Connections 12.15.2019: Orientation

Matthew 11:2-15

Picture John the Baptist, leaning against a prison wall. For many months, he has worked tirelessly, pleading with people to repent and prepare for the One who is to come. He believes in this One; in fact, he has put all his hopes on this One. He has removed himself from society, living as an eccentric minimalist in the wilderness (Mt 3). He has given up the trappings of this world—work in a trade, family life, material possessions—for this One who is to come. He has devoted his days to preparing the way of the Lord.

John even met this One once, on the shores of the Jordan, in a striking moment when the Messiah asked him for baptism (Mt 3). He couldn’t believe it, but he did what Jesus asked and heard a voice from heaven. As far as John knows, Jesus is traveling around sharing beautiful, powerful, even revolutionary teachings with crowds of people (Mt 5–7). Oh, how John wishes he could sit there and listen too.

But as he leans against this cold, hard wall, something doesn’t seem quite right. If this is the One who is to come, why aren’t more things changing? Why is there still so much persecution and suffering? Why is John stuck in prison at the whim of Herod when he could still be calling people to repent? Why hasn’t this One come and helped him, maybe even invited him to assist with the new ministry? John knows he’s not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals (Mt 3:11), but he would be glad to serve him in any way.

So John begins to wonder if maybe this isn’t the One after all. Instead of sitting there simmering in doubt and disillusionment, he takes action. He sends his messengers to Jesus to ask him a very direct question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:3).

It’s a good question, saturated with disappointment and doubt but also with curiosity. We get to read Jesus’ answer in verses 4-6, and we can hope that John’s messengers quickly took these words back to their imprisoned friend. We can hope that their stories about the healings and other miracles refreshed and revived John’s spirit. We also get to read Jesus’ proud declaration of John’s gifts as a minister (vv. 7-15). I wonder if John ever knew how much Jesus thought of him.

Sadly, the next time we read about John in Matthew’s Gospel, he is still imprisoned by Herod and then beheaded, mocked in death with his head on a platter (Mt 14). The gravity of his death is clear in Jesus’ reaction to the news: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Mt 14:13a). He was grieved over John’s execution, and he wanted to be alone. While he was unable to have these quiet moments to himself, since the crowds followed him and he ended up multiplying the food supply to feed them, he did eventually get “up the mountain by himself to pray” (v. 23b).

John is an important part of the gospel story. He recognized Jesus when they were both still growing in their mothers’ wombs (Lk 1:41). He stuck by his certainty as he proclaimed the One who was to come. Only when he was nearing his own death did he begin to doubt, and Jesus rewarded his doubt with a powerful answer. John lived a life oriented toward Jesus Christ. What can we learn from his example of devotion, doubt, and sacrifice?

Discussion

• Often, we study John the Baptist’s story in bits and pieces: his miraculous conception to an older couple who thought they were unable to have children, his odd way of life, his fiery preaching, his baptism of Jesus, his imprisonment, and his death. After considering his whole story today, how would you describe this man?
• Why do you think he began to feel unsure about the man called Jesus?
• What makes John a good model for how to express our questions and doubts?
• When have you felt disillusioned or disappointed about matters of your faith? What did you do about those feelings, and what was the result?
• John’s earthly life doesn’t have a happy ending. He is brutally killed, and his body is disrespected after death. What difference does it make that his life was oriented toward Jesus Christ? What can we learn from him?

Reference Shelf

John’s query about Jesus’ identity comes from the period of time when he is in prison, and the query comes by means of John’s disciples. There is doubt about whether Jesus is the one who is to come or whether another after him or in addition to him should be expected. It would appear that the question arises because John expected the one who would follow him to be the one bringing the definitive judgment on Israel, although not without rescuing a certain remnant. Did John wonder if Jesus was the Elijah figure spoken of in Malachi 3:1? It is possible. If John did think this, Jesus quickly dismisses such an identification and replaces it with a more Isaianic vision of himself and his ministry. It is also possible that John was thinking about the Coming One referred to in Zechariah 9:9, which certainly shaped some messianic hopes at Qumran (cf. 1QS 9.11; 4QPBless.3). Jesus in any case did not seem to be carrying out judgment on Israel, though we are about to hear him pronounce a whole series of woes on certain cities. Rather, in fact, Jesus points out that he has been healing and helping people. If the emphasis in John’s message was coming judgment, the emphasis in Jesus’ ministry was on the in-breaking of God’s divine saving and rescuing activity.

It is interesting that the composite Scripture citing the response of Jesus consists of six brief clauses and a closing beatitude, which if translated back into Aramaic has a poetic form. It would appear that Jesus learned his Hebrew Scriptures, then rephrased them in his spoken Aramaic, combining various sayings together. The emphasis in this citation is on the present fulfillment during Jesus’ ministry of various Old Testament hopes. Jesus has his own vision of what messiah was to be about, for messiah as healer was not a regular part of the profile for such a role in early Judaism. Most interesting is that Jesus chooses to omit the portions of the texts he is citing that refer to judgment (see Isa 29:20; 35:5; 61:2). By contrast, not only are miracles done but good news is preached to the poor. The final beatitude is also interesting, suggesting as it does that how one reacts to Jesus now, in particular if one is scandalized by him now, if one stumbles or takes offense over him and his message now, will determine one’s standing at the eschatological judgment later. It would appear that this beatitude has John specifically in mind. Jesus hopes John will not give up viewing Jesus as the Coming One. Two final comments are important. This story makes clear that Jesus did not begin his ministry after John died, but rather before. Notice however that we do not hear how John responded to Jesus’ answer. The story is a biographical anecdote told for what it reveals to the reader about Jesus. It is not told for its own sake.

