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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Opposition in Galilee to the Messiah, Part 1 — Matthew 11

[With this lesson the Matthew series takes a break until the fall.]

Jesus' Answer to the Baptizer's Question, 11:1-6
1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. 2 When John heard in prison the deeds of the Christ (i.e., messiah), he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

1 The "instructing" of the Twelve seems most naturally to refer to the instructions for mission in ch. 10, although it is possible that the earlier teaching to larger groups (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) is included.  The Greek conjunction de introducing verse 1 means "but," and shows that contrary to what might be expected, although Jesus sent the Twelve out in order to multiply his own personal ministry, he continues to visit towns in person as well. The nearest obvious antecedent of the word "their" (in "their cities") is "his twelve disciples." It was to the cities of the Twelve that Jesus now went, that is, the cities (or towns) that the Twelve had visited, as forerunners of Jesus. This means that the Twelve—like modern "advance men"—by visiting many Galilean towns had singled out for Jesus the towns that had been more receptive and those that had not.

2-3 It is somewhat surprising that what John the Baptizer heard were "the deeds of the Christ (i.e., the messiah)," since Jesus was not yet calling himself the messiah to the crowds, or even to his own select circle. Perhaps it is Matthew who simply calls the deeds of Jesus "the deeds of the messiah", since Jesus is about to identify them as such in the next few verses. But if the reports that came to John really did indeed claim that these deeds showed Jesus' messiahship, he might have been perplexed by this characterization, since his prophecies about the "coming One" were of judgment and clearing the threshing floor of sinners. Was he then totally wrong about Jesus being the messiah? Or was his information about the messiah's activity wrong?
We should also not miss the importance of the fact that John was now in prison and would soon be executed (beheaded!) by order of Herod Antipas. Would the messiah allow his forerunner to be treated this way?

The wording of John's question "Are you the one who was to come, or should we wait for another?" covers both possible mistakes: If the answer is that Jesus is the one who was to come, it means John's concept of the messiah's role needed correcting. If he was to wait for another, then John had mistaken Jesus for the messiah.

4-6 But Jesus doesn't just answer, "I am the one who was to come." Instead he gives John a summary of his activities to date—thus confirming (or correcting) whatever reports had come to John in prison—and concludes with the words "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me." Why would Jesus' activities cause offense? We have already seen in chs. 8-9 sporadic instances where Jesus' words of forgiveness to the man he would heal aroused offense among some of the scribes, and we will see in chs. 11 and 12 much more focused opposition and offense. The decision will be John's whether or not he will reject Jesus as the messiah.

How did Jesus expect John to decide? Presumably the same way that the Twelve and the crowds were expected to decide. His actions were all driven by love and compassion and holiness, and his powers could come from only one source: God. If he were falsely representing himself as the messiah, would God be giving his these powers? Furthermore, it was predicted in the Old Testament that the coming One (whether he be called the "king" or the "seed of David" or the "Suffering Servant" or whatever term prophecy chose) would perform such acts of healing and raising the dead (e.g., Isa 35:4-6; 61:1).
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”   5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  (Isaiah 35:4-6)
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  (Isaiah 61:1)

Part of John's perplexity was the fact that the messiah's predicted actions—releasing those oppressed by sin and its consequences, and bringing judgment—were to be carried out in two comings of the messiah. Although in a sense Jesus carried out judgment in his first coming, it is particularly in his second coming that he will execute judgment in its final and complete form. The judgment of Satan and the victory over death are anticipated in the crucifixion and resurrection, but prior to that all that John could see were the glimpses of judgment exhibited in Jesus' power to expel demons.

Did Jesus' words to John succeed in resolving his doubts? The gospels don't tell us, but I like to think that they did.

Jesus' Estimate of John, 11:7-15
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then 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, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the 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 suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!  (Matthew 11:7-15 NRSV)
This section too begins with Greek de "but," which calls attention to the fact that Jesus corrects a possible false impression that his previous words to John's disciples might have created. He does not  minimize the importance of John.

7-9a Apparently, Jesus spoke these words to John's disciples in public, for he then turns to the listening "crowds". Did they think that Jesus was now rejecting John? If so, how should they choose between the two popular reformers? They admired both men.

