As Jesus is growing more popular amongst the Jews, more and more people come to see Him and try to figure out who He really is and what He is up to. The rumours about Him and His identity are flying and everyone wants to hear Him, question Him and draw their own conclusions. In this section of Matthew’s Gospel we can see how a number of different groups of people react to Him. Each group of people has a slightly different reaction to Him, most of which are negative. It seems as though each group has expectations on Jesus that He doesn’t meet.
As you read you will notice how “this generation” complains that Jesus doesn’t do what they want. Many towns such as Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum enjoy His miracles but reject His call to repent of their sins. The Pharisees judge him for breaking their rules around Sabbath and they plot to kill Him. Even His family is concerned about His teaching and in Mark’s account of this event (check out Mark 3:21), His family calls Him crazy! Lastly the people in His hometown of Nazareth reject Him – even though they are amazed at His teaching – because they know his roots and figure a great prophet couldn’t have come from a lowly Nazarene carpenter’s family.
Jesus is by no means blind to their reactions and expectations and He addresses them in different ways. Near the end of the three chapters He begins describing the kingdom of heaven using a series of parables, including the parable of the farmer scattering seed. Herein He describes how the message of God’s plan for a new kingdom is always met with different reactions and consequently it yields different results in their lives.
One such reaction we encounter in chapter 11 is from John the Baptist, and his response to Jesus, given his past relationship with Jesus, is bewildering. John was a prophet who grew up knowing that he had a divine purpose because even his own birth had been miraculous. His mother had been barren and was well past child-bearing years when she carried John. An angel had foretold of John’s birth and prophesied that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would call the Israelites to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. John grew up and fulfilled that prophesy by living in the desert and preaching baptism and repentance, calling people to turn back to God. He also announced that the long-awaited Messiah was coming very soon. In fact when Jesus came to him to be baptized John said: “I testify that he is the Chosen One of God” (see John 1:32-34).
But now John is in prison. He ended up there because he publicly criticized the immoral choices of King Herod. And prison is not a very nice place to be. Especially when you don’t actually deserve to be there. Especially when you have to wait and wait and you don’t know if you will ever get out. So John began having his own doubts about Jesus. If Jesus was really the Messiah why wasn’t he confronting King Herod and dethroning him? If the coming Messiah was to be the king of the Jews then wouldn’t he want to challenge the current King? And by the way, when was He going to get John out of prison?
You see John would have been very familiar with passages like Isaiah 34, which is a gory account about God avenging the enemies of the Israelites with judgement and destruction. He also would have known the next chapter which says: “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.” But Jesus had not judged the nations yet or destroyed their enemies – in fact He didn’t even seem to be building an army. And wouldn’t His first move be to free His second cousin from wrongful imprisonment?
So John sends people to ask Jesus if He really is the one (Which is odd, given that John was one of the first to declare that Jesus was the one). And Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah 35 but not the parts mentioned above. Jesus doesn’t mention the death and destruction of enemies but only about healing the blind and the lame and the deaf. Jesus is trying to communicate that the enemy that He is coming to save them from is not a nation or even a person. The enemy is sin and its hold on us. The exile He wants to free them from is the one where they were excluded from God’s kingdom because of sin – not where they were exiled from their land by Babylon. He’s not saying that there won’t be judgment coming one day but rather that first there would be healing, miracles and a call to repent. Jesus was reversing the order of things: not judgment first and then healing and peace, instead healing and miracles start now, judgment will happen later.
Which is why he adds this strange line: “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” It sounds like a warning for John. But why would He need to warn John not to fall away when clearly Jesus is doing amazing miracles? If it’s really “Good news being preached to the poor” why would John need a warning about falling away?
Jesus explains when he turns to the crowd and begins talking about expectations. He asks them: “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind?” (this is actually reference to King Herod because the picture on his currency was a Galilean reed swaying in the wind). “Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet.”
He’s trying to show the people that they have been expecting an earthly king to come out of a palace and rescue them but God has sent a prophet instead. The prophets in the Old Testament did not live in palaces, in fact they were often running for their lives. He’s affirming that John the Baptist is indeed the one who was to come and prophesy the coming of the Messiah. At the same time He’s trying to teach the people that just like John wasn’t rich or royal, they shouldn’t expect the Messiah to be either. Even though John didn’t seem to fit the expectations of society, he still was the prophet God sent. He’s telling them that in the kingdom of heaven things are evaluated much differently than on earth; that one may completely miss the coming of the Messiah if their expectations are misguided. Even John had misguided expectations of what Jesus’ way of salvation would look like which is why he needed the warning about falling away on account of Jesus’ work.
Jesus is carrying out God’s plan to bring a kingdom of mercy and an invitation to salvation. And actually He is bringing freedom from something worse than prison. In fact he is ultimately bringing freedom from something worse than death. Being excluded from God’s wonderful kingdom because of sin is much worse than prison or even physical death. And this is why Jesus was bringing the kingdom before judgment day. So that many would have a chance to be saved through hearing and getting a taste of what God’s kingdom is like and then repenting and being saved from judgment.
Jesus challenges in many different ways in this passage to not give up seeking Him and trusting Him when we experience unmet expectations. He says blessed are those who don’t give up and fall away when God doesn’t do what they have asked or expected. And His challenge to John is the most poignant one because in the end John did lose his life in prison. His challenge to John was to trust that Jesus could reward him for his faithfulness in the afterlife, not just in this life; that the eternal reward would far outweigh the pain and trouble of the present.
Day 1: Matthew 11:1-28
Day 2: Matthew 12:1-21
Day 3: Matthew 12:22-50
Day 4: Matthew 13:1-23
Day 5: Matthew 13:24-58
As you are reading this week look out for the different groups of people and think about their reactions to Jesus and expectations of Jesus. Consider your own reactions to Jesus. Do you have your own expectations on things you’d like him to do (or not do) in your own life?
Maybe like John the Baptist you have found yourself in an undesirable place or enduring difficult circumstances.
Maybe it isn’t your fault and you are wondering why Jesus doesn’t rescue you? Maybe you are wondering why it seems like Jesus has rescued others and not you even though you have served him well.
John might have felt this way too.
Maybe you have asked for a sign or a miracle and He hasn’t given you one.
Maybe you don’t understand why Jesus is waiting so long to make things right.
Use this section as an opportunity to talk to Jesus about your own expectations, and how He can keep you from “falling away”.