with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” – Matthew 11:2-3
The Real McCoy
Did you ever think you had someone figured out, only to be surprised when they went off on an entirely different track than you ever expected?
Perhaps you’ve made a new friend at some point, enjoying the many things you had in common. Later, though, you learn things about your friend that are surprising or puzzling. You wonder whether you have been deceived, or if you simply misunderstood – or if you still don’t fully understand where the friend is coming from. Such was the case with John the Baptist and Jesus.
When John baptized his cousin, he felt led of God to declare that Jesus was “the coming one,” the Messiah of God who had been at the heart of Jewish hopes for many years. John expressed this confidence in terms of common messianic expectations that Jesus would bring judgment to the wicked and vindication to the righteous.
“The axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he had said, so that all who failed to bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire (Mat. 3:10). “His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John went on, so he could gather in the harvest of good seed while separating the chaff (Matt. 3:12).
John’s own testimony suggests that he, like Jesus’ own disciples and many others of his day, expected Jesus to position himself as a powerful messiah who would dispense with the Romans, judge the wicked, and make all things right with the world. Instead, Jesus went around healing people and preaching a gospel that called for repentance but majored on love. In Matthew 5-10, the gospel writer portrays Jesus as a conundrum within his world. No one knew just what to make of him.
A question and an answer(vv. 2-6)
Maybe this is why Matthew chose to insert a question from John the Baptist at this point. Jesus’ response speaks to the issue of his identity and his unexpected behavior, pointing to often-overlooked prophecies that spoke of a Messiah who was more servant than soldier.
Matthew had reported in 4:12 that John had been imprisoned, though he does not relate the story of John’s arrest until chapter 14. There we learn that John had been jailed after daring to publicly castigate Herod Antipas, who ruled over Judea and Samaria, for his immoral lifestyle.
The story has all the makings of a soap opera. Herod’s brother Philip, who ruled the outlying territories of Galilee and Perea, had married a woman named Herodias, who reportedly lusted for power. Though Philip may have been the most able ruler of the three brothers, he seemed content to rule his quiet provinces. This did not satisfy Herodias, who violated Jewish custom by taking the initiative to divorce Philip, and then married his brother Antipas, who had greater political aspirations. Ultimately, her prodding led Antipas to pressure Rome for the title of king. The gambit backfired: Antipas was deposed in 39 CE, after which he and Herodias were banished to Gaul.
It was this ill-gotten marriage that John had dared to criticize, and it was this Herodias who later demanded John’s head, though Antipas himself was less than excited about the execution (Matt. 14:1-12). Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, suggested that John’s arrest resulted from the paranoid Antipas’ fear of John’s popularity.
Antipas had tried to silence John by holding him in a rustic wilderness fortress at Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea and as far from everyone else as he could get him. Despite the remote location of his prison, John heard rumors of Jesus’ activities from disciples who came to bring provisions and comfort. John was confused by what he heard, and sent messengers to ask Jesus if he had been mistaken about his identity. (See “The Hardest Question” online for more on John’s confusion.)
Take note that John never suggested any doubt of Jesus’ integrity, for he addressed the question directly to him and anticipated a truthful answer: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (v. 3). The word translated “another” means “another of a different kind,” suggesting that Jesus’ ministry was not what John had expected. Had John been mistaken about who the Messiah was, or what kind of Messiah he was to be?
Jesus did not answer the question directly, but responded by pointing to “what you hear and see,” events that Matthew had previously recorded in chapters 5-7 (Jesus’ teachings) and chapters 8-9 (Jesus’ miracles). Jesus’ words and his works had fulfilled popular messianic prophecies such as Isaiah 29:18-19, 35:5-6, and 61:1-2.
The blind were seeing, the lame walking, and the poor hearing good news of the kingdom. Jesus’ added comment that lepers were healed and the dead raised goes beyond even the prophetic hopes (vv. 4-5). Jesus left it to John to make the necessary connections and conclude that he had no need to look for another: the one foreseen by the prophets had arrived already.
John’s problem was not with Jesus or his actions, but with his perception of Jesus’ mission. Jesus had fulfilled many prophecies, but not in the way many people expected. In his response, Jesus pronounced a blessing to those who took no offense but accepted him as the kind of Messiah he intended to be (v. 6). John was not offended so much as confused: he had failed to understand how the various prophecies complemented each other.
While Jesus included the various miracles he had done as witness of his work, at the forefront was his proclamation of hope and joy to the poor and downtrodden. Eduard Schweizer noted that miracles were indeed signs of authority, but for Jesus, “miracles were not the point; what is most important in his ministry is what is least pretentious – his message of love and hope” (The Good News According to Matthew [John Knox Press, 1975], p. 256).
A word of praise(vv. 7-11)
The dialogue between John and Jesus, carried on by messengers, would have been a public matter. Not wanting those who had overheard to have an incorrect perception of John, Jesus turned to the surrounding crowds and addressed the identity and role of John the Baptist.
Prophets, by definition, thrive on certainty. Some, perhaps, may have thought that John’s evident confusion about Jesus’ actions meant the once-stalwart prophet had become weak and wavering. Lest they lose respect for John because of his uncertainty, Jesus made it clear that John was not like the windblown reeds that lined the Jordan River, where John baptized. Nor was he some wimpy royal courtesan lounging in silk pajamas, such as those who populated the Herod brothers’ palaces (vv. 7-8).
The stern and ascetic John was no softie. Clad in his trademark camel hair and leather, he was nothing less than a prophet, Jesus insisted, and deserving of respect. Indeed, John was more than a prophet (v. 9): he was the culminating representative of all prophets who had come before. John did not just predict the Messiah, but introduced him.
It was impressive enough that Jesus called John a prophet, for many Jews believed that the age of prophecy had come to an end. Popular expectation, however, looked for a return of prophecy as a prelude to the Messiah’s advent. Some traditions such as Mal. 3:1 anticipated that a special messenger would come to announce the Messiah’s arrival: Malachi named the coming prophet as none other than the great Elijah himself (Mal. 4:5-6).
Jesus endorsed John’s identity as this very person. He quoted Malachi’s prophecy (v. 10), and insisted that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (v. 11a). As the late Malcolm Tolbert once put it, “In terms of his character, his commitment to God, and the courage of his ministry, no greater man than John had ever been born” (Good News from Matthew [Nashville, Broadman Press, 1975], p. 101).
Yet, there was a paradox in John’s identity: though he was the greatest of all men, Jesus said, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (v. 11b). This statement has occasioned much discussion. What does Jesus mean?
Some argue that Jesus’ reference to the “least in the kingdom” was a reference to himself and thus a claim to being greater than John, but there is little to commend this view. It is more likely that Jesus’ statement is to be understood not in the context of John’s personal character, but of his position at the juncture of two ages. The old age of the law was passing, and with Jesus the new age of the kingdom was beginning. John, though greater than all who lived in the old age, would be martyred before Jesus fulfilled his kingdom-inducing ministry.
John was the forerunner of the kingdom, which so exceeded the old age that even the greatest of its heroes would be considered less blessed than the least of those in the new kingdom: all who choose to become Christ’s disciples enter a different plane of relationship with God. This is our great opportunity, marked this Advent season by the constant reminder of Christ’s arrival in our world. It’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 11, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Matthew 11:2-11
“Who am I?” is the most important question of your youth’s life right now. A lot of what they struggle with can be related back to trying to figure out this question. One of the things that is hard about this question is that there are so many people other than your youth telling them the answer to this question; even you. As we help our youth find the answer to this question, be patient with them as they try out new answers to this question. Ask questions that are guiding but don’t give a specific answer. Remember, the question is “Who am I?”, not “Who do you want me to be?”
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Is There Something You Want to Hear?” from Moana via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Matthew 11:2-11