Jesus comes healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, preaching the good news to the poor (Matthew 5-9), and He sends His apostles out to do the same (Matthew 10). How will Israel respond? That is the story of Matthew 11-12.
“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. And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ . . . ” (Matthew 11:1-19).
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. The first section is also divided into three sections. Each section begins with a question (vv. 3, 7, 16); each section includes a reference to “coming” (vv. 3, 14, 18). The section is enclosed by references to the “works” of Christ (v. 2) and of Wisdom (v. 19).
THE COMING ONE
John has been in prison since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:12), but he has received reports of Jesus’ work (11:2). 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. Can this be the judgment that John predicted? This is the same odd sequence we find in 1-2 Kings: Elijah prophesies judgment, but Elisha comes healing and feeding people. This truly is judgment; Jesus ministry is dividing and sifting Israel, as people respond to His ministry with either faith or unbelief. But it is a kind of judgment that causes offense (cf. Jonah). Jesus responds by quoting from Isaiah (26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:7; 61:1). This doesn’t give John any new information, but it places Jesus’ ministry in the context of the restoration of Israel, a context that does ultimately include judgment on the wicked (Isaiah 29:20; 35:5; 61:2).
THE GREATEST PROPHET
The visit from John’s disciples gives Jesus the opportunity to describe John’s ministry. He reminds the crowds that they went to the wilderness to see a prophet not a reed in the wind or a luxurious courtier (vv. 7-8). The reed is possibly a reference to Herod Antipas, who put reeds on his coins. According to Jesus, John is the eschatological messenger prophesied by Malachi (v. 10; Malachi 3:1), who announces the coming of Yahweh. Because of John’s position in history, he is the greatest prophet (v. 11), and his ministry divides history in two, the period of the “prophets and the Law” (v. 13) and the period of the kingdom (v. 12). With John, God begins waging war against His enemies, and His enemies violently attack Him (v. 12).
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). 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.