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Matthew 11:1-19

Text Comment

v.1       The words with which v. 1 begin, “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples,” are, as you may remember, a structural marker in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew ends each of his five discourses, or sections of the Lord’s teaching, with these same words or words very like them. The last one we found at 7:28, the next one we will find at 13:53. So the section of teaching is now completed and we begin another account of the Lord’s unfolding ministry. Remember, narrative and teaching alternate in the Gospel of Matthew. It is Matthew’s way of organizing his material. There is some teaching, of course, in the narrative sections, as we will see in our text this morning, but it is teaching called forth by and immediately related to events. In a way, given Matthew’s way of organizing his material, 11:1 should really be the last verse of chapter 10.

What we have in chapters 11 and 12, the next narrative section, is some representative accounts of different responses to the Lord’s ministry. In other words, we are given to see how others saw Jesus and how they responded to him. In this next section, chapters 11 and 12, most of the responses are unbelieving, but we begin with a believing response though confused and uncertain.

v.3       Though John had identified Jesus as the Messiah already, as we read in chapter 4, now doubts have begun to rise in his mind. These uncertainties were due to the discrepancy between his expectations of what the Messiah would be and do and what Jesus was himself doing. Where was the baptism with fire and with the Holy Spirit that John had prophesied would come with the arrival of the Messiah?  John had said, in 4:12, that when the Coming One arrived his “winnowing fork would be in his hand and he would clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn while burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Where was the cataclysm? Where was the fiery judgment of the wicked? Where was the vindication of the righteous before the entire world?

v.5       The Lord’s reply to John’s disciples is an unmistakable reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1. His point was that what he was doing, though it may not have been what John was expecting, was precisely what Holy Scripture had prophesied the Servant of the Lord would do. John was expecting fireworks, but the Scripture had prepared God’s people to expect a more complex ministry from the Messiah and much gentleness as well as judgment.

v.6       There were many, of course, who did stumble over Jesus. The ministry of compassion to the needy was irrelevant to those who expected the Messiah to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression and “good news to the poor” was an offense to the religious establishment. The Gospels are a record, as is human history since, of men rejecting Jesus because he did not bring them what they wanted and thought they needed. [France, 193]

v.7       “A reed swayed by the wind?” One of the things that attracted the multitudes to John had been his fiery and rugged independence.

v.8       “Fine clothes in king’s palaces?” John was no establishment lackey. He was a prophet of God, a man apart. He was in prison, after all, because he had the temerity to criticize the King.

v.10     Jesus makes the identification explicit: John was the messenger of Malachi 3:1, the forerunner of the Messiah.

v.11     But, great as John was, he was a forerunner, a herald. He did not participate himself, he did not himself experience the demonstrations of the reign and power of God that came with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. He worked no miracle; so far as we know he saw no miracle. The Lord’s statement should not be taken as a comparison between the respective spiritual conditions of the faithful in the OT and the NT, as if every NT Christian is superior to every OT believer, but between living in a time of spiritual anticipation, of waiting and hoping, on the one hand, and living in a time of the Spirit’s power and the demonstration of the salvation of God on the other.

v.12     The verse is difficult to translate and can be taken either as the NIV has it, as a reference to the forceful advance of the kingdom of God since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – that is clearly the meaning that Luke gives to the saying in Luke 16:16 – or, rather, as a reference to the violence the Lord’s ministry had suffered from those who opposed it. In that case the verse refers to the reality of persecution, a statement Jesus includes here because John is in prison and is someone who is suffering for the kingdom’s sake.

v.13     The era of waiting is over – at least in one sense; of course we wait for the second coming just as the saints of the ancient epoch waited for the first coming of the Messiah – and the era of fulfillment, what Paul calls the consummation of the ages, has come. John was a man of the first era, not the second.

v.14     The prophets, including John, waited for the appearance of the Messiah; now he has come. John is so much the prophet, in his role as the immediate forerunner of the Messiah; he so completes the office of prophet as a pointer to Christ, that he could be called Elijah, who was the representative OT prophet. Malachi had said that Elijah would come just before the appearance of the Messiah and he meant the prophet would come. There was, in those days, a popular expectation of Elijah’s return before the appearance of the Messiah, but, as with Jesus, John’s ministry did not correspond to the expectations of the people and so most missed his significance and did not identify him as the one whom Malachi had foretold.

