The Sign of Judgment

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” – Matthew 12:38-42 ESV

As has been mentioned before, Matthew is less interested in providing a detailed, chronologically-ordered history of Jesus’ life and ministry, than he is in supporting the theme of his book. From the outset, he has been working diligently to prove Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. In this section of his gospel, Matthew has assembled an assortment of incidents involving the Pharisees; designed to illustrate their growing animosity toward Jesus, but also to provide further support to his overall thesis regarding the power and authority of Jesus.

The word “then” should be taken as a link to the previous paragraph, but instead, should be read as “on another occasion.” Matthew is about to share yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in which their evil intentions will be exposed, and the superiority of Jesus will be expressed. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew recorded the words of Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees, saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 11:6 ESV). Now, he shares a similar and equally bold statement from the lips of Jesus: “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42 ESV).

But what is the point Jesus is attempting to make? Why does He describe Himself as greater than or more superior to the temple or even King Solomon? What does He mean when He claims to be “lord of the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:8 ESV).

The temple, Solomon, and the Sabbath were all revered icons of the Hebrew faith. The temple was the house of God, a beautiful and highly ornate structure where God’s presence was said to dwell. It was the focal point of their entire religious system, critical to their practice of the required sacrificial system ordained by God, and a symbol of their unique status as His chosen people. And Solomon had been the one who had been given the privilege by God to construct this magnificent structure. He was the son of David, who had been divinely ordained to fulfill his father’s dream of building a house for God. And the Sabbath was another God-ordained feature of the Hebrew religious system that set them apart from all the other nations on earth.

But Jesus claimed to be greater than any of them. And these audacious assertions did not escape the notice of the Pharisees. They heard all that Jesus was saying and took great exception with His ridiculous and sacrilegious claims of superiority.

So, as was their growing custom, they approached Jesus with the intent of tricking Him into saying something they could use against Him. They were rarely disappointed in their efforts because Jesus was not shy about saying what was on His mind. He had no fear of the Pharisees. In fact, He took every opportunity to expose them as what they were: Religious charlatans and hypocrites of the highest order. They may have fooled the people with their outward demonstrations of piety and righteousness, but Jesus knew the condition of their hearts. And, over time, His attacks on them will only increase in intensity.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned men tasked with protecting and preserving the law of Moses. As their name implies, they would scribe or copy the law, using painstaking methods to ensure that there were no errors in their transcriptions. They would count letters and spaces in a line of text to check for errors and guarantee accuracy. These men were considered experts in the law and were most likely invited by the Pharisees in order to spot any violations of the law that Jesus might be committing.

The request they made of Jesus was most likely not spontaneous but prearranged. They expressed the desire to see Jesus perform a sign. Earlier, the Pharisees had attributed the miracles of Jesus to the power and influence of Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. They were looking for something more significant: A sign.

The Greek word is sēmeion, and it refers to a sign by which anything future is pre-announced (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In essence, they were requesting that Jesus perform a particular type of miracle, something far more difficult than healing the blind or the diseased. If Jesus was truly divine, as He so claimed, then He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, such as predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction. But the motivation behind their request was evil to its core. They knew what the law said regarding anyone prophesied falsely in the name of God.

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. “ – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 ESV

Simply put, they were in search of an excuse to put Jesus to death. But He saw through their ploy and responded to their request with a stinging indictment.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 12:39 ESV

These were men who took great pride in their righteousness and faithful adherence to the law of Moses. So, for Jesus to address them as evil and adulterous was nothing less than a verbal slap in the face. Not only that, Jesus refused their request for a prophetic pronouncement and, instead, announced a sign of coming judgment. The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to these men. But Jesus gave the story an intriguing new twist. He tied it to His future death, burial, and resurrection. Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, Jesus predicts His own 3-day-long interment in a tomb. And just as Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Ninevah, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would make possible the salvation of all those who hear and accept His offer of justification by faith.

In a way, Jesus was answering the request of the scribes and Pharisees, but not in a way that they would have recognized. He was predicting the future, clearly indicating the manner of His own death and the means of salvation it would make possible. But He was also predicting the fate of the scribes and Pharisees, as well as all those who refuse to accept the salvation that Jesus’ death will make available.

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… – Matthew 12:41 ESV

The pagan, Gentile people of Ninevah heard and responded to Jonah’s message of repentance and were saved from destruction. But the scribes and Pharisees, like most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, would refuse His offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the future judgment, the repentant people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the unrepentant Jews. Jesus predicts that the Jews will refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by His coming death on the cross.

And then, Jesus adds another claim of superiority to His growing list.

something greater than Jonah is here – Matthew 12:41 ESV

Jonah was a prophet of God and the only one who had been sent by God to the Gentiles. The scribes and Pharisees would have related well to Jonah’s initial reluctance to take God’s message of repentance to non-Jews. The story of Jonah attempting to get out of this undesirable assignment would have resonated with them. Now, here was Jesus was claiming to be superior to Jonah.  But, in reality, Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to precedence over the stories of Scripture because He was the ultimate fulfillment of those stories. Jonah had been nothing more than a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself. Jonah had been just a man, and he had fulfilled the command of God reluctantly. His “death” in the belly of the great fish had been a form of judgment for his own disobedience. But Jesus would prove to be a faithful and obedient servant, willingly giving His life so that others might experience eternal life.

And Jesus used another familiar Scriptural account to drive home His point, claiming to be greater than the wisest man who ever lived: King Solomon. The queen of Sheba had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to see the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed to possess a wisdom that far surpassed anything Solomon ever hoped to know.

The apostle Paul would later describe the superior nature of God’s wisdom as displayed in the life of His Son, Jesus.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. – 1 Corinthians 30 NLT

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT

And Jesus predicted that the queen of Sheba would join the people of Ninevah in witness against the Jews when the coming day of judgment arrived. Jesus was going to die, be buried, and rise again from the grave, and all those who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But when that sign appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe the truth. They would refute Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and refuse His offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And they would stand condemned.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Words Matter

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

Jesus was anything but politically correct. He did not mince words or sugarcoat His opinions. And while He was filled with compassion for the lost, hopeless, and needy, He could be merciless with the self-styled religious leaders of His day. He viewed these men as overly self-important and enemies to His kingdom cause. He would later describe them as roadblocks to the gospel itself. Not satisfied with their own rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they were determined to keep anyone from following Him. And Jesus describes the results of their efforts in stark terms.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

These men, buoyed by their own sense of self-justified spiritual superiority, were blind to all that was taking place before their eyes. They could not bring themselves to see and accept the evidence of the coming kingdom. They couldn’t explain the miraculous works Jesus did, so they simply wrote them off as demonic in nature. Rather than accept Jesus as Messiah, they accused Him of being a servant of Satan. And now, Jesus is going to expose the damning nature of their own words.

The vitriol emanating from their mouths was nothing more than the byproduct of their own hearts. Words of praise and profanity flowed from the same lips. Somehow, they were able to offer prayers to God, while at the same time uttering blasphemies against the Spirit of God. And their words condemned them.

The apostle James would later describe the nature of their problem.

…no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:8-10 NLT

While Jesus begins His attack on the Pharisees by emphasizing their “bad fruit,” His focus is on their words. All that Jesus says in these verses is tied to the accusation the Pharisees leveled against Him.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

They falsely accused Jesus, and their words revealed the sorry state of their hearts. They despised Him and were out to destroy Him. Their hearts were filled with jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, hatred, and even thoughts of murder. And Jesus places all the emphasis on their words. What they were saying was important because it exposed the inner condition of their hearts. They didn’t believe in Jesus. That was painfully obvious. And all their outward displays of righteous behavior stood in stark contrast to their words. It really didn’t matter how often they prayed, how many laws they kept, how holy they appeared, or how well-respected they appeared to be. It was the words they spoke in regards to Jesus. And long after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the apostle Paul would write:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

The Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They would even go out of their way to put Him to death. And even after news of His resurrection would spread throughout Israel, they would continue to reject Him as the one sent from God. Even the empty tomb and the documented appearances of Jesus would fail to dissuade the Pharisees from their disbelief. And Jesus would later describe their stubborn refusal to believe in His parable about Lazarus and the rich man.

If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:31 NLT

These men were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were intimately familiar with the writings of Moses and the prophets, but they were incapable of seeing all that those writings contained regarding the Messiah. Everything Jesus said and did was in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. But they couldn’t see it.

And Jesus is not surprised by their actions. In fact, He seems to indicate that He expected nothing less from them.

“How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” – Matthew 12:34 NLT

Their behavior was in keeping with their hearts. They were bad trees producing bad fruit. Their spiritual reservoirs were filled with bad treasure, so it was not surprising to see them spending their tainted resources to accomplish evil outcomes. But notice that Jesus shifts the focus from the present to the future. While their evil words and bad fruit were making an impact on the here-and-now, Jesus wanted them to know that it was the hereafter they needed to worry about.

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:36-37 ESV

Which brings us back to the words of Paul:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

Jesus was not saying that these men could save themselves from eternal condemnation by saying good things rather than bad things. He was not suggesting that men’s behavior and speech will be the criteria by which they will be judged. He is emphasizing that confession of Him as Lord and Savior will be the only means by which men are justified before God. Only by a declaration of faith in Jesus as Savior will any be saved. Words matter.

Later on, Jesus would ask His disciples an important and revealing question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the answers they gave reveal the confusion among the people concerning Jesus.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

Notice what’s missing. There is no mention of the Messiah. The people were intrigued by Jesus but still unconvinced as to His true identity. Then Jesus makes the question personal, asking His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ESV).

And Peter, always the impetuous and impulsive one, responded:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

And Jesus went on to commend Peter for his answer and to emphasize that his confession of Jesus as the Christ would be the foundational truth upon which the entire church would be built. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, would become the sole criteria by which man’s justification with God would be made possible.

But the Pharisees did not share Peter’s perspective. In their minds, Jesus was a glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners, heretic, and a threat to their religious way of life. As far as they were concerned, Jesus wasn’t the Christ, the Son of the living God, He was a tool of Satan and an unwanted pest to be exterminated. But Jesus wanted them to know that their words of false accusation were going to have longterm ramifications.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Unforgivable Sin

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:22-32 ESV

This entire section of Matthew’s gospel centers around the authority of Jesus, given to Him by His Heavenly Father, and accompanied by the power of the Spirit of God. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah of the Jews, and the Savior of the world. At His incarnation, He had taken on human flesh. At His baptism, He had been anointed by the Spirit of God. And He operated under the divine auspices and with the full approval of God the Father.

But as Matthew has already shown, Jesus faced growing opposition to His mission and increasing resistance to His claim to be the Messiah. And the religious leaders of the day formed the nexus of the swelling antagonism against Him. The more His popularity grew, the more they hated Him. They followed Him everywhere, searching for any evidence they could use against Him. They examined every word that came out of His mouth, endeavoring to expose Him as a fraud and a threat to their way of life. In their minds, Jesus posed a serious problem that required immediate action.

But the Pharisees and their religious compatriots faced another problem: The rapidly expanding number of so-called disciples who showed up everywhere Jesus went. There is little doubt that this group of people was comprised of curiosity seekers, the diseased and disabled in search of healing, and a small group who held out hope that Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah. And with every miracle Jesus performed, the Pharisees knew that there was a strong likelihood that the curious could become the committed.

So, when Matthew records, rather matter-of-factly, an occasion where Jesus exorcised a demon from a man, he juxtaposes the reaction of the crowd with that of the Pharisees. This sets the stage for yet another battle between the Pharisees and Jesus.  After having watched Jesus cast out the demon, resulting in the restoration of the man’s faculties of sight and speech, the crowds were forced to consider the implications of what they had just seen. Someone put into words what everyone was thinking:

“Can this be the Son of David?” – Matthew 12:23 ESV

The actual tone of their question was actually a bit more suspicious and doubtful. A more accurate translation would read, “He can’t be the Son of David, can He?” You can sense the reticence in their words and how they were struggling to reconcile their expectations of the Messiah with the words and works of Jesus. The very fact that they refer to the Messiah as “the Son of David” reflects their understanding that He would come as a warrior-king. They were looking for a mighty deliverer who would rescue the nation of Israel from its subjugation to Rome and restore it to power and prominence.

And while there was no doubt that Jesus displayed power, it was not exactly what the Jews had been expecting. His miracles, while awe-inspiring, were doing little to free them from Roman rule. His little band of ragtag disciples wasn’t exactly the kind of army a conquering king would require. And yet, they couldn’t ignore what they had seen. Jesus was different. His power was undeniable. He spoke with such authority. He displayed an aura of quiet confidence, accompanied by powerful signs and wonders.  But His identity was still up for grabs. They weren’t quite sure what to make of Jesus. And this is where the Pharisees decided to sow seeds of doubt among the people.

