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Jesus speaking - Unknown artist

After Jesus instructed the twelve disciples to go out and spread the word throughout the region, he went to the towns of Galilee to preach. When John, who was in prison at the time, heard about the deeds of Jesus, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Saint John The Baptist In Prison Visited By Salome - GuercinoJesus replied,

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes live in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, but even more than a prophet. This is the one about whom is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, of all the men on earth, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist, yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and forceful people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John arrived. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you and you did not dance. We sang a dirge for you, but you did not mourn.’

John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, ‘He was a demon’. The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

What the story means to us today

Actions speak louder than words

While John the Baptist was held in prison, he heard about Jesus’ miracles, teachings, and growing number of followers. John had previously told his followers (Matthew 3:11) of another one coming who “is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not truly worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Hold Spirit and Fire.” Then in these verses John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is the coming Messiah or if someone else will arrive later. Did John the Baptist begin doubting Jesus’ mission?

Whether John the Baptist was suddenly doubting Jesus’ purpose or simply seeking an affirmation that Jesus was the “coming one” is impossible to know. But Jesus not only answers John’s question (i.e. to find the answer to your question, look at my deeds), he informs John the Baptist that he himself was the messenger who Malachi referred to when he said, “I will send my messenger ahead of you.”

Instead of defending himself before the people – Jesus defends John the Baptist. He points out the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry despite his inability to recognize the critical role he was playing in the New Testament story. Then Jesus explains the irony of John’s question – John the Baptist and Jesus himself did not demonstrate their purpose by words, lessons, and teachings, but as do Christians today, through their deeds and actions. Truly, actions speak louder than words.

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Additional thoughts and considerations

A difficult-to-interpret story

I’ve found this to be one of the most difficult set of passages in the New Testament. In fact, most scholars today still cannot agree on its complete meaning or intent. There are various possibilities and it will be up to the reader to make up their own mind – or better, keep an open mind and accept that there may be multiple meanings and lessons hidden away in these verses.

What was John the Baptist really asking Jesus?

Jesus and John the Baptist - Artist unknownJohn the Baptist expected the imminent arrival of the Messiah and taught his followers about the “coming one” who would “clear the threshing floor, gather his wheat into a barn, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” But he asks Jesus, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” He flatly asks Jesus if he is the coming Messiah. It’s an unusual question, one that hints John the Baptist may have questioned Jesus’ role despite his earlier support.

Possibly John the Baptist became demoralized while sitting in a prison cell or possibly he was upset because, given Jesus’ capacity for miracles, he had not used his “powers” to release John from prison. Maybe John the Baptist harbored doubt because Jesus had not overthrown Rome as many thought the coming Messiah would do. Maybe John questioned the differences between his teaching and Jesus’ – John and his disciples fasted and lived by the Nazirite vow to abstain from alcohol, cutting their hair, and avoiding dead people while Jesus considered such beliefs inconsequential to the Christian cause.

John described the Coming One as a man who would bring judgement while Jesus brought peace. Maybe John knew the answer but asked simply for the sake of his followers. Maybe John knew his time was short and was merely checking to see if he had made a mistake in his initial assessment of Jesus. Or maybe, as we will see in Matthew 13, like many others of the day, he failed to truly “see” who Jesus was.

Regardless of John’s motive, Jesus provides the answer to the crowd and defends John the Baptist, not as a fickle man, a “reed swayed by the wind”, but as the messenger sent before the Messiah as prophesied in the Old Testament book of Malachi. During a dangerous time when authorities were closing in on Jesus and his disciples and people’s hearts had hardened against his teachings, Jesus accepts the question and supports John the Baptist, pointing out that the answer, “Who is Jesus”, lies not in Jesus’ message, but in the example he sets and the deeds he performs throughout the region.

John the Baptist, the messenger who prepared the way for Jesus

Jesus tells the crowd that of John it was written, “I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way.” Jesus is referring to Malachi 3:1 (and partially from Exodus 23:20) where Malachi prophecies for God and says,

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.”

It is generally believed that the verses in Malachi referred to the prophet Elijah. When Jesus says, “And if you are willing to receive it, he (John the Baptist) is the Elijah who is to come”, he is agreeing with traditional interpretation of Malachi and implying John the Baptist is like Elijah, the one Malachi says “is to come”. There seems to be a dual meaning in Malachi’s prophesy, one that applies to both Elijah and the modern-day (at the time) messenger, John the Baptist. Surprisingly, according to John 1:21, John the Baptist did not even recognize that he was the “messenger” preparing the way for the Messiah.