Jesus' first questions to the crowds have to do with their false estimate of John and their motives for admiring him. When they went out to hear him preach, what drew them? Was it his ascetic ways and blunt forthright language? Was it his Elijah clothes? These things were the outer accouterments of prophets, true. And John was indeed a prophet. Prophets could be mistaken at times. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel's first king and only later had to reject him and replace him by David. Was John too mistaken about Jesus?

9b-15 What then was John's true role? Jesus will now tell them in amazing terms.

9b-10 First of all, John was not only a prophet, he was much more (v 9). His role is that of the "messenger of the covenant" promised by Malachi in 3:1. According to Mal 3:1, this messenger will prepare the way for God's own coming to his temple. But as Jesus paraphrases the verse here, the words spoken by God are addressed to the messiah as "you" and "your face." The coming of God himself in the person of the messiah ("you) will be sudden—so sudden that without the messenger's announcement it could not be prepared for. John's role as that messenger was to prepare Yahweh's people for his own coming to them in the form of the messiah.  With these words Jesus corrects the crowds' assessment of John as merely another reforming prophet. His questions that they had heard were not idle curiosity: they were proper for him to to ask, since his role was to introduce the messiah.

11 Secondly, John stood in a unique period of transition between the Old and the New Covenants and as such had a different status in each. In the Old Covenant economy there was none greater than he: not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Elijah, not Isaiah. But in the New Covenant economy—what is called here "the kingdom of Heaven"—every member enjoys a higher status than John's role in the Old Covenant. Don't misunderstand! In this second sentence Jesus doesn't mean to say that John as a believer in God's eternal kingdom will always be inferior to you or me. It is merely that even the highest role in the pre-kingdom era pales in comparison to being in that kingdom. It is better to be in this kingdom than to be Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah and Isaiah (all rolled into one), anticipating it.

Why does Jesus add this second statement? In the first statement he corrected a possible underestimation of John—no one greater than he. But in the second he opened the opportunity to all who heard him to become something even better than John: to become members of the kingdom of God.

12 Verse 12 is one of the more difficult verses in the Bible to understand. Several translations and interpretations have been offered. Some think the reference to violence here is positive: people have been so eager to enter the kingdom that they have been beating the doors down to get in. Others think the reference is negative: the kingdom has drawn near in the persons of John and Jesus, and opposition has become intense. In the light of what the gospels tell us about John's and Jesus' ministries, we can see both processes occurring. John was very popular, and many came to be baptized by him. Jesus too attracted large crowds and was acclaimed by many. But John was now in prison and would soon be executed on a whim of Herod's wife, and Jesus was already beginning to feel the attacks on his deeds and teachings and claims mounting in intensity.  Once again, the Greek conjunction de "but" introduces verse 12. The contrast is this: although in the Old era no one was greater than John, and membership in the kingdom confers even higher status and rewards than being John, yet from the time John appeared down to the present there has been resistance and opposition to the kingdom message of John and Jesus. Why does Jesus say this at this point in the narrative? Chapters 11 and 12 will be devoted to showing the intensification of opposition to Jesus. John's question, although quite legitimate, gives us a taste of what his enemies might have seen a crack in Jesus' armor: even his own forerunner now has doubts about him! Jesus' hearers should therefore know that all of this is in God's plan.

13-14 The word "for" which gives an explanation is not explaining the violence, but Jesus' earlier statement about John's status straddling the two eras. John stands at the turning point of the two eras: the law and the prophets (i.e., the Old Testament scriptures and the rules governing life in that era) were in force up to John. Since he is the Elijah who was to come, he introduces the new era. The prediction that an Elijah figure would come to introduce the new era of the messiah is found in Malachi 4:5.

5   Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Israel's Dissatisfaction, 11:16-19
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, 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, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
Two small details of language are easy to miss in reading this short section. First, Jesus is not addressing the fickle people directly. In vv 18 and 19 he uses the words "they say" (not "you say"). And secondly, he is not passing judgment on the whole Jewish people, but only "this generation," referring to the majority of people living in Galilee and Judea at that time. As Jesus will use the term "this generation" elsewhere in Matthew, as well as in some other gospel passages, it is an ominous sign that portends what will be God's terrible judgment in AD 70, when he will permit the Romans to destroy the temple and much of Jerusalem as well.

