Matthew’s gospel is a replay of Israel’s history, and this replay occurs at two different levels. On the one hand, Jesus relives Israel’s history and does it faithfully. He is the Son, the true Israel, called out of Egypt, baptized in the sea, tempted in the wilderness. He is the new Moses, declaring the Lord’s law from a mountaintop and sending His apostles out into the land for conquest; He is a new Solomon, teaching in riddles and parables about the character of His kingdom; He is the new Elisha, who comes on the heels of the prophet Elijah; He is the new Jeremiah, announcing the doom on the temple and the scattering of Israel. He is the true Israel, thrown into the grave of exile, and returning from the grave to receive all authority and to send His disciples into the world like a new Cyrus.
On the other hand, Israel also lives through her history all over again. She is confronted by Jesus, the New Moses, the new Solomon, the new Elisha, the new Jeremiah. She is put to the test again. She is being called to renew covenant and to repent in the face of the coming of the kingdom.
To understand what Matthew is teaching us, we need to keep our eyes on both of these levels. We need to recognize both that Jesus is the true Israel living through Israel’s history but doing it right; we also have to recognize that Israel is Israel, confronted with God’s messengers and servants and doing it all wrong, again.
That’s where we are in the narrative when we begin chapter 11. Jesus comes healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, preaching the good news to the poor. His ministry to Israel started in chapter 4, with His healing and teaching and exorcisms; we have seen Him teaching the people from the mountaintop, telling them how they are to produce a righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Then for two chapters we saw Him at work healing and raising the dead and casting out demons. He enlisted the Twelve to do the same, sending them to carry on His work. Jesus summarizes His own work in His response to John’s disciples here in chapter 11: “the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf ear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (v. 5). The question now is, How will Israel respond? Will she receive Him? Or will she reject Him as they rejected Moses and the house of David and Elijah and Jeremiah? Chapters 11-12 are about this response, the initial response of Israel to the coming-again of Yahweh’s messengers, rulers, and judges.
Chapter 11 is divided into three sections.Verses 1-19 concern the role of John the Baptist; in verses 20-24 Jesus condemns three cities of Galilee for rejecting Him; and in verses 25-30 Jesus praises His Father for withholding the kingdom from the proud and revealing it to babes. Each section begins with a question (vv. 3, 7, 16). John’s disciples ask Jesus “Are you the Expected One?” Then after they go away, Jesus asks the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” And then at the end he asks, again to the multitude, “To what shall I compare this generation?” Each section also talks about some “coming.” John wants to know if Jesus is the “coming one” (v. 3), and Jesus speaks of John as “Elijah who was to come” (v. 14) and of John and the Son of Man coming, though in different ways (vv. 18-19). The whole section is enclosed by references to “works”: the “works of Christ” in v 2 and the “works of wisdom” in v. 19.
The first section has to do with Jesus’ identity. John has been in prison since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:12), but he has received reports of Jesus’ work (11:2). He knows something of Jesus’ activities, and Jesus puzzles him. He prophesied an imminent judgment; the “axe is already laid at the root of the trees” (3:10). But instead of cutting down trees, Jesus is restoring them. If Jesus is the Messiah, why is John still languishing in prison? Why haven’t the prison doors burst open? Can this be the judgment that John predicted?
It doesn’t look like judgment. Jesus is restoring rather than judging Israel. John has predicted that Jesus is the one who will “come after me” and who will baptize with Spirit and fire, who has the winnowing fork in his hand and is going to gather wheat and also burn the chaff (3:11). Where’s the winnowing fork? Where’s the fire? Is Jesus proving John a false prophet?
