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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 11

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Verse 1

And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities.

Having called and commissioned the twelve in chapter 10, Jesus now continues His own ministry in Galilee. Chapter 11 focuses exclusively on some events during this time.

Lenski notes the twelve do not replace Jesus but simply aid him in His ministry (424). As six pairs of apostles scatter to preach alone, Jesus continues with His own work. Here we see divine wisdom and efficiency. This separation is not a vacation for the Master nor is it a much-needed personal respite: it is a deliberate act of training.

Jesus’ commission to the twelve not only gives His ministry more exposure but gives His apostles a taste of what will come. Soon they will set forth for distant shores (Matthew 28:19), but for now "home" is the place to begin. By using this method, Jesus teaches that home is always the best place for a "would be preacher" to get his feet wet. He knows the people, their customs, and their ways. If his own native surroundings prove too much to handle, how will he convert those on foreign soil?

Jesus’ plan of training and sending forth is one of perfect balance. It is one thing to learn of His ways, to have an intimate understanding of His words, and to believe in His divinity; but such head knowledge without a heart for evangelism accomplishes little. Here The King provides a real opportunity for His "men" to come from behind his royal robes and face the fray. Each man is given a specific command to fulfill. This fact is portrayed by Matthew’s use of the word diatasson (command), which carries the idea of specific detailed instruction (Roberston 86).

Verse 2

Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,

Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ: The imprisonment of John the Baptist is first mentioned in Matthew 4:12. There Matthew indicates that Jesus begins His ministry after learning of John’s incarceration. Not until chapter 14 verse 3 do we learn of the events surrounding this imprisonment (see also Mark 6:17-20; Luke 3:19-20).

Josephus records the place of John’s imprisonment and subsequent death is Herod’s border castle of Machaerus (Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2). This fortress is in the mountains just northeast of the Dead Sea. Here, perhaps in a dungeon cell, John probably spends more than twelve months (Barclay Vol 2 p 1, Broadus 235). But while John’s personal ministry is on the decline, Jesus’ popularity continues to grow. This fact probably leads to John’s inquiry.

he sent two of his disciples: While in prison, John obviously has a certain amount of interchange with the outside world. Luke 7:18-23 indicates that during this final year of John the Baptist’s life, his own disciples shuttle back and forth carrying news. Mark’s gospel tells us that Herod has a certain affinity toward John, apparently giving him certain freedoms such as sending and receiving disciples. While the content of John’s preaching no doubt pains this wicked, adulterous ruler, the character of the rugged wilderness preacher captivates him. Herod fears John and gladly hears him, knowing he is a righteous and holy man (Mark 6:20). Not until the scheming Herodias works her diabolical evil, does John come to harm (see notes on Matthew 14:1-12). Herod has never been in a hurry to destroy John; and even after his death, the ruler allows for the respectful removal of the body (Matthew 4:12).

A question that lingers in considering John’s inquiry is why his disciples and even John himself do not immediately lay aside all that pertain to their ministry once Jesus has been fully revealed? John has witnessed and had even participated in the glorious baptism of the Savior (Matthew 3:13-17). There can be little doubt this "One" is The Son of God. But in this verse we see John’s disciples still at work (see also Matthew 9:14). To what do we owe this phenomenon?

It is difficult to determine with certainty the exact chronology of John’s decline and Jesus’ increase, so a definitive answer may be impossible. At least two ideas, however, merit consideration.

1. It may be that John’s imprisonment comes so quickly after Jesus’ baptism that there simply is not enough time for him to bring his work to an abrupt halt. We must recall the immense popularity of John and the magnitude of his ministry. All Judea has heard of this fiery preacher and many follow him (Matthew 3:5-6). Throwing off the old garment and putting on of the new will take time. Fowler speculates that perhaps only four months pass between John’s first identification of Jesus as the Messiah and his fatal imprisonment. This combined with the lack of speedy communication may have made it impossible to quickly alert his followers to the Messiah’s arrival (469).

This explanation is possible, but it fails to explore the possibility of Divine timing. It may be God’s providential plan includes an overlap in the two ministries?

2. Careful analysis of the scripture indicates that initially the message of both John and Jesus are the same. Both demand repentance in view of the coming kingdom (compare Matthew 3:1-2 with Matthew 4:17). Continuity and harmony exist between the two. Thus, there is no need for John’s ministry to come to an abrupt end. The kingdom has not yet come; and, at least for a while, the preparation process is broad enough to include both ministries. John the Baptist’s comment in John 3:30 seems to allude to a gradual, divinely ordained transition. Eventually John’s ways, his baptism, and his preparatory work will be abandoned (Acts 18:25; Acts 19:3-5). At this pre-crucifixion point in time, however, no disunity exists between Jesus and John. Any disciple of John who has a sincere interest in truth will eventually be drawn to the Master.

