Expectations. On Wall Street rather than surpassing expectations, they beat them all…as though expectations are some form of contest. One of the most interesting twist on predicting how the American economy is moving was revealed by Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, as his go-to index
The men's underwear index (MUI) is an economic index that can supposedly detect the beginnings of a recovery during an economic slump. The premise is that men's underwear are a necessity in normal economic times and sales remain stable. During a severe downturn, demand for these goods changes as new purchases are deferred.1
Expectations in ordinary life seem a bit different…and yet they are often seen coupled with disappointment. So often we are told to lower our expectations.
And this may seem the case with John and the generation alive at the time of Christ. This is the first of a two-part sermon on Matthew 11. This first one focusing on expectations. Two underlying themes are woven throughout this chapter: 1. Deeds versus “Beliefs”… or expectations; 2. Names used for Jesus – initially “The Christ” (vv. 1-6), then “The Son of Man” (vv. 7-24) and finally “The Son of the Father who is Lord of Heaven and Earth” (vv. 25-30). So the names and expectations will construct our framework. As Jesus responds to each of these names we will see his truegentleness, instruction and perhaps be surprised by his third response.
Expectations of the Christ (vv. 1-6)
Before Jesus heads off to preach in their towns, John’s disciples catch up with him. Having heard about “the deeds of the Christ” (v.2), John is asking if he – Jesus – is “the Christ”? John is asking? Dear John is asking this question?
Some older commenters – among them Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, and Beza2 – believe this was actually a question from John’s disciples, not John himself – so no one could accuse John the Baptist of doubting that this was “the Christ”: Especially after identifying him as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). However, the text identifies this as John’s question. John knew Jesus was “the Christ”. So what were John’s expectations of “the Christ”? What deeds had Jesus not done?
In Matt 3 while John the Baptist is telling of the one who is to come after him, he says (Matthew 3:11–12)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”(italics mine)
Very much the fiery rhetoric of an Old Testament prophet! While John the outdoorsman was languishing in prison – in that arid, desolate fortress at Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea – he was questioning why “the deeds of the Christ” were not including the rescue of the wheat-John (not germ), and expulsion of the Roman chaff – particularly in the person of Herod. This was the theme of many living in Israel at the time: “The Christ” would free them politically from Rome.
So Jesus response may seem almost terse and unkind – merely reminding John of what he already knows — or is that the point? We know John was familiar with the book of Isaiah. He quotes from it when asked to identify himself by the religious authorities (and thereby his authority):
3A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)
But Jesus recitation of miracles would allow the words of Isaiah 26, 29, 35, 53 and 613 to easily flood back into John’s mind (vv. 4-5):
4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
Are these not all of the deeds of which John had heard? However, more than identifying the Christ, John now needed to trust in the Christ. As Dr. Boice adds, “…even though Jesus did not seem to be living up to what John had expected him to do.”4
And so the follow-up in v. 66 – “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” – redirects any wayward expectation back within the boundaries of Scriptural truth. Perhaps John was awaiting word of affirmation by the Christ – “Don’t worry John, I’m coming to rescue you.” Or just let John know the schedule: “John, I have to start in Jerusalem, but I’ll get to your side soon.” Nor did the Christ become patronizing say, “John, you’ve done a great job – well done good and faithful servant – and hang in there.”
No, Christ’s words were spoken to a man of faith and action whose testimony, drawn from the words of Isaiah, were coming true before the Christ he identified earlier. Offense could be taken when one’s expectations collided with the sovereign will of God. But the Christ is gentle with his servant…and friend. Don’t you appreciate Christ’s gentleness with John?
Perhaps you are like me: There are times when I understand how my expectations – often in the guise of “entitlements” – have outstripped what God has promised. I’ve laid out the trajectory, without awaiting the Sovereign God’s word. I’ve made plans without submitting them for Divine review. I find myself like John expecting something different of the Christ – more towards my liking, than according to his Sovereign plan — and I am grateful for his gentle hand of restoration.
Expectations of John as well as the Son of Man (vv. 7-24)
As John’s disciples depart southward, Jesus addresses the expectations some had placed on John the Baptist and well as the Son of Man. He begins by “dispel[ing] the notion that John was a weak or pampered figure (11:7–8), declaring instead that he was a genuine prophet, ‘and more than a prophet’ (11:9)”.5 Identifying him with the prophet Elijah is amazing! (How wonderful when Christ interprets Scripture for us!)
Remember when John the Baptist was being grilled by the priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees from Jerusalem with the “holy check-list”: Are you the long awaited Messiah/Christ? Are you Elijah who we know must come before the Christ? Are you the Prophet who some believed Moses promised would come when he was identifying Israel’s next leader in Deuteronomy 18:156? [John 1:19–23]
Or do you remember that while Peter, James and John (the apostle, not the Baptist) were descending from the mountain of Transfiguration and asked (Matthew 17:10–13)
10 … “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 [Jesus] answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
The original reference to the return of Elijah is back in Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Chapter 3 verse 1 (page 802) echoes with Isaiah 40:3 describing the messenger who will prepare the way for God. This verse in Malachi is the wording Jesus picks up in his identification of John because he will also add verses 5 and 6 from chapter 4 (page 803).
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Jesus staunchly identifies John as the return of Elijah – the greatest of the prophets – who pointed forward to the Messiah’s saving work and who drew together even households that were fractured in repentance and preparation for the Kingdom of God.
With this backdrop, Jesus then addresses two different responses to those expectations about John and Jesus: a) complacency and b) repentance.
Deeds unto complacency (vv. 16-19)
This is part of the reason why Jesus uses “Son of Man” rather than “the Christ” to explain his ministry which has mystified some people. But this passage makes it quite plain: Rather than clouding his ministry with expectations regarding what the Christ would do – as was demonstrated by John’s question – he could re-focus the message of the coming Kingdom of God. Similarly John the Baptist denied he was Elijah so as to reject any popular misconceptions held by the populous and focus on the spiritual ministry of the Christ.
Yet some of that generation who were complacent about such spiritual matters. Their “informed opinion” was generated by their evaluation of the different lifestyle/ministry-style between John and Jesus – neither of which met their expectations. Granted, they were vastly different in style: John was the consummate wilderness prophet, and Jesus the more “refined” – eating and drinking indoors. However, their focus on the coming Kingdom of God and one’s need to repent, were unified. Jesus picks up a nursery rhyme to explain the childish capaciousness and unawareness of the actual dangers, finishing with “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (v. 19). Again, it is back to understanding the meaning of the deed…and the consequence for ignoring them.
The disturbing verse 12 needs a comment: What violence has been perpetrated against the Kingdom of Heaven? Violence is the “natural” outcome when one kingdom abuts another. Yet the form of violence in this case may seem rather strange for it is not physical – but spiritual, as is the Kingdom of God: The muzzling of John through imprisonment, the withdrawal of welcome following the healing of two demon possessed men, and even the complacent attitude of intolerance Jesus is about to address, not to mention the many and various plans to destroy Jesus by the religious leaders – to mention a few. As the New Testament scholar James Denney said,
the ‘kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate’… that no one drifts into the kingdom, that the kingdom only opens its doors to those who are prepared to make as great an effort to get into it as people do when they storm a city.7
Indeed, although John the Baptist has re-figured Elijah healing fractured homes to grasp a unified spiritual need for the Christ, Jesus (in Matthew 10:34-39) takes up a sword to divide families who do not pledge fealty to him as their King first and foremost.
Deeds unto repentance (vv. 20-24)
Which begs a question: Why does Jesus care about “this generation” mentioned in v.16? Answer: because he knows something better is possible – repentance to accept the Kingdom of God.
Is the word “denounce” too strong in this Kingdom struggle? Or does it sharpen our minds and souls to see what is at stake.
This summer I read a book about an Iraqi translator embedded with the Seals during the invasion of his country in 2003. Because he believed that with justice and economic stability Iraq could be restored as a nation, he risked his life and the life of his family.8 In other words, he had a vision of something better and to that end, he risked everything.
Jesus did miracles in a wide variety of towns in the area. Listing them in vv. 16-19 where he challenges the deeds of the unrepentant.
Chorazin was the place of the Sermon on the Mount which in Matt 7 concludes with: “The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28-29). