A Confusing Passage Explained
Our passage is one of those passages you read it and ask, “what in the world is this about?” This is one of those passages where a little knowledge of Greek and some knowledge of Jewish thinking in the first century can really help.
As for early Jewish thinking, these are not the only days the church has been caught up in end-times mania. There is nothing new about the “Left Behind” movement. The Jews of Jesus’ day had their own “Left Behind” books, though, I may add, a hundred times better written. Many of those books are found in what is known as the Apocrypha. The subject of these popular books is the end times and the coming kingdom of God. These works described what would happen when the Messiah arrived and established his kingdom on the earth.
These books took certain Old Testament prophecies as their starting point and embellished on them. These writings envisioned a Great War between the Messiah and his enemies when the Messiah arrived. The Jews assumed the enemies were the gentile nations. The Messiah would conquer the gentile nations using miracles reminiscent of the plagues on Egypt. Then the Messiah would bless the Israelites with a multitude of blessings so that they would be called great in his kingdom.
When John the Baptist first appeared on the scene he announced that the kingdom of God was near. The kingdom was near because the Messiah was now in Israel. Thousands of Israelites flocked to the desert to hear John; they were convinced John spoke the truth. They believed the Great War was about to begin. The blessings of the kingdom were right around the corner.
But then John was arrested. As John languished away in prison the tide of opinion about him began to change. Maybe he wasn’t the prophet that announced the kingdom of God. Maybe he was an imposter, or even a lunatic.
Now, the crowds still flocked to Jesus, for Jesus was performing miracles. John may have been an imposter, but this man has the power to defeat our enemies and bring in the kingdom.
The people’s fickleness concerning John was not a good sign. If the crowds so quickly abandoned John because of his apparent weakness, what will happen when Jesus is arrested and crucified? Our Lord begins to confront the crowds on their fickleness.
Christ lays out a case proving that John was who he said he was. He uses three pieces of evidence. The first piece of evidence Christ presents is the people’s testimony themselves, seen in vv. 7-9. You yourselves testified that John was the prophet of the Messiah. Isn’t that why you went out to see him in the first place? You did not go out to see a reed shaken by the wind. This is an idiom for a fickle or unreliable person. You believed John because he was unlike the religious teachers of the day; he did not care about his own popularity. You trusted him.
Did you go hear him because he was dressed in fine clothes like a king’s servant? No, you believed John because he dressed and lived like the prophets of the Old Testament. Your own mouths testify against you, for at one time you declared that John was a true prophet.
Not only did the people at one time testify about John, but evidence # 2; the Old Testament testified of John. John was not only a prophet, but he was the subject of Old Testament prophecy. John was the one predicted who would call out from the desert that the Messiah had arrived in Israel. The entire Old Testament, summarized by the phrase “the Prophets and the Law,” pointed to the kingdom John was announcing. So the Lord brings forth two witness verifying John’s ministry, their own words, and the Old Testament.
Not only did the people and the Old Testament testify concerning John, but evidence # 3; Jesus himself testifies concerning John. V. 14, the Lord says, “if you are willing to accept it, John is the Elijah to come.” Malachi promised that a prophet like Elijah would arise announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom on the earth. Jesus replies; if you are willing to believe me, John is the Elijah that announced the arrival of the kingdom.
Though Jesus laid out a solid case for John, the people still could not believe it. If John the Baptist were the Elijah of the coming kingdom, then God’s kingdom would be here. But where is the Great War? Where is the mighty power of God smiting Israel’s enemies?
Our Lord answers this objection in v. 12. The difficulty of v. 12 is that the verb in the Greek can be taken as passive or active. The ESV takes the verb as a passive, thus the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” The NIV takes the verb as active, thus the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing.” The NIV is a better translation here.
Where is the Great War? Where is this powerful kingdom? Well, haven’t you been watching? The kingdom has been forcefully advancing right in front of you. Haven’t you seen me cast out demons from people? Haven’t you seen me forgive sins and bring people to God?
Satan is the great enemy of man; he has held people in his power since the fall. I am freeing people from their sins, I am making these people God’s own eternal possession. You are looking for plagues against the Romans while missing the most glorious miracles of all. The problem is that you do not really care about freedom from sin because you see no need for forgiveness. My true Israel, my forgiven people, they understand the power of my kingdom.
But Jesus, the prophecies say that violent men will try to stop the Messiah. Where are these enemies? V. 12: violent men have been trying to oppose the kingdom. Did not Herod arrest my prophet? Are not the Pharisees plotting my death? And you, where will you be when I am arrested? Will you be among the violent men calling for my crucifixion? You who long for God’s kingdom, could you really be the enemies of God’s kingdom? As we move on in Matthew, the relationship between Jesus and the crowds slowly begins to unravel. The crowds simply could not believe the promised kingdom had arrived if it looked like this.
The other reason the crowds doubted John was the prophecies of the glory of the kingdom people. If the kingdom has arrived, where are the glorious people of the kingdom, those that would shine like stars? The Lord’s marvelous answer is found in v. 11. Even though John the Baptist was the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, he who is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Pay attention Christian because the Lord is speaking about you here.
As members of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, you are greater than John the Baptist. What does that mean? Well, it does not mean that you are more committed, or that you have greater qualities.
You are greater because the blessings you enjoy in Christ’s kingdom are greater than those John experienced. For example, you have more knowledge than John. John did not understand how Jesus would establish God’s kingdom. But you live on this side of Christ’s resurrection. You see all that Christ has done for you. You have more assurance of heaven than John did.
You also have a greater measurement of God’s Spirit. In one sense the Spirit influenced all the Old Testament saints. But only after the resurrection did God pour out his Spirit into his people. All the glorious things promises in the Old Testament about the people of God’s kingdom are true about you.
Christ’s kingdom is here. Wherever there are redeemed people the kingdom is present. John the Baptist was not deceived, nor did he exaggerate, nor was his timing off. Jesus Christ brought in the promised kingdom of the Old Testament.
You must recognize the glory of Christ’s kingdom. You have three kingdom treasures that even the saints of the Old Testament did not possess. One, you have the fullness of God’s Spirit poured into you. The Spirit works in you in a greater way than in the Old Testament saints.
Two, you have a completed Bible. Everything you need to know about God and how to serve him is here in this book. And three, you possess the most under appreciated of God’s treasures, you have one another; the church.
You must learn to see one another the way Christ describes you. The greatest treasures, the greatest resources you could ever imagine are sitting in the chairs next to you. Each of you has a unique background that the rest of us can learn from. Each of you has a slightly different way of looking at life that we can learn from. Each of you has a different gift that we need. Each of you has gone through unique situations that God uses with others. God put us together in churches that we would benefit from the treasure that is one another. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist.
John announced the arrival of the kingdom, but the people could not believe it. You must believe. The crowds wanted power over gentiles. You rejoice in Jesus’ power over sin and death through the gospel. The crowds wanted abundant outward blessings. You rejoice in the abundant inward blessings Jesus bestows on the least in his kingdom. The crowds could not believe John was a prophet because he seemed so weak. You boast in your weaknesses because you know that God’s strength is perfected in your weakness. The crowds could not believe a member of Christ’s kingdom could suffer like John. You rejoice in your trials knowing nothing can separate you from God’s love. The crowds could not appreciate the blessings of Christ’s kingdom. You are to appreciate the Spirit, the Word and the church.
The kingdom of God is here. The question is, will you accept it? Will you appreciate this kingdom? Will you love and be satisfied with this kingdom?