They immediately attributed the work of Jesus to Satan.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Fearing that the crowds just might decide that Jesus was the Messiah, the Pharisees provide them with another option: Jesus was operating under the influence of Beelzebul or Satan. His miracles weren’t divine but merely demonic in nature. Sure, Jesus displayed power, but it was from the pit of hell, not from heaven.

The Pharisees hadn’t thought this one through. And Jesus quickly exposes the absurdity behind their logic. Why in the world would Satan cast out one of his own demons? What possible good could come from the enemy releasing one of his own captives? It made no sense.

“…if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive.” – Matthew 12:26 NLT

Their assertion was ridiculous. And, on top of that, it meant that anyone else who cast out demons was guilty of operating under the influence of Satan as well. That included their own “sons” or fellow Jews who practiced exorcism. If what Jesus did was demonic, then it had to be true for all.

Having exposed the shoddy logic behind their accusation, Jesus offers another, more plausible, explanation.

“But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” – Matthew 12:28 NLT

With one statement, Jesus answers the question asked by the crowd: “Can this be the Son of David?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” The very fact that He had the power to cast out demons was a sign of His authority as the Son of God. He was the Messiah, and His arrival in their midst was proof that the Kingdom of God had come. 

Jesus’ authority over demons was given to Him by God and made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus makes it clear that His battle was not going to be with the Romans, but with “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). He came to do war with “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2 ESV). And Jesus informs the Pharisees that they have a choice to make. They can either join Him or continue to align themselves against Him.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

But the one thing they do not want to do is to attribute His work to the enemy. That was a dangerous and deadly mistake to make. Jesus lets them know that, by attributing His works to Satan, they were rejecting the power of the Spirit and the testimony of God. They were guilty of blaspheming the Spirit. By blasphemy, Jesus meant that they were guilty of slandering or vilifying the testimony of the Spirit of God. The Spirit’s power, as revealed in the miracles of Jesus, was meant to give evidence of who Jesus was. His casting out of the demon, done by the power of the Spirit of God, was a testimony to His identity. So, Jesus informs the Pharisees that they were guilty of the unforgivable sin: The rejection of Jesus as Messiah.

For this sin there is no forgiveness, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32 ESV). The Pharisees would be forgiven their verbal abuse of Jesus, if they eventually accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. But if they continued to deny the testimony of God and the visible proof of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, they would not be forgiven.

The interesting aspect of this whole encounter was that the Pharisees were blind to the reality of Jesus’ claim because they denied the proof of the Spirit of God. They were devoid of the Spirit themselves. The apostle Paul would later write:

So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:3 NLT

And John would also provide further insight into the Spirit’s illuminating role in man’s ability to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh.

This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. – 1 John 4:2 NLT 

But the Pharisees, lacking the presence of the Spirit of God, were incapable of recognizing the Son of God. And Jesus declared them to be aligned against Him, operating in direct opposition to His divine mission.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

The battle lines were drawn. The King had come. The Son of God had taken on human flesh and was in the process of fulfilling the divine will of His Heavenly Father. But the Pharisees represented the forces of this world, aligned against the redemptive plan of God. And their hatred of Jesus was going to end up destroying them. While they would eventually succeed in putting Jesus to death, they would fail in their efforts to put an end to His rule and reign. They could deny His claim to be the Messiah, but they could not deny His right to rule as King of kings and Lord of lords.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Is It Lawful?

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21     and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:9-21 ESV

The Pharisees have just accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the laws against reaping on the Sabbath because they had picked a few heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. And Jesus responded by claiming Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath. This tense exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel was just the beginning of what would become a growing battle over authority and control. As members of the Pharisees, these men held sway over the people of Israel, acting as a kind of religious oversight board, with the self-appointed responsibility of managing the spiritual affairs of the people. They were a religious sect and not members of the priestly order ordained by God.

The name, Pharisee, comes from a Hebrew word meaning, “separate,” and it reflects a belief that they were somehow set apart and separated from the common and less-fortunate people of Israel. The Pharisees were comprised of middle-class businessmen for whom membership served as a kind of social club. It provided them with prestige and honor and allowed them to influence the affairs of the nation. Their primary point of influence had to do with the Mosaic law. But they were strict adherents to the oral law as well, deeming it to have equal weight and authority over the lives of the people. In fact, at the time of Jesus, they stringently enforced the more than 600 laws found in the Torah, many of which were man-made and not God-ordained.

In keeping with his thematic style, Matthew records that immediately after Jesus had His confrontation with the Pharisees over His disciples’ Sabbath violation, Jesus made His way to the synagogue – on the Sabbath. This whole scene appears to be a set-up by the Pharisees. They had prepared for this occasion and had one purpose behind their plans: To accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath. They were looking for ammunition to use against Him. If they could get Him to break the established laws concerning the Sabbath, including their oral regulations, they could dismiss and discredit Him.

It seems obvious that the scene which Matthew describes was all preplanned by the Pharisees and designed to place Jesus in a difficult situation. As soon as He arrived in the synagogue, he found Himself facing a man with a withered hand. The very fact that this man was in the synagogue would have been odd and unexpected because the Jews tended to view people with disabilities and diseases as cursed by God. The Jewish sages taught that anyone with a disability or visible blemish was to be excluded from communal gatherings in the synagogue so that they would not be a distraction to the rest of the congregants. So, the very fact that Jesus stood facing a man with a withered or paralyzed hand would have been unexpected and unusual.

And Matthew points out that the Pharisees immediately asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 ESV). This had all been a staged affair. The man with the paralyzed hand was nothing more than a prop, a helpless tool in their efforts to frame Jesus. But Jesus was not fooled by their efforts. He knew exactly what they were up to and seemingly plays along with their little ploy.

Rather than answer their question directly, Jesus responded with a question of His own. He turned the tables, placing the onus on them to answer their own question. He asked them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). His question was rhetorical in nature, requiring no answer. The Pharisees were businessmen who knew the value of livestock and would do whatever it took to protect their investment. Knowing this, Jesus pointed out that a man, even one with a withered hand, has far more value than a sheep. So, if they believed the rescue of a sheep was lawful on the Sabbath, then His healing of a man with a withered hand was as well. And with that said, Jesus healed the man.

And the Pharisees were furious. Not just because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, but because He had duped them. He had turned the tables on them and had made them appear like fools. And Matthew points out that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14 ESV). This was war. And they were not interested in a long-term, drawn-out affair. Their intentions were immediate and driven by an unwavering commitment to destroy Jesus as soon as possible. This is why Matthew reports, “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there” (Matthew 12:15 ESV).

