Jesus no doubt said many things about John the Baptist. But in this section Matthew collects some sayings that make a very sharp contrast. Jesus honors John as the greatest of men, but the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (11:9-11). There had been the teaching of the law and the application of the law by the Old Testament prophets, of which John the Baptist was the last (11:12). Now there was the Messianic preaching of the kingdom of heaven which worked on quite different principles.
In our day we can contrast on the one hand the work of those who rightly point out importance of faithfulness in marriage and the wrath consequences of sleeping around and getting AIDS. But when someone is dying of AIDS there is no point in moralizing and blaming. What the person needs is the good news that God still loves him or her, will help in and through the disease, and will be there to welcome the person on the other side of death. In that sense the good news of the kingdom is totally different from teaching moral standards and the prophetic preaching of wrath consequences.
In renovating a house there is the work of tearing out the rotted wood and inadequate wiring and plumbing. There is also the work of installing the new. One might have a builder who did both, but the two functions must be distinguished.
We might add that in our modern world we have no lack of people who will tell us about the dangers of smoking, alcoholism, sleeping around, neglect of children, drug abuse, sexual abuse, racial prejudice, ruining the environment, etc. What people need from church preachers is assurance of forgiveness and how to be continually transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:2).
11:1 Proclaiming the good news of the Messianic kingdom is different from explaining how it works. Both are needed.
11:2-3 John the Baptist had declared that Jesus was the Lamb of God that keeps taking away (a present tense) the sin of the world, and as Messiah he would now begin baptizing with the Holy Spirit (John 1:29, 33, 35). At least one of John's disciples had concluded that Jesus was the Messiah or Anointed One (John 1:41). But now in a dungeon awaiting his death, and hearing how different Jesus' preaching style was from his, John the Baptist has doubts.
11:4-6 The only assurance that Jesus offers is an account of what is actually happening by the power of the Spirit. In our day the evidence that the Messiah is at work is still the same. Where there is healing, lives changed by the Spirit, and ordinary people rejoicing in very good news, it is dangerous to take offense.
11:7-11 Jesus honors John the Baptist as a supremely great prophet and forerunner. He does not compromise, or live luxuriously. And he has done his work of making people realize that they are in big trouble and very much need God to intervene. But his work is not Messianic good news of the kingdom.
In the same way Gospel preachers can honor the work of all those who point out the evils of our society. But pointing out what is wrong with people, and the wrath consequences that will follow, is not Messianic preaching. The humblest member of the kingdom who can point another to the love and power of the Spirit is greater in God's sight than the experts who write volumes about all that is going wrong in our world.
11:12 This verse is often interpreted to mean that only strong minded people can force themselves into the kingdom. That does not seem to fit the context of this section. The preaching of morality and the prophetic warning of bad consequences is necessary and good, but it is not Gospel. Instead of recognizing the difference and allowing both to be proclaimed, the Pharisees and probably some of the zealous followers of John the Baptist became violent in trying to attack what they viewed as the too easy good news of the kingdom (see 9:11, 14, 34; 11:19; 12:2, 14, 24, etc.).
Throughout the history of the Church it has been moralizers, legalists, and those who consign others to hell, who have violently attacked the preaching of Messianic good news for ordinary people. This verse might therefore be paraphrased as: "From the time John the Baptist began his preaching the kingdom of heaven has been attacked by those who want to take it over for their legalistic purposes" (as in Galatians 1:6-9; 3:1-3; 5:1-6). In the parallel passage in Luke the Pharisees ridicule Jesus as they try to justify themselves. And there again we might paraphrase "the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is trying to violate it" (Luke 16:16). If we prefer the traditional interpretation then we have to retain the idea of forcing one's way into the kingdom which hardly sounds like the invitation that ends this chapter (11:28-30).
11:13-15 The Old Testament gives us the Jewish legal system (see Malachi 4:4) and Jesus had to say "But I say to you" concerning all its main emphases. It also gives the story of how prophets pronounced the wrath of God on those who disobeyed it. The last of the Old Testament prophetic books had prophesied the coming of a prophet identified with Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6) before the coming of the Messiah.
