In chapter 10 the Lord spoke to his twelve apostles about their mission at that time and how they should expect opposition and persecution. So, be on your guard against men, he said, because they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me. When you’re persecuted in one place, flee to another. And so, he warned them about persecution. But he also reassured them that whoever acknowledges him before men, he will acknowledge before God the Father. And he who stands firm to the end will be saved. So, they can expect trouble on account of him, but they’re to persevere and stand firm and fulfil their mission. And in the end, if they do not give up the faith, they will be saved.
We might have expected Matthew to go on and tell us the result of their mission at that time. So, were they persecuted? Did anyone receive them? Did anyone believe? But instead of doing that, Matthew simply goes on in chapters 11 and 12 to record for us the mixed response to the Lord’s ministry. For instance, in today’s passage, we read about John the Baptist who sent some of his disciples to find out whether the Lord Jesus is the one who was to come. It seems John wasn’t too sure and he was puzzled by the Lord. And then after today’s passage, the Lord complained about the response of the people to both John the Baptist and to himself, because the people complained about both John and Jesus. And the Lord goes on in verse 20 to denounce the cities he had visited because they did not repent at his message. And in chapter 12 the Pharisees complained because it seemed to them that the Lord and his disciples were breaking the Sabbath day. And then they accused him of driving out demons by the power of Satan. And some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law came to him to ask for a sign, because they did not believe and they wanted him to prove himself to them. So, there were many who did not believe in him.
But then the Lord also spoke about the little children — he’s referring to humble, lowly people — who have received the knowledge of the truth from God the Father. And at the end of chapter 12, the Lord spoke about those who do God’s will and who belong to his family. So, while they were many who did not believe, there were clearly some who did believe. And it’s always the same, isn’t it? There are many who do not believe, but there are always some who do believe.
That’s what chapters 11 and 12 are about and we’ll concentrate today on verses 1 to 15 of chapter 11 where the Lord speaks to us about John the Baptist.
Verses 1 to 6
According to verse 1, after the Lord finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. John the Baptist, who is now in prison, heard what he was doing. And he sent his disciples to find out whether the Lord Jesus is ‘the one who was to come’ or should they expect someone else?
We first read about John the Baptist in chapter 3, where we read that he preached that people should repent because the kingdom of heaven is near. And Matthew told us that John fulfilled what Isaiah had said about a voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. God the Lord was coming. He was coming in the person of his Son. And John was sent to prepare the way for him. And so, he made clear that while he, John, baptised with water, there is someone coming who is more powerful than him who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. When he mentions ‘fire’ he’s probably referring to God’s judgment. In that case, the one who is coming is coming to judge the people and to punish the wicked. And so, John taught the people that there was one who was to come; and he will come to judge and condemn.
And it now seems that John is puzzled by the Lord Jesus. On the one hand, the Lord Jesus seems to have come from God, because who else could do the mighty miracles the Lord Jesus had done but someone sent from God. On the other hand though, it doesn’t appear the Lord Jesus has come to judge and condemn. He hasn’t come with fire. He hasn’t come with thunderbolts from heaven. People are rising up to oppose him, but he’s not calling down fire from heaven to destroy God’s enemies. So, is the Lord Jesus the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?
And the Lord tells John’s disciples to go back to John and to report what they had heard about the Lord Jesus and what they had seen him do. And he refers them to his miracles: he healed the blind and the lame; he cured lepers and those with skin diseases; he healed the deaf; and he has even raised the dead. And as well as these miracles, the good news has been preached to the poor. The Lord’s words to John’s disciples echo several passages from the book of Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah 35 tells us about how the Lord will come and the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped and the lame will leap like a deer and the mute tongue will shout for joy. And Isaiah 61:1 describes the Lord’s Special Servant who is anointed with the Spirit to preach good news to the poor. By alluding to Isaiah, the Lord was telling John’s disciples that he has fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures. And so, he has truly been sent by God and he is indeed the one who was to come. In fact, he has exceeded their expectations, becauseIsaiah did not say anything about curing lepers or raising the dead. So, go and tell John’s disciples that I have done what God said he would do. I am the one who was to come.
Before moving on, it’s worth noting that Isaiah 35 speaks not only of the ways God will help his people, but it also speaks about God’s vengeance on his enemies. So, God will come to save and to destroy. What John did not realise is that the Lord Jesus will come, not just once, but twice. The first time he came, he came to save us by giving up his life on the cross. But when he comes again, he will come to judge the world and to condemn his enemies. So, John was right to expect judgment and fire, but he was wrong about the timing of God’s judgment. Christ came first to save.