But Jesus was anything but scared. He was not running for His life or going into hiding. In fact, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus continued to heal others, even though it remained the Sabbath. But in each case, He commanded those whom He healed to “not to make him known” (Matthew 12:16 ESV). Jesus was not interested in building His reputation or manufacturing larger crowds of followers. He was on a God-ordained mission, and there was a divine timeline in play. He knew that each and every time He healed someone, the focus of the people would fall on the nature of the miracle performed. And with each miracle, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker would be further reinforced in the minds of the people. But He had come to be their Messiah. His real mission was to bring healing of a spiritual nature, not physical. But the more that people heard about the blind having their sight restored, the crippled being able to walk, and the demon-possessed being set free, the greater the chance that they would miss the real purpose behind Jesus’ coming.

And Matthew, quoting from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah, lets us know that Jesus had not come seeking publicity and popularity. He was not some grandstanding miracle worker in search of a reputation and in need of recognition. No, He was the chosen Servant of God, destined to bring hope to a lost and dying world, mired in sin, and living under divine condemnation.

“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen.
    He is my Beloved, who pleases me.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not fight or shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
And his name will be the hope
    of all the world.” – Matthew 12:18-21 NLT

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4, an Old Testament passage that speaks of the coming Messiah, but in terms of His role as the suffering servant. Jesus had not come to crush the opposition, but to be crushed and to serve as the payment for the sins of mankind. And it should not be missed that Isaiah describes the Messiah as “the hope of all the world.”

The Hebrew word Isaiah used refers to the inhabitants of the earth. This would have included all people, of all nations, tribes, and tongues. And Matthew, when translating this passage into Greek, used the word ethnos, which means “Gentiles.” Jesus was coming to offer hope to all – not just to the Jews, but to the entire world. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the universal nature of Christ’s redeeming work.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:22-26 ESV

The Pharisees were looking for a way to bring Jesus to justice. They were searching for an excuse to put Him to death for what they deemed to be His blatant disregard for the laws of God. But Jesus had been sent by God to fulfill the law. He would provide a means by which God could remain just, holding sinful men responsible for their rebellion against Him, while at the same time justifying all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of His Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Missing the Point

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

From this point forward in his gospel, Matthew will reveal an increasing and palpable tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Their disdain for Jesus will grow as His popularity among the people spreads. This obscure rabbi from Nazareth was rocking their religious world by openly contradicting their authority and establishing Himself as some kind of savior of the people. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a charlatan and the next in a long line of would-be Messiahs, attempting to garner His 15-minutes of prominence in the national spotlight.

One of the central themes that will arise in this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders will be that of authority. In their minds, they were the sole arbiters of religious rules and decorum. They viewed themselves as the spiritual police force, with responsibility for maintaining a tight reign on the ethical and moral behavior of the people. They were the self-appointed enforcers of the law, and they took their job seriously. These pride-filled men were religious elitists, who looked down their noses at the common people, viewing them as law-breakers and the cause of all the nation’s problems.

It is important to remember what Matthew recorded at the end of chapter 11. He recounted Jesus’ offer of rest to those “who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). And now, Matthew reports a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, all centered around the supposed violation of the laws regarding the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, was considered sacred. The ongoing observation of this day had been decreed by God as part of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV

The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and was intended to be a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” – Exodus 31:13 ESV

But over time, God’s laws concerning the Sabbath had been heavily appended by the religious leaders, as they added a litany of man-made rules and regulations that made the keeping of the Sabbath onerous and burdensome. According to the Talmud, there were 39 categories of prohibitions tied to the keeping of the Sabbath. The first 11 categories featured restrictions associated with the baking of bread. The next 13 categories detailed rules concerning the making of a garment. Another 9 categories are restricted activities associated with the making of leather. And the final 6 categories were concerned with rules concerning the construction of any building.

In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees as having violated the Sabbath restriction concerning reaping. They were caught picking the heads of grain and eating them. And in their self-righteous fervor, they confront Jesus for having allowed this egregious act to have happened.

“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:2 ESV

But rather than admit any guilt or apologize on behalf of His disciples, Jesus gave the Pharisees a history lesson. He reminded them of a story concerning David that was recorded by the prophet, Samuel. David, who had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, was running for his life. The current king, Saul, was out to kill him. So, David and his men came to Ahimelech, the priest in Nob, and requested that he provide them with bread. But all that Ahimelech had available was consecrated bread or the bread of the Presence. This was bread that was set out every Sabbath as an offering to God and, according to the book of Leviticus, was only to be eaten by the priests. But on this occasion, Ahimelech made an exception and gave the bread to David and his men.

This story, which would have been very familiar to the Pharisees, must have caught them off guard. It must have also infuriated them that Jesus was comparing He and His disciples to David and his men. After all, David had been the greatest King Israel ever had. Who was Jesus to place Himself on the same level as the one whom God had deemed “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV)?

And Jesus made it clear that David and his men were in violation of the Sabbath law when they had taken the bread and eaten it.

“…it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:4 ESV

David was the God-appointed and prophet-anointed king of Israel. He had been deemed by God to be Saul’s replacement, but the leadership of Israel had rejected him. David was the rightful ruler of Israel but had been relegated to living as a fugitive and an outcast. His followers were left to beg for assistance from the priest of God, who willingly broke with the accepted religious protocol in order to satisfy their hunger.

But the Pharisees were not about to bend the rules or make any concessions to Jesus and His followers. They were looking for any and every opportunity to expose Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker and serial violator of the law.

Next, Jesus used the priests themselves as examples of those who violate God’s law in order to keep it. In order to fulfill God’s commands concerning the Sabbath sacrifices, the priests must do work.

“‘On the Sabbath day, you must offer two unblemished lambs a year old, and two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, along with its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering.’” – Numbers 28:9-10 NET

And Jesus pointed out this seeming discrepancy.

“…on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” – Matthew 12:5 ESV

In keeping one command of God, they appear to in violation of another. But they were doing exactly what God had instructed them to do. God had the authority to deem the priests as guiltless when it came to violating the Sabbath because they were obeying His commands.

And then, Jesus makes an intriguing observation that must have left the Pharisees shocked and appalled.

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” – Matthew 12:6 ESV

With this shift from discussing law-keeping to the temple, Jesus was indicating that the temple or house of God operated under a different set of standards. In the temple, the priests were allowed to do things that, for others, would be restricted and in violation of God’s law. The temple provided the priests who worked within it with a dispensation of grace. It allowed them to operate in seeming violation of God’s law while actually fulfilling His divine commands.

