As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
(Matthew 11:7-15 ESV)
Today we come a rather complicated passage in Scripture. Yesterday we saw that John the Baptist was having doubts about Jesus. So he sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah. As usual, there was a crowd around Jesus when this happened.
The crowd had witnessed John the Baptist expressing doubt and therefore may have begun to change their minds about him. So Jesus, through the use of a couple of rhetorical questions, points out that John was not a vacillator (a reed shaken by the wind). Nor was he a man who embraced the world (a man of soft clothing).
John was a prophet. In fact he was more than a prophet. While other prophets had predicted Jesus, John heralded Jesus just as previous prophets, whom Jesus quotes, predicted [Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1]. John the Baptist was the only prophet who was predicted. And he had a very important job – to introduce the world to Jesus.
These words of Jesus are a prime example of something He told us recently: He will acknowledge those who acknowledge Him [Matthew 10:32-33]. John the Baptist acknowledged Jesus’ greatness. Here Jesus acknowledges John’s greatness.
Yet as great as John was he still lived under the law since Jesus had not yet died and taken on the penalty of sin (which He did at the cross). As we’ve learned in our previous studies of Philippians and Ephesians, the law is inferior to grace. Jesus here is foreshadowing the benefits of living in the kingdom of heaven which He brought into the world [Matthew 3:1-2]. It is much better to live under grace, which we do today, than it is to live under the law, as people did in Old Testament times.
This kingdom had suffered violence from the days of John the Baptist. This statement by Jesus is difficult due to the complexity of the original Greek, but perhaps Jesus is referring to the opposition people have had to Him since John first ushered Him onto the world scene.
Alternatively, this statement could refer to the “violent” nature with which people enter the kingdom of heaven. I myself went into Christianity kicking and screaming. I had been a devout and outspoken atheist who did not want to believe the Bible was true. It took a lot out of me when I finally realized I was wrong. No one enters God’s kingdom passively. It requires a complete break – sometimes an emotionally violent break – from what we currently believe.
The last statement by Jesus is very interesting. If the Jews were willing to believe it, John was Elijah (in a spiritual sense) whose return is prophesied by the final Old Testament prophet Malachi [Malachi 4:5]. But the Jews were not willing to believe. Hence John was not Elijah. Isn’t that interesting? Our belief or non-belief has causation.
This means that Elijah has yet to return. Many believe that Elijah will be one of the two witnesses who appear during the Tribulation [Revelation 11:3-12].
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