11 Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities.
2 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 The blind see 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. 6 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
7 As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he of whom it is written:
‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
11 “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
16 “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, 17 and saying:
‘We played the flute for you,
And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
And you did not lament.’
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 winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
The Bigger Picture of Matthew’s Gospel
As we have gone through the gospel of Matthew, we have seen two things being shown to us simultaneously in this story. The first is that, if you have eyes to see, you will see the history of Israel as a people is being re-lived in the life of Jesus. Matthew presents Him to us as fleeing to Egypt and returning, just like Israel, crossing the Jordan into Canaan, just like Israel, fulfilling the role of Moses giving the Law on the Mountain. Now we see Him live out Israel’s prophetic era, and the New Elijah hand off his ministry to the new Elisha.
The second thing being present to us by Matthew in this gospel is Israel herself re-living her own history in response to the ministry of John, and Jesus, and the apostles. All of the failures of Israel throughout her history, all of her unfaithfulness is brought out again, she is given all the same tests and has the same response of unbelief is re-lived. These are the themes running in the background of Matthew’s gospel and in our passage today, they come into the foreground: Elijah has returned, calling Israel to repentance, and she says “no. I will not.”1
“Are you the One to come?”
Virtually the entire time Jesus has been ministering, John the Baptizer has been in prison. You probably forgot about him. The Spirit of God was on John, and he preached a message of imminent judgment toward Israel. “The ax is already laid to the roots.” The figure bringing that judgment of course would be the one who was to come after him. “His winnowing fork is in His hand!” John was telling everyone judgment was coming! And Jesus is the one who is going to bring it. But so far, through ten chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus hasn’t killed anybody. He has called fire down from heaven exactly zero times. John is expecting fire and brimstone and death for godless, unfaithful people. Instead what has Jesus done? He’s healed people and brought people back to life. In video game terms, his kill count is negative.
That does not sound like an ax hitting the root of a tree, it sounds like an arborist watering it.
At this point, John is confused. He is languishing in prison. This mighty warrior king, this messiah, this deliverer should be out cutting the wicked down (and releasing John from prison by now). He is confused. The judgment he has preached is not happening. John might even be concerned that he is wrong, and therefore a false prophet. So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus what is going on. Are you really the one who is to come or not?
And Jesus, characteristically, doesn’t give them a yes-or-no answer to that yes-or-no question. Instead He quotes from the prophet Isaiah. We are not as familiar with Isaiah as John’s disciples or any first century Jews would be. They would be as familiar with it as you are with your favorite movie. If someone quotes a line from it, you will instantly recall the entire scene. That is what Jesus is doing here. John is asking Jesus why judgment hasn’t come, and Jesus seems to respond “listen, I’m busy doing nice guy stuff right now. That’s all I’m here to do.” But the verses of Isaiah He quotes about the blind having sight restored and lepers cleansed etc. are all in the context of Isaiah prophesying judgment and destruction upon Jerusalem and Judah. Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:18, and just a few verses earlier Isaiah says this:
1 “Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt!
Add year to year;
Let feasts come around.
2 Yet I will distress Ariel;
There shall be heaviness and sorrow,
And it shall be to Me as Ariel.
3 I will encamp against you all around,
I will lay siege against you with a mound,
And I will raise siegeworks against you.
4 You shall be brought down,
You shall speak out of the ground;
Your speech shall be low, out of the dust;
Your voice shall be like a medium’s, out of the ground;
And your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
5 “Moreover the multitude of your foes
Shall be like fine dust,
And the multitude of the terrible ones
Like chaff that passes away;
Yes, it shall be in an instant, suddenly.
6 You will be punished by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and earthquake and great noise,
With storm and tempest
And the flame of devouring fire.
