Matt 11:1-6 – John the Baptist in Prison

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Matt 11:2

  1. Matthew tells us in chapter 14 that John the Baptist was imprisoned because he criticized King Herod Antipas for his sinful behavior. Herod had divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, which greatly angered Herod’s first wife’s father, who attacked and defeated Herod in battle. Herod eventually committed suicide after first being accused of treason by his brother and exiled to the Roman province of Gaul.
    1. We don’t know exactly how long John was in prison before he was executed, but scholars speculate anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. Sitting that long in a Middle Eastern prison 2,000 years ago must have undeniably caused John the Baptist enormous suffering.
    1. Like John the Baptist, we Christians today should also criticize the immorality and unrighteousness of political power and governance.
  2. If Jesus is really who he says he is and if the kingdom of God has really come, why doesn’t Jesus help his cousin John the Baptist who is in prison? These are important existential questions that I am sure we have all asked God at some point in our lives. Why don’t we see more of God? Why doesn’t Jesus cure all diseases? Why doesn’t Jesus help me in my suffering?
  3. There is a possibility that John did not really need the answers to the question he sent with his disciples, but that he asked the question for the sake of the disciples. Now that John was in prison and about to die, he wanted his disciples to start joining Jesus instead (John 3:30).

Matt 11:3

  1. Although John was the Elijah who would precede the Messiah (Matthew 11:14) and he himself has stated that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), John suddenly seems to start doubting Jesus.
  2. Probably John began to think and ponder very much while in prison; “If I am the forerunner of the Messiah and Jesus is the Messiah, why am I in prison?” Shouldn’t the kingdom of God begin to be established now that the Messiah has finally come?
  3. There were many Jews in Jesus’ day who expected that when the Messiah came, he would forcibly drive out the occupying Romans, re-establish Israel as a kingdom, and take the throne as Israel’s new king (John 6:14-15, Acts 1:6). Perhaps John the Baptist also expected something similar from Jesus and was thus disappointed when he was in prison and Jesus still had not either driven out the Romans, begun to restore Israel as a nation again, or even rescued John from prison.
  4. Perhaps John the Baptist began to doubt his own role as the Messiah’s forerunner as he began to doubt whether Jesus was really the Messiah. If Jesus was not the Messiah, then John the Baptist was a false prophet.
  5. Perhaps John was unhappy to hear how much good Jesus was doing in other places while he himself was suffering in prison.
    1. I think many Christians today recognize these sentiments. You hear about how much God is doing in other countries; healings, miracles, huge revivals, etc. But here at home nothing happens!?
    1. Jesus’ response to John therefore becomes an assurance that God is indeed doing quite a lot, even if it doesn’t look exactly as John wished.

Matt 11:4-5

  1. Jesus doesn’t help John out of prison, but he does help him with the doubts that John had begun to have. Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the kingdom of God has indeed come. The fact that John is still allowed to continue suffering does not mean that John is a false prophet. We may not always get answers to the dilemma of suffering, but we should still continue to believe in Jesus.
    1. In some ways, John the Baptist’s situation is very similar to what Daniel’s friends experienced when they were thrown into the fiery furnace (Dan 3). They refused to bow to anyone but God, whether God would save them or not. God saved Daniel’s friends but not John the Baptist. The important thing is to believe in God whether you are saved or not.
  2. Perhaps John the Baptist expected Jesus to start a great political change that would result in a free Israel with Jesus as king. When Jesus didn’t do all this, John was probably disappointed, especially since he himself was in prison, and thus began to doubt whether Jesus was really the Messiah. But it wasn’t Jesus who was at fault, it was John’s expectations that were at fault. Instead of starting a political change, Jesus went around facing the problems of ordinary people. Even though all these miracles were amazing, they were still performed among poor, sick and outcast people. The great social transformation that many wanted to see failed to happen.
    1. But Jesus’ response to John shows that the kingdom of God is spread to these very people: the little ones, the sick, the poor, the outcasts (Matt 11:25, Matt 25:31-46).
    1. God’s kingdom may look very small and petty at first, but as it grows, it gets bigger and bigger, and soon God’s kingdom has spread to the whole world (Matthew 13:31-32).
    1. Jesus could have gone to the finer quarters of Jerusalem and worked miracles among the religious and political leaders. Then he would surely have been accepted as their Messiah and won success and been able to re-establish Israel as a political nation. But Jesus did not spread the kingdom of God in this way, instead he went to the villages and sought out individuals, he healed the poor sick and he criticised the religious and political leadership.
      1. In the same way, today we should also reach out to the poor, the sick and the outcasts of society and preach and practice the gospel to them. Helping a lonely and insignificant person who is struggling is not petty, it is the very essence of the Kingdom of God.
  3. When Jesus answers John in this way, John understands that the Messiah and the kingdom of God are indeed here. For John knows his Bible and knows that Isaiah 35:5-6 says: “5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 The lame will leap like a deer, the tongue of the mute will shout. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, streams in the heath.
    1. John the Baptist knew what was in the Bible and when Jesus tells him, he knows immediately what it is all about. In the same way, we today should learn the Bible and know what it says.

Matt 11:6

  1. Many of those who heard Jesus wanted him to liberate Israel and drive out the Romans, and many of them found it hard to accept that Jesus had no intention of doing so.
    1. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the people shout “Hosanna!” and hail Jesus as a king of the people, but when they eventually realize that he hasn’t come to drive out the Romans at all, they instead shout “Crucify him!” (Mark 11:1-11, Mark 15:12-13).
  2. Jesus means that those who chose to change their preconceived notions about Jesus and accept what Jesus said would be “blessed”.
    1. The longer one lives a life with God, the more the Holy Spirit points out that one needs to change, repent and become more like Jesus. This is a natural part of the Christian life and is usually referred to as “sanctification”, i.e. “making oneself holy”.
  3. Those who could not change their minds would rather see a new Israel than accept Jesus as the Messiah.
  4. Sometimes, unfortunately, you may have grown up with a view that you think is “Christian”, but which doesn’t really fit with the Bible. In such cases, it is important to humbly take the bull by the horns and consider whether that view needs to be re-evaluated, rather than, like Paul, “kicking at the cape” (Acts 26:14).
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