And Jesus announced that He was greater than the temple. As the Son of God, He operated under a divine mandate that granted He and His followers with authority to accomplish God’s will with immunity and impunity. That is why Jesus had no qualms about healing on the Sabbath, which He did regularly and, it seems, deliberately.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of having “condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7 ESV) because they failed to understand His divine nature and God-appointed mission. The temple was where God had promised to dwell with and appear to His people. But now, in Jesus, God had come to dwell among men. The glory of God was no longer restricted to the Holy of Holies but had left the recesses of the temple and entered into the daily lives of the people. Jesus deemed Himself to be the Son of Man and “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8 ESV). And, as such, He had the authority to grant special dispensations to His followers. They could pick grain on the Sabbath. They could even heal and cast out demons on the Sabbath. Why? Because, in doing so, they would be doing the will of God.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ignorant of the very will of God as expressed in their own Scriptures. He paraphrased the words of God found in the writings of the prophet Hosea.

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 ESV

The Pharisees were all about law-keeping. They cared nothing for Jesus or His disciples. In their minds, adherence to the law had taken precedence and priority over people. Obeying the commands of God had become more important than knowing God Himself. And their obsession with rules had prevented them from recognizing the Son of God standing in their midst. They loved their laws more than they loved God. And they loved their status as the religious elite more than they loved God’s people. But law-keeping without love is worthless. And elevating the Sabbath over the Lord of the Sabbath makes an idol out of the Sabbath.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Just Say, “Yes!”

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:25-30 ESV

Immediately after delivering a blistering indictment against the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, Jesus turns His attention to God. While His audience wrestled with the weight of His previous words of condemnation, Jesus spoke words of adoration and gratitude to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who just happened to be His Father. This last designation would have seemed odd to the Jews in Jesus’ audience. This overly intimate appellation used by Jesus was not common among the Jews when referencing God. They viewed Abraham as their father and God as their sovereign Lord and ruler. Yet, Jesus blended the two titles together, declaring Himself to be the Son of the God who is Lord of heaven and earth. And Jesus made the nature of this Father/Son relationship quite clear in verse 27.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

Jesus did not refer to God as “the” Father, but as “my” father. And the close relationship between the two of them was like none other on earth. Remember, Jesus had just condemned the three Galilean cities for their rejection of His as the Messiah. They had been eyewitnesses to His miracles and had heard the message of repentance, but had refused to accept Him as who He claimed to be. And yet, here is Jesus declaring that He has had divine authority granted to Him as the one and only Son of God.

The inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum stood condemned for having failed to recognize and receive Jesus as God’s Son and their own Savior. He had come to release them from their captivity to sin by paying the penalty of death that hung over each and every one of them. But they saw no need for what Jesus was offering, which is why He refers to them as “the wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25 ESV). In their minds, they were the chosen people of God and already enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth.

In fact, at a later point in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jews regarding their false and highly flawed understanding of their relationship with God. The apostle John records that Jesus declared that those who were His true disciples would listen to His words and keep them. And Jesus promised His disciples, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT).

But the Jews, offended by Jesus’ words, had responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT).

And this is where Jesus dropped a bombshell of His predominantly Jewish audience, exploding their preconceived notions of ethnic privilege and religious piety.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.” – John 8:34-38 NLT

Here, as in Matthew’s account, Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Son of God and fully authorized to offer them freedom from enslavement to sin and its accompanying penalty of death. He fully acknowledges that they are descendants of Abraham, but that will not be enough to save them from the divine punishment awaiting them for their rebellion against God. Jesus infers that their rejection of Him and the determination of the religious leaders to kill Him comes from Satan, not God. But they boldly claim, “Our father is Abraham!” (John 8:39 NLT).

But Jesus contradicts their assertion.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.” – John 8:40-41 NLT

They were blind to the truth. And the apostle Paul explains why.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They were blind to the truth that could set them free. And oddly, Jesus thanks His Father “for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25 NLT). The self-righteous and self-confident were unable to grasp the truth concerning what Jesus had come to do. But the childlike; those who were needy, dependent, and lacking any pretense of self-achieved righteousness, were able to recognize and receive the great gift being offered to them by Jesus.

There is an aspect to Jesus’ words that makes many of us uncomfortable. He seems to indicate that not all who hear His words will accept them. In fact, He clearly states, “no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NLT). He is presenting Himself as the sole point of access to God. And He later reinforced the exclusivity of His role when He stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).

Knowledge about God was not going to be enough. Jesus came to offer a restored relationship with God. The Jews had failed to worship God faithfully. Their entire history is riddled with stories of spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness. And Jesus will later indict them once again for their misplaced confidence in their position as God’s treasured possession.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Jesus knew that the Jews in His audience were putting all their hope in their identity rather than His. Their self-righteousness would prove insufficient. Their over-confident trust in their status as descendants of Abraham would leave them disappointed and undeserving of God’s grace. They were going to have to come to a place of need and dependence. They would have to recognize their own insufficiency and their need for a Savior other than self.

And Jesus offers an invitation to any and all who will hear. He provides a clear and compelling call to those who will admit their weariness with a religion based on works, and righteousness dependent upon self-effort.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Jesus wasn’t interested in what they could do. He wasn’t demanding that they keep a rigid list of dos and don’ts. He offered rest from all the weariness that is the inevitable result of trying to earn favor with God through self-effort. He presented Himself as the solution to their problem. He offered to be their teacher and guide, providing gentle instructions for life and a clear path to a right relationship with God. And all they had to do was accept His gracious invitation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Had Your Chance

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” – Matthew 11:20-24 ESV

The cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and they hold the unenviable distinction of having been condemned and cursed by Jesus Himself. But why? What possessed Jesus to issue His stinging statements against these Galilean cities, and why did He choose to do it at this time in His ministry?

Matthew provides a partial answer when he records that these three cities were “where most of his [Jesus] mighty works had been done” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). In other words, Jesus had done a great many miracles in the vicinity of these cities, but, in spite of personally witnessing the power of Jesus on display, the residents of these cities “did not repent” (Matthew 11:20 ESV). They had been eye-witnesses to the miraculous nature of Jesus’ ministry, and they had heard the message of repentance uttered by John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. But they had refused to accept that call, choosing instead to display a stubborn resistance to the message accompanying the miracles of Jesus. They loved what their eyes were seeing, but rejected what their ears were hearing.

These verses mark a watershed moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, He has spent most of His time ministering in and around this region of Israel. His base of operations had been located in the city of Capernaum. He had preached His sermon on the mount not far from there. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 took place not far from Bethsaida. The people living in and around these three cities had been privileged to witness His works and hear His words but had failed to grasp the truth that Jesus was the Messiah.

