John’s Inquiry and Jesus’ Reply (Matthew 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35)

Submitted by admin on Mon, 2008-01-07 11:41.

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While John the Baptist was in prison, his disciples told him about all that Jesus was doing. Prior to his confinement, John had called attention to the judgment role the one coming after him would fill and, therefore, would have expected to hear about works suggesting that Jesus had commenced preparing for its execution. He also may have wondered why he was not being freed from imprisonment. To John, reports about the miracles would not have suggested that his message about Jesus was being fulfilled. So he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come or are we to expect another?” (Matthew 3:12; 11:2, 3; Luke 3:7-9; 7:18, 19)

At the time John’s disciples arrived to make their inquiry, Jesus cured many people of their afflictions, liberated those suffering from demon possession, and restored sight to the blind. (Luke 7:21) Jesus did not provide a direct answer to John’s question but replied in a manner that would have enabled him to draw the right conclusion. “Tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind [now] see, the lame walk, lepers are being cleansed, and the deaf hear. The dead are being raised, the poor are having the glad tidings proclaimed [to them], and fortunate is whoever does not take offense at me.” (Luke 7:22, 23; Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus’ response somewhat echoes the prophetic words of Isaiah (61:1) and appears to reflect the then-existing expectations regarding the Messiah. A nonbiblical Dead Sea scroll (4Q521) contains the expression “his Messiah” (likely to be understood as meaning God’s Messiah). Then, in a messianic context, this scroll reads, “He will heal the sick, make the dead alive, and proclaim glad tidings to the poor.”

The words about not taking offense or stumbling relate to not allowing preconceived views or expectations to stand in the way of accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Those who let nothing or no one interfere with their response in faith are pronounced fortunate, because they came to enjoy the desirable state of well-being based on an approved relationship with the Most High.

After John’s two disciples departed, Jesus directed his comments about him to the crowd. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed being swayed by the wind? Then, what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold! Those in splendid apparel and living in luxury are in the palaces of kings. Then, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, even more than a prophet. Concerning him it is written, ‘Look! I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ [Amen, according to some manuscripts and also in Matthew] I say to you, Among those born of women, no one is greater than John, but the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:24-28; Matthew 11:7-11.)

John proved to be a courageous prophet, not even holding back from reproving Herod Antipas for his incestuous relationship with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. (Matthew 14:3, 4) By no means could John be swayed from a firm stand for what is right and, therefore, could never be likened to a reed moving to and fro in the wind. He was dressed in austere attire and subsisted in the wilderness on locusts and honey. John did not possess anything that resembled the splendid apparel and luxurious surroundings of the servile flatterers or sycophants whose position depended on maintaining the favor of rulers. In his courageous bearing and words, he had nothing in common with such fawning men.

John was more than just another prophet God had raised up among his people. Centuries earlier, he had been promised to come as the messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. (Malachi 3:1) In this unique role, John was greater than all the prophets who had preceded him. Nevertheless, the least in the kingdom of God would be greater than he had been in his capacity as the foretold messenger.

Jesus explained that a new development in connection with the “kingdom of the heavens” had its start in the “days of John the Baptist.” The time had arrived and then continued for individuals to become part of the realm where God is Sovereign and to begin enjoying the blessings and benefits this would mean for those seizing the opportunity. In connection with the kingdom, Matthew 11:12 (also Luke 16:16) represents Jesus as having used a word (biázo) that in its basic sense means “to be violent” and in the passive voice “to experience violence.” This may mean that violent opposition is directed against God’s kingdom, and that violent opposers deprive those yielding to them the opportunity to become part of the royal realm. Another possibility is that, in this case, biázo has the sense of directing forceful effort to attain the kingdom and that those exerting themselves fervently would gain entrance. (See the Notes section for the ways in which Matthew 11:12 has been interpretively rendered.)

The law and the prophets prophesied until John came on the scene, pointing forward to the coming of the Messiah. John, however, filled the role of the foretold Elijah, preparing the way for the Messiah’s actual arrival. As Jesus said regarding John, “If you wish to accept it, he is [the] Elijah [foretold] to come.” The proper follow-through for those who were willing to accept that John was the promised Elijah would have been to recognize that the Messiah had arrived and that the marvelous works Jesus did undeniably established his identity as the Son of God. Jesus’ words to those with ears to listen served to admonish them to draw the correct conclusion and to respond in faith. (Matthew 11:13-15)

Luke’s account (7:29, 30) introduces a parenthetical expression that has been understood to refer to hearing what either Jesus or John had said. A number of translations have chosen to make this explicit in their renderings. “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.” (NIV) “All the people, yes, even the tax collectors, when they heard John acknowledged God and were baptized by his baptism. But the Pharisees and the experts in the Law frustrated God’s purpose for them, for they refused John’s baptism.” (J. B. Phillips) “Everyone had been listening to John. Even the tax collectors had obeyed God and had done what was right by letting John baptize them. But the Pharisees and the experts in the Law of Moses refused to obey God and be baptized by John.” (CEV)

It would appear preferable to regard the “hearing” to relate to the message John proclaimed, for Jesus’ words specifically focused on John. Those who heeded John’s message, including the tax collectors, acknowledged that he was declaring God’s word when urging them to repent of their sins. By following through and submitting to baptism, they “justified” God or confessed that he was right when requiring them to repent. The Pharisees and men versed in the law who disregarded the “counsel of God” conveyed through John did not repent and get baptized.

In their response to him and John, Jesus likened the people to children in the marketplace who declined to share in any form of play other youngsters initiated. If one group of children played the flute, the others refused to dance. When the flute players chose to wail instead, the others did not join in and weep. Neither acting out a joyous event nor pretending to be present for a sad occasion was to the liking of those being invited to participate in playing. Nothing pleased them. Similarly, when John the Baptist did not partake of customary meals and drank no wine, people maligned him as having a demon. Jesus, “the Son of Man,” did eat the usual fare, even accepting invitations to banquets, and drank wine. Yet, those who condemned John also slandered Jesus, calling him a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They implied that Jesus delighted in being associated with the basest elements of society and reveled in food and drink. (Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-34)

The detractors failed to see that the conduct of John and that of Jesus harmonized with their message and produced desirable fruitage. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified by its works.” (Matthew 11:19) “Wisdom is justified by all its children.” (Luke 7:35) The austere life of John suited his message of repentance, and the joys and blessings opened up through the Son of God were appropriate for sharing in pleasant table fellowship, which provided opportunities for bringing spiritual benefits to responsive ones. The wisdom evident in the ministries of John and Jesus and their personal bearing was thus vindicated by its “works” (by its “children”) or the good results in the lives of all who heeded what they heard.

Notes:

With minor variations, the wording of Matthew (11:4-11, 16-19) and Luke (7:22-28, 31-35) is basically the same. In Matthew 11:8, the less specific designation “soft things” appears twice, but Luke 7:25 uses the expressions “soft garments” or “soft robes” and “splendid apparel.” Only Luke’s account mentions the point about “living in luxury.” According to many later manuscript readings of Luke 7:28, John is identified as a prophet, and Matthew 11:11 refers to him as “John the Baptist.” Whereas Matthew 11:11 says “kingdom of the heavens,” Luke 7:28 reads “kingdom of God.”

The words of Matthew 11:12 have been variously translated, with some renderings being literal and others departing considerably from the Greek text. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (ESV) “From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it.” (GNT, Second Edition) “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.” (NLT) “Since the time John the Baptist came until now, the kingdom of heaven has been going forward in strength, and people have been trying to take it by force.” (NCV) “From the time of John the Baptist until now, violent people have been trying to take over the kingdom of heaven by force.” (CEV) Seit Johannes der Täufer da ist, richtet Gott seine Herrschaft auf, wenn auch Gewalttätige versuchen, es zu verhindern. (“Since John the Baptist has been here God has been establishing his rule, even though violent ones try to prevent it.” [The German Hoffnung für Alle]) Als der Täufer Johannes auftrat, hat Gott angefangen, seine Herrschaft aufzurichten; aber bis heute stellen sich ihre Feinde in den Weg. Sie hindern andere mit Gewalt daran, sich dieser Herrschaft zu unterstellen. (“When the baptizer John appeared, God began to establish his rule; but until today its enemies position themselves in the way. With violence, they hinder others from submitting to this rule.” [The German Gute Nachricht Bibel])