This is the same odd sequence we find in 1-2 Kings. Elijah goes to Horeb, where Moses delivered the law, and He accuses Israel of abandoning Yahweh and tearing down His altars and persecuting His prophets. Yahweh agrees with Elijah’s assessment of things and declares that it’s time to act. He’s going to do something to end the evils of the house of Ahab through Jehu and Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-18). Jehu does carry out a judgment against the house of Ahab, a massive one that leads to the death of a large number of the members of the royal house. But before Jehu ever appears on the scene, we have the ministry of Elisha, and Elisha doesn’t seem to do anything that punishes Israel. Elisha leaves a few dead bodies around – the 42 young men who mock him and are killed by bears. Mostly, though, Elisha is doing good. He heals a Syrian leper, feeds some prophets who are without food, and restores property to widows. He raises the dead and gives advice to the kings of Israel and Judah. Elijah wasn’t around to see all this, but we can imagine His reaction: “Where is the sword of Elisha? He’s barely killing anyone. Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Later in Matthew 11, Jesus identifies John as “Elijah who was to come,” the new Elijah prophesied by Malachi. That means that Jesus is Elisha, carrying on the ministry of Elisha and fulfilling exactly the prophecies of judgment that the new Elijah delivered.
To see how it is judgment, we need to look deeper than Jesus does. We need to recognize that Jesus is dividing and sifting Israel, as people respond to His ministry with either faith or unbelief. Precisely by showing mercy, giving sight to the blind, healing the lame and cleansing lepers, Jesus is bringing a sword to Israel, because Israel is not going to respond. The winnowing fork is the winnowing fork of mercy to Israel. Those who want to be with Jesus form a new community around Him, the true Israel. Those who reject Him are the chaff that is thrown into the fire. Jesus answers John’s disciples by quoting a series of phrases from Isaiah (26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:7; 61:1). These are passages that talk about the restoration of Israel after exile, the Lord’s return to Zion, and His resurrection of the people of God. How does this answer the question? Jesus doesn’t give any new information to John. If John has heard about His works, he has no doubt heard that Jesus makes the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear, and so on.
This is an answer to the question in several ways. It gives John a context to understand what Jesus is doing. He is doing all these miraculous signs, but what do they mean? Jesus quotes from Isaiah to indicate to John that these are all part of a larger program, the redemption and restoration of Israel. More specifically, Jesus cites only parts of the passages He quotes. He cites those portions of Isaiah that describe His ministry of healing and teaching, but He leaves out portions of the same prophecies that talk about the judgment that Yahweh is bringing on the wicked. He quotes from Isaiah 35:5: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.” But the previous verse says, “your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.” Jesus quotes only positive part of the prophecy, but by putting His work in the context of Isaiah, He is saying that He is fulfilling the entire prophecy. He does the same thing in His citation of Isaiah 61. He quotes verse 1, which says, that the Spirit-anointed Servant of Yahweh will “preach good tidings to the poor,” but He doesn’t quote from verse 2, which says that the Servant will “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus is telling John that His work is part of a larger design, and that this design does include chopping down the trees and putting the unfruitful trees into the fire. But it’s not time for that yet.
Jesus also includes some things in his list that are not included in Isaiah. Isaiah talks about blind and deaf and lame being healed, but Isaiah says nothing about lepers being cleansed or the dead being raised. Jesus says that His ministry actually goes beyond the hopes of Isaiah and the prophets. It includes everything they hoped for but includes something more as well. Jesus ends with a blessing: “blessed is he who is not scandalized by me.” That is, blessed is anyone who doesn’t stumble at what Jesus is doing. The stumbling block here is Jesus’ ministry of mercy rather than judgment. All the Jews who were hoping for redemption were hoping for fire to burn up compromised Jews, Jewish sinners, and the Romans. Jesus brings fire, but not at first. First, He is going to gather the wheat, gather the wheat that doesn’t appear very healthy.
The visit from John’s disciples gives Jesus the opportunity to describe John’s ministry. He asks a series of questions about who John is, about what people were expecting from him.Did they go into the wilderness to see reeds shaken by the wind? Or a man in soft clothing? Or a prophet? The answer to the second is “No.” John is not a man in soft clothing; he is not the kind of man found in kings’ palaces. And the answer to the first also seems to be “No.” John is not a reed shaken by the wind. The last one is the correct answer: John is a prophet, the greatest of the prophets, the last of the prophets before the coming of the kingdom.
