Privileged by the Kingdom's Presence
May 14, 2023 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew
Passage: Matthew 11:7–15
John the Baptist is in prison. He hears about the deeds of Jesus. So, John sends word to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come?” Basically, “Are you the Messiah, the Savior, or shall we look for another?”
The question puzzles us, since John already knows so much about Jesus. Is this John doubting? Is he growing impatient with how slow the kingdom comes? What’s clear is that John hadn’t put all the pieces together. So, Jesus sends a message: “Go tell John the blind receive sight…the lame walk…lepers are cleansed”—Jesus is the Messiah, in other words. But Jesus also touches where John needs the more understanding: “blessed is the one not offended by me.” “What’s important, John, isn’t your immediate release from prison, but that you stick with me, that you stay true to me.”
If that’s all we had, we may wonder what to think of John the Baptist? If he’s wavering, do John’s questions mean we disregard his message? Jesus doesn’t think so. Rather, Jesus goes on to emphasize John’s greatness. In the process, we also learn more about Jesus’ identity and the privilege we have in belonging to Jesus’ kingdom. Let’s see what Jesus says about John and what that implies for him and for us. Verse 7…
7 As they [John’s disciples] 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
In 3:5, we learn that all sorts of people went out to hear John the Baptist. “From Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan”—crowds traveled to the wilderness to hear John. Shocking, I know! No air conditioning, childcare, or coffee, yet crowds are going to hear John preach. John preached a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”—Matthew 3:2. But he also pointed to Jesus: “[the one who] is coming after me is mightier than I”—Matthew 3:11. Many gathered to hear this message. Some were even baptized and confessed their sins.
That wasn’t true for all, however. Many remain skeptical. And that’s who Jesus addresses now. How easy it would’ve been for these skeptics to hear of John—the bold preacher of the coming kingdom of peace, now locked up and uncertain. How easy it would’ve been to dismiss John. But that would’ve been a grave mistake—according to Jesus anyway. To dismiss John would not only dismiss one of the greatest of all; but it would also mean they miss the salvation offered in Jesus and his kingdom.
So, Jesus grabs their attention with a series of questions. Verse 7, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Some take this literally. The point would be, “Of course you didn’t go out to see something as familiar as grass bending in the breeze. You went to see someone great.” But you could also take this “reed” metaphorically. A reed blowing in the wind could represent a man tossed about. Did they go out to see an unstable teacher, a man with no backbone? No, just listen to his preaching in 3:2-12. John is not swayed by the crowd. He’s bold in truth. They know this.
So, he asks again, “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?” Luke 7:25 uses “splendid clothing,” describing those who “live in luxury.” If you wanted a fancy man with riches, perhaps someone closer to the political powers of that day, then obviously you don’t go to the wilderness. Jesus says, “Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Also, 3:4 tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hear and a leather belt. Hardly impressive! Yet they went to hear.
So, again Jesus asks, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Jesus is helping the crowds not suppress the truth about John. They know he’s at least a prophet—he was dressed like a prophet, spoke like a prophet, acted like a prophet. But Jesus wants them to see more. And it’s here that Jesus adjusts the crowd’s perspective on John’s ministry and all that comes with it.
John’s Greatness as Forerunner to the Messiah
First, Jesus explains John’s greatness as forerunner to the Messiah. Notice his point in verse 10: “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
That’s a quote from Malachi 3:1, over 500 years prior to John. Israel is on this side of the Exile. God was faithful to bring them back to the land. But as time rolls on and God’s promises seem slow and evil persists, the people grow cold toward God. They no longer take God seriously. Instead of devoting themselves to the covenant, they grow cynical. They start complaining. You see this in Malachi 2:17, when they weary God with their complaints: “Where is the God of justice?” they say. “It’s almost like he delights in these evildoers being around. Where is he?”
To that question, God answers: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Prepare for what? Well, he goes on to say that God would come to purify his people like a refiner’s fire—that’s not comfortable. He also plans to judge the wicked. In other words, the people were complaining that God wasn’t acting fast enough. But this messenger comes to say, “You better be careful. I’m not so sure you’re ready to meet God. You need to prepare for him!”
