Friday, October 29, 2010

Matthew 11:12-15 - "And from the days of John the Baptist until now..."

John the Baptist marks the turning point in redemptive history from the old covenant era to the new. As we saw in our previous passage he is the last of the Old Testament prophets, a part of the old order who stands on the brink of something new and more glorious, like Moses standing at the top of Pisgah viewing the promised land before his death.

Yet today's passage speaks of John as also the beginning of a new order. "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence." The coming of John marked the dawn of the kingdom of heaven and everyone senses this change, this shift taking place in history, not merely human history, but in the greater realm that encompasses both the spiritual and the material world together. With John's appearance people realize that something new, something truly great is happening, but that does not mean they understand it or know how to respond to it.

"The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." It's kind of a mysterious saying but I think it's safe to say that whatever Jesus is talking about, he's saying something negative, not positive. I believe he's saying that while men recognize at some level that the kingdom of heaven has come, they seek to lay hold of it by violent impulses for their own violent purposes. For example John 6:14-15 says that after Jesus fed the five thousand, the people began to say, "'This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Jesus therefore perceiving that they were intending to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself alone." They had the right idea, that Jesus is a Prophet, but they had their own agenda for him. When they saw Jesus' supernatural powers it only inflamed their lust for rebellion and violence. They wanted the kingdom of heaven to come so they could overthrow the Roman authorities they were chafing under.

"For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Jesus seems to think that his present hearers are in danger of disbelieving John in view of his current suffering and imprisonment. That's because violent men desire power and triumph; they are not willing to have a kingdom that requires suffering, submission and death. But John the Baptist truly is Elijah about whom Malachi 4:5 prophesied: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." Like Elijah, John appeared onto the scene roaming the desert, dressed like a wild man, calling down fire from heaven, and confronting the king with his sins. But like Jesus, John will suffer an early death. As John himself once said, a disciple is not above his teacher, so a mere messenger is not above the king for whom he faithfully prepares the way. If John's imprisonment and death shake people's faith, what will they do when it comes time for Jesus himself to go to the cross?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Matthew 11:7-11 - "And as these were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John..."

Jesus would only give this tribute to John the Baptist if he knew very well that his imprisonment was the end of the line for him, otherwise why would he sum up his ministry at this point? It's probably a good thing that he made this speech after John's disciples left. While they may have been gratified to hear it, I'm sure it would have caused them sorrow to hear Jesus speak of John as having already run his course. They would know that John is simply waiting to die.

Jesus challenges the crowd on what they believe about John. They had all flocked out to see his famous Jordan River baptisms. Why did they gawk at him? What were they expecting to see? Certainly not a soft-willed man dressed in soft clothing, right? Perhaps at this point someone from the crowd shouted, "A prophet!" So Jesus answers, "Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet." John was not just any old prophet but the greatest in a long line of prophets, since he was set apart to prepare the way for the Messiah's coming.

Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.

John is the greatest of "among those born of women" (which is just another way of saying among those who are born), and yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. I don't think Jesus is saying John is directly inferior to every person who enters the kingdom after him. Rather he is drawing a partition between the old covenant era, of which John's ministry is the climax, and the new covenant era that Jesus has come to inaugurate. The glory of the new covenant so surpasses that of the old covenant that the least member of Jesus' heavenly kingdom participates in something far greater than what even a great man like John the Baptist had.

Why is the new covenant era superior to the old? It is the difference between promise and fulfillment, between shadow and substance, between hope delayed and hope realized. John preached a message of sorrow and repentance, of humbling oneself before the coming wrath of God. After Jesus' death and resurrection the apostles would preach a message of rejoicing and forgiveness, of humbling oneself in light of the riches of God's grace and mercy. Even John, the very forerunner of the Messiah, could see only dimly the glory of the kingdom that Christ would usher in, and the least of us who stand on this side of the cross know a joy and intimacy with God that the Old Testament saints could only hope for from a distance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Matthew 11:1-6 - "And it came about that when Jesus had finished giving instructions to his twelve disciples..."

Back in 4:12 John the Baptist had been taken into custody, and now from prison he sends a message to Jesus asking if he's really the Messiah. You have to understand that John is rotting in a dungeon right now, and he had just spent the bulk of his ministry preaching that when the Messiah comes "he will thoroughly clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (3:12). Jesus hasn't exactly blasted Herod with unquenchable fire for arresting John, so what's up with that?