11:16-19 Jesus compares his own message of the Messianic kingdom to flute playing for a wedding dance. John's message was like a dirge for a funeral. Both were needed, and both were rejected for different reasons. People thought John the Baptist was too severe and ascetic. The Messiah was faulted for enjoying his food and his wine, and being too friendly with bad people. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were empowered by the Holy Spirit for different tasks, and both should have been recognized as expressions of the Wisdom of God.
Jesus' deeds were all done by the power of the Spirit. That power can easily be recognized by a whole range of fruit such as love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:22-23), gifts of the Spirit such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, interpretation (1 Corinthians 12:4-12), creativity (Psalm 104:31), hope for the nations (Romans 15:12-13, see Romans: Paul and the Power of the Spirit on this web site).
The destructive powers of legalism, perfectionism, despair, hatred, pride, prejudice, false witness, sexual abuse, and demonic possession can be easily recognized by ordinary people everywhere.
So when Jesus' deeds of loving power (11:23) were seen in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (cities on the edge of the Sea of Galilee), they should have changed course to welcome their Messiah. Instead these cities were all destroyed by the invading Romans in that generation, as was Jerusalem itself.
11:20-21 Repentance is not feeling terribly guilty about one's sins (see 3:1). Nor is it a decision to believe certain things. To repent corresponds to the Hebrew word shubh, which means to change direction to look to the power of God. The change in direction may be expressed by outward signs such as beating one's breast, putting on sackcloth and ashes, but the essential thing is a heart now looking to God instead of one's own power.
11:22 In the Roman advance Tyre and Sidon were occupied but not destroyed, as were Jerusalem and the cities around the Sea of Galilee.
11:23 Capernaum was the city on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus made his home (see 4:13). So the citizens had more opportunity than others to compare the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and words of the Messiah. The city was totally destroyed, though the ruins of the synagogue have been exposed in the mound that covered it. The quotation from Isaiah refers to the final destruction of Babylon, which also became a mound till it began to be excavated (Isaiah 14:13 and 15). The word "Hades" translates the Hebrew word Sheol which means the abode of the dead. It means simply that the inhabitants of the city were killed. But we should not add that they were all sent into eternal damnation.
11:24 In the case of Sodom all the inhabitants were killed instantly in the fiery cataclysm that destroyed the city. The end of Capernaum probably included the awfulness of slow death by torture and crucifixion.
Later in the Gospel we will read "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (18:2). Here, having declared the imminent doom of the cities that refused his Messianic ministry, he rejoices that some turned to him with the simple faith of little children. But the invitation to come and learn from him is open to all.
11:25-26 As in our day, many of the wise and intelligent find it very hard to turn in childlike faith (see 18:2) to the Messiah. But it is precisely this simplicity of faith that God has appointed.
11:27 The close relationship between the Father and the Son in the oneness of the Trinity continues when the Son is on earth among us. But both in the Old Testament and in the New no one comes in faith to the Father except through the Son. This is more fully explained in John's Gospel (see John 8:42; 10:24-30; 12:44; 14:6).
Though no one will ever enjoy heaven except through the Son, we should not add to Scripture and say that no one can be saved unless he or she understands exactly how the Son saves us. Many will find themselves in heaven (including little children, retarded persons, Abraham, and others with little or no knowledge of the Messiah) without having understood how the Son accomplished the work of resurrecting them.
11:28-30 Jesus' invitation is to come and learn from him. When a disciple enrolled to learn with a rabbi he accepted the yoke of discipleship. Similarly the great commission will be to baptize people to become disciples or learners with a view to learning all that Jesus taught (28:18-20). The yoke of learning from him is easy compared with all the demands that legalism and perfectionism so easily make upon us.
Salvation is not by making some great decision to believe facts about Jesus. We begin to learn from Jesus the love of God the Father and the power of the Spirit to change us. And that is what assures us that we are accepted and totally loved, and we can be transformed for the perfect love of heaven. Salvation based on "I made a decision" will never survive doubts about whether our decision was genuine or merely the result of psychological pressure. But an assurance based on who Jesus is, how much the Father loves us, and the power of Spirit to work in us, will take us through the storms of life and the final doubting as we die. That is why we are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (28:19).