Matthew 11-Jesus speaks to John the Baptist

Even John the Baptist had worries and doubts.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

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?”

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. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into 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. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 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. 12 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. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe 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, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “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. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 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. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “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.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the beautiful things about Jesus is that he can be many things to many people.  For example, I have a friend who taps into the mystical side of Jesus and is a big believer in the laying on of hands to heal sickness in Jesus’ name.  I feel awkward doing that, but by no means do I think she is wrong or weird to do so – that’s her Jesus.  At least at this time in my life (who knows what will change down the road), I’m more interested in finding the humanity in Jesus.  He’s a BFD, like, the BFD, and I find that overwhelming sometimes.  I in no way want to downplay his divinity, but I just find his human side easier to identify with.  All this to say, I often read the Bible, especially the New Testament, searching for little tidbits that speak to the living, breathing person being written about.  The one who got hungry, and tired, and annoyed, who had friends with whom to share joys and sorrows, who doubted, and who may have been a little bit like me.

This chapter doesn’t speak so much to Jesus’ humanity as to John the Baptist’s, which really struck me, because he’s another I’ve always thought of “more than” me.  Jesus even says in this chapter “there has not risen anyone higher than John the Baptist.” (11:11) Yet Jesus also says “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist].”  Just to be clear, Jesus isn’t trashing John, its just that John is part of the old covenant, and Jesus ushers in a new covenant with God.  And this passage is all about Jesus conveying that message to what must have been a worried John.

As the beginning of the chapter informs us, John is in prison at the time of this event.  It gets into the details of why elsewhere, but basically he was saying stuff about the king’s wife that they didn’t like.  He’s in jail because he displeased the king.  His whole mission has been to prepare the way for one greater than him, and here he is, stuck in prison.  He knows Jesus is out there (he’s already baptized him), and he suspects Jesus is the one for whom he was preparing.  If I were John, I’d be suffering a moment of doubt right now. Out there is the person who is supposed to usher in a new age, change the world, and here John is, the main messenger of the age, languishing in prison.  What thoughts might have been going through his head, with all that time to just sit and think in a dreary cell.  “Is Jesus actually the Messiah? Has all my work been for nothing? Why am I still stuck here? Is there more I need to do? How will I do it from here? Did I understand God right?”

So John sends his disciples to straight up ask Jesus if he is the one they’ve all been waiting for.  And Jesus whole response is an acknowledgement of John’s job well done to completion.  First, Jesus addresses John (through his disciples) directly.  To paraphrase 11:4-6: “Look at all these miracles, dude.  Don’t lose faith.”  Jesus is recognizing John may be feeling a little discouraged right now and bolstering him.

Then, as John’s people were leaving, Jesus turns to the crowd.  This next section of Jesus’ speech seems to speak not only to the crowd, but to John.  “What did you go out in the desert to see?” He asks both parties in 11:7, “A prophet?” For the crowd, that means John the Baptist.  For John, I think it means Jesus.  Then, Jesus publicly affirms John’s importance, within earshot of John’s disciples.  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you,” Jesus quotes from Malachi.  I love that quote.  It acknowledges both John’s and his own importance, and I think it is a quote John would appreciate hearing.

Most of the rest of the chapter can be read as giving John validation and closure.  Again, Jesus isn’t knocking John’s work saying those in the kingdom of heaven are more important, he’s saying “look, the old order is over.  You’ve done it, you’ve brought it to a close.  Now I’m here to start the new one.” He calls John the new Elijah (11:14, and high praise), and denounces those who didn’t listen to him (11:18), and calls woe unto the cities that don’t repent.  John was all about repentance, and I like to think it’s Jesus way of not only speaking to the crowd, but conveying a special message to John, one that basically says, “You did all you could, buddy.  Some people just don’t get it, and it’s not on you.”

Jesus closes by praising God and offering a sweet, gentle, comforting invitation to follow him.  Of course those words are for us, but could they also be especially for John? Why not? “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (11:29) Start to finish, this was a message for John.

