7 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
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.