These verses provide a link back to Jesus’ commissioning of the 12 disciples found in chapter 10. Just prior to sending them out on their first missionary journey, Jesus had told them:

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” – Matthew 10:5-8 ESV

Not only had Jesus limited their ministry to the Jews, but He had told them to focus their attention on those who would receive them and their message.

“And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” – Matthew 10:11-15 ESV

Notice what Jesus told His disciples. If the residents of a city or home refused to receive them or listen to their words, they were to “shake off the dust” from their feet.

To shake the dust off represented, on one level, shaking off the uncleanness from one’s feet. At another level, however, it is similar to a prophetic sign, representing the termination of all fellowship with those individuals or localities that have rejected the messengers along with their message of the coming kingdom of heaven. This in essence constitutes a sign of eschatological judgment, as confirmed in the following verse. (NET Bible study notes)

Accepting the miracles performed by the disciples while rejecting their call to repentance would be unacceptable. Physical restoration without spiritual regeneration would not be enough. As Jesus later told the Pharisee, Nicodemus:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV).

Jesus makes it clear that repentance is key to any hope of spiritual regeneration. They must change their minds and embrace their need of a Savior. Their status as God’s chosen people would not be enough to save them. Their confident assumption that their Hebrew heritage was enough was going to have to change. But Jesus knew that wasn’t going to happen. In fact, He asserts that the predominantly Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon would fare better on the day of judgment than these three Jewish communities. Jesus had gone out of His way to take the message of the kingdom to His own people. He performed the majority of His miracles in their presence. He displayed His power among them and declared the coming of His kingdom to them. But they refused to listen. And just to make sure His audience understood the severity of His words, Jesus compared them to the infamous city of Sodom. According to Jesus, the wicked inhabitants of Sodom would have repented if they been seen only a fraction of the mighty works of God done among the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Jesus would eventually remove Himself from Galilee and make His way to Tyre and Sidon (see Mark 7:24). He would perform miracles there, including casting out a demon from a young Gentile girl whose mother was a Syrophoenician. Mark records that when the woman begged Jesus to help her, He responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27 ESV). But the woman, nonplussed by His response, simply said, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV).

And, amazed by the woman’s faith, Jesus told the woman, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29 ESV). The woman believed, and her daughter was healed. She did not defend her status or become offended that Jesus had compared her to a dog. She simply expressed her belief that, in spite of her lowly status as a non-Jew, Jesus would extend mercy and grace to her. And He did.

One of the things that Jesus was looking for from those to whom He ministered was a recognition of their need. That is why He tended to minister to those who came to them with their disabilities, pains, brokenness, and extreme sense of unworthiness. That is why Jesus had said:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Mark 2:17 NLT

A major aspect of repentance is the acknowledgment of sin and the need for salvation – a salvation outside of oneself. The people who came to Jesus for physical healing did so because they had either exhausted all other avenues or their ailment was beyond the scope of human help. They were forced to turn to Jesus in the hope that He could do something about their problem. But the same would be true for those who suffered from the disease and destruction caused by sin. That is why Jesus would offer what has become known as the Great Invitation, which we will cover tomorrow,

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28 NLT

The city of Capernaum was filled with God-fearing Jews who believed they were the chosen people of God and so, in no need of a Savior. But Jesus asked them rhetorically, “will you be exalted to heaven?” And, just in case they failed to understand that the question was rhetorical, He clarified the answer for them.

“You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” – Matthew 11:23 ESV

They would end up rejecting His message and His offer of salvation. And the result would be judgment and eternal punishment. Their refusal to accept Him as Messiah would have dire consequences. They would remain unrepentant and sadly, unforgiven.

And from this moment on, Jesus would begin to take His message to the Gentiles. He had come to His own, but His own had rejected Him (John 1:11). So, now He would expand His ministry and message to those outside the household of Israel.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

An Unexpected Messiah

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:16-19 ESV

John had come in the spirit of Elijah, calling the people to prepare for the coming Kingdom and to accept the newly arrived Messiah. And Jesus had declared that John was “Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:14 ESV). But the people had refused to believe the words John had spoken. Yes, many of them had chosen to be baptized by John, but they would end up refusing to accept Jesus as their Messiah. In time, the majority of the Jewish nation would turn against Him, denying Him as their Lord and Savior.

Jesus declared John’s superiority because he had been given the one-of-a-kind task of preparing the way for the Messiah. As far as Jesus was concerned, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s extremely high praise when you consider men like Abraham, Moses, and David. John was far greater than any of them, not because of anything he had done, but because of the extreme importance of his role as the herald for the coming Messiah. But Jesus added an important and, somewhat confusing statement regarding John. He said that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). John’s ministry was an earthly one. He was relegated to announcing the arrival of the Kingdom but was not yet a part of it. He had a very important role to play on earth, but Jesus let His audience know that those who inherit the Kingdom will be far greater than John. Jesus is not saying that there will be degrees of worth in heaven. If anything, He is insinuating that even the least – the prostitutes, tax collectors and other worthless sinners in this life – who place their faith in Him and inherit eternal life, will be greater than John. John had the privilege of proclaiming the coming Kingdom, but those who participate in it will have a greater reward.

Next, Jesus turned His attention to those in His audience, comparing them in not-so-flattering terms to “children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates” (Matthew 11:16 ESV).

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ – Matthew 11:17 ESV

Once again, Jesus is speaking prophetically. He is revealing that the Israelites, including many who claimed to be His followers, would eventually reject Him. And they would do so because He refused to dance to their tune or act in the way they had expected. They were like spoiled children who had their view of how the Messiah should appear and what He should do when He did. And Jesus was not going to meet their demands. He was not going to dance to their tune.

So, they would end up rejecting Him. These people would prove to be critical and impossible to please. And Jesus used their reaction to John the Baptist as evidence. While there were many who had followed John and listened to his message, there were just as many who viewed him with disdain. They saw his strange attire and ascetic lifestyle as proof of demon-possession, not evidence of the hand of God. When they saw John “neither eating nor drinking,” they wrote him off as little more than crazy.

Their logic was simple. If John was the forerunner of the Messiah, the future king of the Jews, why did he dress and eat the way he did. In their minds, John’s actions did not fit their perceptions of someone who would herald the long-awaited Messiah.