Verse 3

And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

This question is one that poses difficulty. Having baptized Jesus, does John not realize that Jesus is the Messiah? Has John forgotten his own confession, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29)?

To understand the query, one must understand the man behind it. Without doubt, John lives in a period when full revelation is veiled (Matthew 11:11). His vision of the Messiah is at best obscure. He will never be an intimate eyewitness of the Lord’s majesty as are Peter, James, and John (2 Peter 1:16-18; cf. Matthew 17:20). And if, as discussed above, John is cast into prison immediately after Jesus’ baptism, he might well have missed any first hand witness of the miracles that proved Jesus’ divinity. Even Jesus’ response in verse 5 indicates John has not been privy to the miracles first hand (see also 11:2).

In addition, John’s ministry had been characterized by forceful rebuke and condemnation (Matthew 3:7-10); however, now to the very same people to whom he has preached peril, Christ preaches peace. Fowler asks how can the ax be laid to the root and the tree burned when Jesus keeps watering it and trying to save it? (470).

Before we harshly judge, we must remember that while John is a tool of God and fully inspired in his message, he is human. Fowler notes:

"Before the "word of God came to John" (Luke 3:2), he was just plain John. Before "there was a man sent from God," (John 1:6) he had been a man, and that man, now trapped in Herod’s prison where his life will be tragically snuffed out, must learn a fundamental lesson facing all true prophets. Simply stated, the lesson is that once an unquestionable inspired prophet or apostle has delivered his God-breathed message, that man of God must then submit himself with faithful allegiance and unswerving personal obedience to that message, even though he may not have had revealed to him all the other explanations of God’s will that may bear directly on what the prophet already knows" (470).

And so it may be that while John sits at Machaerus, his humanness gets the best of him. Here is a man who has been a son of the desert. Here is one who has wandered freely in the open spaces of the Judean countryside. Now despite his faithfulness to God’s commission, he sits alone in a hot dungeon, deprived of exercise, fresh air, and more importantly of that noble thing for which men die: freedom. Where is the One who will proclaim liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-21)?

If this be the motivation and cause behind John’s question, then he is in the noblest of company. Moses does not always maintain a positive outlook in difficult circumstances. Elijah, too, wrestles with his own emotions. Elijah’s words found in 1 Kings seem appropriate for John who so closely resembles him.

"I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your alters, and killed Your prophets with the sword, I alone am left; and they seek to take my life" (1 Kings 19:10).

McArthur suggests yet another possible reason for John’s inquiry. Perhaps John has been caught up with popular misconceptions surrounding the Messianic Expectation. The Jews think the Messiah will be a conquering one—One who will throw out the Romans, re-establish Israel’s sovereignty, and usher in a new glorious dawn. Some even think the Messiah will eliminate all suffering, all disease, affliction, hunger, and pain. Yet Jesus’ miracles, however wonderful they sound to John in prison, fall far short of this. For excellent reading, see Edershiem’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book 3 660-663.

Tradition also had it that the Messiah would be preceded by Elijah, Jeremiah, and other prophets. Therefore, it is possible that John begins to think that perhaps Jesus is one of these.

Verse 4

Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see.

Within this short, simple message are the necessary ingredients to convince the wavering John.

Here we find Jesus’ command to personal witness. Go tell John what "you" have seen and heard. In other words go tell him about the things that have impacted your life. Tell him about the sermons and the sights that have affected you, personally. This is the core of evangelism. Luke records that in that very same hour Jesus healed many. Thus, Jesus sends these messengers off still reeling from the impact of having personally witnessed these mighty miracles (Luke 7:21).Their report is to be made up of two elements: what they hear and what they see. This procedure is significant, for Jesus does not come to merely provide a sideshow of sights. His mission is to bring the saving message of the gospel.

Verse 5

The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up: Jesus does not simply say, "Yes, I am the Messiah." Such a declaration will be misunderstood by the crowds who think he is a political messiah. Instead Jesus lets his miracles speak for themselves.

Furthermore, to answer John with a simple "yes" will not satisfy the inquiry. John needs something of substance—something that will evidence Jesus’ power. Simple affirmation is easy, but to demonstrate proof beyond doubt is quite another matter. Any imposter can claim to be the "One." To prove it before crowds and multitudes is another issue.

The answer Jesus then gives is complete. It speaks to Jesus’ power and divinity and to fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah foretells of the Messiah doing such miracles, and now it is coming to pass (Isaiah 29:18-19; Isaiah 35:5-7; Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-21). John can rest assured that Jesus is the Messiah.

and the poor have the gospel preached to them: This is the climax of Jesus’ response. It is to the poor Jesus comes just as Isaiah has foretold (61:1). This phrase carries with it the idea of tidings of blessings to be enjoyed through the Messiah’s reign.