Jesus applies this prophecy to John. John had come preaching repentance like other prophets had. John is preparing the way as other prophets had. What makes him different, more, greater? Jesus. What is Jesus implying about himself? Did you notice the shift in language? Malachi says, “he will prepare the way before me”—God is talking. Jesus says, “who will prepare your way before you,” with “you” being the Messiah. Which is it, “me” as in Yahweh or “you” as in Messiah? Yes! The Messiah embodies the coming of God. Jesus implies that he is the Lord himself coming to refine his people and judge the wicked. This makes John greater than all the others. He’s the final, end-time prophet to usher in the coming of God in Jesus.
No prophet, priest, or king in Israel ever had such a privilege. That’s why Jesus will go on in verse 11 to say, that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” He’s not speaking in categories of John’s moral greatness or John’s good leadership qualities. John is greater than all in terms of the unique role he plays as forerunner to the Messiah. He gets the privilege of seeing more revelation than any before him—more than Abraham, Moses, David, and all the rest.
You’ll also notice in verse 14 how Jesus says, “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you’re willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” That too recalls Malachi’s prophecy. The prophet goes on to announce how a “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…But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” Again, Malachi anticipates this day when God will come to save his people and judge the wicked.
But before that day, Malachi 4:5 adds this: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Elijah? God took Elijah centuries before. Is this Elijah sent back down from heaven? More likely, Malachi is using Elijah as a type, a picture pointing forward. Just like the Old Testament anticipates a new and better Moses or a new and better David, so also here Malachi anticipates a new and better Elijah. The Elijah of old points forward to a greater Elijah.
And here Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it, John the Baptist is Elijah who is to come.” Now, it’s also true that John the Baptist denies being Elijah in John 1:21. But perhaps that’s best understood as John still not seeing the full picture or, perhaps, distancing himself from the more literal expectations of his day. Jesus sees the fuller picture. Jesus knows who John is and why he has come.
That’s also why we encounter so many parallels between Elijah and John the Baptist. Think about it. In 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah is wearing a garment of hair, with a belt of leather. John wears the same in Matthew 3:4. In 2 Kings 2:13, Elijah designates his successor at the Jordan River; and in Matthew 3:13, John baptizes Jesus at the Jordan. In 2 Kings, Elijah’s successor is greater; and in the Gospels Jesus is greater than John. In 1 Kings 19:2, an evil woman seeks to kill Elijah and later in Matthew 14:8, an evil woman sentences John to death. These aren’t mere coincidences. They’re designed to alert us to the fact that John has come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).
That means the day of God’s coming reign has started in the person and ministry of Jesus. John’s place in redemptive history is greater than all who preceded him because he gets to introduce the Messiah. Others announced the Messiah, but never did the Messiah come during the ministries of those prophets. John experiences more revelation than anyone prior. That’s what makes John so great. His greatness hinges on Jesus and pointing others to God’s self-revelation in Jesus.
Our Greater Privilege in the Age of Fulfillment
But would you believe me if I said that you, Church, are even greater than John? Would you believe Jesus? That brings us to a second way Jesus adjusts our perspective: our greater privilege in the age of fulfillment. Look at verse 11 again: “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 [John].”
Who is “the least” in the kingdom of heaven? A very old interpretation reads “least” in the sense of “younger” and views this as a reference to Jesus—Jesus is greater than John. It’s true that Jesus is greater than John, but that doesn’t fit the broader point Jesus is trying to make. Maybe you think “least” in terms of levels within the kingdom. Didn’t Jesus say, “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments…will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19)? The problem there is that Jesus uses a different word in 11:11; and it happens to be the same word applied multiple times to Jesus’ disciples in general—“the little ones,” “the least of these.”
The least, then, seem to include all Jesus’ disciples. If you belong to the kingdom of heaven, then you’re greater than John. His point isn’t making a statement about John’s salvation, but about the new age of fulfillment that is replacing the old age of promise. John ministers at the tail-end of that old age of promise; and in that age, there was no one greater than John. But those who experience the new age of fulfillment, those who stand on this side of the progress of God’s saving plan—you are greater than John.
John was instrumental (the greatest!) in pointing out the Messiah and the dawning of his kingdom. He was able to say things like, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But John died before Jesus sealed the new covenant in his blood. John knew the shadows of the good things to come, but he never experienced their substance while still alive. He still belonged to that old age when sacrifices had to be made continually, because they were unable to make perfect those who draw near. John never experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection life. He never saw the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile torn down by Jesus’ blood. He never experienced the outpoured Spirit after Pentecost. He never witnessed the gospel spreading to all nations.
