Matthew: Tribute to the Forerunner of the Kingdom, Part 2: More than a Prophet

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on January 27, 1998

Matthew 11:7-19

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If you will, turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew, chapter 11.  We’ll begin in verse 7.  Last week we saw John send his disciples to the Lord Jesus as he was struggling in prison with doubts about the person of Christ.  Christ sent those disciples back to John with a message:  “Look at the fulfillment of the scripture, John, and look at the works that I am doing.”  He pointed John to the word of God and to his own works, the works of Christ, in order to strengthen his faith.  After he had sent them away, however, He continued speaking about John.  And, as we said last week, the theme of this whole chapter is the majesty of Christ.  And, even as he speaks of John, even as He gives tribute to John in this great passage, we see the majesty of our Lord and Savior.  So, let us attend now to His holy word, inspired and inherent as it is in Matthew, chapter 11,  Verse 7.   

Matthew 11:7-19 

Our Father, we thank You for this word.  We ask that You would nourish us spiritually by it.  Shake us out of our slumber.  Help us to see the glory of Christ in all that He does for His people.  As well, O God, we would pray that by Your Spirit, You would enable many to embrace the gospel invitation that the Lord Jesus sends forth here.  We ask it all in Jesus’ name,  Amen.  

John’s entire career had been devoted to proclaiming the glories of the Messiah who was present. Him who would come to take away the sins of the world.  That was the one that John testified to.  Now, he found himself in prison.  He was discouraged.  And, in that discouragement, he sent his own disciples to ask of the Lord Jesus  “Are you the one that we are looking for or should we look for another?”  John was confused.  He was downcast.  We learned last week that if John the Baptist can suffer from spiritual discouragement and wrestle with serious doubts, then so can any believer.  But, because of that doubt and because it was conveyed publicly to Jesus by his disciples, apparently many in the crowds were now criticizing John.  John, who had once been a hero in the land of Israel and a favorite among the crowds, was apparently now suffering an attack upon his reputation.  We see some of the things in verses 7, 8 and 9 that people were saying about him.  And, the Lord Jesus comes to his rescue in this passage defending his reputation.  And, in the course of it, He teaches us some eternal truths that apply to us just as well as they did to John.  I’d like to share a few of those with you today.   

I. Christ comforts and encourages His faithful but weak followers.
In verses 7 through 10 Jesus gives a defense of John’s reputation and He acclaims him to be more than a prophet.  There the Lord Jesus teaches us that He comforts and encourages His faithful followers, even when they are weak.  Christ comforts and encourages His faithful followers even when they are weak.  Jesus’ high words of testimony concerning John indicate to us that He genuinely cared about His disciples.  He genuinely cared about John and about his reputation.  Even when the world had turned its back on John, Jesus had not turned His back on John. 

Look at some of the things people were saying about John.  Because he had experienced this doubt, his reputation was suffering serious damage amongst the multitudes.  They were being openly critical of him and accusing him of various things.  First of all, in verse 7 you will see that some people were accusing John of being fickle – of vacillating.  He had thunderously proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Now he is asking the question, “Are you the Coming One or is there somebody else that we ought to look for?”  You can imagine the material that was made out of that by the crowd.  ‘Well, John, you who were so certain when you proclaimed that he was the Messiah, now that you’re in prison, what do you think now?  Which is it today, John?  Are you going to take an opinion poll to decide what you believe?’  You can imagine the kinds of aspersions that would have been cast on John. 

But the Lord Jesus comes alongside and says ‘Wait a minute, who did you go out into the wilderness to see.  Did you go to see a reed blown by the wind?  If you really think that he is a man that vacillates like a reed in the wind, why did you go out to hear him in the first place?  No, you knew he was a sturdy oak.  He was a man of conviction.  Don’t you judge him with this one stumbling block in his career.  Don’t you judge him by this struggle with faith at this point because his entire life has been devoted to serving Me, and his character has proven itself.  He is a man of conviction, of courage, of bravery and character.  And, even though he has wrestled at this point, don’t you think that that undercuts who he really is.’ 

Notice also in verse 8, people were accusing John of being weak, soft.  ‘Oh, John – he was bold when he was in the desert proclaiming judgment and repentance but now that he’s in prison, he is doubting himself, he’s uncertain, he’s weak.’  The Lord Jesus, again, comes and He says, ‘Did you go out into the wilderness to see a soft man?  Did you go out in the wilderness to see a man who wore fine clothes, the kind of clothes that people wear who are in king’s courts, who want to have the pleasures of this life, or did you go out in the wilderness to see a man who ate locusts and wild honey and wore rough clothing?’ And the Lord Jesus knows that the answer is yes – they didn’t go out into the wilderness to see a soft man.  They went out into the wilderness to see a man of conviction.  The Lord Jesus says that’s the kind of man John is.  He is a man of conviction.  He’s a man of principle.  He’s a man of courage.  That’s the kind of man you went out to see. 

And then, apparently in verse 9, there were some who were actually questioning John’s status as a prophet.  They were saying, ‘Prophets, according to the Old Testament, are not supposed to miss.  They are never wrong.  The judgment of the prophet is that he must always preach the truth.  And now, John is questioning if Jesus is the Messiah.  Maybe he’s not a prophet.’  And so the Lord Jesus says, ‘Did you go to see a prophet?’ The Lord Jesus says, ‘Oh, yes, you did go to see a prophet.  John is a prophet. He is a faithful prophet of the Lord.  In fact, he’s more.’  The Lord Jesus says that John is more than a prophet.  He defends John from these charges and criticisms that are put to him and He honors him.  Jesus is manifesting a tender concern for his people in the way He defends the reputation of John.  And, let me just say that you are seeing a picture here of how Christ will confess you before God and the world if you confess Him before men.  John had given all for Christ and now he was being torn down by the world.  The Lord Jesus immediately stands to his defense. 

You are seeing a picture of what will happen at the end of time if you will embrace Christ by faith.  It may cost you everything in this life to confess the Lord Jesus Christ.  There are many today; there are more martyrs in the world today for the Christian faith than ever in history.  There are many that to confess Christ in their land, openly, means instantaneous death.  They do it nevertheless.  Though they lose all, they will be confessed by Christ.  Though in your confession of Christ, because of your integrity, it requires you not to go with the flow and to sacrifice your career and your aims and your reputation in the community, Christ will confess you just like He confessed John.  Christ does not run away when His disciples are assaulted.  He is there to stand as their defense.  What defense attorney better than Christ would you choose?  At the last day when Satan comes and says, ‘But, yes, that person was fickle, she vacillated.’  He will be there to say, ‘Though she was faithless, I was faithful.’   When Satan comes to say, ‘Yes, have you seen the life of this person shot through with sin and struggles, not consistent in the Christian testimony that he bore before the community,’  Christ will say, ‘My blood atoned for his sins and I will now glorify him.  This is My own and I honor him before the world.’  Christ will confess before God all who confess Him, just like He confessed John. 

Isn’t it interesting, too, dear friends, how people often vent their frustration at gospel ministers because of their frustration with the gospel itself?  We have to assume that there must have been some Pharisees amongst this crowd who had originally had high views of John but had been very disappointed with John when he identified Jesus as the Messiah.  And now, those very ones who praised him originally turned their backs on him and assault him.  They don’t like his message.  They begin a character attack upon John that the Lord Jesus says is unjustified, and so Jesus comes to John’s rescue.  Don’t think that the Lord Jesus doesn’t care about you and about your reputation.  The Lord Jesus made Himself of no reputation in order that He might make you sons and daughters of the Most High.  And, He tells you not to worry about your own reputation.  He says to you ‘Look, you trust Me, you put your reputation in My hands.  I’ll take care of it.’  He just proves it to John, there.  Are you ready to watch Him prove it to you?  You confess Christ with your lips and with your life.  You put your life on the line for Christ and He’ll confess you before God.  Take him at His word.   

II. Christ calls all who heard John’s message to embrace and enter the kingdom.
Notice, also, in this passage in verses 11 through 15, Jesus issues a kingdom invitation.  He turns His focus from the character of John – which he has vindicated – to the message that John preached, to the time in which John preached.  And He teaches those of us who hear John’s message that we are to embrace and enter the kingdom.  Christ calls all those who have heard John’s message to repent and believe.  He calls all those who have heard John’s message to embrace and enter the kingdom.  Jesus, in verse 11, pays the most profound compliment to John.  Look at those words:  “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there have not arisen any greater than John the Baptist.”  Jesus may well have given His most profound compliment to John, the greatest compliment of His ministry. 

What does He mean when He says that “None has arisen greater than John”?  Well, He means a number of things.  First of all, Jesus reminds us that John’s arrival, John’s birth, John’s very ministry was a matter of prophecy.  He quotes to us, in verse10, from Malachi 3:1, these momentous words: ‘John is the fulfillment of this word of Malachi’s prophecy.’  So John’s very arrival, his very ministry, is the fulfillment of prophecy.  He is greater than any born of women. 

Notice also, that John clearly announced the coming of the Messiah, even though the prophets proclaimed the Messiah who was going to come in the distant future, John proclaimed a present Messiah.  And, John performed his duty with uncommon bravery and solemn faithfulness.  He proclaimed a message that was not popular.  John’s person, the fact that he was the focal point of this prophecy, the fact that he proclaimed the present Messiah, the fact that he did his job with solemn faithfulness and bravery, all of these things combined to cause Jesus to call him the greatest of those born of women. 

Notice specifically the work that he did.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, we learn that in Luke 1:41-44.  John had spiritual experience of God from the earliest days of his life. That was a consistent aspect of John’s nature.  Notice, also, that he clearly announced the arrival of the Messiah in John 1:29.  It was John the Baptist who said,  “Behold the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.”  He was the one man chosen to give that message in history.  He was a divine messenger for the Messiah. 

Notice also that he emphasized in his preaching the necessity of repentance.  Jesus makes this clear as He tells us about that message in Matthew 3:2.  You remember John’s message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  John preached a message that was not popular but it was true.  He preached not what people wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear.  And so, he was faithful in proclaiming that message.  And he resisted the temptation to draw attention to himself.  It was  John the Baptist who uttered those immortal words recorded for us in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  John did not want to draw attention to himself but to focus the attention of the multitudes upon their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  And so we see John’s humility, and that may be the greatest point of this man’s character.  With the courage and the commitment and the faithfulness and the talent and the giftedness of this man, it would have been very easy for him to be arrogant, but he was humble.  And, he did not mind fading into the background as Christ was exalted, for that was what he came for. 

And yet, in verse 11, at the very end of that verse, the Lord Jesus tells us that John is not as great as even the least in the kingdom of heaven.  What in the world does Jesus mean by that?  After paying him this tremendous compliment, what is Jesus saying?  He’s not saying that John wasn’t saved.  But, he is reminding us of several very important things. 

First of all, he’s reminding us that He, Himself, represents a transition point in the history of God’s dealings with His people.  Jesus says that the Law and the Prophets were until John.  All the things that lead up to the Messiah came to their culmination in John.  With the coming of the Messiah, with Calvary and with Pentecost, the people of God are ushered into a new era.  They experience a new fullness of the Spirit, a new fullness of His indwelling, a new universal proclamation of the gospel, a greater depth of spiritual experience than was normally experienced by those believers under the Old Covenant. 

The Lord Jesus is saying that John – though he is the Joshua, though he is the Moses to point you to the promised land – John does not experience himself the blessings of the promised land realized.  He is not unlike Moses, is he?  Moses’ job was to take the children of Israel into the land, and yet, Moses had to peer from Pisgah into the land.  Moses never entered into the land.  He was buried outside the land.  His whole life was devoted to bringing the children of Israel into the land; but he, himself, did not go in. Joshua took the people of Israel in.  So, also, John the Baptist.  He would die in prison.  John never got to see Jesus’ incredible miracles with his own eyes.  Can you imagine if you were like Simeon, holding that little baby in his arms and imagining the things that this child was going to do for God and for His cause and yet, he, himself, never saw our Lord do His great deeds.  John never saw Calvary.  He never saw Pentecost.  His whole life was devoted to preparing the way for the Lord Jesus Christ and he never saw those things with his own eyes.  You and I have been given those things in this book.  We have been given a heritage that John was never even allowed to see.  And, you know, the sad thing is that we discount it.  We overlook it.  We don’t realize the privilege that is ours.  That’s precisely what the Lord Jesus is saying here.  He is saying that ‘those who were children of the kingdom – My kingdom that I’ve inaugurated now in a fullness that had never been experienced before under the days of the Old Testament – My people are greater even than John the Baptist; even the least of them are more blessed, more privileged and have more benefits.’ 

John was the Elijah sent by God to call men and women into the kingdom of the Messiah by repentance and faith, but he never saw the glorious deed of Christ on the cross nor did he see the glorious pouring out of the Spirit.  To all of which, we are the beneficiaries. 

And so, the Lord Jesus says this in verse 12: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force.”  That is a very difficult passage to translate.  Many good translators wrestle over just what it means.  Many of you heard the great sermon that John Reed Miller preached on that text from this pulpit many years ago.  It was called “Taking Heaven by Storm.”  I think that Dr. Miller correctly translated that passage.  When we read it as it reads now in The New American Standard, it seems as if the kingdom is being assaulted by violent men.  Dr. Miller pointed out that the thrust of the passage is that men of courage and of vigor are embracing the truth of the kingdom. 