No one greater than John the Baptist – yet whoever is least in heaven is greater than he

John the Baptist preaching in the desert wilderness - Artist unknownJesus says, “no one has risen greater than John the Baptist” but then says, “yet the one who is least in heaven is greater than he is.” Jesus’ quote is oft-debated and easily misunderstood. On the surface, Jesus seems to be saying John the Baptist is the greatest person in history, even greater than the major prophets that came before him, but then turns around and says he will be the least in heaven.

One explanation is that the word “least” should be translated as “younger”. This would render Jesus’ quote as “nobody on earth is greater than John the Baptist but in heaven the younger (i.e. Jesus) will be greater than he.” This translation however, is a stretch.

Jesus’ comment about the Baptist could be complimentary. Jesus praises John for the great things he did on Earth. After all, John’s role as the messenger prepared the way for all to enter the kingdom of heaven. John’s act was entirely unselfish because in heaven, the heaven that John the Baptist helped pave the way for, John will be equal to everyone else.

But Jesus could also be gently rebuking John the Baptist for allowing even a shred of doubt to enter his mind. Jesus tells his audience that John the Baptist did great things on earth – and was the important “messenger” prophesied as the person who introduces the world to the Messiah – yet his moral equivalency in heaven is no greater than anyone else’s.

It is conceivable that John, who served a critical role in the introduction of Jesus to the world, may have weakened in the face of adversity. He is human with normal human imperfections, and may have allowed his heart to harden, just as the people in the region had done. Thus, despite his importance on earth, in heaven, John will still be just like everyone else because even the lowest man in heaven testifies Christ’s authenticity without question.

There are many connotations in Jesus’ speech about John the Baptist. Scholars today, do not agree on Jesus’ intent and thus, the reader will have to make up his own mind leaving open the possibility that all the above potential explanations could simultaneously be true.

The violence subjected on the kingdom of heaven

Jesus told his followers, “From the days of John the Baptist until today, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence – and the violent take it by force.” Luke’s version phrases it slightly differently: “Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” Both phrasings mean the same thing. Since the days John the Baptist gave his fiery speeches in the wilderness through the days Jesus roamed the region spreading the word of the new era, the message has been ignored as people try to force their way into heaven using old beliefs. Jesus has already hinted that opposition is growing against him and his followers. Herod the Great, the Pharisees, and even the citizens continue to resist Jesus’ message – and resistance to the movement increases with each passing day.

Jesus compares the people to whining children

Jesus compares the generation of his time to children who complain, “We played the flute for you and you did not dance”. The comparison between his generation and children seems out of place at first and indeed could mark the beginning of an entirely new topic in the scriptures. However, Jesus next ties this statement to accusations made against both John the Baptist and himself.

While some people issued blatantly false statements about John the Baptist and Jesus, others demanded more proof about who and what John the Baptist and Jesus were, and whined when they did not receive it. Yet the deeds of both were honest, humble, and generous. Jesus points out the folly of others’ claims about them. For both groups, the purpose of John the Baptist and Jesus should have been clear, not through their words, but through their actions. But as Jeremias put it in Parables of Jesus, “You hate the proclamation of the gospel, so you play your childish games with God’s messengers while Rome burns!”

The relationship between John the Baptist and Elijah

The Lord who came after Elijah -Artist unknownHow John the Baptist relates to Elijah is a point of contention between various faiths. Were they metaphorically the same person? Was John the Baptist a reincarnation of Elijah? Or was there no relationship at all? The question arises from a prophecy made by Malachi (Malachi 3:1) who said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” Malachi follows this statement in Malachi 4:5 by stating, “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” So why does Jesus conclude his defense of John the Baptist by telling the crowd, “If you are willing to accept it, he (john the Baptist) is the Elijah who was to come.”

The Jews expected the return of Elijah himself – not a proxy. However, as Jesus confirms, John the Baptist also fulfills Malachi’s prophecy because of his ministry that precluded Jesus’ arrival. Jesus wasn’t claiming that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah but rather, a variant fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.

The final word – the true message behind Jesus’ statement about John the Baptist

It is likely John the Baptist was not questioning Jesus’s authority. The wording of his question seems to be a genuine inquiry, of which Jesus’ answer will be fully accepted as the truth. John simply wants to know if someone will be coming after Jesus – is Jesus the Messiah or could he be the messenger preceding the coming of the true Messiah.

