Notes Matthew chapter 11
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
John the Baptist Sends His Disciples to Jesus 11:2-6
2. When John heard in prison. John had been taken prisoner because he had openly condemned Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17-18). He was placed in the prison at Machaerus, a secluded settlement beyond the Jordan, east of the Dead Sea and near the southern border of Perea (Jos. Ant. XVIII,v,2). It formed part of one of Herod’s palaces. Mark gives an extended account of these things in ch. 6:14 ff.
What Christ was doing, litt. ’the works of Christ’. These works (erga) must not be understood in the sense of miracles (dunameis, works of power, signs in vv. 20,23), but as behaviour, his total impact (see the meaning of erga in 5:16 and 23:5).
3. Are you the one who was to come…? God had shown John clearly that Jesus was the Messiah at His baptism (3:11-17). He had declared that Jesus was He ‘who cometh after me’ (3:11). His doubt here is not an expression of unbelief. In that case he would not have addressed his question to Jesus. His doubts are rather the expression of his not understanding. God Himself had revealed that He who was to come after would bring judgment and through the outpouring of the Spirit of God initiate the kingdom of peace, the new world order (3:11-12). Now he heard that Jesus was preaching in Galilee (a preparatory work). And why was he not freed from prison? Would Jesus too be a forerunner, perhaps, just as he was? But although John does not at the moment understand the way in which God’s saving plan is to be brought about, he shows his belief when he goes to Jesus with his doubts.
4. Report to John what you hear and see. Jesus does not make a long defence, but simply points to what is happening, to the facts, i.e., to what they saw (His deeds) and what they heard (His words). To those who doubted because of His words Jesus says, as it were: ‘Take a good look, have you not regarded My works from only one side?’
5. In this summary of the facts we see a clear reference to the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s kingdom of peace: Isa 26:19; 29:18 ff; 35:5-6; 61:1. In other words, Jesus is pointing to the fact that the time of salvation has now come.
The good news is preached to the poor. The Greek (passive) form euangelizesthai is found here and in Heb 4:2,6 and means receiving the good news. The ‘poor’ (ptchoi) are the same people as in 5:3. It is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘nwm (see Isa 61:1) poor, oppressed and therefore humble. Those who admit their needs and shortcomings and call on God for help call themselves poor and needy (Ps 25:16; 40:17; 69:29; 70:5; 72:12;74:19; 86:1; 109:22 etc). The prophets in the Old Testament often spoke to kings and princes, but Jesus preached the Gospel to the poor.
6. This is the first benediction since 5:3-11. Many similar benedictions are to be found in this gospel (13:16; 16:17; 24:46).
This verse links directly to v.5. It is couched in general terms but directed especially to John. In this closing blessing Jesus says that He is the all-controlling central point of the new times (v.5).
Who does not fall away. The Greek word (skandaliz) speaks about something that misleads someone into sin, which ruins his belief, a snare. Jesus calls them blessed who have not fallen away on account of His external poverty, because He came as a servant and not as a ruler. Blessed are those who believe in Jesus, who have put their trust in Him.
It had already been said in the OT that many would recoil at the appearance of the Servant of the Lord (Isa 52:14).
Jesus’ Witness concerning John 11:7-19
7. Many people praise each other when they are together, but malign the other when he is not there. Jesus began to defend John as soon as his disciples had left. Jesus puts three rhetorical questions to the people. The answers to the first two are negative and to the third positive.
A reed swayed by the wind. These words are proverbial (cf. 1 Kings 14:15) and indicate a changeable easy-going man. Because the question demands a negative answer, Jesus means that John was a steadfast man, who remained true to Him even in difficult situations (prison, ignorance).
8. A man dressed in fine clothes? People had not gone into the wilderness to see a courtier, dressed in fine clothing and always ready for the king. John was not to be found in the king’s palace but in the desert; and now he was in prison. He was no courtier of an earthly king, but an ambassador of God, who preached the word of the Lord. This was why he too was not interested in earthly finery, but wore a cloak of camel hair (Matt 3:4). Further, he was no docile, tractable sort of man, for he had powerfully stood against the immorality of Herod’s court (Mark 6:18). There is no thought at all of weakness (which the people might easily have thought, under the influence of John’s question (vv.2-3).
