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.
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 11:7-19ESV
John had questions for Jesus, but Jesus had no questions regarding John. He was not put off by John’s inquiries regarding His identity, because He knew that John was unaware of the exact nature of His ministry and mission. So, as soon as John’s disciples left, Jesus turned to the crowd and presented a defense of John. First of all, Jesus asked the people why they had flocked to see John in the wilderness. What had been their motivation? Was it to see a man who was driven by the wind and susceptible to the whims of culture? No, John had been a strong-willed and passionate speaker who was not afraid to preach a message of repentance to the people of Israel. Matthew described him as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3 ESV).
Secondly, Jesus asked if the crowds had pursued John because he dressed in fine clothes and was a man of means. Of course, the answer was no. According to Matthew’s earlier description of John, he “wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John wasn’t a wealthy or powerful man. He had no reputation as a man of influence or learning. So, that brings Jesus to ask His third and final question: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” (Matthew 11:9 ESV). And the answer to that question was a resounding, “Yes!” That exactly what the people believed John to be. And he was. Jesus confirmed John’s prophetic role and even added that he was “more than a prophet.” What did Jesus mean by that statement? John was a spokesman for God just like all the Old Testament prophets had been. But there had been a 400-year silence between the time of the last prophet and the day when John had begun his ministry. And when John had showed up on the scene to break that silence, he had been the fulfillment of prophecy himself. That is what set him apart from all the other prophets. Jesus paraphrased Malachi 3:1 when he said:
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’” – Matthew 11:10 ESV
John was the God-ordained forerunner of Jesus, having been given the sole responsibility and privilege of announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. And by quoting this Old Testament passage, Jesus was declaring His role as the Messiah and John’s role as the prophet who would prepare the way before Him.
Later on in the book of Malachi, the prophet wrote of the return of Elijah the prophet.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 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
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 declared that “he is 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. 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 lets 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 got to proclaim the coming Kingdom, but those who participate in it will have the 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
In essence, Jesus is accusing the Israelites of rejecting Him because He refused to dance to their tune or react 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 didn’t meet their demands. So,they rejected Him. They were critical and impossible to please. That’s why Jesus describes them as having “neither eating nor drinking,” and the people wrote him off as having been possessed of a demon. If John was the forerunner of the Messiah, the people wondered why he dressed and ate the way he did. He was an aesthetic, set himself apart and limited his diet, so the people labeled him as demon-possessed. But Jesus had come along, and rather than being a separatist, He ate and drank with sinners, so the Jews described Him as a glutton and a drunkard. Not only that, He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. 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 of Him. And the day will come when all mankind will realize that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.
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.