And I can only imagine how John must have felt receiving it. Here he was, worry, worry, worrying in his cell, and Jesus sends him an answer to all his questions, asked and unasked.  I’m here. You did it. You may rest. If this isn’t an example of Jesus’ love then I don’t know what is.  I find it comforting as well, to know that Jesus loves us just this much, if not even more so.

Matthew 03-The Bible in Context

Advice for reading through uncomfortable passages.

 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So far the subtitle of this blog could be “leaning into your discomfort.” Now here comes John the Baptist, talking about repentance, which I’ve always thought of as an uncomfortable act.  People used to self-flagellate and wear hair shirts as a way of repenting. Yikes.  Now I’ve never done that, but my general conception of repentance has been an idea of feeling really sorry. But my beloved NIV footnotes describes repentance as “a radical change in one’s life as a whole.”  And that sounds like a much healthier and more effective definition than mine, and way better than whipping you’re own back bloody.  But even so, radical change, in the sense of repentance, requires examining our current beliefs and actions, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

That in and of itself isn’t any huge revelation.  I think most Christians of any stripe talking about repentance are expecting it to go hand in hand with at least a little bit of self examination.  But if we’re talking about radical changes in behavior through self examination, let’s talk about some radical evolution of thought at the same time, and how reading the Bible in context can guide us on our spiritual journeys of radical change.

I listened to a new podcast for the first time ever last night, called The Bible for Normal People.  In the episode I listened to, host Pete Enns brought up the fact that the Bible needs to be read in context.  To paraphrase, he reminds us that the Bible pre-supposes cultural norms that simply aren’t true for most people today.  Just recently I’ve had two brief comment/social media discussions about the importance of Biblical context, and even touched upon it a few posts back, in Malachi 02. Basically, it’s important to remember that while the Bible is a divinely inspired book, it was still written by humans.  Well-intentioned and seeking God, for sure, but fallible and imperfect nonetheless.  They were influenced by the culture of their time.  Sometimes that means that rules and cultural norms that applied to them simply aren’t applicable today, such as polygamy and slavery, which Pete Enns listed as examples.  So it’s important to remember that when we read certain passages, especially those dealing with rules and behavior.

Let me be clear-I’m not advocating a complete rejection of all Christian ideals and traditions.  Far from it.  What I am advocating for is doing away with dogmatic rule-following for the sake of rule-following.  In this chapter John the Baptist does the same thing, calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees in 3:7-10.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two influential and educated groups of Jewish society who were strict rule-followers, and tended to be separatist and elitist – not really things Jesus will be down with when he gets into his ministry.

In order to not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think we need to dig deeper into the Bible than just the surface meanings of the texts, and look for the universal truths. I believe that our primary responsibility is one of love and acceptance, and to find Biblical proof of that I started this blog.  The Bible is a vibrant treasure trove of guidance, and to see it as static does it a disservice.  It is there to be used as a tool in our spiritual journey, as we examine our thoughts and actions to see if they are in keeping with Christ’s true teachings.  The Bible was at one time used to provide justification for slavery.  You don’t see many advocates for that, anymore, and yet the Bible hasn’t been thrown out. Changing our minds on topics like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, and more doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away the Bible.  As long as we are thoughtful in our opinions, seeking God as we form them and reading the Bible for it’s deeper truths, then I see no problem with new interpretations.

Self examination can be really uncomfortable.  So can repentance.  But it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy and love.  Instead, it can be the starting point for it.  Next time you read something in the Bible that makes you uncomfortable (the verses that get my hackles up are always the ones admonishing women to be subservient), examine it.  Remember the context in which those verses were written, and look for the greater truth.  Doing so will bring you into deeper conversation with God, into a deeper knowledge of yourself, and into a deeper knowledge of your own faith.

***

I’m totally not ignoring Jesus’ first lines of the Bible, like literally the first words he ever speaks, as our Bible is arranged.  I just really like the telling of this story in Mark even better, so I want to discuss it a little later on, and keep the focus of this blog post on reading the Bible in context.  Don’t worry, he talks a lot in Matthew 11 and we’ll discuss what he says next post.