v.17     Jesus takes an example from life, from children playing at weddings and at funerals. They played but their playmates didn’t dance. The other children wouldn’t cooperate in their games. Well so with both John and Jesus. They had different emphases but the crowds were pleased with neither. They rejected John and his message because he was an ascetic; they rejected Jesus because he was not. “They would neither repent with John nor rejoice with Jesus.” [Morris, 286]  John is too holy; Jesus is not holy enough. [Hagner, i, 311]  They found a reason to reject God’s message no matter how it came to them.

But the final sentence holds the key. In the end the proof is the eating and John and Jesus, and so those who follow them, will be vindicated. That they spoke and acted for God will be made plain to all.

This uncertainty on the part of John the Baptist takes us by surprise. John, as we read earlier in the Gospel, had confidently identified Jesus as the Messiah at the very outset of the Lord’s ministry. He had baptized him, as you remember, and declared that Jesus of Nazareth was the one to whom his own ministry had pointed. He was the greater one that was coming, the one who would baptize not with water but with the Spirit and with fire. He was, John said, the one the thong of whose sandals John was not worthy to tie. But now John is in prison and he isn’t as sure about Jesus as he once was. How can this be? How can Elijah, the courageous and unflappable prophet, who by divine inspiration knew once to recognize the Son of God and to say that Jesus must increase but he himself must decrease; how can he of all people now be unsure that Jesus is in fact the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?  Remember, John was the one who had said that very thing about Jesus.

But you see, it is precisely the fact that it was John the Baptist, the greatest man born of woman save one, who came to have these doubts that makes this narrative so vitally important and personally compelling for us today. If John could struggle with doubts; if the Lord’s greatest prophet could be unsure of what he himself had once prophesied, how much more may we expect that ordinary believers, such as you and I, will struggle with doubts. Indeed, how much more will we struggle with the same kind of doubts.

In fact, it is not too much to say that John in vv. 2 and 3 is a picture of every Christian to some degree and a picture of many Christians much of the time. His doubts, his uncertainties were of precisely the type that bedevil, confuse, weaken, trouble, and dismay believers today. Jesus did not meet his expectations and, in the same way, the Lord’s failure to meet our expectations, to do what we think he would do, should do, lies at the bottom of a great many of our doubts and confusions. John expected that the Messiah, the Coming King, would judge the wicked, that he would conquer all his enemies, that he would vindicate his kingdom before the eyes of the world. He no doubt expected that the triumph of the kingdom of God would be sudden, immediate, and catastrophic upon the appearance of the Son of David.

But, in fact, the progress of Jesus’ ministry was very different. Jesus was preaching repentance, much the same message that John had himself preached. His ministry was that of an itinerant preacher, not the pomp and circumstance of the King of Kings. But it was not entirely clear that Jesus was any more successful a preacher than John had been. Crowds were flocking to him, to be sure, but the religious leadership stood aloof and most people were more enamored of the help that Jesus could give them than the message he was proclaiming to them. Jesus was going around doing good to the needy, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, curing lepers. These were wonderful things no doubt and the way in which he did them more than spectacular, but the world was going on much as it had before. Jesus was being widely spoken against especially by the religious leadership. Opposition to Jesus was growing. John would have learned this from the reports he had received. John himself was languishing in prison, which hardly seemed a proper place for the Messiah’s forerunner and herald. It seemed to John that nothing was turning out the way it was supposed to.

And, without a doubt, the same confusion, the same uncertainty troubled the minds of Christians, even Christian leaders in the days following Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had descended, the gospel was being preached with power, but in many places and over time the church was beset with opposition, often made relatively little progress in reaching the masses, and then began to have internal problems that set Christian over against Christian and weakened the movement. Its greatest leaders, the apostles themselves, suffered martyrdom in most cases and still the heavens remained as brass above the Christians who were looking up, waiting for the return of Jesus Christ in triumph and glory.

