In our study of Matthew chapter eleven, we see a turning point in Jesus' earthly ministry as doubts about His identity lead to denial which will end in destruction.
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After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
Jesus continued His ministry in Galilee while the apostles went to other areas of Israel. We see that Matthew mentions Jesus' preaching and teaching which brings up the question of: What is the difference between preaching and teaching? The Greek word that is translated most often in the New Testament as "preacher" actually speaks more of a herald. A herald was one that was sent with a message from a king and, during the New Testament times, this was the gospel of Jesus Christ. A preacher (herald) was one who shared this news with those who had not heard it before with the purpose of bringing them to salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, teaching was explaining what the Good News meant and how to apply to our lives. The purpose of teaching was to equip the believers to grow in their faith and service to the King. So, Jesus went around Galilee telling people about how they could receive this new life and explaining what that new life meant to those who believed.
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?'
The John here is John the Baptist and we are reminded of the fact that he was the original herald of the fact that the Messiah was coming. At this point, he had been in prison for some time and began to have doubts about the identity of Jesus. He had baptized Jesus, seen the heavens open up, and heard the voice of God but now was having doubts because the ministry of Jesus did not fit into his understanding of what the Messiah was going to do. Have you ever had doubts about your faith because things were not going like you thought they would? Take heart as even John the Baptist had these same feelings.
Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.'
Jesus' answer to John's disciples describes the signs that Isaiah said would accompany the Messiah. Jesus told them to go back to John and tell him about what they had seen. This passage reminds us of the need for knowledge as well as the power of a testimony. His disciples were going to tell him about the signs that they were seeing around Jesus (sharing a testimony) but, if John did not know what was contained in Isaiah's prophecies, he would not be able to recognize the signs for what they were. Seeing the Word of God in action is the greatest prevention and cure for doubt. Sometimes, as was the case with John since he was in prison, it is necessary to see the action of God through the eyes of others. The same thing is true for us today as we study the Bible so that we can learn more about Jesus and understand this gift that we have been given. A big part of our growth in understanding is hearing what is happening in the lives of our fellow Christians. We share our testimony with others so that they can be strengthened in their faith as well.
'Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.'
These last words of Jesus to John's disciples can be confusing as we wonder what Jesus meant. We remember that the simple definition of blessed is "worry free"; but, what did Jesus mean when he said "stumble on account of me"? The concept brings to mind the picture of someone walking along and, without seeing something in their path, they trip and fall. This is basically what Jesus was describing as He is talking about people that are so focused on religion and rituals that they fail to see Him as the promised fulfillment of the words. They continue in their religious obligations instead of accepting the gift of salvation through His grace. This is what Paul would encounter and describe as "falling from grace" in his letter to the Galatians (see Galatians 5).
As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: 'What did you go out in the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you."'
John's disciples left with the reassurance from the Scriptures that Jesus is the promised Messiah. After they left, we see that Jesus begins to ask the crowd about John the Baptist. We see that three times He asks them what they went out to see when John was baptizing in the wilderness and we are reminded of the fact that, throughout the Bible, the number three is associated with the display of God's will. Jesus tells them that John was not one that was swayed by public opinions like a piece of grass in the wind. Jesus reminds them that John was not some rich and famous celebrity but that he was a messenger from God. He goes on to quote the words of the Father in heaven that were shared by the prophet Malachi concerning the fact that John had a special message (see Malachi 3:1) In Jesus' description of John, we see that he was a humble messenger who simply went about sharing the message that God had entrusted to him. This reminds us of the fact that God usually uses the humble and the lowly for His major missions. This type of person does not need to have all of the answers to do the work as they will simply submit to the leading of God. God knew that John would have these doubts as he sat in his jail cell but God also knew that John would not let those doubts stop him from following the instruction of the Lord. For us, as Christians, it is a reminder that God will take us (doubts and all) and use us for His glory if we are willing to humbly act on the measure of faith that we have been given.
'Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.'
Now, Jesus compares John the Baptist with the rest of mankind and concludes that he was among the greatest of men. This is amazing as just a little bit before, we saw that this great man had doubts about the identity of Jesus. This shows us that God measures a man's greatness on a much different scale than that of this world. What made him great was his faith in God and willingness to do His will. So, what did Jesus mean when He said that the "least in heaven is greater than he"? John's faith was relatively new and had not been severely tested and proven. Those that are in heaven, now, have had their faith tested and proven. Therefore, anyone in heaven is greater than any man on the earth.
'From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.'
Jesus goes on to explain that, since His ministry was announced by John the Baptist, there has been opposition to His message of grace. The violence that He speaks of is the religious people that cling to their religion and insist on trying to work their way into heaven. This is violence because of the fact that religion and grace are exact opposites of each other. Any religion is characterized by man's efforts to please God and have a right relationship with Him. On the other hand, grace is characterized by the fact that it is freely given and not based on the efforts of a man. You cannot trust in Jesus to provide your entrance into the kingdom and then say that you have to do something else. This same type of "violence" against the kingdom of heaven has continued and even increased to this day. There are very few people (pastors included) that will simply say that, if you trust in Jesus and His finished work on the cross, you will be a resident of the kingdom. Most Christians will say that but, in the next breath, they will add something else to it.