And yet, when Jesus came along, He was anything but an ascetic and separatist like John. He dressed like everyone else. He associated with all kinds of people, even choosing to eat and drink with sinners. And, as a result, the Jews described Him as a glutton and a drunkard. This was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

But Jesus ends His address to the crowd with a simple statement:

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” – Matthew 11:19 ESV

Time would tell. The future would vindicate the lifestyle choices of John and Jesus. They were acting in unity with God and in complete submission to His will. While the people would end up rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, His status as the chosen one of God was not in jeopardy. He was no less the Messiah because of their stubborn refusal to accept Him. Their denial of Him would do nothing to diminish the reality of His divinity. Just because Jesus had failed to appear as they had expected or act as they had hoped, He was no less the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

This chapter began with a question from John the Baptist, revealing his doubts about the validity of Jesus’ identity. And Jesus is revealing that there will be many who raise doubts about His claims to be the Messiah. Why? Because He was not that they expected. He was not doing what they wanted Him to do. He was not acting in ways consistent with their preconceived views of the Messiah.

But Jesus had come to do the will of God, not that of men. He had shown up to bring salvation to those living under the condemnation of death as a result of their sin. Jesus was not interested in restoring Israel to prominence, but in restoring sinful men to a right relationship with their Creator. And, sadly, many in His audiences would refuse to see their need for what Jesus came to offer. They would turn their backs on His message of repentance and restoration. While they loved His miracles and were enamored by His messages, what they really wanted was His destruction of the Romans and the return of the nation of Israel to power and prominence. But Jesus would play that role at a much later date. When He comes the second time, He will do so as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He will show up in the form the Jews had been expecting, but this time, rather than demanding that He dance to their tune, they will bow the knee in worship and sing His praises.

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” – Revelation 5:11-13 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What Did You Expect?

As they 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? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 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.’

11 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. – Matthew 11:7-15 ESV

As the disciples of John the Baptist walked away with their message from Jesus to deliver to their imprisoned teacher, Jesus used the opportunity to address the perceptions and expectations of the crowd. He realized that many of those who had chosen to follow Him had discovered Him through the ministry of John the Baptist. Earlier in his gospel account, Matthew recorded the launch of John’s ministry in the wilderness of Judea.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6 ESV

And Jesus asked the crowd what had prompted them to make their way to the wilderness in the first place. Was it to see the natural sights? This is most likely what Jesus meant by “A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7 ESV). Some interpret this to mean that Jesus was describing John as strong and unaffected by the political and religious winds of his day. But it seems more likely that Jesus was focusing on the motivation behind the peoples’ actions rather than John’s character. These two opening examples are meant to be silly or extreme. They are rhetorical questions. Who in their right mind would have made the trip to the Judean wilderness simply to see a reed blowing in the wind? Reeds were a common, everyday sight, and certainly, no reason to attract large crowds of people to the middle of nowhere.

Next, Jesus asked if they went to the wilderness looking for a man dressed in fine clothes. The answer is obvious: No. To do so would be silly and unheard of. No wealthy, well-dressed man would be found wandering around in the wilderness.

The bottom line was that the people had made their way to the wilderness to see a prophet, and that is what they found. They had heard the rumors about John and were not disappointed when they saw him face to face. He proved to be everything they were expecting: He was a man dressed in an outfit made of course camel’s hair and a leather belt, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching a message of repentance, just as every other God-fearing prophet had done. They had gone into the wilderness expecting to see a prophet, and they had found one. But Jesus informed them that they found much more than they imagined.

John the Baptist wasn’t just any prophet, he was the God-appointed herald of the Messiah’s arrival. He had been sent by God to fulfill the prophecy recorded by Malachi centuries earlier.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. – Malachi 3:1 ESV

John had been given the unique privilege and responsibility of announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. Unlike his predecessors, John’s message had been dealing with immediate and imminent events, not those to take place in the distant future. John not only predicted the coming of the Messiah, but he had also been given the privilege of seeing Him with his own eyes. And when John had laid eyes on Jesus, he had responded, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

John wasn’t just a prophet, he was the personal herald or messenger of the Messiah Himself. Not only that, he was the preparer of the way. This aspect of John’s ministry is vital but often overlooked and misunderstood. In the Malachi passage, the Hebrew word that is translated as “prepare” is panah. It actually means “to turn” or “to turn oneself.” And this makes perfect sense when you recognize that the message John was given to proclaim involved repentance or the changing of one’s mind. John had regularly preached a message of repentance, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And that message was a call for the people to turn to the truth. They were going to need to change their minds about all that they thought about God, the kingdom, righteousness, holiness, and the Messiah. And John had been one of the first “to turn” to Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophets had predicted.

And Jesus graciously conveys on John a high honor, declaring “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s high praise indeed, coming from the lips of the Messiah Himself. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was greater than Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even King David. But John’s greatness was not based on his own character. It was due to the one-of-a-kind role he was called to play.

Like an obscure actor, given the opportunity to play the part of a lifetime, John found himself undeservedly privileged to perform the most important role in all of human history: That of the forerunner to the Savior of the world.

And yet, Jesus then stated that, in spite of His glowing words concerning John, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). In a sense, Jesus is linking John with all the Old Testament prophets who were sent by God to tell of things to come. But now, with the arrival of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the words of the prophets, including John, had taken place. Remember what Jesus stated earlier:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17 ESV

And part of His fulfillment would be the introduction of a new covenant. Jesus was ushering in a new way for men to be restored to a right relationship with God. No longer would men have to try and keep the law. It was not that the law had become null and void, it was that Jesus had come to fulfill the law on behalf of men. He would do what no other man had ever done, keep the holy law of God perfectly and completely. And it would be His perfect obedience to the law that would make Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice needed to pay for the sins of mankind.

And all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus would become members of the Kingdom of God, regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. And Jesus announces that even “the least” in His new kingdom will be considered greater than John. In a sense, Jesus is saying that even the lowliest peasant who places his faith in Jesus will be more significant than John, Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, or any other Old Testament saint. Why? Because that individual’s greatness will be based on the righteousness of Christ.

The next part of this passage is a bit difficult to understand, and there are many views as to what Jesus was trying to say. It is important to keep these words within the overall context of Jesus’ message. He has been discussing the greatness of John and his unique role as the herald or messenger of the King and His Kingdom. All the other prophets had spoken of things to come, but John had brought the prophetic into the present. The Kingdom was at hand because the Messiah had finally come.

But Jesus infers that from the moment John had begun to pronounce his message of the Kingdom’s imminence, there had been those who were trying to “take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 ESV). This seems to be a reference to those who wanted to manipulate the arrival of Jesus for their own selfish gain. If He was the long-awaited Messiah, they wanted to make sure that He set up His Kingdom as soon as possible and rid Israel of every single Roman. Even Jesus’ closest disciples had aspirations concerning His coming Kingdom. They wanted to rule and reign beside Him when He set up His throne in Jerusalem.

