Go, and Tell John

How can you be sure you have a genuine article? Matthew 11:1–15 tells us that John the Baptist had a similar concern—and it ought to be yours as well.

Don’t fall away. John was perplexed. Matthew sets the scene. After instructing his disciples Jesus was preaching in the towns of Galilee. John the Baptist, who had heralded Christ’s coming, and who was now in prison because of his pointed preaching to Herod, sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the coming One. John may have been discouraged with his own imprisonment. More likely, he was concerned that Jesus Christ didn’t seem to fit the model he had of the coming Messiah. John had spoken of an ax at the root of the trees, and the dead wood being burned in fire. The coming Messiah was to baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, Matthew 3:10-12. But the reports that reached John in prison spoke of Jesus teaching and performing miracles. Were was the ax? Where was the winnowing fork? Was this really the Messiah, or could John have been mistaken? As we’ll see, Jesus’ response to the question was not a direct answer, but rather involved pointing to the miracles he had been working. It’s a powerful answer. He is concerned that John not waver in his trust in the Messiah.

Take Jesus on his own terms. Many have preconceptions of the kind of Jesus they want. The popular notion of the Messiah in Jesus’ day included a political deliverer who would vanquish the Romans. Some want a Jesus who is simply a teacher or example. Some look to him as support for the particular positions they hold or to solve whatever problem they happen to have. Jesus calls you to recognize that he is the Messianic King. His benediction, his blessing, rests on you if you are not offended at him. Stand firm in your trust. Recognize his compassion and grace, as well as majestic power evident in the miracles. At the same time, submit to him as King. Just because judgment on the rebellious did not come as soon as John expected, does not mean that it would not come, see Matthew 11:20–24. Your trust in Christ, or your refusal to trust, has eternal consequences.

Experience Christ’s saving work. Christ’s miracles are part of the presence of the messianic kingdom. Jesus has John’s disciples witness some of his miracles. He gives sight to the blind (a miracle that is particularly emphasized in Matthew’s Gospel), enables the lame to walk, heals the lepers, gives hearing to the deaf, and even raises the dead. He also proclaims the good news to the poor. Jesus’ description of his activity quotes language (Isaiah 35:4-6) which describes the coming of God to save his people. (Also see Isaiah 61:1.) The miracles are evidence that the messianic King is present. But they are more than just pointers or evidence. The miracles are the good news of the kingdom in visible form. Where the kingdom of God expands, the effects of sin and its curse are pushed back. As hear the good news and trust the King, you experience his saving work. And where the kingdom is, the King is present. Thus the miracles themselves are an adequate answer to John’s doubts and questions. “A miracle, as much as preaching, in its sense of being a revelation of the kingdom of God, is a confrontation which necessitates a decision: for or against Jesus as the victor of the Evil one and the Bearer of the Spirit of God. . . . For this reason the miracle in itself if is not the most important thing, nor even the sharing in Jesus’ miraculous power, but much rather, the participation in the redemption of the kingdom which is thereby revealed.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 70).

You are greater than John the Baptist! John was a prophet—and more than a prophet. John the Baptist’s disciples were leaving, Jesus immediately corrects any misimpression that Jesus was critical of John. He asks a series of rhetorical questions. John is not a reed swaying in the wind, a man whose message suits the moods of his hearers. John is not a man dressed in fine clothes (camel’s skin and a leather belt is about as opposite as can be imagined), for such are found in king’s houses-—and the only royal hospitality John enjoys is in Herod’s dungeon! No, John was a prophet who was faithful to his task. He proclaimed the Word of the Lord without consideration as to personal consequences. John was indeed a prophet, and the people had recognized him as such. Among the Jews there was hardly a position greater than being a prophet, one who spoke the Word of God. Their history was rich with the stories of the prophets, but more than 400 years had passed since they had heard one—and then John came! Jesus affirms that John was indeed a prophet. John was abundantly more than a prophet, v.9. Leon Morris writes that the “exuberant word” Matthew uses means “more than sufficient, over and above, abundant”—and then Matthew uses the comparative form to intensify the meaning. John was so much more than a prophet that Jesus says that among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John. In a literal sense, he was the greatest! John’s greatness lies in his position as the messenger of the Lord. Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 and applies it to John. Unlike the other prophets who foretold (sometimes in rich detail) the coming of the Messiah, John actually introduced the Messiah and his kingdom. Jesus takes a prophecy that applies to one who comes before the Lord and says that John’s preparation for Jesus’ coming fulfills that. Jesus is claiming to be Jehovah God. John’s greatness lay, not in himself, but in the One whom it was his life’s work to introduce. He was simply the messenger preparing the way for the King. He was the “Elijah” prophesied by Malachi (4:5).

The powerful kingdom demands a forceful commitment. Since John’s day the kingdom has been forcefully advancing. Verse 12 is difficult. It can be understood legitimately in either of two directions. It could be understood in a negative sense: the kingdom suffers violence and violent men seize it (see KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV). In the context John had been imprisoned, and Jesus speaks of those who reject his message. It can also be understood in a positive sense: the kingdom advances forcefully and forceful men enter it (NIV). (The negative sense really implies too much, that the violent men succeed in their attack against the kingdom.) The same verb, in a similar context is used positively in Luke 16:16. This powerful kingdom demands a forceful commitment. It is not for the halfhearted, the undecided. Rather, it summons you to take up your cross (Matthew 10:38), to be willing to give up all for the kingdom (Matthew 16:44-46). The force is not that of armed rebellion (whether the Zealots of John’s day or those who might take the law into their own hands today), but the humble, obedient service of the King. Regardless of the exact force of Jesus’ statement, he makes clear that the kingdom which John introduced is a present reality with his (Jesus’) own work. Jesus is likely speaking of the powerful intrusion of his kingdom into a resistant world.

Live in the reality that John only anticipated. You have the reality that John only anticipated. You may be least in the kingdom of heaven. In many ways you and I are far less gifted than John. Yet, John and his work, as great as it was, stood on the other side of the threshold of the coming of the kingdom. As close to it as John was, he essentially stood in the Old Testament. He anticipated the kingdom. “Our Lord did not mean that John was not a believer in the Old Testament sense, but simply that officially and personally he did not share in the far greater privileges of the new covenant: He that is lesser in the kingdom of heaven, i.e., occupies a relatively lower place than John under the Old Testament, is nevertheless absolutely greater than John, because the kingdom itself is far superior to the typical state of the theocracy.” (Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p. 300). You have the reality of the kingdom. The King has come. You have experienced his work in your life. You have the fullness of his death and resurrection.

John’s disciples could report to their master that Jesus was indeed the genuine Messiah. While you cannot go and tell John, you have experienced something that John never could—the Messiah suffered and died and was raised again for you. His work is an accomplished reality. As greater than John in that sense, step out into a needy world. Go with his compassion for the needy. Go with the good news that the Messiah has indeed come.