The poor are generally overlooked by the religious elite of this day. The scribes and Pharisees would rather devour widows houses than divulge the word of God (Matthew 23:14). Broadus says:

"The masses of mankind, poor, and ignorant and suffering, received little attention from the heathen philosophers or from the Jewish rabbis. The latter often spoke fo then with the greatest contempt…and they delighted to stigmatize them as "country folks," ancient cultures being almost entirely confined to cities" (238).

Verse 6

And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

The Lord’s benediction here is remarkable. Stated as a beatitude (that is, blessing) Jesus warns all would-be followers that discipleship requires dedication. This gentle rebuke is especially aimed at John. While weeks drag into months and as John languishes in prison, the One who should have been a source of encouragement is gradually becoming a point of contention. "Don’t lose heart, John, don’t become impatient" the Master seems to say, "you don’t understand my timing and my plan, but God’s will is being fulfilled."

The word "offend" (Gk:skandalizo) originally has to do with trapping an animal. Metaphorically it carries the idea of a stumbling block or offense. Thus, Jesus point is that any who would follow Him must be willing to lay aside preconceived notions and expectations and let Christ’s plan prevail.

Verse 7

And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?

And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John. In case some in the audience mistakenly think that Jesus’ rebuke discredits John, He continues with a series of questions. The text indicates the messengers were already leaving when Jesus began to speak, thus Jesus’ words are not flattery for the benefit of a prisoner. They are rather honest words to the multitude about a man who has preached with dedicated fearlessness. John will never hear this beautiful and fitting eulogy given by the Master. Plummer calls it John’s "funeral oration," for not long afterwards Herodias instigated his death (161).

What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? Most Jews are familiar with the plants that grow along the Jordan River bank. They know the effects the wind has on these flimsy reeds and the way every breeze tosses them to and fro. In spite of the questions that indicate his faith was being tested, John is not like a wavering reed. Winds of popularity do not shake him. He is a stable man of conviction, of backbone, and of strength who is willing to put his life on the line. Such character makes John’s inquire that much more admirable. Rather than let despair destroy him, he sends messengers to seek reassurance. Rather than revel alone in his own pity party, he inquires about the Messianic banquet.

Verse 8

But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.

Had John wanted to gain popularity, he might also have abandoned his poor man’s clothes of camel hair and put on the soft elegant garments such as courtiers wear. But as is evident, John refuses to play courtier; and this refusal lands him in prison. Jewish history indicates that in the early days of Herod the Great a section of the scribes had attached themselves to his party, and in doing so had laid aside the somber garments of their order and had taken the gorgeous raiment worn by Herod’s other courtiers (Ellicott 152, Broadus 239). McArthur says, "Because it served to silence possible criticism from those religious leaders, the king gladly encouraged the practice" (252).

John is not interested in fine clothes or in playing a "yes man" for a powerful king. The only King to whom he yields his allegiance is The Messiah. Thus, Jesus’ questions are rhetorical. The people know that John is not interested in self comfort. They know that John’s entire life stands in stark contrast to the decadence and excesses of the religious setting of the day.

Verse 9

But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.

Having asked two rhetorical questions, Jesus now drives home his point with another that needs no answer. John is a prophet par excellence whose life possesses the qualities of integrity, moral conviction, and strength. In addition, John ushers in the Messianic Age. Heaven’s 400 year silence since the days of Malachi is shattered with John’s preaching. From her spiritual night of sleep, Israel is suddenly awakened by the Messianic Harbinger. Out of the mists of darkness a voice had cried, "Awake, the Son rises."

Verse 10

For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

These words are taken from Malachi 3:1 (see also Mark 1:2 and Luke 7:27). The form of Jesus’ quotation in all the synoptic gospels differs slightly from both the LXX and the Hebrew text. Malachi 3:1 says, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before ME." Whereas the synoptics say, "…before thy face…before THEE."

Some scholars attribute this slight difference to the possibility that Jesus is quoting from a manuscript that is available to the Jews but has not survived until today. Others suggest Jesus quote is not verbatim but is interpretative. In other words Jesus cites the passage so as to tell his hearer what it means.

In Malachi’s prophecy, Jehovah Himself is seen as coming to His people to judge them. In Jesus’ quotation of the passage, Jehovah is depicted as sending another (that is, the Messiah). Note that in both instances there is agreement that some type of "messenger" will come first.

The difficulty is solved when we see Jesus as the envoy and manifestation of Jehovah. What Jehovah does through agents, He may be said to do for Himself.

Lenski says:

"Jehovah himself will come to his people, but he will do so in the person of the Messiah. And John is Jehovah’s "messenger" who is to prepare the way of the divine Messiah (434).