And so it has continued ever since. The world in many ways does not obviously look as Christians might expect for it to look nor do their lives turn out as Christians might expect them to turn out, believing as they do that Christ is seated on a throne at the Right Hand and is ruling over all things on behalf of the church. The Chinese pastor who, this morning, awakened to another Sunday in prison, perhaps another of some years of Sundays in prison, wonders why, despite his prayers, he remains, as John the Baptist before him, languishing in the loneliness of a prison cell. The Sudanese Christian father who has lost his wife and children to kidnapping at the hands of Muslim militia may very well be tempted to wonder precisely what it means that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and that his kingdom has come, when he himself lives under the boot of anti-Christian forces. The Pakistani or Iraqi Christian who lives quietly in a sea of Muslims who have no sympathy for his faith and are sure that Christianity is nothing more than a passing and now superseded stage of world development along the way to the final triumph of Islam and its world-wide rule – he may well wonder just where the winnowing fork is that the Messiah was to have in his hand and just how the Messiah was establishing justice on the earth as the Scripture said he would.

And so it is for you and me in the more mundane and ordinary circumstances of our lives. What is it that tries our faith more than anything else? Is it not that the Lord Christ does not do for us and give to us what we expect that he would and should, given his power and his love?

How many of us have thought to ourselves at one time or another that, were we God, we would certainly do things very differently. If I were Christ, I have thought, I would make many more people Christians, dramatically and wonderfully transform the lives of countless multitudes of unbelievers and conclusively prove to the world in this way day after day the truth and the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If I were Christ, I would see to it that my followers to a far greater degree rode on the heights of the land and fed on the inheritance of their father Jacob. I would want it to be the clearest and most undeniable fact in the world that Christians prosper for their faith in Jesus Christ. I would make sure that Christians are the healthiest, happiest, most prosperous, most worthy, most fruitful, most attractive people in the world. I would want everyone to be able to see that committing one’s life to Christ is the only sure strategy for living that life everyone knows is the life that human beings ought to live and long to live.

I would certainly not, I have thought to myself, allow the forerunner of the King of Kings to languish alone in prison and then suddenly to be beheaded to satisfy the spite of a worthless, no account woman. I would not allow vast multitudes of human beings to ignore or positively despise the Son of God and think nothing of what he had done to save sinners. Still less would I allow them to ignore him all their lives long and die in their beds utterly unconcerned that they did not know or trust in Jesus Christ.

And, then, I have thought, I would not allow what God allows on every hand, the private trials and heartbreaks that so beset the lives of even the finest and most faithful Christians. Every serious Christian agonizes over this at one time or another: why can’t I surmount this particular sin in my heart and life when Christ’s salvation means I am no longer a slave of sin? Why can’t I make my marriage work better? If Christ’s kingdom has come into this world, then surely Christians, of all people, surely the followers of Christ would not lose their babies to death at the very headwaters of their lives; they would not fall prey to disease while still young; they would not lose their minds when they got old.

On our recent trip by car back from New York City, we stopped to see Florence’s parents in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I tell you it was heart-breaking. When I walked in the care-center where they both now live, though they were sitting almost directly in front of me, in a kind of living room near the front door, I didn’t recognize either of them. So much have they changed; so great a toll have recent years taken on them. They remember some things but have forgotten a great deal of their former lives. Having a conversation with them in hard work. Dad is deaf, as many of you know; he doesn’t see very well either nowadays and his world has, as a result, gotten very small. He has great difficulty reading lips or even reading words you have written on a tablet. Mother cannot remember from day to day whether she has children.

Something interesting happened however. Florence had her father read Psalm 91 to her mother while we were there. He was reading the line

“You will not fear the terror of night nor the arrow that flies
by day, nor the…

And he stumbled over the next word trying to make it out. Out of her mental fog mother prompted him: “pestilence,” she said;  “nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness…” She’s a Christian. The Word is in her heart. Somewhere deep inside her the great 91st Psalm is still sounding. But from moment to moment this dear woman lives in confusion, uncertainty, and thick mists of the mind. Even when we spoke to them of Christ and salvation, it was hard for them to grasp what we were saying or to realize for themselves the hope that lay in the grace of God that had accompanied them all their way through this world. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it to the full. Where is that abundant life in the lives of those two old Christians who sit in silence day after day having to be cared for like little children?