Why were Jesus' contemporaries so unable to recognize him? There are various ways to approach that question, and the suggestion offered in these verses by our Lord is only one of them. In fact it is merely a symptom of a more fundamental issue that we will return to in verses 25-27. Jesus says here that they had their own plans for what God should do. They were like children inventing games for which they set their own arbitrary rules, and then complaining that other children didn't do as they were told. One minute the inventors of the game played one tune and demanded laughter and merriment, and the next they abruptly changed the tune and expected instant mourning.

Furthermore, they failed to recognize that John and Jesus had totally different roles in God's plan. John was to be the ascetic prophet, who denied himself everything, abstained from wine, subsisted on locusts and wild honey, and fasted often. Jesus was to be a friend of tax collectors and sinners. In order to do so he enjoyed table fellowship with them which entailed sharing their wine and good food. He didn't make fasting an important part of his own life or that of the Twelve. The fickle critics of both men accused them of going to extremes: John was allegedly demon-possessed, while Jesus was called a glutton and drunkard. In Jewish views of that day gluttony was often considered a sign of a reprobate (such as Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob because he was a glutton, Hebrew ballāʿ), or as one unable to control his appetite or resist any temptation (Hebrew gurgĕrān). These two assessments amounted to the same thing: men who were thought to be "demon-possessed" (as critics called John) or who were called "gluttons" (as they called Jesus) were false prophets and false teachers of the God of Israel. There is even a hint that labeling Jesus "a glutton and a drunkard" implies that he was like the incorrigible son who according to the law of Moses should be executed by stoning:
18   If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.  (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Jesus' final words in verse 19—"but wisdom is vindicated by her deeds"—means the same thing as his earlier quoted statement "a tree is known by its fruit." Jesus' deeds were all to heal and help, to free from sin and its effects. His critics only sought to maintain the status quo of suffering and despair.

Oracles of Judgment, 11:20-24
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. 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.”
In the preceding section Jesus has been telling his loyal disciples about outsiders who are unsatisfied with him, and passing judgment on him as one worthy of God's death penalty for a "rebellious" son. Now he turns the table on his critics. And although he directly addresses the towns in which there has been inadequate response, calling them "you," he may be doing this, as we might say, in absentia. That is, Matthew doesn't necessarily imply that unbelieving residents of these three Galilean towns were in Jesus immediate audience. A prophet can address directly a remote audience.

Elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus also denounced Galilean towns for their failure to repent, contrasting them with the pagan city of Nineveh, which repented when it heard the prophetic denunciations of Jonah (Mat 12:41). But here he doesn't use a contrasting example. Instead, he cites cities famous for the totality of their destruction. Sodom (and also Gomorrah, which Jesus doesn't mention) were destroyed when God sent fire down from heaven upon them. Tyre and Sidon were destroyed by Alexander the Great, and their destruction was predicted centuries before in Old Testament prophecy. In neither case were they called upon to repent, nor were miracles performed in them as a warning. This is Jesus' point, for he claims that if they had received such warnings of their wickedness and seen miracles such as he performed in Galilee, they would have repented and been spared.

What does Jesus denounce the residents of these Galilean towns for? "Repenting" means changing what one believes and does, abandoning what displeases God and conforming to what does please him. It means a complete turn-around. But Jesus doesn't give a list of specific sins here. He doesn't even say—in so many words—that failure to believe in him as the messiah is their sin. Matthew expects us to fill in the answers from our general knowledge of Jesus, obtained from all sources. Jesus has taught a rigorous form of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). He has implied in chapter 8 that such a righteousness can only come from individuals acknowledging—like the blind, deaf, lame and demon-possessed who came to him in chapter 8—that they are spiritually impaired and need to be made whole through faith in Jesus. Those two steps are what most of the audiences in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had refused to do. Perhaps they were entertained by Jesus' novel interpretations of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and they were certainly amazed (and perhaps entertained) as they watched his healings and exorcisms, as one might munch on a bag of popcorn while watching magic tricks. But if they ever actually grasped what was needed to change in their own lives, they simply refused to heed.  
Isn't that so often the response of our "generation"? Church services and radio and TV programs provide a kind of "entertainment." But the viewers, like the children in Jesus' parable want to control everything. They don't want to find themselves confronted by God or put in a position where they must make serious changes in the way they think and act. Perhaps, before we nod our heads in agreement that these First Century Galileans (or "Jews") were really wicked and deserved every bit of the disaster that Jesus warned them of, we should go back and re-read Matthew 5-7 and ask ourselves if these standards really do characterize the way we think, act and live. Repentance isn't something that a follower of Jesus does only once in his or her life. It is a discipline as important as our daily hygiene. What have you repented of today? What has God shown you that you need to correct?

