Thoughts from Matthew 11…
All four of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — start with the ministry of one man. Even before anyone knew about Jesus Christ, John the Baptist was preaching in the desert. He called himself, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” and had a single message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” See here for an introduction to John the Baptist.
John was truly a great man. He did no miracles, yet he captivated the entire nation. They thought him strange, yet they came by the thousands to the wild desert to hear him preach. Even the religious leaders respected him, though they refused to believe him.
John was the greatest of men, yet even he was not immune to problems. His ministry was rapid and powerful, but it ended just as rapidly when Jesus started teaching (see here). King Herod had him thrown into prison when he publicly condemned the king’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias.a
John languished in prison for over a year.b It was there, in his dark prison cell, that John’s doubts began to arise. Was Jesus really the promised one? Was He really their coming Messiah?
Everyone had their plans for the Messiah. Everyone had their expectations. The nation of Israel looked for a king to defeat their enemies. The religious leaders wanted a king to enforce their traditions. Jesus’ own disciples looked forward to when they would help Him rule (see here). And even John the Baptist looked forward to a Messiah who would punish and purify this sinful generation.
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?” 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.”
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Now in prison, John the Baptist started to question his beliefs about Jesus. Was He really the coming Messiah?
John’s question seems to come from a place of deep discouragement. He had gone out as God’s messenger, into the desert, to tell everyone to be ready for the coming King. People followed him by the thousands, but when Jesus started to eclipse his own ministry, he willingly stepped aside (see here).
One of John’s final public acts was to confront Herod Antipas over his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herod responded by arresting him and imprisoning him at the fortress in Machaerus. It has been about a year since that arrest and John’s hopes had slowly fallen away.
“At the end of a most trying career of constant self-denial its scanty fruits seemed, as it were, snatched from Him, and the multitude, which he had hitherto swayed, turned after Another, to Whom himself had first given testimony, but Who ever since had apparently neglected him.” – Alfred Edersheim6
His despair came from his own preaching. He himself preached that the King, the long-awaited Messiah, was coming. He would come with wrath and judgement for those who disobeyed. Then the King came and was baptized by John (see here). But there has been no judgement. The wicked men continue without interference. John stood up against Herod’s wickedness, but there was no response from Jesus Christ. Herod was free and John was in prison!
His despair also came from his expectations. The Messiah was to be a great leader, bring in His kingdom of peace and justice (Isaiah 61), what had happened? Jesus had not announced Himself as King and John could not see the kingdom. If Jesus was the Messiah, where was His kingdom?
And finally, John’s despair came from his own troubles. He had given his entire life to God, and now he must have felt abandoned. Jesus was healing the sick and raising the dead, but He would not come to John’s aid. The prophets taught that the Messiah would set the captives free (Isaiah 61:1), so why wouldn’t he come to free this captive?
You can see John’s despair in his words, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Was he wrong about Jesus? The same John who preached that the kingdom was coming, did he have the wrong King? The same John who stood in the river with Jesus Christ, did he baptize the wrong man? The same John who heard the voice from Heaven, was he only hearing what he wanted to hear?
“Either Jesus is the Messiah or He is a mere human being. If He is human, then John must look for a different kind of person.”1
“John had come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), and even Elijah had his days of discouragement!” – Warren Wiersbe4 c
And so he sent two disciples to Jesus Christ.d Could the Lord reassure him that his hope was not in vain?
Jesus didn’t reply to John’s request with a long statement or any words of comfort about his plight. He simply sent the messengers back with the response, “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.”e
Jesus responded that His actions showed who He was. Only the Messiah could do these works (see also John 3:2) and blessed is the one who would not stumble over failed expectations.
“We are all inclined, at times, to feel that we have been neglected and forgotten, and the Lord does not always speak words of endorsement directly to us, but we may be assured of this: if we have sought to be faithful to Him, He always approves us before His Father and the holy angels.” – H.A. Ironside3
“Let no one dare to say that the faith of John failed, at least till the dark waters have rolled up to his own soul. For mostly all and each of us must pass through some like experience; and only our own hearts and God know, how death-bitter are the doubts, whether of head or of heart, when question after question raises, as with devilish hissing, its head, and earth and heaven seem alike silent to us.” – Alfred Edersheim6
“There is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is a matter of the mind: we cannot understand what God is doing or why He is doing it. Unbelief is a matter of the will: we refuse to believe God’s Word and obey what He tells us to do.” – Warren Wiersbe5
“John had doubt, but when he did have doubt, he went to the right source.” – John MacArthur8
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.
