And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah 6:8-10
Dear Christian, I was contemplating today how much I have been learning in this study of Matthew. This is nowhere near the first time I've heard or read this Gospel telling of Jesus' life, but before I have read it from the perspective of this is what was said and this was what occurred... I did not consider nearly as often as I have this time the questions, "What does Matthew or Jesus mean by that?" "Why did Matthew include this reference?" "How is this different from the other Gospel tellings of Christ's life?" Now all of these seem like fairly easy questions one might ask early on, but when you grow up in the Church as I have, there seems to have been in the last few generations a silent prohibition on asking questions that will probably only lead to more questions. Working my way out of that prohibition under the shadow of a Church that is now self-destructing through the movement of Deconstructionism has been a journey. So here we are, I've been a born-again believer for almost twenty years and I'm just starting to ask these basic questions that really do take you deeper into the life of Christ and what it means to live as a Christian. Therefore, don't feel bad if you're still in the phase of trying to comprehend just what is happening in the moment of the events taking place in Matthew. Certainly, I have found throughout my life that each time I open God's Word depending on the circumstances of the moment and my growth in maturity or struggle I see new lessons that were always there in the everlasting words. Whether you are 2 hours old as a Christian or 2 decades the Word is still where we ought to be seeking God daily.
The last chapter we read in Matthew left off with Jesus' final instructions to His disciples as He sent them off to carry out their ministry on His behalf: teaching and healing just as He was doing.
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. Matthew 11:1
Jesus does not rest because He has sent out the twelve to carry on the work He had been doing as one person, but even while they have departed from Him Jesus continues to teach and to heal. Now we need to remember a couple of pieces of context before we get into the main meal of this chapter: first, is that John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, the prophet sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, has been imprisoned. We will learn later in Matthew that John had been arrested because of his criticism of the tyrannical King Herod Antipas' marriage to his brother's wife Herodias. Both Antipas and Herodias had an extramarital relationship during which they divorced their spouses and married each other. It is important to note that Antipas did have some Jewish lineage, so when he is criticized by John for breaking the Law of God with this clearly immoral relationship it is not a criticism of an outsider or Roman leader. The second bit of context is that during John's imprisonment he sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question, we don't know if these were exactly the same men who with the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus' disciples' fasting habits only a couple of chapters ago, but Matthew certainly leaves that up to our discernment by referring to both groups as simply John the Baptist's disciples without any specifics to their names or whether they were a different subject of John's followers.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Matthew 11:2-3
Here is another reason why I don't feel bad about asking questions now that seem so obvious, that I probably should have asked a long time ago... this is John the Baptist who leaped for joy in his mother's womb when Mary approached still pregnant herself with the coming Messiah. He was Jesus' cousin and was born for the purpose of preparing the way for His ministry. Yet sitting in prison because of a tyrannical King and wondering how much of a difference his teaching had really made to the people of Israel, he hears not of the true King's judgment being carried out against all these evil people instead he hears that Jesus is teaching them and compassionately healing them. John's question is not just, "Are you the Messiah? (because I sort of staked my career and reputation on that fact)" It's "Lord, I don't get it, what are you doing? How is this what You came for? Or is this You at all?"
How can we know that that is the heart of John's question? I think we get that understanding from the rich promise of Jesus' answer. Also, notice that this is the first time since Jesus' genealogy that Matthew has referred to Jesus as 'the Christ'. In Greek, this is Christos meaning the Anointed One or the Chosen One. The Hebrew word for this is Meshiac or Messiah meaning the same thing as the Greek. Jesus does not condemn John for a lack of faith but answers from the words of the prophet Isaiah whom John would have recognized.
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:4-6
Jesus' answer is in two parts, the first part is, "Go and tell John what I'm doing."
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35:3-10 (emphasis my own)
Jesus reminds John that He is coming to fulfill the promises that God made to His people. That He would ransom them from the nations He had scattered them to and there would be a day when Zion (The Kingdom of God) would be filled with singing instead of mourning! Yes, there will be a day of judgment and Jesus will begin teaching the crowd about that day when John's disciples have departed to give him Jesus' answer. However, that day is not here yet and this is the work of the Kingdom that Jesus has come to complete until that day arrives. He also says, "Go and tell John what I am teaching and who I am teaching to."
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. Isaiah 61:1-3 (emphasis my own)
Remember that John witnessed the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven upon Jesus like a dove as the Father said, "This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Jesus reminds John, this is what He was anointed for and this is what He was chosen for: to bring the good news to the poor, to heal, and to set free. This is what makes Him the Messiah the Christos promised from the days of old! Here we also read yet again that there is both a year of the Lord's favor when God's people will have gladness instead of mourning, but we also are promised that there will be a day of God's vengeance and that it will be a comfort to those who mourn. Can you imagine being John in prison because of this murderous, immoral King and Jesus reminding him that He is the One who can fling wide the prison gates for the glory of His Kingdom, but He is also the One who will declare judgment on the day of vengeance against the enemies of His Kingdom?!
