Matthew 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Questions of a Man of God

Many scholars believe that the material in verses 1-15 has a good claim to historical reliability (see Davies and Allison 1991:244; Witherington 1990:42-43, 165; E. Sanders 1993:94). After Matthew rehearses for his own missionary church Jesus' instructions to his first disciples, he moves almost directly to Jesus' own ministry in the cities where disciples had prepared the way (v. 1).

John must contact Jesus through messengers because John is in Herod's prison, soon to face execution for his bold proclamation (14:3-12). Disciples of the kingdom who prepare Jesus' way in power (11:1) need to remember the first one to prepare the way for Jesus (11:10); those who receive Jesus' power (10:7-8) must also bear his cross (10:17-39).

God Does Not Always Act As We Expect (11:1-3)

John has already recognized Jesus' identity (3:14); now, in prison, he is undoubtedly discouraged and doubting, like many other men and women of God facing trials that seem greater than their power to endure. Pursued by Jezebel and finding that even the fire at Mount Carmel had not been sufficient to dislodge idolatry from the land, Elijah asked for God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4; compare Mt 17:12-13). Pursued by Saul and frustrated by continual obstacles to God's promises, David nearly committed an act that would have stained the rest of his career, had God not intervened through wise Abigail (1 Sam 25:21-35). Most of his life the only prophet of his generation speaking the truth, torn by the hatred and impending destruction of people he loved, Jeremiah cursed the day of his birth (Jer 20:14-18; compare 15:10). Dismayed by long delays in fulfillment of God's promises to Israel, the inspired psalmist protested his people's humiliation (Ps 89:38-51). All men and women of God are of like passions as we-that reminds us to always trust in God's power rather than our own (Jas 5:16-18).

Jesus' ministry had so far fulfilled none of John's eschatological promises; John had preached that the Coming One would baptize in the Spirit and fire, casting the wicked into a furnace of fire (Mt 3:10-12). It is no wonder that John doubted, and that John's questions arose when he heard of Jesus' deeds (11:2-3), not in spite of them. Thus when John asks if he and his disciples should look for someone else, this Greek expression is in an emphatic position and the specific term emphasizes "another of a different kind" (Gundry 1982:205). In contrast to the expectations of some of his contemporaries, John's expectations about the Messiah's future role were right; Jesus would baptize in fire, judging the world with justice and freeing the captives. But John did not understand that Jesus had another mission before the coming judgment. Jesus urged him to believe nonetheless.

Many Answers to Our Questions Are Already in the Bible (11:4-5)

Jesus might not yet have been baptizing in fire or even in the Spirit, but his signs showed that he was clearly the Spirit-endowed One who would baptize in the Spirit later (3:11, 16). As Jesus performed miracles, he alluded to a passage in the Old Testament, Isaiah 35:5-6, which mentioned some of the same signs he was performing. In so doing he reminded John's disciples that the works he was performing might be less dramatic than a fire baptism, but Isaiah had already offered them as signs of the messianic era (Goppelt 1964:77; Jeremias 1972:116; Borg 1987:165). Besides "seeing" Jesus perform the miracles of Isaiah 35, John's messengers could hear the good news Jesus preached to the poor (Mt 11:4-5), fulfilling Isaiah 61:1 (compare Lk 4:18). Jesus knew his mission, and John's doubts did not make him insecure; but he knew that John would recognize the words of Scripture.

Jesus Encourages a Broken Man of God (11:6)

This narrative teaches us how hard faith may seem when we are tested for our work for the kingdom (vv. 2-3), but it also demonstrates how Jesus lovingly strengthens his own to complete their task in faith (v. 6). While Jesus is in Isaiah (Is 35), he reminds John that God himself will be a stumbling stone to Israel and Judah (Is 8:14-15), but not to those who trust him (Is 8:13).

One could argue that this narrative criticizes John's unbelief. Does not Jesus' response to John's question in verses 4-6 constitute a rebuke? And does not Jesus diminish John's status vis-a-vis that of the disciples in the second half of verse 11?

But an argument that views John negatively misses the whole thrust of the passage. Jesus could confront John's question no more graciously than he does in verses 4-6, quite in contrast with how he addresses his opponents and even wayward disciples (16:23; 23:13-33). Unlike those who had seen much and believed little (11:21-24), John has seen little (vv. 4-5); Jesus pronounces a blessing on him if he will persevere (v. 6). He calls John his promised forerunner (v. 10), Elijah (v. 14); he further chides a generation for not receiving that prophet (vv. 18-19; compare 10:41) and makes John the greatest figure of history so far (11:11)-even if John does not get to hear all the compliments (v. 7). When Jesus announces that disciples of the kingdom are greater than John, he is exalting the disciples, not minimizing John; he uses John for the comparison precisely because he is so significant in God's plan (v. 11).

Matthew recorded John's struggle with doubt, not to condemn John, but to encourage subsequent disciples whose faith would be tested by hardships. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me could be translated "How happy will be the one who does not stumble on my account." In view of its serious use in the Gospel tradition (for example, 5:29-30; Mk 9:42-47; compare especially Mt 21:42-44), the language of "stumbling" here suggests that one's response to Jesus determines one's place at the final judgment (Witherington 1990:43-44).

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