Mark records that, at one point, James and John came to Jesus requesting a favor of Him.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

In a sense, they were attempting to force Jesus into establishing His Kingdom according to their own terms and for their own benefit. Jesus was pointing out that ever since John began preaching in the wilderness about the Kingdom of God being at hand, the people had begun to grow increasingly more excited about what that might mean for them. But their views were skewed by centuries of anticipation and faulty interpretation of the words of the prophets. They were attempting to understand the new through the lens of the old.

But Jesus uses the old to help them understand that their perceptions were misguided. The arrival of the Messiah would not bring a revival of the Davidic kingdom – at least not initially. Jesus had come to restore hearts and revive the spiritual stupor of the people of God. And He referenced yet another prophecy from the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, to prove His point.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

Jesus had come to bring heart-change, not a regime change. He had come to bring a spiritual revival among the people, not a restoration of the Davidic kingdom. But the people were going to have to put aside their false perceptions and selfish expectations and hear what He was saying. And if they would, they would discover that the Kingdom He came to bring was far greater than anything they could have imagined.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Trust Me

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Matthew 11:2-6 ESV

When Jesus had finished giving his pep talk to His disciples, He sent them out. But Matthew provides no details concerning their first missionary endeavor. He simply picks up the narrative with Jesus teaching and preaching. We have to turn to the gospels of Mark and Luke to find any information concerning the disciples. Luke simply states, “they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). Mark provides a bit more detail.

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” – Mark 6:12-13 ESV

Neither man mentions any form of suffering or persecution. So, was Jesus mistaken? No, He had been speaking prophetically, warning His disciples of what they could expect once He had fulfilled His mission and returned to His Father in heaven. The trials would come, but not until Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended back to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Then, His followers would experience all the things He had described. But until that time, they would enjoy a certain amount of celebrity and popularity from their association with Jesus.

But Matthew maintains his focus on Jesus. Throughout the last 10 chapters, he has consistently presented Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Israel. God, Himself confirmed the identity of Jesus at His baptism, when He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). The many miracles Jesus had performed, and Matthew recorded were also meant to validate Jesus as the Messiah. The lengthy message regarding the Kingdom, given by Jesus on the hillside and found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, also points to His unique identity as the Lord’s anointed.

But there was doubt among the followers of Jesus. And these verses reveal that even John the Baptist was having reservations concerning the true identity of Jesus. Matthew records that John sent a couple of his own disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV).

It’s important to note where John was when he sent this message to Jesus. He was in prison. And it won’t be until chapter 14 that Matthew explains just how John ended up as a prisoner of Herod.

Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” – Matthew 14:3-4 ESV

Remember, John was a prophet of God, and his primary message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And John had told the religious leaders of Israel that their repentance would need to be visible and real. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). True repentance was to be accompanied by tangible, measurable life change. And John applied that criteria to any and all, including Herod Antipater, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, who tried to have Jesus put to death as an infant. Upon Herod the Great’s death, his son was placed over the regions of Galilee and Perea. And John the Baptist had taken his message of repentance right to the doorstep of this powerful and influential man, confronting him about his relationship with his wife, Herodias. Their relationship had begun while both were still married. Herod divorced his wife and convinced Herodias to leave her husband, who just happened to be Philip, Herod’s half-brother, and another tetrarch.

But John’s bold indictment of Herod had landed him in prison. And it was while in prison that John began to have second thoughts about Jesus. Remember, he is the one who, at one time, described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).

But now, after having had plenty of time to consider all that had transpired since he had baptized Jesus, John expressed his apprehension and misgivings.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3 ESV

John was looking for verbal confirmation. He wanted to hear Jesus unapologetically and undeniably state His identity. And John’s misgivings must have been based on what he believed to be unmet expectations. Things had not turned out quite like he had anticipated. It didn’t help that he was in prison. And he must have wondered how that unexpected outcome could be part of the Messiah’s grand plan. It is likely that John thought his calling out of Herod should have resulted in the tetrarch’s repentance. Didn’t Herod understand that the true king of Israel had come? Was he not aware that the Romans were on their way out, and the Messiah was going to be cleaning house throughout Israel?

But instead of watching Herod repent, John had been dragged off to prison, where he sat pondering this unexpected turn of events. But Jesus doesn’t answer, “Yes” or “No” in response to John’s question. Instead, He says, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5 NLT).

The proof Jesus provides John is in the form of HIs miracles and message. In a sense, Jesus is inviting John to consider His words and works. John was to listen, watch, and learn. You see, John was wrestling with what he believed to be a disconnect between those very things that Jesus was doing and what he had been telling the people the Messiah had come to do. Look closely at the content of John’s message prior to Jesus appearing for His baptism.

Even now, the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” – Matthew 3:10-12 NLT

John wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t winnowing, cleaning, gathering, and burning. He had thought Jesus was going to come in judgment and restore the moral, ethical, and political purity of the nation of Israel. The Herods of the world would either need to turn or burn. But John was the one who was in jail, not Herod. The unrepentant, hypocritical Pharisees were on the outside, while John was sitting behind bars wondering how any of this could be part of the Messiah’s kingdom initiative.

But Jesus wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had come to do. In his gospel account, the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus, where He stated the purpose behind His mission.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17 ESV

There would be a time for judgment, but that time was not now. John the Baptist was attempting to compress the ministry of the Messiah by skipping over the saving aspect of His work and fast-forwarding to HIs eventual role as Judge.

But Jesus had come to bring healing to the nations. He had come to provide sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, a cure for lepers, and restored life to the dead. And that is exactly what Jesus had been doing. All in keeping with His earlier claim to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
    and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Jesus had quoted these words from Isaiah 61 and applied them to Himself. And He wanted John to know that He was doing exactly what He had been sent to do. But not just on a physical level. In time, Jesus would restore the spiritual well-being of all those who chose to place their faith in Him. And the apostle John records the words of Jesus, explaining how belief in Him as the Messiah will save anyone from the very judgment John thought was coming.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 NLT

John had his doubts, but Jesus wanted him to rest in the knowledge that all was well. Everything was going according to plan, and there were aspects concerning that plan to which John was not privy. And Jesus did not want John to lose hope. The Greek word Jesus used skandalizō, and it means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Outline of Biblical Usage). Jesus knew that John was struggling. This faithful servant was having a difficult time understanding all that was taking place around him and to him. But Jesus assured John that all was well and going according to plan.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson