Scripture: Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:2-6 ESV
Observation: As mentioned in yesterday’s Daily Focus, here marks the beginning of Matthew’s third epoch of the life and ministry of Christ: the Son of God reveals his identity and the nature of his kingdom through signs and parables (11:2-13:53). Hence, there is no more appropriate beginning to this segment than the story of the one who prepared the way for the incarnate Messiah, who now incarcerated struggles with doubt and seeks affirmation that his mission did not fail.
We learn the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist’s imprisonment later in Matthew’s Gospel. Having called out Herod for his illicit marriage to Herodias, his brother’s former wife, she seeks the opportunity to rid her husband’s kingdom of John the Baptist (14:3-4). Immobilized and discouraged, John sends his disciples to question Jesus if he is the Chosen One. Jesus graciously tells John’s disciples to return to John and report what they hear and see: that Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant’s mission (Isaiah 61:1-2). Satisfied, John’s disciples leave and return to their rabbi with encouraging news.
Immediately, without condemnation of John’s struggle with doubt, Jesus turns to the crowd and rhetorically asks who they sought to see in the wilderness: a man of affluence and influence or a prophet from God. Not waiting for a response, he tells them that John exceeds the prophets before him because he is the chosen one to prepare the way for the Messiah (vv.7-15). Thus, John is more significant than any who came before him, for he has come in the Spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for Christ as foretold by the prophet Malachi (3:1; 4:5).
Finally, Jesus calls out his generation for their fickle expectations. They accuse John of having a demon because of his stringent diet and the Son of Man of being a glutton, drunkard, and a friend of sinners because he dines with tax collectors and the like (vv.16-19).
Takeaway: Imbedded in this parallel narrative (see also Mark 6:14-29 and Luke 3:19-20; 9:7-13), Matthew alone records a comment regarding the kingdom of heaven suffering violence: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (11:12 ESV). As D.A. Carson contends, Christ adds this comment to remind his disciples (who he recently commissioned to go and preach his Gospel) that his kingdom will continue to expand (with or without John the Baptist). Still, violent men (case in point, Herod) will try to thwart its growth, but to no avail.
It is an essential point that Jesus’s disciples must remember, for some will follow the fate of John’s martyrdom. And they, too, may have their doubts when the darkness encroaches. Thus, they will do well to refocus on the bigger picture: their small but critical role in a meta-narrative that spans several millennia. From the Creation Story to Christ’s return, John the Baptist, the Eleven, Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and a host of saints extending to our times and beyond have and will further the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the wake of violence, all the while anticipating his return.
Meanwhile, you and I have our part to play. And like the critics who mocked John the Baptist and Jesus, others will criticize and question us. And like John the Baptist and the multitude of saints of this age of the New Covenant, we may face times when violent people attempt to silence us for what we stand for, and they may gain the edge while we suffer unfairly. But like John, even if we wobble with doubts, Christ’s grace will be sufficient to help us finish strong. Our part? Follow Jesus’ advice for John: hear, see, and believe. Hear what other believers and Scripture tell us, see with eyes of faith the broader scope of the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, and believe Jesus is accomplishing his purpose in our lives for the greater good of his glorious reign—even when the end is near. Because, for us, death is merely a comma, not a period (as will be the fate of those who seek violence against Christ’s kingdom and its workers). Indeed, for us, eternal glory awaits!
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who stood up against the judgmental and self-righteous but hung upright for repentant sinners like us. Thus, we confess that, like John the Baptist, we struggle with doubts when fear and suffering overwhelm us. So would you please help us to hear, see, and believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and is working all things for our good and to grow his kingdom? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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