Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist pointing to the royal highway, the Holy Way

 "John the Baptist pointing to the royal highway, the Holy Way" 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


This passage is paralleled only in Luke 7:18-28. With reference to Luke 7:18-28 Stoeckhardt says: "The fame of the great deeds of Christ had spread over all Judea and the surrounding regions, reaching into the mountain castle of Machaerus on the other side of the Dead Sea where John sat imprisoned."

Note that Luke 7:21 gives us additional information as to what Jesus was doing when the disciples of the Baptist arrived to ask Jesus. Evidently this account in Luke fits into the chronological order of events, not Matthew. Fahling says the order of events in Matthew 11:2-12 is transposed.

Since this account is not found in Mark, higher critics claim that Matthew and Luke found this account in the Q source. In the first place, no Q document has ever been found, and secondly, from the order of events in Luke it seems that the disciples of Jesus were with him. Matthew very likely witnessed this.

Matthew 11:2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples

From verse 11 we know that this was the Baptist and from verse 2 we know that he was in prison. From Luke 7:18 we know that John heard it from his disciples.

"What Christ was doing" includes both miracles and preaching. That is clear from verse 5.

Matthew 11:3 to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Lenski: Undoubtedly 'the one who was to come' signifies the Messiah and is used in that specific sense especially also by the Baptist, 3:11, Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16 etc; John 1:27.

NASB and NKJV translate: "the Coming One." That is preferable, we think, to KJV "he that should come," LB "the one we are waiting for," TEV "the one John said was going to come," and all the rest "he who is to come." But we won't argue about it.

"Someone else" can mean either "of a different kind" or simply "another."

The men might have been merely asking for information, or they might have expressed doubt and deliberation. Probably they expressed doubt.

At this point we must stop and consider the question: "Was John in doubt or was it his disciples?" Modern interpreters, including Lenski, Hendriksen and many others, think John was in doubt. But Jerome, Chrysostom, Luther and his contemporaries, Ylvisaker, Fahling, Stoeckhardt and Kretzmann think that John' disciples, not John, were in doubt. Lenski and Hendriksen are not recommended on this point. When all is said and done, there is far more information elsewhere in the Gospel to cause one to think that it was John's disciples who were in doubt. Read John 3:25-30.

The Baptist's disciples were jealous of Jesus and His disciples but the Baptist shows them how wrong they were. Furthermore, the other evangelists clearly state that the disciples of John made common cause against Jesus Himself ( Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33).

And, finally, John's way of life was quite different from that of Jesus (Matthew 11:18, 19). Perhaps John's disciples, out of loyalty for John, and disdain for Jesus because of His freer way of life, just could not accept the fact that Jesus was the Messiah.

On the other hand, read John 1:24-40 where we are told of the Baptist's testimony to Jesus and that he even gave some of his disciples to Jesus.

By the way, it must have been a great grief to John, that, though he brought many to Christ through preaching and baptism, his own disciples were in doubt as to the identify of Jesus as the Messiah, But, on with the text.

Matthew 11:4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:

"Report" is not just "tell" but "announce." They serve as messengers. "Those things which you are hearing and seeing." Read Luke 7:21 at this point. They witnessed what Jesus said and did. Matthew has "hear and see." Luke has: "have seen and heard." The point we are making is that they also heard Jesus preach the Gospel. That becomes clear in the next verse.

Matthew 11:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

The disciples of John must have recognized immediately that Jesus was referring to Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1. These are prophecies of the Messiah. Jesus directs people to Himself by referring them to Scripture. He simply testifies to prophecy and fulfillment. He does not criticize them. All He does is to give proof from prophecy and fulfillment.

Notice the alternation between active and passive verbs in this verse.

"Poor" means "beggars" not just "poor." He is not speaking about people who are poor in earthly goods but those who are beggars in spirit, the repentant.

Matthew 11:6 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

Bengel says that verses 5 and 6 contain seven proofs. There are six in verse 5. He means that verse 6 is an additional proof, the proof of the blessed estate of the believer. It always means this in the New Testament.

"Fall away" means "entrap." The translations are interesting: NIV above. NEB: "Who does not find me a stumbling-block." AAT: "Who doesn't turn against me." The following are not recommended: LB: "Who don't doubt this message." TEV: "Who has no doubts about me!"

We all have our doubts at one time or another. It's much more than that. "Fall away" really means "to entrap in sin." "On account of me" is causal. How awful to be entrapped fatally in sin because of Christ! That means to deny utterly what Christ says of Himself. Read 1 Corinthians 1:23. The Jews are scandalized by Christ to this day.