Matthew 11:7-11 makes clear that whatever doubts John may have had at one juncture about Jesus, Jesus had no doubts about John. He even calls him both more than a prophet and the “greatest person ever born,” a remark so stunning that it surely must be an authentic word of Jesus. If John was wondering if Jesus was the figure referred to in Malachi 3:1, Jesus scotches that rumor by making clear that it is John who fulfilled that role (see the citation of Mal 3:1 in v. 10). John, not Jesus, is the Elijah figure in question who is the one who goes before and prepares the way for the messianic figure. The remarks Jesus makes in vv. 7-11 are made to the crowd, and they confirm what we already knew—that John’s venue for his ministry was in the chalk wilderness near the Jordan, that the crowds came to him, and that his apparel was far from royal. So far as we know, unlike Jesus, John did not go around soliciting and selecting disciples.

But the saying we find in 11:7-8 has more to it than immediately meets the eye. Herod Antipas was the one who wore royal apparel in this region, and even more tellingly Jesus is critiquing Herod as a reed blown in the wind, moving whichever way the political wind was blowing. Even more striking is the fact that Herod used a reed as an emblem on his coins before AD 26, and Jesus surely would have seen such coins as a resident of Galilee. Jesus then is contrasting John with his captor, Herod Antipas. Jesus has nothing good to say about the latter, a vacillating and corrupt ruler who did not even hesitate to build his capital Tiberias on a Jewish graveyard, trampling on Jewish sensibilities. By contrast Jesus has only good things to say about John.

The question is—What does it mean to say John is both a prophet and more than a prophet? The most plausible answer is that he is seen as the final eschatological prophet who ushers in the final action of God for his people. This makes good sense, since it is clear Jesus believed the Dominion was already breaking in during his ministry. “The greatness of John thus implies something about the greatness of Jesus” (C. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999] 338). But what of the remark that John is the greatest human being ever born of a woman? Well, for one thing this is a contrast saying and so the remark does not stand alone. What Jesus goes on to say is that even the least person in the Dominion of Heaven is greater than John. The point of the saying then is that however great John is, and he is a great prophet, yet being able to be even the least of those who are in the eschatological Dominion is an even greater status, even in an honor and shame culture. This saying may suggest that at the time, Jesus did not think John was “in” the Dominion just yet, perhaps as a result of his doubts about Jesus. But this conclusion seems a bit too harsh in light of the next verse we must consider.

It turns out this saying in v. 11 is about two ways of evaluating the human condition—those born of women and those reborn into the Dominion of God. Jesus constantly makes clear that what one is by faith is much more important than what one is by physical birth, even though his culture believed one’s identity was largely determined by geography, gender, and generation (i.e., ethnicity). All else pales in comparison to the privilege of being able to participate in God’s Dominion. Perhaps Jesus has picked up and expanded on John’s contrast between what one is by birth and one’s status by repentance and faith.

The material in vv. 12-15 makes clear that John should be seen as a transitional and indeed a sort of epoch-making figure. Notice first that Jesus says in v. 12 that the Dominion of God began to break into history from the time of John. But what does one make of the second half of this verse? The verbs in the second half of this saying always imply physical violence as a means of coercion. The saying as we have it in Matthew seems to mean that the Dominion currently suffers violence and violent men plunder it. This may refer to the actions of Zealots seeking to force the kingdom to come by attacking Romans. But it is not Romans who are said here to suffer violence, but rather the Dominion. In light of the incarceration of John, the saying could mean John and perhaps Jesus had suffered from having violent men lay hands on them, in John’s case to try to silence him, in Jesus’ to try to make him king (cf. John 6:15). This is not impossible as a reading of the text. But if Jesus is using negative language to talk about a positive thing, he might mean former Zealots, outcasts, sinners were storming the gates of the Dominion and eagerly grabbing hold of its riches. This makes sense in light of the response of Jesus to John when he was in jail. It must be remembered that Jesus had at least one or two former zealots amongst the Twelve. In any case, this saying attests to the volatile atmosphere in Galilee in which Jesus and John operated. It also makes clear that Jesus sees the Dominion as a present entity that can be acted on. Since the Dominion is already present, the turn of the era has already come.

This helps us understand vv. 13-15 that state that the Law and Prophets were operative until and including John, and John is to be seen as the epoch-changing Elijah figure who brings that whole era to a close and opens the door on the new eschatological one (see below on 17:10-13). This makes sense in light of the sapiential treatment of the Elijah figure in Sirach 48:10. He was to come prior to the end of the era and help usher it in.

This saying means Jesus did not see his work as a mere extension or continuation of either John’s work or of the agendas of the Law and Prophets. The new eschatological time has arrived. New occasions do indeed teach new duties and prompt new commandments. Jesus has served up a sage’s riddles in vv. 11-14, and he stresses that the period of the Law and the Prophets is over. Notice the word “all” in the phrase “all the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John.” Now is the period of eschatological fulfillment of what the prophets previously announced, promised, and predicted. Verse 15 makes clear that one has to open his ears and cogitate on what is said to truly hear and understand what Jesus is saying. But this is typical of all wisdom material that is allusive and metaphorical and is meant to tease the mind into active thought.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2006) 230–34.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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