Chapters 11 and 12 of Matthew’s gospel record for us the mixed response to the Lord’s ministry. For instance, in verses 1 to 15 of chapter 11 — which we studied together right before I went on holiday — there was John the Baptist who was puzzled by the Lord. Was he the one who was to come? John was no longer sure and so he sent his disciples to the Lord Jesus to find out. And then, in today’s passage, the Lord refers to those who complained about both John and himself. And he also denounces those cities he had visited, where he had performed mighty miracles, but the people did not listen to him and they did not turn from their sin and unbelief. In chapter 12, the Pharisees complain about the Lord Jesus, because it seems to them that his disciples were breaking the Sabbath laws. And then they accused the Lord of driving out demons by the power of Satan. So, there were plenty of people who did not believe.
On the other hand, in today’s passage, the Lord also spoke about the little children — and he’s referring to humble, lowly people — who have received the knowledge of the truth. And at the end of chapter 12, he refers to those who do God’s will and who belong to his family of believers.
And so, while there are plenty of people who did not believe, there were others who did believe. And that’s always the case, because while there will always be many who do not believe and who are condemned, there will always be some who do believe and are saved.
Today’s passage can be divided into three parts: verses 16 to 19; verses 20 to 24; and verses 25 to 30.
Verses 16 to 19
In verses 16 to 19 the Lord compares the people of that generation, or the people around him, to little children who are playing in the market place. People gathered in the market place to buy and sell and to conduct business and to meet their friends. And it seems the children would also play there. The Lord described children who are complaining about some of the other children, because they won’t join in their games. Instead of joining in, they’re been difficult and uncooperative. What games were they playing? It seems likely that they were playing let’s pretend games. Let’s pretend we’re at a wedding and let’s pretend we’re at a funeral. When we’re pretending we’re at a wedding, we’ll play a happy tune on our flute so you can dance. When we’re pretending we’re at a funeral, we’ll play a sad tune so you can mourn.
But the second group of children won’t cooperate. So, when the happy tune was playing, they complained that they didn’t want to dance, but mourn. And when the sad tune was playing, they complained that they didn’t want to mourn, but dance. They were grumblers and complainers and they were never happy or satisfied.
And the Lord’s point is this. He’s saying that the people of that generation, the people around him, are like those difficult children. So, when John the Baptist came to them, they complained about him, because he followed a strict Nazirite diet so that he didn’t eat or drink what everyone else ate and drank. And the people looked at John and his odd diet and they didn’t like it. They said about him: ‘He has a demon.’ But when the Lord Jesus came to them, he was the opposite of John, because he didn’t follow a strict Nazirite diet and he ate and drank what everyone else ate and drank.
Now, if they disliked John because he didn’t eat or drink, then you’d think they’d like the Lord Jesus who did eat and drink. But no. Like those uncooperative children who grumbled and complained about every game, the people complained about the Lord Jesus. They said about him that he’s a glutton and a drunkard and he keeps bad company. We don’t want anything to do with him.
And so, what was that generation like? They were grumblers and complainers who grumbled and complained about John and who grumbled and complained about the Lord Jesus. They would not listen to John’s message for one reason; and they would not listen to the Lord’s message for the opposite reason. And it’s the same in every generation, because unless the Lord opens a person’s heart, that person will never believe, but will always find one reason after another for why they will not accept the good news.
Verses 20 to 24
In verses 20 to 24 the Lord denounces the cities where he had performed his mighty miracles, because the people did not repent.
He mentions Korazin and Bethsaida in verse 21 and Capernaum in verse 23. So, woe to Korazin and Bethsaida, because if the miracles which the Lord performed in those two cities had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, the people of Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago. Tyre and Sidon were foreign cities which had been denounced by prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel. But here’s the Lord saying that those people would have repented long ago if they had seen his miracles. And woe to Capernaum, because if the miracles which the Lord performed in that city had been performed in Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented long ago and those two cities would not have been destroyed. And, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah were renowned for their wickedness; and the Lord sent burning sulphur on them in the days of Abraham. But here’s the Lord saying that those wicked people would have repented long ago if they had seen his miracles.
And the point of making these two comparisons is to make clear the wickedness of the people of the Lord’s generation who had seen his miracles, which signified that he had come from God. And yet, they refused to listen to him and to turn from their sin and unbelief. And so, when the day of judgment comes, it will be more bearable for the people of Tyre and Sidon and of Sodom and Gomorrah than for the people of the Lord’s generation. The people of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah will still be condemned and punished for their sins, but their punishment will be less severe than the punishment inflicted on those other cities where the people saw the Lord and rejected him.
And the Lord’s words mean that greater revelation brings greater responsibility. God did not reveal himself to the people of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah as he revealed himself to the people of Korazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. And therefore Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged less severely than those to whom more has been revealed.