Why would anyone think he was a reed or a man in soft clothing? Where would these alternatives come from? The best answer to that, I think, is that Jesus is alluding to various cryptic promises of the coming age, of the Messiah. Reeds aren’t found in the wilderness, but by water. Putting together reed and wind and wilderness evokes Israel’s exodus experience, when the Lord’s wind blew back what Exodus calls the “Sea of Reeds” so that Israel could pass through and out of Egypt. Jesus is asking if the people gathered in the wilderness because John is a new Moses, who will lead them out of Egypt, and out of the wilderness, into the promised land. The reference to men in soft clothing in kings’ palaces may be a reference to the promise of a coming Davidic king. Jesus is asking if the people went out to the wilderness in hopes of finding the Messiah. The answer to that is “No.” John is not the new Moses, nor a Davidic king. He is the prophet promised by Malachi 3 (v. 10), the prophet “Elijah” (v. 13). He is not the Coming One, but the one who comes to prepare for the Coming One.
John’s work is the hinge point of redemptive history. With the “days of John,” one phase of history comes to an end and a new one is about to begin. The phase of history that comes to an end is the phase of what Jesus, in an unusual phrase, calls “the prophets and the law,” which “prophesy” until John (v. 13). Why does Jesus say that the time of the prophets and the law has come to an end with the “days of John”? Verse 12 gives the answer. It is a difficult statement, interpreted in various ways. But the point seems to be about both the powerful progress of the kingdom, which begins with John, and the violent opposition that this progress unleashes. With John, God begins waging war against His enemies, and His enemies violently attack Him (v. 12).
Jews expected that prior to the triumph of the Messiah, there would be a time of tribulation and apostasy. The prophets spoke of a time when the law would become ineffective and true prophecy would cease (Lamentations 2:9; Ezekiel 7:25-27; Zephahiah 3:3; Zechariah 7:19). John’s ministry marks the beginning of this climactic battle, this cosmic warfare between the kingdom of God and the forces of evil. John’s ministry initiates the Messianic tribulation, a time of lawlessness and false prophecy when the prophets and law are silenced. This is the time that Israel is in, the time of the kingdom. The climax of Israel history has arrived, and yet many of the Jews are tone-deaf to the tune of the times (vv. 16-17).
John called Israel to repentance and mourning, but Israel said he was demon-possessed (v. 18). John did not bring in the kingdom. He did not bring a new Exodus, and he was not the king in the Davidic line. But he was the preparation for all that. He was the prophet that was going to restore all things before the Lord’s coming. But the Jews didn’t listen. They wouldn’t accept his prophetic warnings. Instead, they put him in prison and eventually killed. The days of John are the transition, and when the days of John come to an end, especially with his death, then the tribulation will begin in earnest. On the other hand, Jesus comes feasting, but they charge Him with being a rebellious youth (v. 19; cf. Deuteronomy 21:20) and condemn Him for associating with publicans and sinners. Yet Jesus is the Wisdom of God (v. 19), and His works speak for themselves and will vindicate Him.
“This generation” is the generation of John and Jesus. And “this generation” also brings to mind the generation of Israel that came out of Egypt, that rejected the leadership of Moses, and that fell in the wilderness. This generation went out into the wilderness perhaps expecting a new exodus. What they found was a prophet, and the prophet didn’t live up to expectations. This generation, like the first generation of the exodus, is going to fall in the wilderness and never enter the promised land. But their children will.
Though John’s ministry is unique, and Jesus’ of course also unique, what Jesus says here is permanently relevant. There are times in our individual lives, and times in the life of a church, or of the church as a whole, when a new tune begins to be played. There are times when God calls us to mourn, and times when God calls us to dance. Our response to those times is eternally relevant. Refusing to mourn when God sings a dirge will make us like the generation of Jesus, lost and wandering in the wilderness. Refusing to dance when the Lord plays a wedding song will also leave us in the wilderness.
There is no question more crucial than, What time is it? What music is playing? But there is also no more difficult question to answer. Jesus’ reference to Wisdom is not gratuitous. Wisdom is insight into the time. There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance; there is a time to laugh, and a time to weep; there is a time to gather, and a time to scatter; a time to give life and a time to kill. Wisdom is knowing what time it is, and this kind of wisdom only comes from the Living Wisdom, the Incarnate Wisdom, who has promised to give us the Spirit of wisdom.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
 See Davies and Allison, Matthew 8-18 (Continuum, 2004), p. 247.
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