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Bible Commentaries

Arno Gaebelein's Annotated Bible
Matthew 11

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-30

8. The Forerunner in Prison. The Kingdom Preaching Rejected.

CHAPTER 11

1. John Imprisoned Sends his Disciples. (Matthew 11:1-6.)
2. The King's Testimony Concerning John. (
Matthew 11:7-19.)
3. The King Announces Judgment. (
Matthew 11:20-24.)
4. The Greater Invitation. (
Matthew 11:25-28.)

The first verse of this chapter belongs to the sending forth of the twelve, and should be put to the previous chapter. “And it came to pass when Jesus had finished commanding His twelve disciples, He departed thence to teach and preach in their cities.” He took the work upon Himself once more, and with the disciples He had sent forth He preached the Kingdom of the Heavens to be at hand. The Lord of the harvest, who had sent forth the laborers, enters the harvest field Himself. His rejection is now to be made more and more manifest. He came to His own and His own received Him not. Gradually in this Gospel we have seen how Israel had no heart, no desire for Him; they were indeed blinded. The rejection of Him who had so fully shown Himself to be Jehovah manifested in the flesh, is now rapidly approaching. Soon He will leave the house and take His place at the seashore (Matthew 13:1) to teach the mysteries of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that which is to pass, while He, the King, and with Him the Kingdom is rejected. The eleventh chapter is the beginning of the crisis, and the twelfth chapter is the great turning point.

First of all we have the record of John the Baptist in prison sending to our Lord, and the message our Lord sends to him. “But John, having heard in the prison the works of the Christ, sent by His disciples and said to Him, Art Thou the Coming One? or are we to wait for another? And Jesus answering said to them, Go, report to John what you hear and see. Blind men see and lame walk; lepers are cleansed and deaf hear; and dead are raised and poor have glad tidings preached to them; and blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in Me.”

The incident has been differently interpreted. From the fourth chapter we learned that when Jesus heard that John was cast into prison He departed into Galilee (Matthew 4:12). The fourteenth chapter in this Gospel gives the story of John’s imprisonment and his death. In this arrangement the divine hand which guided Matthew’s hand is seen again.

John the Baptist spent therefore some time in prison before he sent his disciples to our Lord. It is generally assumed that John, the preacher of repentance and the coming Kingdom, had finally expected that Jesus would soon establish the Kingdom, and that he, as the voice in the wilderness, the forerunner, would have a share in its glories. Instead of this expected glory he is cast into a dungeon. He had faithfully discharged his duties. Not like a miserable hireling had he acted, but fearlessly he had denounced evil, and for all his faithfulness nothing but suffering, rejection and death staring him in the face. It is, therefore, said by many that he doubted that Jesus was truly the promised Messiah, and asked for evidences of His Messiahship. However, this interpretation can hardly be right. If we turn to the Gospel of John and read his utterances there, we find that he had a complete insight into the work which Christ as the Lamb of God was to do, and he knew Jesus was the Christ. It is also reasonable to assume that his own disciples who had come to our Lord with the question, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast but Thy disciples fast not?” had come to him and given him the answer, that the bridegroom, the Messiah, was to be taken away from them, and then there would be fasting.

Others have looked upon this incident in another light. They attempt to shield John the Baptist altogether, and defend his absolute faith and confidence in Jesus as the Christ. According to many John was perfect so that no doubt could assail his mind. But why should he send from his prison and ask of the Lord such information? The difficulty is, according to these, solved, in that John desired the answer not for any confirmation of his faith, but that he sent his disciples because they were staggered in their belief. Martin Luther says on this passage: “It is certain that John sent to inquire on account of his disciples; for they did not yet regard Christ as the One for Whom He was to be regarded. They waited for one who would move along pompously, highly learned, as a mighty King. John treats them tenderly, endures their weak faith till they become strong; does not reject them because they do not yet believe in Him so firmly.” This solution of the difficulty, however, lacks scriptural support. It is a fanciful theory that John should have sent to Christ for the sake of his disciples. We need not claim perfection and infallibility for John the Baptist, for he had neither. Only one on the earth was perfect and infallible, sinless and spotless, who was never assailed by doubt, and that one is our Lord Jesus Christ. John, like Elijah, was “a man of like passions as we are.” Elijah’s ministry was marked with individual failure. His life was threatened by Jezebel: “And when he saw that, he arose and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4). What a failure this was! Surely there is nothing good in man, and even in the most privileged servants of the Lord there is the flesh and the failure of the flesh. John in prison passes through the experience of Elijah in whose spirit and power he had come. It would be incorrect to say that John doubted the Messiahship of Jesus. He knew Him as the Christ. Yet in prison his patience is severely tested, and doubt troubles him. In this test he looks to Him, whom he always honored as his Lord, for succor. He sent directly to the Lord, and certainly He knew the weak and doubting one, as well as his faith, which looked to Him for strength and a word of cheer.

