; it wasn't a matter of godliness and spirituality.
Opposition to the Kingdom of God
Jesus then goes on in verses 12 to 15 to say something very striking about what was happening at that exact time in the advance of the Kingdom of God.
‘“12From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15Whoever has ears, let them hear.”’Matthew 11:12-15, NIV
This text has been interpreted in a variety of ways and sometimes associated with modern theories of spiritual warfare but if you look at it closely, it has a very different meaning. Jesus gives a precise timing ‘“from the days of John the Baptist until now”’. In other words, from when John the Baptist came to the River Jordan until this point in Jesus' ministry, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing in, is experiencing violence, or opposition. Violent people are raiding it. As Jesus is advancing the Kingdom, people are challenging it and trying to undermine the Kingdom - from the time of John the Baptist until this point. This is a reference to opponents of Jesus - like the Pharisees - undermining him, trying to draw people away from him, and opposing the advance of the Kingdom, and undermining everything that is happening. A time of spiritual conflict started when John the Baptist came and the fact that John the Baptist is in prison, is part of that process because Herod Antipas, Herod the Tetrarch is against John the Baptist, and implicitly against Jesus, though he hasn't directly met Jesus yet. He was suspicious of him because Jesus might become so popular that he'd threaten his kingdom in Galilee. Opposition is rising, but verse 14, ‘“if you're willing to accept it, (John) is Elijah who was to come.”’ In other words, the Elijah figure - the follow-on figure like Elijah - referred to in Malachi 3: 1, that we just looked at.
The Jewish People's Response to the Kingdom
This complex passage comes to an end, with Jesus speaking very plainly about the people living at that time in Israel who were engaging with, and experiencing the coming of the Kingdom of God. Verses 16 to 19:
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 pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners and tax collectors ’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”’Matthew 11:16-19, NIV
The people of the time, in general, found reasons not to believe in John and not to believe in Jesus. They accuse them of opposite extremes but they didn't believe in them. Essentially what Jesus is saying here, is that the Jewish people in general, despite the crowds following him around, failed to see the significance of the events that were taking place before their eyes. This wasn't just a prophet or a healer or a teacher; this was actually the Messiah coming with the New Covenant, with a new opportunity for a new relationship with God, with forgiveness of sins who was going to launch the next stage of God's plan for the salvation of mankind. Many of the Jewish people at the time didn't really understand that. Many were attracted by the spectacular miracles, yes, but they were confused about his identity - not sure about his identity - and the Pharisees and the religious establishment began working against Jesus. As we follow the story through in the next series, we will see more and more opposition from the religious establishment which confuses the crowds. So they find it very hard to know what to believe about Jesus.
This passage is quite complex and you may have found it difficult to follow some of the details, but let me just make a couple of summary statements.
John, troubled while he is in prison, cut off from what was going on in Jesus ministry, sends his messengers and Jesus gives an encouraging answer to John: the Kingdom is coming; things aren't happening quite as fast as you might have imagined, but it is going forward; so don't stumble; hold onto your confidence that everything you prophesied, is actually happening even though you can't see it. Jesus goes on to explain a bit more about who John the Baptist is, to the crowds. He links him very specifically with the prophecies of Malachi chapters 3 and 4 - particularly Malachi 3: 1. He said John wasn't just a self-appointed prophet or someone who appeared from nowhere. His ministry was actually predicted hundreds of years before, by Malachi, who said he'll ‘come to prepare the way for the Lord; to prepare the way for the coming of Messiah’. That's what John successfully did.
Then Jesus goes on and explains that John's ministry - and Jesus' ministry - has provoked an intense spiritual conflict and there are actually people trying to sabotage and undermine the advancing Kingdom. The Kingdom is suffering violence, and violent men are raiding it. They're trying to undermine Jesus. We've seen the beginning of this already, in some of the Gospel stories but we'll see this very clearly developing in the narrative, as the story moves on.
In conclusion, one or two reflections. Let's go back to Matthew 11: 6. This is a very moving statement by Jesus,
‘Blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me.’Matthew 11:6, NIV
This is a message to John the Baptist but I think it's also a message to us. Jesus was showing immense grace to the needy but he was also showing patience with the stubborn and the resistant. We can stumble as it were. We can be upset by God's immense grace to people who sometimes we don't think deserve it. We can also stumble because God sometimes appears to let evil go unpunished for a long time. Jesus hadn't yet brought that fire of cleansing into the nation of Israel that was promised, and predicted by John, at the baptism of Jesus. So ‘“Blessed is the one who doesn't stumble on account of me”’. We don't understand why God does things in the way he does, and sometimes it can be upsetting when we think why didn't God do something different in the situation, why did He act in this way? Why did he have favour on those people who don't deserve it? Why did he have patience on those people who really deserved his judgement? We don't know exactly why God deals with people in the way he does, but we do know that ‘Blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me.’
The prophecies of Malachi that I've mentioned, in Malachi 3 and 4, again point out this very interesting fact that the Messiah, Jesus, comes to this earth twice. There's the first coming and the Second Coming. This theme appears frequently in our gospel discussions. In Malachi 3: 1, the prophecy fulfilled by John the Baptist, there's a reference to the first coming: ‘“I'll send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.”’ That's what John did for Jesus. But then another prophet like Elijah will come, like John the Baptist, Malachi 4: 5, ‘who will come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes’. That's the return of Christ - the Second Coming - the time of reckoning; the time of judgement. These two realities are always there in the Gospels and they appear in the narrative from time to time.
You and I live between these two realities: the first coming has taken place. Jesus has been on earth; he's been to die for our sins; he's been to minister and reveal himself in Israel; he's been raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, he's poured out his Holy Spirit. That's happened. But his return to redeem the earth, take his people to himself and bring judgement on his opponents - that has not happened yet. We live in the middle of these two great events and we need to learn to live in the creative tension of those two events.
I hope you've gained some useful help from this study, of what is a complex but important passage about John the Baptist and his role in bringing in the Kingdom of God. I look forward to welcoming you to the next episode.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- How do you cope with God not acting as you think he should?
- How do you cope with God not acting as you think he should? (in terms of justice, forgiveness, allowing evil to prosper, healing some and not others?)
- How can you show God’s grace to others?
- John appears to have a problem with God’s timing of events. He expected judgement as well as grace. When you have prophecies for the future but do not know the timings - how do you continue?