Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 11:7-19
by Sam Perry
Have you ever said that about yourself that you are greater than King David? Or have you ever said that you are greater than Solomon? Jesus says that the least in the kingdom are greater than John the Baptist and John the Baptist is greater than all who came before him. Which means you are greater than those who came before John the Baptist like David and Solomon. Now this doesn’t mean that we have more wisdom than Solomon or more military savvy than King David.
Jesus speaks to the crowd about John and in a sense defends John by bearing witness to the Baptist. He challenges them asking them what they thought they were going to see when they went in the desert. He is sharply rebuking the crowd in his questions. And you can almost feel the tension as he paints an obviously false picture of John. John didn’t wear fine clothes, and he certainly wasn’t a reed swayed by the wind! “So what did you go out to see?” Jesus asks. “A prophet?” I suspect the crowd got very quiet at this point as that is exactly what they went to see. In fact he was more than a prophet because not only did he speak the word of God, but the word of God had also spoken of him.
Then Jesus says, “I tell you the truth….” Announcing that what is coming next is incredibly important. And astonishingly, Jesus says that John the Baptist is more important than every Old Testament hero. Greater than Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. Greater than David. Greater than Solomon. Implied is the fact that John is greater than all these because he introduced me. C.S. Lewis says that the kind of man who makes claims like this is either a liar, or insane, or God himself.
Jesus says that John the Baptist is unique in pointing to Jesus. While all those Old Testament heroes pointed to Jesus, John the Baptist was different because he alone in the providence of God was the one on whom it fell to say, “He is the One!”
After this Jesus says the least in the kingdom is greater than John. Here we see the least in the kingdom is greater than John the Baptist more immediately and more clearly than John the Baptist could. John the Baptist dies before Christ is crucified. He doesn’t see Christ’s death and resurrection. Even baby Christians can announce that they have been rescued from the slavery of sin because Jesus Christ died for me. He was raised from the dead. The least of the kingdom can say this and this is what makes them great.
Verse 12 is fairly disturbing when translated properly. The NIV says the kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. The Greek word is fraught with violence. This is a troubling passage for many because it just doesn’t seem to square with our domesticated gentle Jesus meek and mild who is always nice and accepts everyone and everything. After all, didn’t Jesus say the meek shall inherit the earth? Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are the peace-makers?” What is Jesus trying to say here?
Given the ethic of physical non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount, it is safe to say that Jesus is not referring to physical violence. Jesus takes the “Do not murder” command and says that we aren’t even allowed to resent another person as it leads to physical violence. Being made in the image of God, human life is not to be assaulted. Commentators suggest that Jesus is saying when people become ‘kingdom people’ there is a spiritual intensity that is actually aggressive. And considering all that Matthew has written in the previous 10 chapters, we see the kingdom has been violently advancing. Jesus has expelled demons and defeated disease. There is an intensity that comes with laying hold of the kingdom. Christ’s disciples then must be bold, determined, and forceful, not like the indecisive people in Matthew 8:18-22.
One difficulty in our postmodern culture is that this kind of certainty, this kind of aggressiveness about faith is not considered a virtue. People who are aggressive about faith and belief are more likely to be considered arrogant. There is a spirit that is alive and well in many churches that is far more content with a sort of wallowing in doubt and the only thing one can say for certain is that nothing is certain (except that statement!)
At the same time there are people who oppose the gospel till the very end. Yes the Kingdom is here, but it is opposed at every turn and those who take hold of it are pushed to the fringe. John the Baptist takes hold of the kingdom of heaven and it makes him an outsider. He eats strange food, doesn’t drink wine, wears strange clothes and runs around calling people to repent. Jesus too, finds himself on the fringe, dining with prostitutes and sinners. There is a sense in which this will happen to all true kingdom people. All who would follow Christ must be willing to be persecuted.
Many new Christians find they lose professional and personal credibility if they dare to state even humbly that they have found the truth. There is always a pull-and push of Christ and the kingdom. Some are drawn, while others are repelled. Some will always see kingdom people as a wild man crying out in the desert. Jesus says anyone who will receive the kingdom of heaven is going to look like John the Baptist to some people, as they proclaim Christ.
There’s nothing more intense than the humility it takes to become a Christian. John the Baptist told people that the way to receive the kingdom was through repentance. So entrance into the kingdom requires radical, intense, even aggressive humility. That’s all John the Baptist was trying to say. He says the only way into the kingdom of God is through radical, intense, aggressive humility. Yet in our post-modern culture, people accuse those who say they know God of arrogance. But this presupposes that salvation is a prize to be won, not a gift to be received.
It is arrogant to claim victory before you have achieved it, but it isn’t arrogant to state that one is in possession of a gift once it has been given. John the Baptist and Jesus both say that Christians are those who know that no one is good enough to claim victory the day before the game and those who receive the kingdom are those who know that it is a gift, not a prize to be won. Both Jesus and John present a picture of the kingdom that requires a fierce humility acknowledging that the old adage, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling” is true because the truth of the matter is, the real problem with the world is a broken sinful humanity.
A.W. Tozer says the way the way you know a person is a real Christian and not just a nominal Christian is the more they get to know God, the more desperately they want to know God. The more they experience his love, the more desperately thirsty they are for his love. So then, real Christians find their prayer life is characterized by a holy violence.
Any Christian who has tried to pray knows how hard it is to pray. In fact, I suspect that most preachers you ask will tell you that it is easier to preach for an hour than it is to pray for an hour. If you try to pray today for an hour, you will know why Jesus can say, “The kingdom of God advances only through violence.” You try to pray for an hour, and you’ll see how how hard it is to concentrate, to keep your focus, to confess your sin, to look and say, “These great and delightful truths ought to captivate my heart, but they’re don’t. Why?” Anyone who prays for an hour will know how difficult it can be. John Newton spoke of knowing his weakness when he prayed saying that a fly buzzing was an overmatch for his strength.
This holy boldness and tenacity is seen all throughout scripture as God’s men and women talk with God. Abraham arguing with God over the number of righteous people God might save the city of Sodom for. Moses demanding the presence of God with him or he wouldn’t even bother to lead the people of God to the Promised Land. Nehemiah pleads for the favor of God as he enters into very dangerous territory with the king in order to take on a seemingly insurmountable task for the glory of God. All these saints and more are marked by a hard pursuit after God and they are the ones who are a part of the advancing in the kingdom of God. The question we can all ask ourselves is if our lives are marked by this same bold pursuit after God’s face? Is there that holy violence about your prayer life?
“… the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.” The kingdom advances with a ferocity and despite those who would oppose it even with violence. So there has to be a proactive seeking and proclamation of truth. How many in Christ’s church are completely passive in the truth? In prayer? In proclamation of Christ crucified? “Look at Jesus,” the writer to the Hebrews says, “… the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame …” So let us cast off anything that’s keeping us from staying close to him. From the days of John the Baptist until now. Now is the day. You are greater than John the Baptist who bore witness to Christ as you bear clearer witness to that same risen savior Jesus Christ.
In The Greatest Story Ever Told, Charlton Heston plays John the Baptist and he spends all his time going to people and saying, “Repent!” In fact right before his execution by beheading (which they don’t show) you can hear him yelling in the distance, “Repent!” right before the whack of the axe.
Martin Lloyd Jones would often ask people if they knew they were Christians. And if they replied along the lines of, “I hope so. I am trying very hard.” He knew they hadn’t gotten the grace of the kingdom and the humility that goes with grace because they thought the kingdom was something to be achieved.