Verse 11

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Having extolled the virtue and validity of John, Jesus now teaches a valuable lesson about His kingdom.

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: John superbly possesses all the qualities of spiritual greatness and, thus, is described as greatest of those born of women. Pertaining to his moral excellence and dedication, there is none greater; however, in spite of this accolade, John is less than the least when it comes to the kingdom of heaven.

notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he: John never lives to see the fruition of the kingdom he foretold. In Mark 9:1, Jesus says some who hear him will not taste of death until they see the kingdom coming with power. John is murdered before this prophecy comes to pass. Therefore, John is not part of the "kingdom" and can be said to be less than the least of those who do enter it.

One must understand the way in which the term "kingdom of heaven" is used in this passage. If the kingdom here has reference to the general rule of God, then the passage makes no sense at all, for no one embodies allegiance to God’s rule more than John. What Jesus refers to when he speaks of the "kingdom" in this verse is the "church"; thus, Jesus uses the figure known as metonymy. In this instance the cause (heaven) is put for the effect (church). As Fowler notes, "the Church of Jesus Christ is the highest earthly expression of the Government of God, so that one might well say that, wherever the Church goes, there is the Kingdom" (502). This is correct for the church has its origin in the heavenly realm. God is its designer; and when one gives his allegiance to God, he obeys the gospel and is added to the church (Acts 2:47).

And so the inferiority of John does not result from a lack of devotion, service, or spirituality. It rather results from circumstance beyond his control. John dies having never seen the kingdom in its truest sense. Barclay has it:

"So John had the destiny which sometimes falls to men; he had the task of pointing men to a greatness into which he himself did not enter. It is given to some men to be the signposts of God. They point to a new ideal and a new greatness which others will enter into, but into which they will not come …Let a man never be discouraged in the Church or in any other walk of life, if the dream he has dreamed and for which he has toiled is never worked out before the end of the day. God needed John; God needs his signposts who can point men on the way, although they themselves cannot ever reach the goal" (vol 2 p 7).

Verse 12

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence: The difficulty in interpreting this verse is to be found in the fact that "suffers violence" (Gk: biazo) may be read as either a Greek passive or middle voice (Robertson 88, Earle 10, McArthur 256).

If taken in the passive, the meaning is that the advancement of the Messianic kingdom is under attack. In other words it is suffering at the hand evil men who have no interest in truth. In this case the emphasis is on external assault by those from without. Indeed this is the case as the scribes, Pharisees, and other leaders seek to destroy both John and Jesus.

Fowler gives another interesting possibility under the "passive" category. He says the verse may refer to the over anxious crowds who actually try to bring the kingdom into existence forcibly before its time (505). John 6:15 stands as a case in point. By their anxiousness, these people were actually doing harm to the Messianic cause. Fowler goes on to describe the situation like a rose bud that suffers at the hands of the person who in his eagerness to experience its fragrance tries with his fingers to force the bloom. He also proposes that perhaps John’s inquiry is a result of this attitude. If so, then the passive is appropriate to the preceding context.

and the violent take it by force: If taken in the middle voice, however, the meaning is more positive. In this case the idea is that the kingdom is vigorously pressing itself forward and sincere honest people are forcing their way into it with eagerness.

This is by far the most popular interpretation of this verse. The NIV says, "the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." Thus, the idea is not so much of "violence" as the KJV indicates but one of intense pursuit. Luke 16:16 says, "The Law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it" (NKJV). Fowler says the verse may also be translated "the kingdom makes its way with triumphant force" (505).

In the end analysis, it should probably be noted that both interpretations overlap to some degree. In fact many commentators weave the two views together.

Contextually the middle voice seems more correct. Ever since John had appears in the wilderness, the kingdom and its message advance, taking men’s hearts and minds by storm. Men from every walk of life have been awakened to the possibilities that this newly preached kingdom offers.

Verse 13

For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.

The Law refers to the writings of Moses as specifically found in the Pentateuch. The Prophets refer to not only the prophetical books but to the Writings as well. The term "Law and Prophets" is a common New Testament term that refers to the entire corpus of ancient scripture.

In other words the entire Old Testament period from Genesis to Malachi foretells and prepares the way for the coming Messiah. John is the last in God’s chain of preparation. Now, however, there is a change. Luke 16:16 says, "The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached" (NKJV).

Verse 14

And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come

And if ye will receive it: The heart must be open before the truth can sink in. Malachi’s words are not as hard as the people’s hearts. Many have no willingness to believe the matter about John, for to do so will logically compel them to accept the Messiah.

this is Elias, which was for to come: Malachi, the last of the prophets, predicts God will send Elijah before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. It will be he who will turn the hearts of the rebellious people to God (Malachi 4:5-6). With this prophecy established in their minds, the Jews look for a time then when the Tishbite will literally return and usher in the new era. Because of his austere life and fiery preaching, many assume he is the Old Testament prophet reincarnate. In John 1:21, some of the Jews confront John about this possibility.