When John’s messengers had gone, 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 are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 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.’
I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
Once the messengers left, Jesus turned to the crowds and began to speak about John. These were the men and women who had earlier left their towns to see this man in the wilderness, and to be baptized by him. But who did they go out to see? This was not a man who would succumb to pressure (a “reed shaken by the wind”). This was not a man who would cater to the rich or the powerful (a “man dressed in soft clothing”). They came to see a prophet.
But John was more than just a prophet. He was the messenger, sent by God to prepare the way for the coming King. He was the forerunner of the Messiah, who was predicted by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 3:1).1 f
“But what they did expect, that they really did see: a prophet, and much more than a mere prophet, the very Herald of God and Preparer of Messiah’s Way.” – Edersheim6
“Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and all the rest of the prophetic brotherhood, looked forward to the coming of Messiah, but it was given to John alone to actually present Him to Israel and proclaim Him definitely as the long-expected Deliverer.” – Ironside3
John was the greatest of men, and yet the children of the Kingdom would be greater than he. John was great because he announced the coming King. We will be even greater because we know the coming King!g
“How is the least person in the kingdom of God greater than John? In position, not in character or ministry. John was the herald of the King, announcing the kingdom; believers today are children of the kingdom and the friends of the King (John 15:15).” – Warren Wiersbe5
John also fulfilled the Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah would come before the Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6).h
The Spoiled Children
“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.”
“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
It was common in first century for the children to gather in the marketplace and play games while their parents worked. Their games would mimic the social customs of the adults, with the two most popular being weddings and funerals. They would mimic the happiness and excitement of the wedding celebration by playing flutes and dancing. They would then mimic the sorrow and grief of a funeral by singing of their sorrow and weeping.
Jesus used the analogy of these children to describe the current generation. They were like a crowd of children who were getting upset when he didn’t play their games with them. It didn’t matter what John did or what Jesus did. They would never be good enough unless they followed the games they were playing.
John came with his severe lifestyle and frequent fasting and so they said he must have had a demon. Jesus came with none of these ascetics and they criticized him for associating with outcasts and sinners.
“They were like children in a market-place, who expected their fellows to adapt themselves to the tunes they played. It was as if they said: We have expected great Messianic glory and national exaltation, and ye have not responded (‘we have piped unto you, and ye have not danced’); we have looked for deliverance from our national sufferings, and they stirred not your sympathies nor brought your help (‘we have mourned to you, and ye have not lamented’).” – Alfred Edersheim6
“[They are like] irresponsible children who could make a play of the happiest or the saddest experience of life, but had little realization of the import of either.” – H.A. Ironside2
But the ultimate end of wisdom is its outcome. The end result of the Jews’ religion was to isolate themselves from the Truth when He came. The end result of John’s wisdom was to prepare for the King, end the end result of Jesus Christ was to save the world!
“God’s wisdom is not frustrated by the arguments of the ‘wise and prudent.’ It is demonstrated in the changed lives of those who believe. This is how true wisdom is justified.” – Wiersbe5
We all come to God with our own set of expectations. We have plans and hopes for what He should do. Even John the Baptist was disappointed when God didn’t answer his own plans.
John’s life would end shortly after this time. Herod would have him killed based on a rash promise at a drunken party. John’s great ministry was already over, to end with Herod’s infamy.
But there is something greater than John. The Kingdom of God may not answer to what we expect, but there is something greater than our own wants or needs. When we know Jesus Christ, we are part of His kingdom and are the children of the King Himself!
When we are like the generation of Jesus’ day and act like petty children, He is greater. His Kingdom is greater than our feelings.
When we have given our all, only to see it end in discouragement, He is still greater. Like John, God has not forgotten us and His Kingdom is greater than our disappointment.
May we be reminded that when we have trusted Jesus Christ, He is greater than anything we will encounter!
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 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 11:2-19, pages 147-154
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 11, The Grace of the King
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 24, Christ’s Endorsement of John the Baptist, Luke 7:19-35
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 11:1-24, pages 33-34
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 7:18-35, pages 158-159
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXVIII: THE STORY OF THE BAPTIST, FROM HIS LAST TESTIMONY TO JESUS TO HIS BEHEADING IN PRISON (1. St. John 3:25-30. 2 St. Matthew 9:14-17; St. Mark 2:18-22; St. Luke 5:33-39. 3. St. Matthew 11:2-14; St. Luke 7:18-35. 4. St. Matthew 14:1-12; St. Mark 6:14-29; St. Luke 9:7-9.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxviii.html
 Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 8. https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/15-the-unpardonable-sin-and-a-shift-to-parables.html
 John MacArthur, Solving the Problem of Doubt, Matthew 11:1-6, Sep 6, 1981
 John MacArthur, True Greatness, Matthew 11:7-15, Sep 13, 1981
 John MacArthur, Treating Christ with Criticism and Indifference, Matthew 11:16-24, Sep 20, 1981
 D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 11:2-19
[a] Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, the son of Herod the Great. She married Herod’s son Philip I (her uncle), and had a daughter, Salome. When Herod Antipas (also her uncle) visited his brother Philip in Rome, he convinced Herodias to leave her husband and return with him. John the Baptist publicly condemned Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife, causing Herod to throw him in prison and earning Herodias’ hatred.
Josephus wrote that Herod imprisoned John in his fortress at Machaerus, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.
Herodias finally got her revenge on John on Herod’s birthday. Herod made a rash vow to Salome after her seductive dancing, promising to give her anything she wanted. Salome went to her mother and asked for John’s head. Herod gave in and had John executed, thus presenting the head to Salome and ending the life of the greatest prophet. This account is recorded in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29.
For more information, see these links:
[b] Jesus’ ministry in Galilee lasted during the same time as John’s imprisonment by Herod. He left Judea for Galilee near December, and John was killed near Passover (March-April). Therefore, John was in prison for about 18 months.
- Matthew 4:12 tells that Jesus left Judea for Galilee after He learned that John had been arrested (see also here). This is concurrent with the events of John 4, which happened four months before harvest (John 4:35). This harvest was probably the Spring harvest, indicating that Jesus was traveling during December-January.
- Matthew 14 tells that Jesus withdrew after hearing about John’s death (Matthew 14:13). The crowds followed Him and He ended up feeding the 5,000 men (plus families). This is concurrent with the events of John 6, which happened at the time of the Passover (John 6:4). Therefore, John was killed around the time of the Passover, or March-April.
- The unnamed feast of John 5 (probably the Feast of Tabernacles, see here) happened between these two events. Since the Feast of Tabernacles is in September-October, at least a year must have transpired between John 4 and John 6. (The other possibility is that the feast of John 5 was Passover, which still would have required a year to transpire.)
[c] “It is not unusual for great spiritual leaders to have their days of doubt and uncertainty. Moses was ready to quit on one occasion (Num. 11:10-15), and so were Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-9, 14-18), and even Paul knew the meaning of despair (2 Cor. 1:8-9).” – Warren Wiersbe5
[d] Some translations of Matthew 11:2 say that John sent two disciples. Others do not have a specific number in Matthew’s account. But regardless, Luke’s account confirms that John sent two disciples to the Lord.
[f] “Among those born of women” is a common Jewish reference to the human race.9
[g] Matthew 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (See also Luke 16:16) This verse has created a very large number of interpretations by Bible scholars, but the best interpretation seems to be that the kingdom of heaven has been facing opposition since the time of John’s ministry. The leading interpretations are the following:
- Some see this as a call for the disciples to strive to enter the kingdom (i.e. “fight for it!”). However, the verb tense for “has suffered violence” is passive, and so it makes it difficult to force this into the text. Moreover, the words for violent (biastēs, βιαστής) and force (harpazō ἁρπάζω) almost always carry a negative connotation.1 6 9 11
- Some see this as the kingdom of heaven “has been taken by storm and eager men are forcing their way into it”. This has the same problems as the forced tenses and the negative connotations above.11
- Some say that the passive voice here means that men are snatching the kingdom from God and forcing its coming (i.e. they are forcing Jesus to bring the kingdom). However, this does not fit the context. The succeeding verses talk about Israel’s unwillingness to receive the kingdom.1
- I would agree with the final interpretation that this is the opposition of the religious leaders to the kingdom which has been presented by John and Jesus (i.e. they are snatching it from the people). This would be similar to Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:13.1 11
[h] This relationship between John and Elijah is covered in greater detail in Matthew 17:10-13. We will discuss this further when we study Matthew 17.