And the Lord adds in verse 6 that those who do not fall away on his account will be blessed. He’s therefore telling John to believe that he is the one who was to come. He is God’s Special Servant sent to save God’s people. So believe in him and don’t doubt him.
Verses 7 to 10
After John’s disciples went away, the Lord began to speak about John and to praise him before the crowd. He asks the people what did they go out to see whenever they went into the desert to see John. He can’t be compared to a reed which is blown by the wind, because there was nothing weak about John. And he wasn’t a man dressed in fine clothes who spends his time in king’s houses. He lived in the wilderness and wore rough clothes like an Old Testament prophet. And so, what was he? Well, that’s exactly what he was. He was a prophet. He was like Elijah and Elisha, declaring the word of the Lord. But he was much more than a prophet, wasn’t he? Prophets were often sent by God to prophecy about things to come. But John was himself the fulfilment of prophecy. He fulfilled what God had said through Malachi about how the Lord would send his messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. So, John was the Lord’s messenger. He was called by God to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus. No other prophet in the Old Testament could make that claim. And therefore while he was a prophet, he was greater than all the other prophets because of his unique place in salvation history: John and John alone was the Lord’s forerunner.
And, if you glance down to verses 14 and 15, the Lord once again makes the point that John was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, because God announced through Malachi that Elijah would precede the coming of the Lord. And John is Elijah. He’s not Elijah re-incarnated, but he’s come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Verses 11 to 15
And so, the Lord praised John as the greatest of all prophets because of his unique place in salvation history. And he went on to say in verse 11 that among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John. In other words, up until that time in history, there was no one who was born who was greater than John. John was greater than everyone else. And he was greater than everyone else because of that unique place he had in salvation history. However — the Lord Jesus adds — he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Isn’t that a surprising thing to hear? John the Baptist was the greatest, but the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. How can that be?
Again it’s to do with John’s place in salvation history. You see, all of history can be divided into before and after: before and after the coming of the Lord; or before and after the coming of the kingdom of heaven. The coming of the Lord and the coming of the kingdom overlap one another, because the Lord Jesus is the king of God’s kingdom of heaven. And John belonged to the ‘before’ period. And those who now believe in the Lord Jesus and who become members of the kingdom of heaven belong to the ‘after’ period. And belonging to the ‘after’ period is so much better than belonging to the ‘before’ period.
Our studies in Hebrews help us here because the writer to the Hebrews was warning his readers not to give up their faith in Christ, who came into the world to establish the new covenant in his blood. Don’t give up your faith in Christ and don’t return to what? Don’t return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. Don’t go back to that, because the old covenant religion of the Old Testament dealt with earthly copies and shadows of the real thing. And the real thing has arrived with Christ, because he’s the real High Priest; and he offered himself as the real sacrifice for sins; and he has entered the real sanctuary which is heaven. And so, don’t go back to the earthly copies and shadows, because the real thing has arrived.
And John belonged to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. He was one of the prophets from that time. He was the greatest prophet, but he still belonged to that time, the time of earthly copies and shadows, the time of preparation, the ‘before’ time.
Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s words. He’s not saying John was not a believer and that he’s not now in heaven. He’s not saying that, because the Old Testament is full of true believers who are now in heaven. But every Old Testament saint belonged to the ‘before’ time, whereas we live in the ‘after’ time: after the coming of Christ. And to belong to the ‘after’ time is so much better than belonging to the ‘before’ time, because the ‘before’ time was about copies and shadows whereas now the reality has come.
And the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing since the days of John the Baptist and forceful men lay hold of it. The Lord’s words in verse 12 are difficult to interpret, but he can’t mean that his kingdom advances by force, because the Lord commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. The only weapon we’re to carry is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And so, I think he means that the kingdom of heaven is treated violently by violent men. In other words, he’s warning his people to expect persecution. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for his ministry and he would shortly lose his life; and the Lord warned his disciples to expect opposition and persecution. And as we’ll see, the Pharisees will soon be plotting how to kill the Lord Jesus.
And so, we’re always to expect opposition from those who do not believe. However, despite the opposition and persecution, the kingdom of heaven advances in the world. It advances in the world because God continues to reveal the truth to the little ones he has chosen; and he enables them to repent and to believe the good news so that they receive the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of everlasting life in God’s everlasting kingdom.