John and his disciples would understand this. Isaiah’s prophecies about the restoration and destruction of Israel are both playing out simultaneously. The old Israel is being primed for destruction. The new Israel is gathering around the messiah and being restored. Right now is the time for ministry to Israel, the old Israel, and preaching repentance to them, they are being given time to reject Jesus fully. They are being given every single opportunity to repent, and all it does is stiffen their necks even more. The point of Jesus quoting these verses is that judgment is indeed coming. What Jesus is doing at this moment is precisely the same stuff Elisha did after Elijah went up to heaven. Elisha ministered in a similar context as Jesus. The land was filled with godlessness. There was a wicked king ruling over them named Ahab, one of the very worst of the kings. And God said that Elisha and Jehu would be swords against the house of Ahab. But Elisha’s ministry was not very bloody at all. Most of what he did was heal people, raise the dead, and restore Israel. The judgment came later, and at the hands of the Jehu.
The situation is parallel to Jesus and John’s.
Israel needs repentance
Jesus points out that John’s ministry is one in which things are beginning to be shaken up. John first, then Jesus are calling Israel to repentance, to renew the covenant. That is what must take place in covenant renewal. And, not coincidentally, as we gather to worship on the Lord’s Day we are renewing our covenant with Him, which is why there is a place for confession of sin in the service. Drawing near to God and renewing our covenant with Him requires we repent of sin. So it should never be seen as going through the motions or just reading a script. We really do go before the face of a Holy God. And for Israel in Jesus’ day, that Holy God came down to them in the flesh. And rather than hear Him and obey Him, most of Israel hated Him. They rejected His ministry to them. This is what Jesus means by the “kingdom of heaven suffering violence, and the violent take it by force.” What John inaugurated is Jesus’ invasion of the Old Creation. It is warfare. When God’s kingdom goes to a place, it isn’t nice and orderly. There is confusion and violence. Things can no longer hold together. New wine bursts old wineskins.
And so, to the multitudes, Jesus is far more straightforward than He normally is. He tells them exactly who John is. He is Elijah returned, whom Israel had been waiting for for centuries. The kingdom has arrived. And there will not be peace, but a sword.
Dance to Jesus’ tune
Jesus then goes on to begin to sound like the “not-so-nice” parts of Isaiah He quoted. Jesus condemns this generation. And this is the first use of that phrase “this generation” that Jesus will use often in Matthew. This phrase should bring to mind something else that happened in Israel’s history. There was another “this generation” that God was angry with and judged them for their rebellion against Him. When was this? In the Exodus. That generation that went out with Moses could not enter the land of promise. God was angry with “this generation” for their faithlessness and unbelief. Forty years they were made to wander in the desert until the last of their bodies fell in the wilderness. Jesus is employing “this generation” in precisely the same way. When John or Jesus says to stand up, they sit down. When they say to go west, they go east. They do the opposite of what they are commanded. They are a stiff-necked, hard-hearted people. They ultimately rejected the ministry of John the Baptizer. Herod has him executed, but according to what Jesus says here, it seems most of Israel was pleased with that. John sings a funeral dirge and they joke around. Jesus plays party music, and they grind their teeth and refuse to dance. They do the opposite of what God is commanding them, and there will be a price to pay.
In our generation, things are obviously different from Israel in the first century, but there are many, many things that are the same. We are a stiff-necked people, too. We refuse to repent of sins that deserve the wrath of a Holy God. We will seek out any voice that justifies the things we do and believe, and we will refuse to hear what God is saying to us. But if you trust the Lord, if you trust what He says, when he plays the flute and you really do not want to dance, you will anyway. When he plays the funeral dirge, and you do not want to mourn, you will anyway. That is wisdom being justified by her children. Listening to God’s Word, hearing what He expects, what He demands, what He requires of us, and believing Him and doing what he says. That is what Jesus is calling you to do, to hear His voice and obey the things He says.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am massively indebted to Peter Leithart’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel, Jesus as Israel, but especially in making this point. So much that I have said in these sermons has come from either him, R.T. France, or N.T. Wright, that if I were to footnote it, writing citations would be my full-time job.