But you do—if you belong to Jesus. And in that sense, you are greater than John the Baptist. You have experienced more revelation than John. How does Jesus say it to his disciples later in Matthew 13:16-17? “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Along similar lines, listen to 1 Peter 1:10-12. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
Have you heard the gospel of Jesus? Have heard about the forgiveness of sins? Have you experienced the Holy Spirit awakening your heart? Do you sit in the women’s Bible Study on Monday nights and connect Joshua’s words to Jesus? Do you meet in care groups and discuss the assurance of resurrection? In the grand sweep of redemptive history, you’re part of something huge, great! The greatest of all ages is here, because Jesus has come and inaugurated the kingdom of heaven.
Suffering Persists as Jesus’ Kingdom Advances
We’ll come back to this in a minute. We need to address one more way that Jesus adjusts our perspective. Suffering will persist as Jesus’ kingdom advances. Last Sunday, Ben helped us to see this with respect to John’s imprisonment. If the King is finally here, why aren’t John’s circumstances changing? Jesus answers that in part by telling John, “Blessed are those not offended by me.”
But a fuller answer comes in verse 12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This not an easy verse to understand. As some homework, you could pull up a few English translations, compare them, and you will notice differences. Part of the difficulty is whether to translate the verb behind “suffered violence” as middle or passive voice. The ESV uses the passive voice in the main text. But it recognizes the middle voice in a footnote: “the kingdom of heaven has been coming violently.”
Another issue to sort out is whether the terms should be read in a positive or negative sense. Luke 16:16 comes into play with that discussion, because Luke seems to record Jesus using the verb in a positive sense. “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom is preached, and everyone forces [that’s our verb] his way into it.” So, there’s some homework for you to consider.
My own take is to go with the middle voice, represented by the footnote in the ESV. Meaning, I think Jesus is making a point about the kingdom of heaven advancing forcefully—not in the sense of earthly, military conquest but in the sense of the sword of Jesus’ word prevailing, the truth tearing down spiritual strongholds, the gospel liberating people from evil. That’s not far from what Luke 16:16 has—it’s just that Luke 16:16 speaks of this in terms of the good news being preached. As the good news is being preached, the kingdom of heaven continues its onward march, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (cf. Matt 16:18-19).
But as that happens—Jesus says in the rest of verse 12—“the violent take it by force.” Meaning, there’s an inevitable conflict that arises. Jesus just finished teaching his disciples about that conflict in chapter 10. The disciples would preach the kingdom of heaven, and wicked men would drag them into court and sentence them to death. They would be like sheep amidst wolves. John the Baptist himself is already in prison—and we learn later, that’s because he brought the will of Jesus to bear on Herod’s adultery.
So, we have an incredible privilege on this side of the kingdom’s coming. But never should we get the idea that belonging to Jesus’ kingdom will mean a life of ease and comfort. When the new age of the kingdom breaks into the old order, you bet there will be conflict. Violent men will oppose you and try to stop you.
So, what should we do with these things? Jesus finishes with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Next Sunday, Ben will teach on some groups of people that chose to do nothing with Jesus’ words. Hearing, they did not hear—and it won’t go well for them in judgment. What will you do with these words?
Jesus forces us to consider several things. One, he forces us to consider if we’re prepared to meet the Lord. Again, Jesus used Malachi’s prophecy to identify John. Recall what the people were doing. They looked at the evil around them and said, “Where is the God of justice?” The complaint is that God needs to be more present—he needs to come and act now! But here’s the thing—they don’t really know what they’re asking for. All they see is God coming taking care of the bad guys out there…all the while, they’re overlooking the bad guy in here. They’re not ready to meet the Lord. The Lord tells them, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” “I will draw near to you for judgment,” he says.
That’s why God must send a messenger to prepare the way. They’re not ready to meet the Lord. Are you? Is your disposition like that of Israel? Are you good at seeing all the evil out there and raising your complaint, “God where are you? Come and deal with them already!” But at home, things aren’t right; in your thought life, things aren’t right; in your devotion to God’s word, God’s people, things aren’t right. Is that you?