Jesus’ point is that the kingdom – we cannot take the kingdom and sleep.  We cannot be indifferent about the kingdom.  We must embrace the kingdom like John, a man of vigor.  We must embrace the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is not something that we can be blasé about, or apathetic about.  The kingdom must be embraced.  And, the Lord Jesus is saying in this generation there are people who are embracing the kingdom even while others are standing by and criticizing faithful men like John the Baptist.  Their spirituality consists of complaining about what they don’t like in the messenger and they’re not exulting in the message of the kingdom of heaven.  And, so, He’s exhorting us to take heaven by storm – not that we can earn our salvation by works.  Oh, no; it is by grace through faith alone.  But, we must respond to the gospel and so enter into the kingdom.  We cannot sleep our way into the kingdom.  It demands action and commitment – response to the message of the gospel.   

III.  Christ confronts the excuses of those who have not entered the kingdom.
And, so, we learn one more thing in verses 16 through 19.  There, Jesus delivers a warning towards precisely those people who do not embrace the kingdom.  In verses 16 through 19, He turns from consideration of John and his message, now, to consideration of the crowds who had just moments before been criticizing John.  And He asks this question in verse 16: “But, to what shall I compare this generation?”  He thought a little bit with them about John and he said ‘John is more than a prophet.’  He thought a little bit with them about John’s message and He said ‘You need to embrace the kingdom that John preached; don’t stand by and criticize him about it.  You embrace it.’   Now, He says, ‘What about you.  What about this generation?’ And, in verses 16 and 17,  He gives an illustration.  He says this generation is like the children who go out into the marketplaces on holidays and they play games.  But, they get into arguments about which game they are going to play.  Some of them want to play wedding.  Others of them want to play funeral.  My wife, in kindergarten, had a wedding dress given to her.  A little, tiny wedding dress.  And, she would take it to kindergarten and there was a little boy at kindergarten that she would make be her bridegroom.  And, one day he said to the kindergarten teacher: “Mrs.  So and so, I don’t want to get married today.” Children love to play wedding and all sorts of other things and Jesus says this generation are like ‘Children who can’t agree on what game you’re going to play.  You can’t agree whether you’re going to do wedding or funeral.  John comes and he’s austere.  He’s a man of courage.  He’s not a ‘buddy, buddy’ kind of guy.  He abstains totally from alcohol.  He eats weird food.  He wears weird clothes and he prophetically proclaims judgment, condemnation and repentance in the wilderness.  And, what do you say about him?  ‘He’s so mean. He’s mean-spirited.  He’s not nice. He’s not warm.’  They accuse John of being a demon-possessed man.  ‘He’s a fanatic,’ they say.  The Lord Jesus says, ‘John comes that way.  I come and I dwell among sinners.  I draw close to them.  I don’t follow any of the Nazarite rituals.  I don’t abstain from wine.  I don’t abstain from the foods that John abstained from.  I gather with those who are unbelievers, close to them, sharing the word.  And, what do you say about Me?  He’s a glutton and He’s a drunkard.  He hangs out with sinners.’  

Then Jesus says, ‘I think those are about the only two options you have there.  What else are you going to criticize?  Both of us you reject.  I do it one way for the sake of the gospel.  You criticize Me.  John does it another way for the sake of the gospel; you criticize him.  You’re like the children who can’t decide which game you’re going to play.’  

So, the Lord Jesus closes with those awesome words: “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”   He’s saying: ‘Look, our ministries will be vindicated by the spiritual results.  As we have both proclaimed salvation by grace through faith, the myriads who come to Christ will vindicate the faithfulness of our ministry.  Our results will prove us out.’  

Isn’t it amazing how folks will often criticize the method of ministry and the message of the minister and the outer trappings of the Church; and they’ll miss the gospel.  We come from a society of consumers and we approach everything like consumers, including the Church.  We taste test it.  We color test it.  We music test it.  We have different criticisms for the trappings of the church, but do we miss the gospel in the midst of those criticisms?  Jesus is warning the generation around them that the message that He and John both proclaimed in radically different styles, in radically different ways, is the one message of truth that will save you. 

We need men like John and like Jesus of character in our generation who care not for the opinions of the pollsters and who are not afraid to proclaim truth in a generation that does not believe in truth.  We need a generation of men and women transformed by the power of the gospel who will embrace the kingdom, take heaven by storm and stand for Christ in the midst of the culture, no matter what the culture thinks of them.  Because, my friends plans of culture don’t work.  Now, do you want to follow someone whose plan has worked, will work and will always work?  You embrace the kingdom and He will confess you.  He will not leave you alone in your hour of need.  And, He will never fail you for He is Jesus, the Messiah, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.  Let’s look to Him in prayer.   

Our Lord and our God,  We need the Messiah.  We need His grace.  When we see our own hearts, when we see the hearts of the people in whose midst we dwell,  we see that we need His grace.  Give us the grace to desire Him above everything else, to trust in Him above everyone else.  To turn from death to life in Him, by grace.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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