9. A prophet? The third question must be answered positively. The people had gone out to see a prophet. A prophet is one who has a message from God, one who tells the people the counsels of God (Amos 3:7).
Jesus says that the people had seen more than a prophet in John. We read in Luke 3:15 and John 1:20-21 that the people wondered whether John was perhaps the risen Elijah or even the Messiah.
10. Here Jesus gives an explanation of the words ‘more than a prophet’. John was not only a prophet, but also the fulfilment of a prophecy. All kings and princes used to have a herald who proclaimed their coming. Jesus says that John was the herald of the Lord, foretold in Mal 3:1 (cf. v.14). We also see here that the coming of the Lord (Mal 3:1 ff) is the same as the coming of the Messiah (Jesus). This also emerges in the change from ‘ahead of me’ into ‘ahead of you’.
11. There has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist. Jesus says that John is the greatest person in the history of the world, greater than Moses, David, Isaiah … This does not mean that He is comparing men from a moral point of view. John is the greatest on account of his ministry as forerunner of the Messiah (v.10). His doubts have not diminished his greatness nor his ministry in Jesus’ eyes.
Yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. For John was the forerunner, who proclaimed Jesus’ coming, but Jesus’ followers receive the same ministry as their master (Matt 10:7-8). Because Jesus wanted to teach those who heard (v.7) a lesson (that the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than the most important man on earth) and because there will be yet another future manifestation of the Kingdom of God when Jesus returns in glory, we may not conclude from these words that John would be excluded from the Kingdom.
12. V.12 forms a supplementary contrast to v.11. While v.11 has spoken of the distance between John the Baptist and those who share in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus here says that the Kingdom began with John’s preaching.
The Greek biazetai (‘has been forcefully advancing’) can be interpreted in three ways. The translation ‘violence is done to…’ seems incorrect to us, cf. Luke 16:16 (euaggelizetai, is preached). Two possibilities remain: ‘The Kingdom practises violence, forces its way by violence’, and the possibility ‘is brought with violence’ (by violent people). In both cases the first part of the verse means that since John the Baptist the Kingdom of Heaven has been breaking through with power, like a storm, dealing a heavy blow to Satan’s authority (v.4-5; 12:28-29).
Forceful men lay hold of it, says that the Kingdom is not for those who would belong to it without trouble. It is for those who risk everything, who consciously and with full zeal seize the chance of entering the Kingdom of God (cf. Matt 7:13-14). In the original, very forceful terms are used: biaz, use violence in attaining one’s ends. The gates are open for those who will take possession of the Kingdom. The imagery is reminiscent of someone storming a castle or a city and who spares no pains to gain entry.
13. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. John introduces a new era. ‘For’ indicates that this verse explains v.12 more fully (‘From the days of John …’). The old era, in which Moses and the prophets put the voice of God into words, ended when John began to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
14. And if you are willing to accept it. V.14 contains the main thought of the sentence, which is introduced in v.13 by ‘for’. The stress is on thelete (are willing), which implies that this is not a matter for the mind but for the will, a matter of faith.
He is the Elijah who was to come. John was not Elijah returned (according to his witness in John 1:21), but he was ’that Elijah’ who according to the prophecy was to be the herald of the Lord (Mal 3:1; 4:5; cf. Mark 9:13 and Matt 17:12f). Or, is Jesus here correcting John, who at the beginning saw himself as only ‘a voice calling in the wilderness’ (John 1:23)?
15. He who has ears, let him hear. Jesus often uses these words. They are almost proverbial and indicate that they should be listened to very carefully.
16. To what can I compare this generation? The term ’this generation’ always means a specific generation, never a race. (Cf. Mark 8:12,38; Matt 12:38-42; Luke 11:50 ff). Here Jesus’ contemporaries are meant. ‘They are like’ must not be understood literally (so that ’this generation’ could only be compared to the first group of children), but as an Aramean expression in which two situations are compared (cf. 13:31,33,44,45,47,52). It refers to both v.16 and v.17.
17. The parable speaks of a group of children in the market-place, who propose a certain game to their friends (apparently Weddings and Funerals). The first group is a picture of the Jews, who wanted to make the ascetic John -who preached judgment- dance, and who wanted to make Jesus -who brought good news- mourn (cf. vv.18-19a).
18. John came neither eating nor drinking. Jesus is speaking here of John’s total abstinence. He refrained from normal food and drink (bread and wine, Luke 7:33; 1:15) but ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:16). The people considered this way of life insane and linked it to possession.
19. The Son of Man came eating and drinking. The people were also annoyed at Jesus’ unrestrained eating and drinking. They called Him gluttonous and a winebibber. This reminds us of the behaviour of the rebellious son (Deut 21:20; Prov 23:20-21) who should be stoned (Deut 21:21). According to pharisaic standards, too, Jesus is apostate, because He eats and drinks with tax-gatherers and sinners (Luke 5:30; 15:2; 19:7).
Wisdom is proved right by her actions. Wisdom is a periphrasis for God and the divine plan of salvation (cf. Luke 7:29-30 with 7:35), by which John and Jesus were led. God’s plan of salvation was rejected by this generation with words (’they say’, twice), but is justified by its works (for the meaning of works, see v.2).
The alternative reading ‘children’ instead of ‘actions’ is apparently the proof of an ancient Aramean variant: abadeh (its works) and abdeh (its servants). If ‘children’ is original, the meaning becomes: Wisdom is rejected by this generation, but was justified, i.e., recognised as righteous and good (cf. Luke 7:29) by its children, the believers.
Jesus’ ‘Woe’ on the Cities of Galilee 11:20-24
20. In the following verses we see a completely different side of Jesus’ preaching than He has previously shown. This passage comes in Luke in a totally different context (10:13-15), viz., in the part describing Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51; 19:10). This place agrees with the fact that Jesus looks back on His Galilean works as a closed period. With reference to the place in the Gospel according to Matthew should be observed that ’then’ often has a broad meaning: ‘in that time’ (cf. 3:13).
It appears that when in Galilee Jesus confined Himself to the area north of the Sea of Gennesaret. Divine grace fell exceptionally on this district. But the more light one has of the divine revelation, the greater is one’s responsibility (cf. 10:15; John 15:24).
21. Woe to you. ‘Woe’ is not a curse but an expression of sadness and pain for those who are under divine judgment. Jesus was not wrathful that they had refused His message, but He saw the judgment they had called down on themselves and mourned for the fact. His words are not a curse but a foretelling.
Korazin … Bethsaida. Korazin lay at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee and is mentioned in the Bible only here and in the parallel passage in Luke 10:13. The town was apparently situated on the site of the modern Kerazeh, a ruined town three kilometers north of Capernaum.
Bethsaida (= fisherman’s house), which is not mentioned very frequently in the NT (Mark 6:45; 8:22; Luke 9:10; John 1:44; 12:21) was a fishing village east of the Jordan and on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Gennesareth). Three of Jesus’ disciples came from here – Andrew, Peter and Philip (John 1:45). Of the numerous miracles Jesus performed in Bethsaida only the healing of a blind man has come down to us (Mark 8:22 ff).
In sackcloth and ashes. ‘Sackcloth and ashes’ were signs of repentance or bereavement (Isa 58:5; Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:6-8; Esther 4:1). The mourning garment was a sort of sack made of goat hair which was hung over the naked body. The ash was sprinkled on the hair (cf. Matt 6:16), or was sat on (Job 2:8; Jonah 3:6).
22. It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were heathen towns in Syro-Phoenicia on the Mediterranean coast. In the OT they were the objects of divine wrath -especially Tyre- on account of their godlessness (Amos 1:9 ff; Isa 23:1-18; Jer 25:22; 47:4; Ezek 26-28). But Korazin and Bethsaida will be more strictly judged than Tyre and Sidon. For the judgment is in reciprocal proportion to the possibilities they have had (cf. v.20; 23-24; 10:15; John 15:24). A man is not only judged on what he has done but also on what he could have done in different circumstances. We learn here that a. there will be judgment, b. people will be judged in accordance to the light they have received, c. there are degrees of condemnation (cf. Luke 12:47-48).
23. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? Capernaum (= the town of Nahum, identical with the modern Tell Chum) was a flourishing town in those days. It may well be considered the most privileged city in the world because the Lord Jesus lived here (Matt 4:13). Here too He did the most teaching and performed many miracles. Now, however, Jesus says, ‘will you be lifted up to the skies? No you will go down to the depths, i.e., you will be cast down to the lowest place, because you did not repent (v.20). Here Jesus refers to the description of Babylon in Isa 14:13-15, where the king is described in terms of Lucifer (the Morning Star, v.12).
You will go down to the depths. By these words Jesus does not mean that every inhabitant of the city will perish, but that the city will be destroyed. This happened. In the Romano-Jewish war Capernaum and the surrounding towns were completely destroyed. At present it is not even possible to say precisely where they were located.
If the miracles … had been performed in Sodom. If the inhabitants of Capernaum were to be compared with those of Sodom, the life-style of Sodom (immoral) would perhaps appear to us more sinful than that of Capernaum (unbelieving). But God sees things differently. Sodom did not have the same opportunities as Capernaum. From what happened to Sodom and Capernaum, it appears that sin does not simply bring individual men to ruin, but whole cities.
24. See 10:15; 11:22.
Jesus’ Praise and Invitation 11:25-30
25-26. At that time means at the time when Jesus’ more popular days were at an end and the opposition was growing (vv.16-19; 20-24).
Yet Jesus is not downcast, but begins this new period with an expression of thanks, which also is a confession.
You have … revealed them to little children. He is not thankful for the fact that the wise and learned, i.e., those who have become learned through study, the scribes, have no insight into the divine plan of salvation, but that it has been revealed to simple people (the stress is on the second part of the sentence). The ‘little children’ (babes) are the poor from v.5 (and 5:3).
Your good pleasure. The Greek eudokia means God’s gracious pleasure or God’s will, His plan of salvation.
27. All things have been committed to me by the Father. This does not mean that He has been given secret knowledge (in the mystical sense), nor that a tradition is involved (in the rabbinical sense), but that God has given all power and authority to His representative on earth (cf. Dan 7:14; Matt 28:18; John 3:35; 13:3). Jesus has power to forgive sins (9:6), He speaks with authority (7:29) and even has power over nature (8:23-27).
No-one knows the Son except the Father. ‘All things’ also includes an exclusive relationship with the Father, in knowledge and love: ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son’. But the knowledge of the Son, i.e., the insight into the true significance of the Son, is a mystery. Nobody knows the authority of Jesus, nobody knows the Mediator, unless the Son Himself reveals them to him (cf. John 6:44 ff)
28. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened. Jesus calls (cf. 4:19; 19:21; John 7:37) all who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him, and promises them rest, i.e., a new life in peace and quietness (cf. the meaning of rest in Isa 14:3; 32:18; Rev 14:13). The people were weary and heavy laden because (cf. 9:36) they were burdened with strict religious and other prescriptions laid on them by their religious leaders (23:4)
29. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. ‘My yoke’ means the yoke Jesus lays on them, not the yoke He bears. He needs no yoke. A yoke serves to make the burden lighter. In Judaism it was a wellknown picture of the Torah and ’taking up one’s yoke’ meant studying with a rabbi. ‘Take my yoke upon you’ means the same as ‘learn from Me’.
For I am gentle and humble in heart. It had been predicted in the OT that the Messiah would be humble and gentle: Zech 9:9. Whoever takes Jesus’ words to heart will find the rest and peace of the Kingdom of God. The expression reminds us forcefully of Jer 6:16.
30. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. As opposed to the heavy burdens laid on the people by the scribes, Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light. Not because He asks less, but because he gives more: the rest and peace of the Kingdom of God.
The OT (LXX) tells that God is chrstos (Greek for ‘easy’), i.e., mild, friendly, helpful (Ps 25:8; 34:9 and elsewhere). We see here that this character trait is also to be found in the Messiah.