Matthew 11: Messengers of John
One day as the Lord was going from town to town teaching and healing, there came two men with a message from John the Baptist. Do you remember John the Baptist? - how he preached at the Jordan, and told the people to repent, and baptized them in the river? John could not come now himself to the Lord, for he was in prison. He had spoken boldly and told the people that they were doing wrong. His bold words offended Herod, the governor of Galilee and of the country east of Jordan, and Herod had shut up John in prison. The prison was in the castle of Machaerus, among the mountains of Moab, east of the Dead Sea. Some dungeons cut in the rock can still be seen among the ruins of the castle. It is a rough, wild place.
John had faithful disciples, and they came and went and told him of things happening in the world outside. They told him about the Lord and His teaching and wonderful works in Galilee. So John sent two of his disciples to the Lord to ask Him, "Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?" John knew that the Lord was coming into the world; the Messiah they called Him. He had even seen the sign of the dove when the Lord was baptized at the Jordan. But the days must have seemed long in prison. It is no wonder if he was discouraged, and he wanted to be sure if this One of whom he heard so much were really the Lord.
So the two messengers came to ask Him. "John Baptist hath sent us unto Thee, saying, Art thou He that should come? or look we for another?" The Lord kept the messengers of John by Him while He healed many sick people and cast out evil spirits and gave sight to many who were blind. Then He sent them back to John to tell him what they had heard and seen. He would feel the goodness of the Lord's works and would know that He was the Lord. Read verses 1-6.
Let us read on and see what the Lord said about John. He reminded the people of the time when they went out into the wilderness by the Jordan to see and hear John teaching. What sort of man did they see? Was he weak and trembling like a reed growing in the edge of the Jordan? Were the words that he spoke weak, doubtful words? No, you know that John was a brave man, and that the words he spoke were the Divine truth, which nothing could shake. Was John a man clothed in soft raiment? What did he wear? Was he a prophet, one of the long line of men, Elijah, Isaiah, and many more, who had spoken the Lord's word and foretold His coming? Yes, he was one of these, and the greatest of them all; for he called the people to prepare for the Lord who was at hand. Read to verse 10, and read the loving words of the Lord in verses 28-30.
In the midst of the Lord's teaching and healing in Galilee we are reminded of John the Baptist. Read verses 2, 3. You remember John. Tell me about his birth, his life in the desert, and his preaching and baptizing in the Jordan. But why does it speak of John as in prison? This is referred to again in Matthew 14:3, and the story is briefly told in Mark 6:17, 18, and Luke 3:19, 20. John had boldly rebuked Herod for evils that he had done, and especially because he had married Herodias who was his brother Philip's wife, and Herod had shut up John in prison. This was Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and of Perea, a district beyond Jordan. He was a son of Herod the Great who ruled in Jerusalem when the Lord was born; both were crafty and evil men. The old historian Josephus tells us that the prison was in the castle of Machaerus, a fortress near the southern border of Herod's district east of Jordan.
What is meant by the phrase, "He that should come" in the question of John's messengers? There was universal expectation of the Messiah. You see it in the question of those who came to John's baptism (Luke 3:15), and in the words of the woman of Samaria to the Lord. (John 4:25) Do you see why the Lord answered John's question in the way that He did? Compare His answer to the Jews in Jerusalem. (John 10: 24-26)
Consider verses 7-15, what the Lord said about John. A shaking reed? Soft raiment? A prophet? In connection with verses 10 and 14 read Malachi 3:1 and 4:5, 6. Elijah in Malachi is the Hebrew form of the name; Elias in Matthew is the Greek form. How does verse 14 agree with John 1:21? John was not the man Elijah come to earth again, but he continued the work of Elijah, speaking the literal Divine truth and boldly condemning wrong. "He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias," etc. (Luke 1:17) The Lord's saying that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, does not mean that John would not enter heaven, but that the literal truth of repentance which John taught, while it is the greatest of all natural truth, is not the blessed spiritual truth which angels enjoy in heaven. Verse 12 tells of the eager pressing into the kingdom now that John had opened the way.
In verses 16-19 we seem to-see the children playing in the market-place, imitating the funeral processions with their wailings and the wedding processions with their music on pipes; but their playmates respond to neither. So the people rejecting the message of repentance, which John taught, were rejecting also the Lord's offer of full and happy life.
Can you find on the map all the places mentioned in verses 21-24? Chorazin is a heap of ruins, and there is not enough of Capernaum left above ground to make us sure just where the city stood. Why were the towns of Galilee more guilty than Tyre and Sodom? What is the practical lesson of these verses to us?
Read verses 25-27. Who are most able to receive the Lord and the heavenly blessings that He gives, selfish people who think they are learned and wise, or those who are like good children and are willing to be taught? Is the life to which the Lord calls us a hard and weary one? Does He ask us to take on heavy burdens, or to lay them down? Find the answer in verses 28-30.
John in prison. Why was he there? What messages did his disciples take between him and the Lord?
1. Who was John the Baptist? Who was Elias?
2. Why was John in prison?
3. What question did he send to ask the Lord?
4. What answer did the messengers bring?
5. What does the Lord say about His yoke?
In the spiritual sense which is lifted above places and persons we find in this story of John the Baptist and the Lord instruction in regard to the literal Divine truth of the Word and repentance according to that truth, for which John stands, and its relation to the interior spiritual truth and life which the Lord gives. John in prison represents the literal truth of the Commandments and of the Word rejected by the spirit of selfish indulgence which finds itself rebuked. This rejection leads to utter hatred and denial of the truth, as John was presently killed by Herod at the instance of this same Herodias.
Can we see in the Lord's words about John a description of the literal truth of the Word? Truth that is literal and superficial, and even truth of the letter of the Word, is sometimes represented by the humbler vegetable growths, such as reeds and rushes; for example, the ark of rushes in which the baby. Moses was laid. John might have been likened to a reed, but not to a weak and shaking reed, for the letter of the Word is strong from the Divine spirit in it. Raiment is also a frequent type of truth which clothes and expresses the living things of love. The truth of the Word might be likened to soft raiment, but that would be the inner, spiritual truth of the Word, such as angels have in heaven, and they are meant by those in kings' houses. Not this but the plain literal truth is represented by John and his raiment of camel's hair. Compare the rough mantle of Elijah, which fell from him when he went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
John was a prophet. The letter of the Word teaches and points out the way to heaven. It is more than doctrine; the Word is Divine even in its letter. The full and earnest entrance into the uses and joys of heaven, to which the letter of the Word and obedience to the latter lead, is meant in verse 12, by the kingdom of heaven suffering violence and the violent taking it by force. Read A. 9372.
The relation of the literal Commandments and literal obedience to the deeper spiritual life is pictured in the parable of the children's plays, verses 16-19. Literal truth and, repentance are severe, requiring self-sacrifice. The heavenly life is joyful. In the first literal obedience there is a doing away of abuses; in the deeper spiritual life there is the right use of all good and happy things. The necessity for literal keeping of the Commandments and repentance before one can enter into the free and happy life of heaven, is described in other places in the Gospels where it is said that the acceptance of John the Baptist must come before the acceptance of the Lord. See Luke 7:29, 30; Matthew 21:23-27.
You see at once, in verses 20-24, that Tyre and Sidon and Sodom stand for evil states which are so from ignorance, while the cities in which the Lord had lived and taught stand for evil states which are chosen and confirmed in full knowledge of what is true and good. Can you distinguish between the meaning of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom? The Phoenician cities, the home of famous sailors, represent intellectual powers, here directed to what is false. Sodom, which for its wickedness was destroyed by fire, represents an evil state burning with selfish love. There must in this passage be a corresponding difference between Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. Of all the cities Capernaum would seem to have had the fullest opportunity, where the Lord made His home. (R. 502; A. 7418)
Do you remember a story in the Old Testament which teaches in a beautiful way this same lesson, that heavenly wisdom is not revealed to those who think themselves great and strong, but to those who are humble and teachable, who are spiritually little children? (1 Kings 3:5-15) We may know the truth of what the Lord here teaches, from experience, for we may often meet untaught, simple-hearted people whose minds seem open to the light of heaven, and amaze us by their true wisdom in the deep things of life. (H. 351; A. 3428)
We all love the closing verses of the chapter. What are the labor and the heavy burdens from which the Lord would deliver us? Evidently they are the labor, the anxiety, the discouragement of trusting to ourselves, and trying to work in our own strength. They are the burdens that selfish loves and thoughts and habits of life bind and lay upon us. The Lord calls His service a yoke, and we must enter it as a duty, with determination to obey His laws; but the Lord makes the duty a joy. The prodigal son came home to his father resolved to be as a hired servant, but the father freely gave him the best he had. See the chapter of H. that has the heading, "That it is not so difficult to live a life which leads to heaven, as it is supposed." Read especially No. 533.