But while John and Elijah held many similarities, they are not the same person. John is the fulfillment of this great Old Testament character but only in a spiritual sense. Jesus further explains this fact in Matthew 17:13.

Verse 15

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

This proverbial phrase is common in Jesus’ teaching. He uses it on various occasions to underscore the truth of His words and to indicate His requirement for personal responsibility (note: Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:43, etc.).

In this context the phrase refers to the previous speech about John. Many do not want to accept Jesus’ assessment of this great prophet, for to do so means they must accept him. If John is Elijah, and if Elijah is to usher in the Messianic Age, then Jesus is the Messiah.

Verses 16-17

But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.

But whereunto shall I liken this generation? The environment into which both John and Jesus come is difficult.. What follows in verses 16 through 19 shows the Jew’s fickle character and hardened hearts. Nothing pleases them. John comes in an austere fashion. His whole lifestyle cries against the decadence and excess of the day. The Jews have no appreciation for John’s bold statement. They would rather have John become one of them and participate in their festivities. On the other hand, Jesus participates in normal everyday living. Yet this draws their criticism just the same

It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows: To illustrate his point, Jesus uses the picture of children playing games in the market place (agora). Broadus says, "In Oriental times this place was just inside the gate. Here the citizens assembled, the judges sat, business was transacted, and markets were opened…and here, as a matter of course, loafers would lounge …and boys would gather to play" (243).

And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; Here one group or children reenact a wedding with merriment, music, and dancing and call for their fellows to join them. Instead of participating, however, the second group refuses to play.

Such is the case with the religious leader’s reaction to Jesus. He comes with joy, and they refuse to participate in His ministry. He comes as the bridegroom, and they spurn His invitation to the wedding.

we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.: Here a funeral dirge is reenacted by children in hopes of getting their fellows to play along. Again they refuse. The Greek word for "mourn" (ekopsasthe) literally means to beat the heart after the fashion of eastern funeral lamentations (Robertson 89).

Such was the case with the religious leader’s reaction to John. He comes with mourning, wearing sackcloth; and this style also displeases them.

The overall point of Jesus’ parable is clear and undisputed. The Jews are not satisfied with either Jesus or John. They are like the fickle children in the market who would rather complain than get along with others.

Barclay says:

"The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it. They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms; they will criticize the same person, and the same institution, from quite opposite grounds. If people are determined to make no response they will remain stubbornly unresponsive no matter what invitation is made to them. Grown men and women can bevery like spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is" (10).

Fowler captures the spirit of Jesus comment by saying,

"You people are impossible to satisfy, since you do not recognize the divine wisdom under which John and I follow different manners of life and work, but in both cases our diverse methods of operation are certain to be justified by the end result of each" (p 515).

Verse 18

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.

For John came neither eating nor drinking: John comes under the vow of a Nazarite (Luke 1:15). He does not participate in the normal lifestyle of his fellow countrymen but finds his sustenance in the wilderness. Matthew says his diet is locusts and honey (3:4) and Luke says he neither eats bread nor drinks wine (Luke 7:33). Obviously John "eats and drinks" in the sense that he takes nourishment in order to survive. Here the phrase carries the idea of normal social activity that includes dinner appointments and social gatherings.

For a while such austerity catches the fancy of the Jews. They flock to him. Soon, however, they slink away from him because He is too "conservative" for them. Soon the Jews not only reject John, but their leaders resort to character assassination. Their taunt: "He has a demon."

and they say, He hath a devil: This accusation is also hurled at Jesus (see Matthew 12:24; Matthew 12:31-32). It is obvious, however, that nothing is further from the truth. The accusation is simply designed to discredit God’s messengers while diverting attention away from their own evil ways.

It is of interest that neither John nor Jesus spends much time addressing this charge. There is no need to. Fowler notes that their lives stand so far above reproach that such vilifications are doomed to topple of their own weight (521).

Verse 19

The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

The Son of man came eating and drinking: Unlike his forerunner, Jesus makes no attempt to refrain from normal life. He attends banquets where there are Publicans (Matthew 9:11) and also attends other social functions such as weddings (John 2). When John refuses to do these things, they accuse him of having a demon. When Jesus does these things, they accuse him of being a glutton and a drunk.

and they say, Behold a man gluttonous: The term "glutton" (phagos) means a "voracious man or glutton" (Thayer 647-1-5314). Here it is used by the Jews with exaggerated contempt. While it is true that Jesus enjoys a fine meal just as much as anyone, He is not a glutton. The accusation is patently false.