Now I want you to hold on to the final piece of Jesus' answer to John's question until we see what He begins to teach the crowd regarding John and Himself after John's disciples have left to give him his answer.
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? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 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. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Matthew 11:7-15
When Matthew first introduced us to John, he referenced Isaiah's prophecy that one would come to make a way for the Lord in the wilderness. You can go back to remind yourself of it here. Yet as Jesus begins to teach the people he asks them why they were flocking out into the wilderness to see and listen to John. What made them think he had the authority to speak? It was not his demeanor or his fine clothing, John was not a man easily cowed or shaken even by one such as Antipas neither was he a man of wealth or power of his own. If he had been then he would have been dining with Antipas at the table of the tyrant King, not sitting in his dungeon. No! They went out to see and hear a prophet, a messenger of the Lord, and just like every prophet before him John had met with the violent opposition of the enemies of God. But what does Jesus mean that although no one greater than John the Baptist has arisen and yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he?
John had come as a forerunner to the Kingdom a messenger of its coming, but it had not yet come. In full transparency, I had to search out an answer for this myself, so you can go read the article that helped my understanding here if you so desire. Although John had an understanding of the Messiah's coming better than any who had been born up to that point, he did not know God as we know God by the Spirit of God that has been given to us from the day of Pentecost. The reason even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist is that even the least has no need to question if Jesus is the Christ or if they should look for another.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34
We should be humbled by this understanding! Jesus also reminds the people of the two-fold promise the Messenger of the Kingdom has come to prepare the way for both the day of judgment and the day of rejoicing.
The Day of Judgment:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1-5 (emphasis my own)
The Day of Rejoicing
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Malachi 4:1-6
John the Baptist was not Elijah reincarnated, if he was whether the people were willing to understand and believe it or not, it still would have been the man Elijah himself. However, John did come in the same spirit and authority as Elijah with the same purpose... to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by turning the people to repentance.
However, Jesus goes on to chastise and admonish the crowd gathered around him who heard the question John's disciples had come to ask. I find it interesting too, that this part of the sermon happens after the disciples left to bring Jesus' answer to John because Jesus also addresses the lifestyle criticism that they had raised earlier when they questioned why as followers of John and the Pharisees fasted often living religiously spartan lives while Jesus' disciples ate, drank, and were merry even with sinners and tax collectors.
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “‘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, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Matthew 11:16-24
These people have rejected the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand that King stands and speaks before them. They have rejected the good news when it came dressed as wrath and mourning. They have rejected the good news when it came dressed as compassion and rejoicing. It was not that it was better for the good news to come as one or the other, but that the people had come with a spirit of opposition. They would not listen and they would not hear and so they did not understand what the Messenger and the Messiah had come to tell them.
That brings us back to the final piece of Jesus' answer to John the Baptist.
And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:6
In some translations you may see, "blessed is the one who does not stumble because of me" or "blessed is the man who does not fall away (turn away) on account of me." In the days of Isaiah whom Jesus has been quoting, the King of Samaria (Israel) allied with the King of Syria against Judah. King Ahaz of Judah being a weak and evil king instead of turning to God in faith and repentance made an alliance with the King of Assyria to defend him against the King of Israel and the King of Syria. God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz to tell him what would become of Judah because of his faithless response. He warns the king that the one he has made an alliance with instead of turning to God, will not be satisfied with victory over Syria and Samaria but will finish with them only to turn and conquer Judah as well.
For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Isaiah 8:11-17
The Lord is both a sanctuary and a stone of offense, a stumbling block for those who refuse to trust Him. For those who do trust Him, He is their place of protection and they find their peace in Him. But these people, they had already defined in their hearts what god they would serve and when the Lord Himself did not meet their expectation they rejected the Truth for the Lie stumbling over reality into their own destruction. Just as King Ahaz had rejected God's true Kingship over His nation and against His enemies, these people rejected God who had finally come to bring His Kingdom among them.
In the days of Isaiah and Ahaz, the Lord hid His face from the house of Jacob, that is His people Israel. But in the days of Jesus, He had come to reveal Himself and the Father to any who come to Him.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25-30
What the greatest man born up to that day was struggling to understand because these things had been hidden would be understood by small children. They are so obvious when revealed and so obscure when hidden, that we cannot but be grateful when Christ finally reveals the truth to us all we need to do as He has instructed us before is to seek Him!