Matthew 11:1-19 Part 3

I am constrained, this morning, by the text of the apostle Matthew, to spend a few moments here at the beginning investigating the Old Testament context for the prophet John.  There is some confusion about him, and exegesis concerning Him isn’t thorough - and it’s sometimes speculative.

When Jesus begins to speak of him to the crowds, here in verse seven, He does so with all of that in mind - the Old Testament Scriptures, that is - and the Lord can hardly be understood in His comments about John unless we go back and, at least, further our acquaintance with the prophecies concerning him.  Then we can interpret the words of Jesus with some degree of surety.

Needless to say, Jesus didn’t make simplicity His main objective in these next ten verses (or in anything He said, really).  He spoke plainly and truthfully, but never simply.  And since we weren’t there, and since we aren’t Jews who lived through that history - and, therefore, being unable to understand the phrases and references automatically and easily - and since we are of limited ability anyway, we have to work at it to get the sense of it!

Now, I’m going to make this very brief.  But to be clear and brief we have to work hard.  So turn if you will over to the prophecy of Malachi - the last book of the Old Testament.  Now, in Malachi we see prophecy concerning another prophet!  Malachi prophesies the coming of a prophet!  And that prophet is John the Baptist.

I want to read two or three verses of chapter four with you….

Malachi chapter four, verse four - here’s what it says:  “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded Him upon Horeb (Mt. Sinai) for all Israel, statutes and rights.  Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the day of Jehovah comes, the great and terrible one.  And he will turn the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to the fathers, that I may not come and smite the land with the ban.” (curse)

Now, just before this, in the three verses at the beginning of the chapter, is the prophecy of the Day of the Lord, or the “Day of Jehovah” in which He would come like a burning furnace to burn the proud and the wicked, and trod them down as ashes under foot.  And that He is the Sun of Righteousness for those who fear His Name.  The “Sun of Righteousness” designation means that He brings with Him justice and salvation!

And then comes verse four which is the reminder of the Law of God and its statutes and rights.  This is the last reminder in the Old Testament of what God had said innumerable times to Moses and to the nation - that if they are not mindful to observe all that He had commanded them, that He would come and smite them with the ban!

So, first we have the prophecy of the Day of the Lord which is coming - prophesied right here at the end of the Old Testament.  And then the reminder of what God had said would happen if the people didn’t observe His Commandments!

Then - with that as the context - comes the prophecy of John the Baptist.  “Behold I send you Elijah the prophet before the Day of the Lord comes….”  The Lord Jesus then confirms, in our text that John is that prophesied Elijah - or one with the likeness and power of Elijah the Tishbite.  (He quotes the passage from Malachi.)

Not a resurrected or reincarnated Elijah, certainly, but one with the characteristics of that prophet.  And he was to come before the great Day of the Lord in which Jehovah was to burn and tread the chaff and cover His elect with the wings of the Sun of Righteousness!

Now it is important to know that Elijah the Tishbite was the one in whom God worked to bring back an entire generation to the hearts of the fathers! (I Kings)  In other words, the hearts of the fathers - their holiness and righteousness - were turned to that generation, and that generation turned their hearts - at the preaching of Elijah - back to the righteousness of the fathers of the nation of Israel; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

And with that very thing in mind, I want you to listen to the angel Gabriel as he speaks to Zacharias the priest, who was to be the father of John the Baptist.  He’s speaking about John to his father - before John is even born….  Luke chapter one verses sixteen and seventeen:  “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.  And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord….”

So here we have the prophecy of Gabriel the messenger of God, which matches the prophecy of the prophet Malachi, which matches the very work of the prophet Elijah.  And the work was to be the turning of the hearts of a generation of offspring, making ready a prepared people for the Lord.  For the Lord would come after him with the winnowing shovel to winnow His floor, and gather the wheat into His granary, but Who would burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire!

John prepared the people for that.  He was the preparer - the forerunner - of the Day of the Lord.  And please be aware that there is no reference here to judgment day.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with the second coming of Christ.  The announcement of the Day of the Lord, or the Day of Judgment, by the Old Testament prophets commenced with the appearance of Christ - the incarnated LOGOS.  John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Him, and the Christ came winnowing the wheat from the chaff, i.e. separating out the ones who belonged to Him and the ones who didn’t!  Christ Himself declared that He had come into the world for judgment!  John chapter nine, verse thirty-nine says, “And Jesus said, ‘for judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.’”  He came to save His Own, and He came in awful wrath and destruction upon a people who would not see!

And this judgment burst upon the Jewish nation not long after the ascension of Christ.  Israel rejected the Savior, and was smitten with the ban at the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and the nation.  And both the people and the land lie under this ban to this present day.

So, in this last prophecy before the coming of the Day of the Lord, the prophecy of Malachi, we see first the holy Law-Word of God standing against the unrighteousness of Israel.  And, on the other hand, we see the prophecy of the preparer - secondly, the one who preached repentance to the nation before that great Day.  He was the forerunner - the preparer - the one who came before the Face of the Christ, before the great Yahveh came in judgment!  He was the last Old Testament prophet sent to turn the hearts of a generation back to the fathers of the nation - in obedience to God’s holy Law.

And, now, I want to quickly expand the picture for you of the Law and the Prophets witnessing to the Christ Who has come.  The book of Revelation, which has to do with the seventy years between Christ’s birth and the destruction of Israel, describes two witnesses in chapter eleven.  And it is obvious that those two witnesses are the Law and the Prophets.

For example, the apostle John tells us that he saw where, if anyone desired to harm these two witnesses, fire proceeded from their mouths to devour their enemies.

And we know that the representatives of the Law and the Prophets, i.e., Moses and Elijah, both illustrated that fire when they prayed for fire to come down from heaven to destroy their enemies - Moses in the case where the false worshippers rebelled against him (Numbers 16:35), and Elijah in the case of the prophets of Baal. (I Kings)

We also see that Moses and Elijah are the two witnesses who appear with Jesus on the mountain where Jesus goes to pray - commonly known as the mount of transfiguration.  Luke tells us in chapter nine that they came to speak with Him about His “exodus.”  His going out.  His death.  And these two are representatives of the Law and the Prophets which spoke of Christ - witnessing to the Word incarnate.

And now I take you back to the last words of the Old Testament, here in Malachi chapter four, where God promises the two witnesses before the Day of the Lord - the Law and the Prophets.  And John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and who therefore represents one of the two witnesses, is the forerunner of the Christ - the one who came preaching - the one who came preparing the nation.  And some received that preparation - the remnant, the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  But the nation did not turn its heart to the heart of the fathers.  And the blazing heat from the mouth of John the prophet separated them out for the Day of the Lord - the Day of the Judgment of Yahveh, The Christ!

Now, even though the images and figures and symbols of Scripture are very complicated, that was a very brief overview of the place that John the Baptizer has in the historical outworking of God’s Sovereign plan for the salvation of the world.  And even though there is a great deal more to learn about it, we are somewhat more prepared to go now to the text where our Lords’ words are recorded, and understand what He means.

And, as I mentioned earlier, verse seven, where we pick up this morning, shows the disciples of John, after hearing and seeing what was going on, leaving to go back to report to John - in prison.  And when they were gone, Jesus turns back to the crowd of disciples around Him and begins to speak to them about John.

And He asks them three rhetorical questions - and remember that rhetorical questions are those which are designed to elicit an obvious answer - three rhetorical questions which are strategically framed to, first, offset any doubts that Jesus’ disciples might have about John’s faithfulness, and, secondly, to endorse and magnify John’ role as a prophet in anticipation of the redemption of the world, and, thirdly, to elaborate on John’s relationship to Elijah in order to fulfill all righteousness.

His first question was, “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold, a reed swayed by wind?”  The immediate allusion is to I Kings chapter fourteen where God promises to smite Israel with the ban because it was a swaying reed!  Jesus says - is John the swaying reed, or is it this nation?  Did you cross over the Jordan to go out into the wilderness of the Gentiles to see a swaying reed?  If so, you could have seen just that in your own nation!

And, in fact, multitudes went out of the nation into the wildernesses in order to hear the forerunner of Christ - as prophesied by Malachi!  It was Elijah!  And he was no swaying reed - not at all!  Whatever the situation, John the Baptizer was absolutely consistent in his adherence to the words of God - the witnesses of the Law and the Prophets.

Then Jesus’ second question:  “So what did you go out to see, a man robed in soft clothes?  Lo, those who are wearing the soft things are in the houses of kings!”

The immediate reference here is again to I Kings, this time to chapter twenty-one, (both of these, by the way, being in the time of Elijah the Tishbite), King Ahaz and his wife Jezebel did evil in the sight of the Lord.  And God sent Elijah to tell him that his posterity would be cut off because he had caused all Israel to sin; and that Israel would be shut in and not be able to come out!  And Ahaz took off his soft raiment and put on the sackcloth of a prophet and humbled himself before the Lord.  God spared his life for three years, but the remainder of the prophecy stood.

Jesus is reminding all of Israel of God’s curse on the nation - the ban - when he refers to John’s clothing being the same as Elijah’s, and not the soft raiment of the king.  It is John who is standing out in the wilderness - calling the nation to repentance, when it is the kings and leaders of the nation (who are wearing the soft clothes) who are the ones who ought to be leading the nation into Godliness and humble repentance!  God commands kings and presidents and prime ministers - the civil magistrate - to terminate idolatry and establish righteousness in government and set examples for the people!  He requires leaders to bring justice and righteousness to the people in the name of God.

The people went out to see a man in camel’s-hair sackcloth and a leather girdle rather than the leaders in Israel who had set themselves up in luxurious style and took their own counsel in rebellion to God’s Word!  God had sent Elijah the prophet (John the Baptist) who was a sure sign of coming judgment upon Israel, as prophesied by Elijah in I Kings chapter twenty-one.

So the people were, indeed, going out to see a prophet, as Jesus’ next question implies.  And verses nine and ten are to taken together:  “Well, what did you go out to see, a prophet?  Yea I tell you, surpassing a prophet!  This is the one concerning whom it was written ‘Lo I Myself send forth My messenger before your face who will prepare your way before You.’”

This is the prophecy of the prophet John from the Malachi passage we read earlier where God says to His Son ‘Lo I Myself send forth My Messenger before Your face….’  To do what?  To prepare the way before His Son, who was coming to execute the ban - the curse - pronounced on Jeroboam and Ahaz and the nation of Israel back in the time of Elijah.

John, in the spirit and power of Elijah, was standing out in the wilderness preaching the Gospel of repentance, calling down fire upon Israel, alerting the lost sheep of the coming of the Messiah, filling up the sin of the proud and unrepentant, applying the sign and seal of the covenant to the Messiah before the Great Day of judgment - and, then, being the last Old Testament prophet in a long line of prophets from God who had been killed by Israel’s leadership!  And, by doing so, was, himself, that last stroke before the crucifixion of Christ which sealed the fate of the nation!

Surpassing a prophet?  You bet he did.  The last prophet; the greatest prophet; the prophet who took the last stroke, the fire-breathing, Scripture believing, consistent, forerunner and preparer for the way of Jehovah and His Day of judgment.

And Jesus says, verse eleven:  “Amen I say to you, not one of those born of women has been raised up greater than John the Baptist!”  By Jesus’ Own authority as Lord of Heaven and Earth, He pronounces John the greatest who, until that time, had ever been born.

But look what comes after that.  “Yet… (or nevertheless) the least in the Kingdom of the Heavens is greater than he.”!!  After a commendation like this one - that John is the greatest of all the prophets, even surpassing a prophet - Jesus now seems to completely reverse Himself!  One minute he’s the greatest - the next minute he’s less than the least!  So what do we say about it?

Some have said that “the Kingdom of the heavens” is made up of all the saints that have died; and that John, being yet alive, hasn’t experienced the glory of being with God in His Kingdom!  But that can’t be right, because Scripture never indicates anywhere that the Kingdom of the Heavens or the Kingdom of God (both are the same) is just a spiritual Kingdom which is experienced only after death!

Others say that “the least in the Kingdom” refers only to the twelve apostles of Jesus, and that they, as preachers of the Gospel, are all greater than John.  But that can’t be right either!  Because John was a preacher of the Gospel.  And, besides, there’s no mention here of only preachers being “in the Kingdom.”  Jesus is speaking to a multitude of people - not to just his twelve disciples!

And there are numerous other explanations as well - too many and too speculative to mention.

But the essence of this statement, “least in the Kingdom is greater than John,” rests in the fact that John the Baptist, as forerunner and preparer, was a part of the type and foreshadowing of things to come - and the Lord Jesus Christ and His dominion is the fullness and reality of all the old shadows.  And although John died in Christ, he did not live to see and experience that fullness as the rest of this generation would do.

And the least in the Kingdom became the judge of all the earth - he became prophet, priest and king - he witnessed the termination of the old covenant kingdom of Israel and the definitive institution of the reign of God’s Anointed Son.  The least in the Kingdom of the heavens witnessed the revelation of the Word of God and his crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God in the clouds of glory.  And he was the recipient of the Spirit of Christ poured out upon the heavens and the earth, as Christ extends His Kingdom to the uttermost parts of His creation.

John lived to be the greatest of the types and shadows of Christ and His Kingdom.  But the least of us in His Kingdom - those of us who mourn our sin, are poor in spirit, and suffer in Him and with Him - we live, right now, in the resurrected Lord.  And we eagerly anticipate the extension of his Kingdom until all His enemies are defeated and He reigns over every king and every people on earth.

And after that is accomplished we can then share the second resurrection with John the Baptist who never got to see the Kingdom established before he shared the same fate as all the other prophets (shadows) before him.