And is this not an incident with lessons for us? It teacheth us to confess our weakness before Him, and look to the Lord for the strength and comfort He alone can give.

We may also meditate in connection with John in prison and his doubt with another servant of the Lord in prison. There in Rome he sat and wrote, “I, Paul, prisoner of the Lord.” And out of that prison came forth the strains of praise and joy. How many “ifs’ and “hows” and “whys” he might have asked? How many murmurings and bitter complaints might have flown from His lips? He sends out a letter from the dungeon which has not the slightest hint of failure in it, where sin and flesh is not seen and not mentioned. But what is the secret of the rejoicing prisoner of the Lord? What is the secret which underlies the triumphant language of joy in the Epistle to the Philippians? It is one word, “Christ.” The life of Christ in him, and Christ the center, Christ the pattern and object before the apostle, and Christ his strength, enabled by Him to do all things, is the secret of all; and that John the Baptist, the greatest of the Old Testament did not know, nor could he be in possession of it. It is our full inheritance as believers on the other side of the cross. Oh, may we live in enjoyment of it, up to the mark of our position and possession in Christ.

But we return to our chapter. The Lord gives the message for John. If his disciples had any doubt, the words of the Lord must have dispersed these. And when John heard the answer it must have brought him strength and cheer. The Lord speaks of the signs of the Kingdom which He did in fulfillment of Old Testament predictions. We have shown before how in the miracles our Lord performed of Isaiah 35:5-6 was fulfilled. The dead also were raised and the glad tidings preached. The spiritual significance of the latter two is of course fully seen in the Gospel of John. The words, “And blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in Me,” are words of exhortation to John the Baptist. How like the Lord to put them at the end of the message. The Holy Spirit has repeated this in the Epistles where the admonitions are always coming in at the end or after words of love and commendation were given first. The admonition was certainly understood by John, and how deeply it must have exercised him. It led to humiliation, heartsearching, and in the end it was a beatitude, a “blessed.” May it ever be so with us.

And all this was not unknown to the crowds. They stood there and heard what passed between the Lord and John’s disciples. They heard the question they asked and the answer our Lord sent to John. John the Baptist was known by these crowds and they believed in him as a great prophet. His testimony and his personality might then be discredited by them. The Lord addresses himself to the crowds in what may be termed a defense of John. He shields him now before any criticism, and maintains his testimony and divinely given mission.

“But as they went away Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, What went ye out in the wilderness to see? A reed moved about by the wind? But what went ye out to see? A man clothed in delicate raiment? Behold those who wear delicate things are in the houses of kings. But what went ye out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet; this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee. Verily I say to you, that there is not risen among the born of women a greater than John the Baptist. But he who is a little one in the Kingdom of the Heavens is greater than he.”

We confine our remarks to the end sentence. What is the meaning of it? Its common application is generally the thought that our Lord speaks here of the church age, and that the least in this present dispensation is greater than John in the old dispensation, to which he fully belonged. That such is the case no one doubts. We as Christian believers are higher in our standing than the Old Testament saints. However, the primary meaning of the passage is a different one. The question would be first of all, “What does our Lord mean here by Kingdom of the Heavens?” Up to the thirteenth chapter in the Gospel of Matthew the phrase, “Kingdom of the Heavens,” has only one meaning, viz., the Kingdom to be established in the earth, as predicted by the Old Testament prophets. In the thirteenth chapter it is the Kingdom of the Heavens in the hands of man in its development during the absence of the King. We cannot think, therefore, that in the eleventh chapter, where it is still the offer of the Kingdom of the Heavens, our Lord would introduce the present age. This would be all out of keeping with the scope of Matthew. Now as our Lord means the Kingdom of the Heavens actually set up in the earth, the meaning of His words becomes clear. The little one who is in that Kingdom of the Heavens, when it has come at last, will be greater than John, who but announced the Kingdom to come. It foreshadows the glories of the coming Kingdom age, when the little one will be greater than John ever could be in the earth.

But our Lord adds: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of the Heavens is taken by violence, and the violent seize on it. For all the prophets and the law have prophesied unto John. And if ye will receive it (him), this is Elias, who is to come. He that has ears to hear let him hear.”