And, of course, people living today who do not believe are in a more perilous position, because God has revealed himself even more clearly now, because we’re living in the time after Christ’s death on the cross for sinners. By the cross, God has revealed as clearly as possible both his hatred of sin and his love for sinners. By the cross, he has made plain that the wages of sin is death, but salvation is available because of Christ our Saviour. And so, what will it be like for people today who know the message of the cross, but who have not repented and believed?
Verses 25 to 30
Greater revelation brings greater responsibility. But then the Lord goes on to praise his Father in heaven, because he has hidden these things from the wise and learned, but he’s revealed them to little children. When he refers here to ‘little children’, he’s referring to humble, lowly people. And humble, lowly people are likened to children, because just as children are dependent on their parents, so humble, lowly people know they must depend on God for all things, including their knowledge of the truth. Why does one person believe and another person doesn’t? It’s not a matter of wisdom and learning. That is, it’s not a matter of intelligence or education. It’s not a matter of natural ability. It’s due to God who graciously and freely reveals himself and his truth to his people.
And according to the Lord’s words in verse 27, God the Son reveals the Father. So, when he says that all things have been committed to him, he probably means all knowledge of God has been committed to him. In other words, he knows God. And he knows God the Father just as God the Father knows him. They have known each other from all eternity; and their knowledge of one another is perfect.
So, the Son knows the Father. But then the Lord goes on to say that the Son has chosen to reveal the Father to others. And how does he do that? Well, he doesn’t tell us here, but we know from elsewhere in the Bible that he sends his Spirit to us to take away our spiritual blindness and to enable us to see the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, God the Son reveals God the Father. He makes him known.
And the Son not only reveals the Father, but the Son gives us rest. And so, he invites the weary and burdened to come to him for rest, because he’s the only one who can provide rest for our souls.
And since he refers to himself as gentle and humble in heart, then there’s no need for us to be afraid to come to him. He’s not going to harm us or be rough with us. He’s not a cruel taskmaster, but he’s gentle and humble and he offers rest to whoever comes to him.
What kind of rest is he talking about? We can think about the burden of our guilt, because we all know that we’ve done wrong and our guilt presses down on us like a heavy load. But the Lord is able to take away the burden of our guilt, because he has paid for our sins with his life. And so, whoever comes to him finds forgiveness and we’re set free from our guilt.
We can also think about the burden of trying to climb up to God by our good deeds. When we think we have to climb up to God by our good deeds, then there’s always a burdon on our back, because we’re always wondering if we’ve done enough yet. Have I done enough? Have I done enough to make up for my sins? Have I done enough to please God? Have I done enough to get into heaven? But the Lord Jesus frees us from that burden, because whoever comes to him receives not only forgiveness, but the free gift of eternal life in the presence of God. The Lord Jesus came down from heaven to earth in order to lift us up to heaven. And so, he frees us whenever we give up trying ourselves and instead rely on him alone.
But perhaps the Lord is thinking of another kind of burden. In Bible times, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were known for placing burdens on the people, because they burdened the people by making them follow all their man-made rules, which went far beyond anything God commanded his people to do.
For instance, in the next passage after today’s, the Pharisees complained to the Lord about his disciples who were not keeping their man-made rules about the Sabbath. All the disciples had done was pick some ears of corn to eat, which did not break God’s law, but which broke their laws.
And so, the Pharisees and teachers of the law put a heavy yoke on the people. They burdened the people with their man-made rules. In fact, the Lord complains about them in 23:4 that they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders.
But the Lord gives rest to the weary and burdened, because he sets us free from having to keep all those man-made rules which God has not commanded.
However, he doesn’t set us free from man-made rules so that we can then do whatever we like and live however we please, because he replaces their man-made yoke with his own yoke. He wants his people to walk in his ways and to do his will. He frees us from their rules in order to serve him.
People swing from one extreme to the other. On one extreme there are lots of restrictions, lots of rules, lots of control. It’s like living under the authority of the Pharisees with all their rules and regulations and all those rules are designed to control the minutest detail of our lives. But it’s more than the Lord requires.
Then, on the other extreme, there are no restrictions. We’re free to do whatever we like. No one is going to tell me what to do! No one is going to tell me how to live my life!
And we swing from one extreme to the other. For instance, when a society or organisation has been very restrictive, people then want a revolution and they want to overthrow everything and have no authority over them.
But when the Lord sets his people free, he doesn’t set us free to do whatever we like. He sets us free to serve him and to walk in his ways.
And yet, he doesn’t put a heavy yoke on us, because his yoke is easy and light. And it’s easy and it’s light because his law is for our good. And he also gives us his Spirit to help us to keep his law and to do his will.
And so, the Lord invites the weary and burdened to come to him for rest from our burdens. But he doesn’t set us free from our burdens to do whatever we like, because he places us under his light and easy yoke, which is for our good and for God’s glory.
And all who come to him for rest and who take his light and easy yoke are promised eternal rest in the new heavens and earth where we will live with God forever and forever.