To Whom Does God "Choose" to Reveal Himself?, 11:25-27
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." (Matthew 11:25-27 NIV)
Above, I asked the question: "Why were Jesus' contemporaries so unable to recognize him?" and suggested that there was a fundamental reason that underlay the surface reason that people had their own expectations which made them only respond to what they thought God should do.  That reason is what Jesus mentions here. It is not one that appeals to most people. It seems "unfair" of God. Why would a loving God ever hide truth necessary for salvation from anyone? And why would the Son of God only choose to reveal God to certain people and not to others? Perhaps the clue is in how Jesus' words describe those to whom saving truth is hidden. They are the "wise and learned" who are described as the opposite of "little children" (v 25). This suggests that the Son of God will always "choose" to reveal God the Father to anyone who in heart and mind is what he calls "little children." The choice then—in spite of the surface impression of v 27—is not ultimately God's but ours. We can choose to be either "wise and learned" or "little children". Here we must make a very important distinction from the context. These "little children" (the Greek word nēpioi means literally "infants") are not the same as the "children" (the Greek word here paidia is a different one, referring to older children, perhaps teens or pre-teens) described in verses 16-17. The "infants" (or "little children") of v 25 are innocent and trusting, while the older "children" of verses 16-17 show themselves by their behavior to be selfish, mean and fickle. People who consider themselves "wise and learned" are often the most reluctant to change their thinking on any important issue.

So while we might agree that God always takes the first step in opening the hearts and minds of hearers of the gospel, although the terms "hidden" and "chooses to reveal" sound a lot like Calvinistic teaching on election, what Jesus is teaching here is something less complicated and abstruse. It is that God always reveals himself to those wishing to learn from him. The most appropriate parallel elsewhere in the four gospels is Jesus' words in John 7:17 — "If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority."

An Invitation to Rest, 11:28-30
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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"
Following his words of judgment on unresponsive and unrepentant hearers of his teachings and witnesses of his healing and exorcisms, and following immediately on his putting his finger on the crucial issue of whether or not one is willing to learn from God and change one's behavior, Jesus invites his hearers to exchange their heavy burdens and their weariness with life and with the powerless legalism of the Pharisees for a new kind of sharing life's learning and working with himself, and thus entering a profound kind of "rest" in the midst of exertion. For Galilean farmers "rest" for a work animal meant taking off the yoke at day's end and feeding the animal. Jesus liked to use startling ways of conveying truth through apparent contradictions. Here he suggests that real "rest" was not taking off the yoke, but putting it on. How can this be? Because the yoke he invites us to put on is what allows him to share all our burdens. A yoke was a device that permitted two animals to draw the same vehicle or plow. When Jesus is yoked to me, he does most of the pulling, I'm just a beneficiary of his strength. This is an amazing reversal of the normal use of this metaphor. In the Old Testament God prohibited his people from yoking together an ox and a donkey (Deut 22:10), because the unequal pulling power would cause pain and injury to the animals. Paul used the same metaphor to counsel Christians not to marry non-Christians (2 Cor 6:14) This too most often will cause pain and spiritual injury to both parties because their goals in life and the principles that guide their daily decisions are so radically different. But here is the unequally yoked pair, par excellence! Yet it causes no injury or pain: quite the contrary. Yet the inequality is only one of power, not of goals and principles. On the contrary, when we take Jesus' yoke on ourselves and learn of him, we daily become more like him in our responses to irritations and problems. Instead of fuming and complaining and cursing them, we receive them as Jesus received the irritations, rebuffs, false accusations and injuries that he experienced daily.