These words are again very simple and to our mind present no difficulty at all, if they are taken in their literal meaning. It is strange that the words of our Lord should be made to mean the Gospel, eternal life, conversion and the sinner’s own efforts to take possession of it. Yet such is the case. Many preachers and evangelists have no other light on this passage and preach and exhort from it what is in direct opposition to the blessed Gospel. According to these preachers, the violent, who take the Kingdom by force or press into it (Luke 16:16), are unsaved sinners. The devil, the flesh and the world stand in the sinner’s way of salvation, so they teach, and he must use force, great violence, to enter into the Kingdom. After due exercise, strenuous effort and violence he will be able to take it by force. This is the general interpretation of the passage. It is as erroneous as the interpretation of the parable of the treasure hid in the field and the pearl of great price, which makes the sinner give his all (though he has nothing to give) to buy salvation.

No, the violent who take the Kingdom by violence are not unsaved sinners, who seek salvation and that salvation must be taken by force. Salvation is by grace, it is God’s free gift, and the sinner is not saved through and in his violent efforts, but in believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Pharisees and scribes who stand here before our Lord are the violent who take the Kingdom of the Heavens (never the Gospel) by force and seize on it. Our Lord says: “From the days of John until now.” The forerunner, John, was violently rejected by the Pharisees. This foreshadowed the rejection of the King, the rejection of the preaching of the Kingdom and the Kingdom itself. In this seizing upon the Kingdom, rejecting it, the Kingdom of the Heavens suffered violence. It was rejected by force and now is postponed till He comes again. If they had received John the Baptist he would have been Elias. But he was rejected, they would not have it so. They did violence to what the King had come to bring. Another Elias will come once more, and then no violence can keep back the coming of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Let us notice that John’s ministry was exclusively to his own people. Elijah’s ministry is still future and falls in the period of the great tribulation. His ministry and testimony will be confined to the land of Israel and to the remnant of Israel. Any one who claims to be Elijah incarnate at this time is either a downright fraud, unbalanced in his mind, or so grossly ignorant of the Word of God and His revealed purposes, that the proud imaginations of his heart lead him astray into such a ridiculous claim.

The words which follow are a true description of the generation which was privileged to see the King, Jehovah, manifested in the earth. “But to whom shall I liken this generation? It is like children calling to their companions, saying, We have piped to you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wailed. For John has come, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon. The son of man has come eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man that is eating and wine drinking, a friend of tax-gatherers, and of sinners; -- and wisdom has been justified by her children” (Matthew 11:15-19). In other words, the generation was a foolish lot of people who could not be suited by anything. They were like children. It is a wonderful declaration of our Lord of the condition of the people, His own to whom He came, and who received Him not. The illustration is taken from children playing with the real things of life, with joy and sorrow, and idling their time away. John appeared, among them and they were dissatisfied with him. He was too strict, too severe; they cared not for him, and because he would not sit down and eat and drink with them they said, he has a demon. Then the Lord came. Truth and mercy were revealed through Him. He sat down with the tax-gatherers and sinners and mingled with them, eating and drinking. Divine mercy towards the fallen and outcast was most blessedly shown -- the spotless One in touch with the defiled and lost, calling sinners to repentance. But they had no understanding for this, no heart for that wonderful grace. He was in their eyes but a man, for they said: “Behold a man -- eating and drinking.” They put Him on the same level with the wine drinking company. Neither mourning nor rejoicing suited them. Behind it stands the evil heart, the natural man, never pleased with God’s way, always finding fault. “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). The words “wisdom has been justified by her children” has found many different interpretations. Its meaning is very simple. While the large mass of people were thus rejecting John and Christ, and had no understanding for God’s love and mercy made known, there were others, a few indeed, and these accepted the teaching of John and believed in the Lord. “Wisdom” is an Old Testament name of our Lord. The whole book of Proverbs abounds with the word Wisdom and the speech Wisdom utters. The eighth chapter tells us that Wisdom is a person and that person is our Lord. Those who believed in Him are the children of Wisdom and they had no fault to find, neither with John’s burning call to repentance, nor with the mercy of Christ in eating and drinking with the tax-gatherers and sinners. In this way Wisdom was justified by her children.

And is the present generation of nominal Christian better than the generation of professing Israelites in the day of Christ? We think not. They are today the same as the Christ rejecting Jews were then. The Christ of God, God’s way of Righteousness and Grace does not suit the natural heart at any time.