There is another possible interpretation of this accusation. While the immediate context of the accusation seems to refer to the eating of food, the term (glutton) in ancient times is also connected with drunkenness. In his excellent work on the subject, McGuiggan notes that ancient wines, both alcoholic and otherwise, are often so diluted with water that great quantities are consumed in long drinking sessions. Thus, the sin of drunkenness is often closely connected to the sin of gluttony or satiety (The Bible, the Saint, and the Liquor Industry 47).

and a winebibber: The term winebibber (oinopotes) means one given to wine (Thayer 442-3630). The question is Did Jesus use or condone the use of "alcoholic" wine?

To correctly address this issue, it should be noted that the term winebibber (oinopotes) is akin to the Greek "oinos" (wine) and is a general term. Depending on context, the word may denote both alcoholic and non-alcoholic products. The question then is not whether or not Jesus drank "oinos." He did and admitted to it in Luke 7:34. The real question is what kind?

Commentators have long been divided over the issue and in fairness to the question a brief synopsis of both positions seems appropriate.

On the one hand, Lenski maintains that the drinking of alcoholic wine was almost a universal custom of the Jews in Jesus’ day (443). Broadus agrees but goes on to describe these wines as light and pure which when mixed with a double quantity of water according to custom they became no more stimulating than tea or coffee (244). Fowler accepts the same position and holds that it would have been most unlikely had Jesus not drunk the wine described above. He believes the accusation of Matthew 11:19 finds no basis if this is not the case and says, "If the wine here referred to is merely a non-alcoholic beverage, then what is the point of calling Jesus "a soft drink man? Furthermore, Fowler sees Jesus’ eating and drinking in a context where His moderation is neatly placed halfway between both extremes—with teetotal abstinence in John’s case, and with excess in the slander that He was a wino among other things (522).

But the views of Lenksi, Fowler, and Broadus are far from conclusive. Scholars like McGuiggan, Patton, and others have demonstrated conclusively that the ancients not only valued non-alcoholic beverages and widely drank them but knew how to store and preserve juice for year round use. Albert Barnes accepts that "wine" was a common drink of the day but says it was the pure juice of the grape (121). MacArthur notes "oinos" often refers to a substance made by boiling or evaporating fresh grape juice down to a heavy syrup or paste to prevent spoilage. Later the paste is reconstituted by adding water to produce a non-alcoholic beverage. MacArthur further conjectures this may have been what Jesus made at the feast in Cana of Galilee (262).

Evidence suggests that too often exegetes approach biblical texts with the false assumption that the "wine" mentioned is alcoholic. This problem is further exacerbated by the misconception that ancients did not have the expertise to preserve unfermented juice. Clearly both conclusions are mistaken and grossly cloud the issue for many Bible students. For a well written and well documented study on the "wine" issue, we suggest Jim McGuiggan’s The Bible, the Saint, and the Liquor Industry as well as William Patton’s classic work, "Bible wines or the laws of fermentation." Both works lay to rest many of the gross interpretative errors so prevalent among commentators.

With both positions in mind, let us return to the verse in question. Since context determines the meaning of any passage, it is necessary to interpret this verse in light of its setting. The real question is whether or not this passage proves that Jesus drank alcoholic beverages or whether it supports the use of such by Christians today. Surely the answer in all fairness is a resounding NO! Notice the following points.

1. The passage shows the Pharisees are well accustomed to sitting in the scorner’s seat. By the nature of their accusation, they reveal their total disregard for truth and their unreliability. How then can they be taken seriously let alone use such an accusation as the basis for determining the habits of the Lord? The text only reveals that Jesus ate and drank. It does not specifically reveal what he ate and drank. It is pure assumption to assume from this passage that Jesus drank alcoholic wine. It is dangerous and unjustified to use this verse as a proof text for alcoholic consumption today.

2. Fowler sees Jesus moderation placed neatly between John’s abstinence on one hand and the drunkard on the other. From this contrast, he concludes Jesus must have been a moderate, well controlled drinker of alcoholic beverages. We appreciate his scholarship, and it has served well in the exegesis of other passages. Here, however, Fowler’s argument proves too much. The point of this passage is not that Jesus was a "moderate" but that his social interaction was different from John’s. John not only refrains from alcohol but abstains from all grape products as the Nazarite vow prescribes (Numbers 6:1-21). The only logical point that we can deduce from the fact that Jesus "came drinking" is that He consumes products from the vine just as other people did. To deduce more is to leave the path of "biblical exegesis" and head down the trail of speculation.

3. Patton notes that the very same who here accuse Jesus of being a winebibber also accuse Him of gluttony and demon possession (John 1:20; John 8:48). "If we believe the first charge on authority of his enemies, we must also believe the second and third, for the authority is the same" (Bible Wines 68).