To John’s question, Jesus tells the messengers to tell John the proof of their purpose is not in the words they teach, but in their deeds and actions. Jesus points out to the listeners that John the Baptist is a prophet, a modern-day version of Elijah, and the people freely recognized this. Jesus praises John, saying “no one has risen greater than John”, even though their ministry has been under attack from the beginning.

Then Jesus compares John the Baptist’s question to children who complain because nobody listens to them. People may have openly listened to John the Baptist and Jesus’ teachings but some still made derogatory comments about them, despite their honorable deeds. The proof of who they were and their purpose on earth was clearly demonstrated by their deeds – John the Baptist’s role as the messenger and Jesus’ lifelong demonstration of what it truly means to be a Christian.

Jesus’ response to John the Baptist will be strengthened in the following verses when he admonishes the people’s failure to repent despite the proof they have witnessed firsthand.

The science and history behind the story

The imprisonment of John the Baptist

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of the imprisonment of John the Baptist. That the events surround his life were recorded by the great historian shows that John the Baptist must have been a prominent, well-known character in the area at the time.

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According to Josephus, John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod in the fortress of Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea. It is likely he was imprisoned there for some time and missed much, if not all of Jesus’ teachings, miracles, and other wonders. Later verses will detail the gruesome story of how (and why) John the Baptist was executed.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Wisdom is proved right by her deeds”

Matthew 11:19 tells us Jesus defended the false accusations against John the Baptist and himself saying, “Wisdom is proved right be her deeds”. The verse has confounded scholars for centuries because Matthew and Luke end the parable differently. The confusion however, is not justified.

Matthew writes, “Wisdom is proved right her actions” while Luke writes, “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Which words Jesus actually used is not known but both essentially say the same thing (and Luke’s version sounds more like how Jesus would be presumed to speak). When Luke refers to “her children”, he is referring to the metaphorical children of wisdom itself. In other words, those who are wise will be easily recognizable by their actions.

How many disciples did John send to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah?

The King James translation and the New King James translation say two disciples were sent by John the Baptist to ask Jesus if he were the true Messiah. Most other translations however, simply say “his disciples” were sent, not specifying a specific number. The difference exists because in the original Greek, the phrase “by his disciples” and “two of his disciples” differ by only two letters.

David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, John the Baptist - All Saints, Margaret Street, LondonSince both the King James Version and the New King James Version base their translations on the “average” text of all known manuscripts, their interpretation places more emphasis on later translations (of which there are many more copies and thus, weighted heavier in their translation process). However, the earliest known manuscripts state “his disciples” without specifying the number. Thus, most translations say John “sent his disciples to ask a question”, not just two.

Still, as with most biblical translative arguments, the meaning behind the message remains the same regardless of the exact wording.

Did you got to see a “reed shaken by the wind”

The meaning of the phrase “reed shaken by the wind” could mean “to see someone who is easily shaken” or it could mean “to see plants in the desert”. Both however, imply that people went to see John the Baptist in the wilderness because they believed the message he was delivering, not because they had idle time that needed to be filled.

Bible Text

NIV

11 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 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. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 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.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “ ‘We played the pipe for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

11:1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their towns.

11:2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 11:3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 11:5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 11:6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

11:7 While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 11:8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! 11:9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 11:10 This is the one about whom it is written:

‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

11:11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 11:12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 11:13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 11:14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. 11:15 The one who has ears had better listen!

11:16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance;

we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

11 Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities.

2 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”

4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”

7 As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he of whom it is written:

‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,

Who will prepare Your way before You.’

11 “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

16 “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, 17 and saying:

‘We played the flute for you,

And you did not dance;

We mourned to you,

And you did not lament.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

1 11 When Jesus finished placing this charge before his twelve disciples, he went on to teach and preach in their villages.

2–3 John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison. When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?”

4–6 Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what’s going on:

The blind see,

The lame walk,

Lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.

“Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!”

7–10 When John’s disciples left to report, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John. “What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild? A weekend camper? Hardly. What then? A sheik in silk pajamas? Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot. What then? A prophet? That’s right, a prophet! Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear. He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’

11–14 “Let me tell you what’s going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer; but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him. For a long time now people have tried to force themselves into God’s kingdom. But if you read the books of the Prophets and God’s Law closely, you will see them culminate in John, teaming up with him in preparing the way for the Messiah of the kingdom. Looked at in this way, John is the ‘Elijah’ you’ve all been expecting to arrive and introduce the Messiah.

15 “Are you listening to me? Really listening?

16–19 “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

11 And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. 2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, 3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? 4 Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

7 And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? 8 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. 15 He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

16 But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, 17 And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. 19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database

[A1]Introduction

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