I suppose I shouldn't be finding humor in it, but it's always struck me as kind of funny how John words his question so cautiously. "Are you the Expected One or shall we look for someone else?" "Now, I'm not saying that I don't believe in the Messiah or that he's not coming soon, but I'm just wondering if you're him or if we should, you know, keep on looking?"

Here's why John the Baptist is confused. He's basically the last of the Old Testament prophets who looks forward to the coming of the Messiah as a future event, but there are certain things about that coming that he is yet ignorant of. In reality the coming of the Messiah happens in two stages: Jesus will come as the suffering servant, then the second time he will come as the glorious conquerer. But from the perspective of the Old Testament prophets, all the revelations about this two-stage coming appear to be a single event.

Here's an illustration that has helped me. If you were traveling and saw a distant mountain range, you might think all those mountains belonged to the same chain. But suppose you were to come closer and realize that the mountains were actually two separate ranges, one closer and one much farther away. It was only because you were looking from the perspective of a great distance that you thought you were looking at one chain. Same with John the Baptist and all the OT prophets. From afar they couldn't tell that they were foreseeing two events, not one. The Messiah as the suffering servant who would heal the lame and sick and the Messiah as the glorious conquerer who would destroy his enemies were seen as a single fulfillment, not something that would be staggered over time in two stages.

Jesus answered John by pointing to how he fulfills the suffering servant prophecies. "The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them." He doesn't explain the whole "two-stage parousia" thing or get into a big fancy theological discussion. He simply points to the prophecies in Isaiah that John would know so well. What John understands he should rest in, and what he doesn't understand--well, it turns out he will die before he can have all the answers. But faith that does not stumble is content not to have every question answered. Even a great man like John the Baptist had to humble himself and accept the limitations of his understanding.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Matthew 10:41-42, "He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward..."

It may be hard to understand the language of this passage when Jesus says, "He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet, etc." But from my commentary reading I understand that he means to say, "He who receives a prophet just for the sake of his being a prophet." You may not know the guy personally, but if all you know is that this is a prophet of God, and you show him hospitality, you will receive a prophet's reward. You've done your part in the ministry that God has given him, and you won't be overlooked.

The same goes with receiving a righteous man. Quite often you read in Paul's epistles how he would send Timothy or Titus to minister in his stead to the Corinthians or to some other church congregation. The congregation didn't know who these men were personally, but knowing that these workers were sent by the apostle Paul was good enough for them, and they received them as they would have received Paul himself. It's the same when your pastor isn't able to preach on a given Sunday, so he invites another brother to come and minister the Word. As a congregation you welcome and receive the message this brother brings because he was commended to you by your pastor.

I associate this passage with the one in Hebrews 13:1-2, "Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." Sure, there are false brethren in the church, and you always have to be careful about trusting strangers. But when you recognize another brother or sister in Christ, it is a unique aspect of Christian love that we are ready to minister to them, even though we don't know anything else about them, simply because we share the bond of knowing Jesus Christ. You might meet someone randomly while waiting at the airport or while on jury duty. You find out they are also a Christian, and pretty soon you're sharing about this and that, and pretty soon you're saying, "I'll pray for you" to each other as you part ways. Total strangers, but you have a bond in Christ. It just sort of happens automatically. (And it's kind of fun to think that maybe God sends people our way who aren't really people, but angels in disguise, just to keep us wondering.)

Some of the missionaries you support are actually strangers to you. That is, they may be people you've never met in person, but you had heard of the faithful work they were doing on the field and wanted to support them. I'll bet you never really thought about that before. Jesus says you'll be rewarded for your faithfulness. And yet Jesus also says in our passage that you don't have to even minister to prophets and righteous men to be rewarded. Your service to the littlest disciple won't be overlooked, even if it's as simple as giving him or her a cup of cold water. If you give to anyone in the name of a disciple, that is, just because they are a disciple of Christ, you shall not lose your reward.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sorry

Sorry, guys. I'm at Starbucks right now (having somehow escaped from the house) and am writing my women's retreat lectures. However, it doesn't look like I'm going to make posting on this blog this week. Maybe next week will be better.