'For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.'
Jesus continues to speak of John the Baptist and the fact that he was the promised messenger to come before the appearance of the Messiah. All of the Old Testament scriptures are a picture and promise of the coming of Jesus but some of the prophets gave direct predictions about Him. All of this ended with the arrival of John who called people to repentance to receive their Messiah. Jesus refers to Malachi 4:5 which predicted that Elijah would reappear before His coming but, once again, they were expecting something different than John so they did not understand. Jesus goes on to say that only those that God has prepared through the Holy Spirit will be able to understand what He has said. This is a reminder to us that we can share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people but only God can prepare them to receive it. People can have all kinds of knowledge about Jesus without knowing Him as their Lord and Savior.
'To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: "We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn."'
Jesus compares the Jewish people of that day and area with little children who want what they want when they want it. Usually when Jesus refers to children it is in a good way but, here, it is in the sense that children are self-centered and do not see the big picture of the world around them. In the same way, the religious people expected God to fulfill the scriptures in the way that they assumed He would. They expected the flesh of Elijah to reappear just as he had left but the prophecy was speaking about the spirit of Elijah. This expectation concerning God is elevating oneself and their wisdom above that of God and this will make a man unable to hear from God.
'For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, "Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.'
Jesus goes on to explain that, as with children, what the people wanted could change rapidly. John the baptist had practiced fasting which the religious leaders would normally approve of but still they said that he was demon possessed. In the same manner, Jesus ate and drank with the people but was condemned for that. Jesus goes on to explain that the wisdom of God is right and it is proved by the lasting work of both John and Himself. God had sent each one in their own role and He was right in doing so. This serves to remind us that God has a role for each and every one of us as it relates to His kingdom work on this earth. Our efforts may look different from each other and may even appear to be opposites but God knows what he is doing in all things. We are not called to fill the ministry shoes of others but to listen and to follow the direct leading of the Lord in our lives and work.
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.
Now, we see a definite turn in the earthly ministry of Jesus as He begins to publicly proclaim judgment on those that fail to repent. We always hear of Jesus' love but many do not want to hear about the fact that Jesus will reject them if they choose to reject Him. As we have already seen, the area of Galilee and the religious people rejected the fact that He was the promised Messiah even though they had seen the miraculous works that were prophesied to accompany Him. In response to their choice, He explains that they will answer for it. We are also reminded of the fact that a failure to embrace Him as the Messiah was considered to be the same as outright denial of Him. In both cases, the result will be destruction.
'Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.'
Now, Jesus begins to prophesy of the judgment of the cities that rejected His message of grace. Here, we are reminded of Chorazin and Bethsaida which, along with Capernaum, were what has become known as the "evangelical triangle". They are known as this because the cities form a triangle and that is the area where most of Jesus' teaching and miracles happened. Those religious cities which would have had many opportunities to see and hear the things that were going on are contrasted to the cities of Tyre and Sidon. They were Roman port cities but there was a great spiritual hunger in that area of the land. We see, in Mark 3:8, that, when people from Tyre and Sidon just heard about what was happening in Galilee, they went to see and hear Jesus.
'And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.'
We see that Capernaum, which was like the center of Jesus' ministry and His headquarters, is compared to one of the most wicked of cities that is spoken of in the Scriptures. So, what do these ancient cities and their rejection of the Messiah have to do with us? They show us that privilege brings responsibility as the cities of the "evangelical triangle" are going to be judged harder than those that only heard of the Messiah. They had the privilege of seeing and hearing Jesus many times while the residents of the other cities did not but, with that privilege, comes responsibility because they could not say that they had not been told. In the same way, the people of today that do not accept Jesus will be judged even harder than those of the "evangelical triangle" because we have the ability to see the finished work of Jesus on the cross and to make a choice. The people of the triangle did not have the history to look back on like we do.
At that time Jesus said, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.'
Jesus praises the father in heaven with a recognition of His wisdom and right to do whatever He sees fit. In the father's wisdom, the gospel was given to the humble where it would be accepted. This is a reminder of the fact that it is only through the will and power of God that we can see and accept the grace that is offered.
'All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.'
Here, we see the fact that Jesus is the Son of God emphasized and, as the Son, He has the same wisdom and authority. This is the greatest stumbling block to people in the world today as the majority of the population of the earth will not accept the fact that Jesus was and is the Son of God. Many of these people want to have a right relationship with God but will not accept this fact and are referred to as antichrists by the apostle John (see 1 John 2:22).
'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.'
Jesus concludes this chapter with a call to the religious to abandon their struggle and accept His gift of salvation. The "weary and burdened" refers to those that are tired of trying to live up to God's standards on their own and are ready to trust in Him. So, what is the yoke that Jesus is talking about? A yoke is used to guide an ox and this speaks of the teaching of Jesus. It is easy and light as He was simply teaching that He was the only way to have a right relationship with the Father. For the "religious' it was just too easy for them to accept.