The messenger has come. That messenger announced the coming of God. But how great is his mercy, that before the day of judgment and fire, God comes to save. In the person of Jesus, God still brings his judgment. But for those who listen to John’s message, for those who acknowledge Jesus as coming Lord and Messiah, your judgment has already passed—it passed because it fell instead on Jesus at the cross. It is by coming to Jesus and trusting his sacrifice to make you clean that you prepare. It’s by confessing that Jesus is Lord, and arranging your life around him, that you prepare.
But also recognize this: if you confess that Jesus is Lord and let him have the say in your life, expect suffering. That’s number two: expect suffering as you participate in the kingdom’s advance. There is a tendency in the West to treat values like safety and comfort as absolute rights. Safety is such a normal expectation that we’ve sometimes hindered basic Christian discipleship. The worst examples come with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” which teaches that God wants you healthy and wealthy. But more subtle is when Christians operate as if God owes us protection from suffering. Or when one of our first concerns is not “How can we enter their lives?” but “Will it be safe?”
Combine that with some of the freedoms in our Constitutional Republic, the rule of law, the historical influence of Christian morality, it’s very easy to grow up in the faith thinking that following Jesus is safe and comfortable and easy.
But Jesus teaches his disciples the opposite. To belong to his kingdom will mean suffering. So be careful not to embrace the underlying assumptions of our culture. Guard yourself from any sense of entitlement to safety and comfort. Also, as you’re helping others to mature in Jesus, remind them of Jesus’ teaching on the conflict involved. Teach them about the cost of discipleship. Tell them stories of what it has cost you or others you’ve read about. Help them see how everyday with Jesus isn’t always easy, how true love is rarely convenient, and how faithfulness comes with hardship.
Number three, we’re forced to see that greatness hinges on Jesus and pointing others to Jesus. Listen to these words from D. A. Carson—I’ll quote him at length because I found it so helpful. He says, “We must see that the deepest Christian criteria for self-assessment, individually or corporately, are not the criteria of the world.” Then he asks, “What makes you great in your mind? What gives you your importance, your significance? [Is it] your family? Your education? Your income? Your race? The comfort zone in this church? Your understanding of Scripture? The size of your library? The bigness of your car? Your muscles? Your strength? Your beauty? Your experience? ...Is that what makes you significant?…Nope.”
Carson then says, “Christian criteria for self-assessment are, first of all, radically Christ-centered—we know him. And secondly, they entail witness to him—we point him out. In other words, if verse 11 (the second part), is on the same plane as verse 11 (the first part),” he says, “then what makes us great is not just that we have the privilege of being Christians, but that we bear witness to Christ with greater clarity and immediacy than all those who came before us, including John the Baptist…All Christians…live at a place in time in redemptive history where the very core of our significance is bound up with the enormous privilege of bearing witness to Jesus Christ.”[i]
Do you assess your greatness this way? It’s so easy for us to drift the other way, isn’t it? To take on the world’s criteria for greatness, and start measuring ourselves by power, wealth, attractiveness, success. But that’s not Jesus’ criteria.
This isn’t far from what happens in Luke 10:20. The seventy-two return from their mission. They’re excited. They say, “Even demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus says, “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” That’s what matters most—that you belong to me. Jesus always brings us back to the core. Greatness hinges on him and pointing others to him.
Finally, in moments of weakness, rest assured that Jesus stands by you. It wasn’t too long ago that we heard Jesus say this. Matthew 10:32, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven…” That’s a promise. Don’t we see that playing out here with John?
John has acknowledged Jesus before men. Now we get a picture of Jesus acknowledging John. But even more beautiful is how Matthew doesn’t hesitate to show us John’s struggle, John’s confusion, John’s need for understanding. We catch John in a moment of weakness, perhaps doubt and impatience. And all the while, Jesus never leaves John to himself. Jesus stands with John, continues teaching John, supporting John, and commending John where he’s been faithful. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in moments of doubt and confusion lately. Maybe you look back and wish you would’ve done things differently. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. Jesus isn’t done with you. He sees where you’ve been faithful in the past. Jesus stands by those who concern themselves with his work, his mission, his glory. He will teach and guide and support you. Rest there, beloved.
[i] D. A. Carson, “What Makes You Great (Matthew 11:2-19),” The Gospel Coalition (February 24, 2006), accessed https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/sermon/what-makes-you-great-matthew-11-2-19/.
More in The Gospel According to Matthew
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