Is it really any different when people wonder about the kingdom of God because they do not see what they thought they surely would see in their own lives or the lives of their loved ones; is it really any different from the confusion and the uncertainty that troubled John the Baptist as he sat day after day in that prison wondering where was the evidence of the winnowing fork and the baptism with fire?

And if our doubts today are akin to his, is not the answer the Lord gave as decisively helpful to us today as it was no doubt to John the Baptist in his day?

That answer came in three parts:

  1. First, Jesus said, however much what you see may not have been what you expected, it is, in fact, what Holy Scripture taught you to expect. In John’s case the Lord reminded him from Isaiah that the gentle ministry of preaching and healing and caring for the needy was also part of the Messiah’s ministry. Judgment is as well, to be sure, but in its own time. And so in our case. The Lord made it clear enough in his teaching that the Master would go on a long journey and would be slow to return. He told his disciples that through many tribulations they must inherit the kingdom of God. There is no difficulty, no disappointment we face that the Lord did not prepare us for. The world in which we live may not be in all respects the world we wish for or we expected, but it is not a different world than that described for us in Holy Scripture. The Lord has not played fast and loose with his people. He has been honest with us about what lies ahead. The Scripture honestly and accurately describes our life with all its trouble and difficulties. There was always going to be spiritual warfare for the followers of Christ.


  1. Second, Jesus said to John and says to us that while certain aspects of his reign and rule are invisible in this world – the wicked and unbelieving still very largely ignore the Maker of heaven and earth; there is no fear of God before their eyes – he has not by any means left himself without a witness. Everywhere you look you see his grace and mercy in the lives of people. The Lord drew attention to the divine blessing that he was bringing to the poor, the sick, and the needy and we can see the very same things today. Amidst the unbelief and the opposition today, people are coming to faith in Christ, lives are being transformed, broken hearts are being mended, sinful lives purified, darkened hearts filled with light. We have seen this and see it today. If all that we want Christ to do is not yet being done, it remains true that he is nevertheless doing a great deal, a great deal that only he could do.

If only people came into this sanctuary bearing the evidence of Christ’s love and work in their lives. New Christians glowing so brightly we could hardly stand to look at them, a repentant believer glowing slightly less brightly, and one whom God is bearing with patiently glowing even less brightly we would realize how much Christ is at work in grace and salvation in this world. And if, contrarily, we could see the deep darkness of those upon whom his judgment is resting, we would not doubt the advance of his kingdom.

  1. And, third, as the Lord told John the Baptist, one cannot judge the ministry of the Messiah by what one sees at present. There is more to come. Christianity is pointed toward a future that God has promised in his Word and that Jesus Christ, by his life, death, and resurrection, has made certain. “Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” The vindication, public and undeniable, will come for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ. The day is coming when the entire world will know and will confess, willingly or unwillingly, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. So much of faith in this world is waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, for the future to unfold according to the Word of God.


But so much has already happened in the world, supremely the resurrection of the Lord Christ, to assure us that the rest will come in time: the second coming, the judgment of the wicked, the deliverance of the faithful, the eternal life that God has promised and Christ has won for the people of God.

Wisdom is proved right by her actions. The world will someday confess that those who followed Christ faithfully were the wise and those who did not the foolish. People may not know this now; but they will in time; they will.

If only we could see heaven in the distance behind every Christian – how differently we would think about the trials of our lives. If we could somehow see the march of time toward the return of Christ, how breathlessly we would await the day, almost forgetting about our troubles in the meantime.

We have before us this morning, therefore, a beautiful, honest, helpful account of the reality of doubt and the antidote for it in a Christian heart. If John could doubt, then let us accept the likelihood that we shall as well. But hear the Lord Jesus tell his prophet, his forerunner, his friend, that there is no need to doubt; we have reason enough to be sure that those who trust in Christ will not be disappointed.