Solemn are the words which follow now. The Judge speaks. He who speaks here will take His place upon the throne and preside in that judgment day of which He speaks, “Then began He to reproach the cities in which most of His works of power had taken place, because they had not repented. Woe to thee, Chorazin! Woe to thee, Bethsaida ! for if the works of power which have taken place in you, had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they had long ago repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, that it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in judgment day than for you. And thou, Capernaum, who hast been raised up to heaven, shall be brought down even to Hades. For if the works of power which have taken place in thee, had taken place in Sodom, it had remained until this day. But I say to you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in judgment day than for thee.” His divine patience is now seen as almost exhausted and for the first time in this Gospel He speaks the “Woe,” which He repeats later a number of times. And oh! the word “woe” coming from such lips! Chorazin and Bethsaida had been greatly privileged. Works of power, works which manifested Jehovah’s presence had been shown in their midst, yet they repented not. Tyre and Sidon never witnessed such manifestations. The responsibility of Chorazin and Bethsaida is therefore greater than the responsibility of Tyre and Sidon. There will be in that day different degrees of punishment. Capernaum, His own city, had come nearest to heaven and still there was no response. Sodom with all their awful fruits of the flesh will fare better in judgment day than Capernaum. The measure of relationship is always the measure of responsibility. Tyre, Sidon and Sodom had no such privileges and stood in no such relationship to the Lord as the cities which our Lord mentions here. It is so with Christendom today. It shall be more tolerable in that day to the nations of darkest Africa than to the so-called “Christian nations,” with light and privileges offered and wilfully rejected.

And what a scene follows! “At that time,” when in the midst of the outburst of His righteous words of condemnation, He speaks the words so precious still. What words could picture Him as He stood there and that face, soon to be marred and spit upon, turned upward to heaven? And now He said, “I praise thee, Father, Lord of the heaven and the earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to babes. Yea, Father, for thus has it been well pleasing in Thy sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, nor does anyone know the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son may be pleased to reveal Him.”

The Lord stands on the earth and looks to the Father in heaven. Both are Lord. It was so at the destruction of Sodom. “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” (Genesis 19:24). The Lord who had then been in the earth and communed with Abraham His friend, stood once more on the earth. He came in the form of a servant, having emptied Himself of His outward glory, and here as the obedient One praises Him, to whom He had said coming into the world, “Lo, I come to do Thy will” (Hebrews 10:4-7). The Lord of the heaven and of the earth is His Father, but He who looks now to Him is not less the Lord of the heaven and of the earth. “Father,” He said. He was then the only One who could thus look to heaven. It is, blessed be His name! different now. The Spirit of Sonship has been given whereby we cry, “Abba, Father.”

From the wise and the prudent, the self-sufficient religionists, the Pharisees and speculating Sadducees these things were hid, but revealed unto babes. They had refused Him, the wisdom of God; being wise in their own conceits and blindness was the dreadful result. Babes instead received the revelation of Himself. We often wonder why the wise and prudent of our day do not see certain truths, the blessed Gospel of the Glory of God, the truth concerning the church, the coming of our Lord, while others, poor and weak though they are, are in full possession of these revelations and ever receive more out of his fullness. The reason is soon found. Only He who owns his nothingness, who takes his place in weakness at His feet, and is like a babe, can receive these things. Never does the Lord entrust His secrets and his councils to the wise and prudent. Would we know more of Him, of His Word, His purposes and His thoughts? There is only one way -- be a babe, own yourself as such and as a babe walk and live before the Lord of heaven and earth.

“All things,” our Lord said, “have been delivered unto me by my Father.” The people were soon ready to reject Him as their Messiah and King, but He knew His inheritance, an inheritance in which the babe in Him has a glorious share.

Furthermore, “the Father knoweth the Son.” How softly we should tread whenever we speak of the person of our Lord, for the full knowledge is only with the Father. “No one knoweth the Father but the Son and he to whomsoever the Son may be pleased to reveal Him.” No one cometh to the Father but by me. Whoever denies the Son has not the Father either. Revealing the Father is what our Lord did and still is doing. In resurrection He is Son of God with power, and all who receive Him are brought to God and become children of God, to know the Father.

Upon this divine statement of His own person, His oneness with the Father, He utters that word which is so well known and which has been a word of blessing to uncountable souls.

“Come to Me all ye who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” This is the first part of the gracious invitation. Significantly it comes in right after the rejection by His own becomes manifest and after He spoke of the rejection of the favored Galilean cities. It is typical of that full, free and blessed Gospel of Grace, which was made known after His death and resurrection, and which is still being preached.

It is an invitation to all, Jew and Gentile. The invitation is to those who labor and are burdened; it is to come to Him and He promises rest. How full it is! How inexhaustible in its meaning! The second part of His invitation brings us further. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest for your souls; for My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

The one who has come to Him and found rest is to take now His yoke upon him and to learn of Him. It means to follow Him, to be under Him as Lord. The yoke is not the law, but His own yoke, His loving restraint; and two belong into the yoke; we are yoked together with Him. And having Him, the One meek and lowly in heart, ever before the soul, rest for the soul is the blessed fruit. It is the whole Epistle to the Philippians in a nutshell. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Coming to Him we have rest -- living in Him we find rest for our souls. May the reader meditate upon these words of our Lord till they become sweeter than honey and honeycomb.

 


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Bibliography Information
Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on Matthew 11:4". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/gab/matthew-11.html. 1913-1922.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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