In the final analysis, it is at best an inference that Jesus drank alcoholic wine and not by any means a necessary one. When coupled with the character of the accusers, the popularity of unfermented wine in Palestine, and the Old Testament’s warnings against intoxicating beverages, the conclusion that Jesus partook of such is highly unlikely. In reality, the point of the passage is simply a contrast between Jesus’ social life and John’s. It is amazing how far proponents of "alcoholic consumption" will go to prove their point.

a friend of publicans and sinners: The third accusation hurled by the unscrupulous Pharisees is, "Jesus is a friend of sinners." This seems to be the thrust of their contempt (Alexander 314). Here the idea of "friend" (philos) carries the idea of intimate friendship with those with whom no "decent" person would associate. More than once this is a point of contention in the Lord’s ministry (Matthew 9:11; Luke 7:39).

But wisdom is justified of her children: Jesus’ response to all of this reasoning is simple (Luke adds " all her children) (Luke 7:35). Some manuscripts have "But wisdom is justified by her works," and some scholars prefer this rendering.

Two possible interpretations exist in explaining this proverb. If the text is to be taken, "justified by her children" then God’s Wisdom was manifest in Jesus and John who are both children of wisdom, despite their differences (McGarvey 100). Thus, the Jews have no right to criticize either. By living in an ascetic fashion, John perfectly fulfills God’s plan. But so does Jesus by being social. Had the Jews themselves been children of righteousness, they would have seen God’s hand in both.

If the text is taken as "justified by her works," the idea is that the wisdom of any course of action may be seen by the results produced. The righteous wisdom of John and Jesus produced righteous deeds that result in men turning toward God. This fact should have been enough for the Pharisees to accept the Lord. There is, therefore, no need for Jesus to worry about or even spend time in rebuffing His detractors.

Verse 20

Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:

The denunciation which begins here and continues through verse 24 is also found in Luke 10:13-16. Here it comes on the heels of our Lord’s assessment of his unbelieving generation. In Luke, however, it is connected to the sending forth of the Seventy. Because of these differences some question Matthew’s chronological unity. Still others see this as an indication that each gospel writer compiles his discourse from fragments collected separately – an assumption devoid of validity. While it is Matthew’s intent is not always chronological there is no reason to assume that this is the case here. A much more natural conclusion is that Jesus speaks these words on more than one occasion. The synoptics show that this is often his custom. Furthermore careful analysis of the text reveals that the two condemnations, while very similar, differ slightly. Luke does not compare Capernaum’s fate with Sodom’s as does Matthew.

Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done: It is easy to see the disappointment of our Savior in this verse. The term "upbraid" (Gk: oneidizein) is a strong one and means to rebuke, censure, blame or accuse. It is rendered "reproach" in Matthew 5:11 and "revile" in 27:44. "Mighty works" (dunameis) carries the idea of deeds that are powerful and miraculous.

because they repented not: The reason Jesus is so upset with the people is because of their hard hearts. The very ones that should have believed in him the most were the ones who rejected him. It is one thing for a people to hear a message and ignore it but when supernatural proof is spurned there is little hope and their guilt is magnified. These cities rejected evidence that would have persuaded some of the most wicked cities of the Old Testament. Ninevah, from King to peasant, repents at the preaching of Jonah. Here is One greater than Jonah. Even Christ’s "power - deeds" (dunameis) makes no impact. Not only does the Lord’s’ miracles not produce faith in these people it does not so much as even scare them.

Verse 21

Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!

The first two cities Jesus mentions are close to one another and are situated on the upper shore of the sea of Galilee. Chorazin is a small village in the hills about two and a half miles north of Capernaum. Bethsaida is the home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter, and is located a little farther to the north and west in the plain of Gennesaret. Scripture does not record any of the miracles done in Chorazin and Bethsaida but Jesus says he does more in this area than in any other. This is to be expected since Capernaum is the headquarters for Jesus’ Galilean ministry. These cities have no excuse for rejecting the Messiah.

for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon: Traditionally, Tyre and Sidon are known for their wickedness and Baal worship. MacArthur says they are the very epitome of paganism, Gentile corruption and worthlessness (264). In the Old Testament, God’s prophets thunder against these two cities (Isaiah 23; Jeremiah 25:22; Ezekiel 26:1; Amos 1:9 etc.). There seems to be, however, no concerted prophetic effort toward them to convert them. Fowler says the above mentioned prophecies are more designed for the Jews to show them God’s sovereignty. Fowler goes on to note that these cities call to mind a people ignorant of God’s revelation (Fowler 546).

they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes: Jesus’ point is that while Tyre and Sidon did not receive God’s revelation, they would have repented had they had the same opportunity as the cities in which he preaches. In fact, their repentance would have been complete with sackcloth and ashes, the symbols of true remorse. Sackcloth is a course fabric woven of goat’s or camel’s hair. Because of its strength and durability, it is used for making the large sacks in which goods can be carried on the backs of camels (Fourfold 287, Alexander 316). This rough course prickly fabric is also worn in times of mourning. Likewise Jews will sometimes either sit in or throw ashes on their heads as a sign of sadness (Job 1:21; Jeremiah 6:26). Broadus notes that these modes of manifesting grief among the Israelites are not a matter of divine appointment but are natural to the impassioned Oriental character, and are still customary among Eastern nations (248).