Matthew 11:7 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

Verses 7-9 involve a punctuation problem. If one places the question marks after the three infinitives, then we translate "what." But if one places the question marks immediately before the infinitives, we translate "why." In either case, the infinitives denote purpose. All our translations take all three as "what" with question mark after infinitive, except RSV reads the questions in 8 and 9 as "why" and NEB read that in 9 as "why."

Some commentators maintain that the people had changed their minds about John the Baptist since they first heard him and were baptized by him. But there is no proof for that. It is clear from verses 16-19 that many had the wrong attitude toward both John and Jesus but that does not prove that they had changed their minds since they first heard him.

In verses 7-10 Jesus is pointing out two things:

  1. People want a preacher who suits their own fancies, a fickle man who will not preach the Law to them;

  2. The Baptist was quite other than what the flesh desires, in fact he was the greatest prophet, one who was himself prophesied.

NEB: "What was the spectacle that drew you to the wilderness?" A spectacle entertains. That's all.

Ylvisaker: They might reason as follows: 'The misgivings of the Baptist are either reasonable or unreasonable; if reasonable, how may Jesus then be the Messiah He claims to be? If his doubts are unreasonable, how can John be the Forerunner?

Jesus answers both possibilities. A reed swayed this way and that pictures a person who has no convictions.

Matthew 11:8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces.

"If not" according to Lenski could be translated "well now. . . ", meaning "if it wasn't that, how about this one?"

The evangelists no doubt take this to mean also that John, despite his question in verse 3, cannot really doubt Jesus. John was firm in his convictions.

"A man dressed in fine clothes" is a well-fed and well-clothed, man-serving court preacher. That was quite the opposite of what the Baptist was, of course. By "man-serving court preacher" Jesus is stressing the fact that John is lying in a dungeon because of his testimony, not a court preacher before Herod. From what follows in the latter part of verse 8, that may be just the point. Herod wore soft clothing and lived in a palace. John was wearing his coat of camel-hair and was lying in a dungeon.

Matthew 11:9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

Similarly, we can translate "if not, then. . . " If John wasn't a fickle, soft-living, man-pleaser, then there was only one other possibility. Jesus arrives at the true answer by the process of elimination. And even that isn't enough.

"Yes" is emphatic. "I tell you" always denotes the divine authority of Jesus. Compare John with any prophet and he is much more than a prophet.

Matthew 11:10 This is the one about whom it is written: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

In verse 5 Jesus had pointed to a prophecy to identify Himself. Now he quotes prophecy to prove that John was more than any other prophet. He was the only prophet who was prophesied and that right at the end of the Old Testament, from the last Old Testament prophet.

"It stands written." God Himself is speaking. John was sent with a definite commission. He is God's messenger.

The Old Testament prophets prophesied at a distance. John's foretelling of Christ was immediately before Christ came. Read Malachi 3:1.

Matthew 11:11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Again, another divine asseveration. Compare this with verse 9.

"Among those born of women" doesn't simply mean "of all those ever born" because that would include Christ. It emphasizes the sinfulness and mortality of people born in the natural way. John 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; Psalm 51:5. Among sinful mortals, John was the greatest prophet.

Bengel: An expression of universal extent. Notice the blessedness of Mary in Luke 1:42.

Mary was the most blessed among women, because of her office. And so, there was none greater, in his office, than John the Baptist. By the way, this is the only place in which we find the expression: "John, the Baptist." He was greater than Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah.

"Least" refers to the disciples in the New Covenant Church. John belongs to the era of the fulfillment and he may, therefore, have a more unclouded understanding about Jesus. This does not mean that we are greater as to our person, but implies that the greatest thing that has happened to us is that Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies.

John is described

Lenski: In verse 10 the prophecy was fulfilled in John and Jesus. And thus the greatness of John is also revealed.

Not to be overlooked is the marvelous, pastoral, evangelical attitude of both the Baptist and Jesus. When his disciples were prone to reject Jesus, John sent them to Jesus Himself. When they came to Jesus, He pointed to prophecy and fulfillment with reference to His miracles and preaching. When they left, Jesus, by a series of questions, pointed out the greatness of the Baptist, both in prophecy and fulfillment. That's the way to deal with wavering Christians.

Mary was the most blessed among women. The Baptist was the greatest of the prophets. The least of Christians is greater than the Baptist. In each case it's not because of their person but because of the person and work of Jesus.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A, Festival Season Sundays, Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp.9-12. Used with permission.

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