Verse 22

But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

The axiom of judgment according to opportunity seems clear. Barclay has it right when he says:, "The greater our privileges have been, the greater is our condemnation if we fail to shoulder the responsibilities and accept the obligations which these privileges bring with them (12)."

If judged by their actions alone, Tyre and Sidon are far more wicked than Chorazin or Bethsaida. But because they have fewer opportunities they deserved less severity of punishment.

The great sin of Chorazin and Bethsaida is not violence or sensuality. They do not actively persecute Jesus. Their great sin is indifference. It is said that the opposite of Love is not Hate but it is indifference. When a man is impassioned against something, he demonstrates feeling and a personal interest in the issue. Right or wrong, the issue impacts his inner being. With such a man, there is still hope for persuasion. To the indifferent man, however, there is less hope. He neither cares one way nor the other about the issue at hand. The evidence, however strong, does not affect him, for he has closed his heart. Such are the cities of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida. Plummer remarks:

"His work made no impression of them. They perhaps took a languid interest in His miracles and teaching; but His beneficence never touched their heart, and His doctrine produced no change in their lives. Self satisfied complacency, whether in the form of Pharisaic self-righteousness or in that of popular indifference, is condemned by Jesus more severely than grosser sins. A life that externally is eminently respectable may be more fatally antichristian than on that is manifestly scandalous" (165).

Verse 23

And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

And thou, Capernaum: Chorazin and Bethsaida are guilty of rejecting Christ, but one city stands out above them all: Capernaum. It is in this city that Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, the demon possessed, the paralytic, and many others (Matthew 8:5; Matthew 8:14; Matthew 8:16; Matthew 9:2 etc). This is Jesus’ own city (9:1). But even His own city refuses him.

which art exalted unto heaven: The KJV introduces this as a statement rather than a question whereas the ASV presents it in the interrogative. The best manuscript evidence indicates that Jesus asks, "Shall you be exalted to heaven?" (Fowler 550). The question is rhetorical and has an obvious negative answer.

In other words Jesus asks Capernaum to consider her status. Here is a city that is wealthy. Here is a city that has arrogant hopes of unlimited prosperity in the future (Broadus 249). Jesus says all their earthly wealth is to no avail. Even having had the Son of God walk in her streets does not give her an advantage. Residents will not retain their lofty status (heaven) but will be plummeted to the depths of Hades.

shalt be brought down to hell: It is not Gehenna Hell to which Jesus condemns His own city but Hades, the place of the dead—the tomb. McGarvey points out, however, that when Hades is mentioned in connection with the wicked, the idea of punishment is often conveyed (Luke 16:25) (101). Thus, Hades is sometimes used as a synonym for Hell. The question is whether Jesus condemns Capernaum to the dust of oblivion (physical destruction) or to the actual threat of fiery eternal punishment?

Perhaps one cannot read this passage without considering both; however, because Jesus contrasts "exalted to Heaven" with "brought down to Hades," it is likely He has specific reference to Capernaum’s physical ruin. Just as the exaltation of her citizens probably does not refer to their all going to live in heaven so their humiliation in Hades probably does not refer specifically to their spiritual ruin (Fowler 551).

The ancients conceive of Hades as being deep underground. Jesus uses it in stark contrast to Capernaum’s’ imagined status. She thinks she is lofty in position and power. In reality she is headed for desolation and destruction. Barnes reminds us that in the wars between the Jews and the Romans, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are so completely desolated that it is difficult to determine their former situation (123).

McGarvey says:

"The prediction has long since been fulfilled, and the traveler now searches among the rank weeds on the lake shore to find, in the fragments of stone which lie there, uncertain vestiges of the once populous and well built city" (101).

Verse 24

But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

By comparing Capernaum to Sodom Jesus affirms they both will stand together in the day of God’s final wrath. Even though Capernaum is not as outwardly wicked as Sodom, she is equally guilty. There is no indication that Capernaum is grossly immoral or possesses other similar deficiencies yet because they ignore and reject the Son of God, their fate on the Day of Judgment will be worse than that of Sodom. Lest Capernaum take a smug backward glance over two millennia and think she is immune from God’s wrath, think again! In God’s final court of justice it will be "Advantage Sodom."

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 11". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/matthew-11.html. 1993-2022.
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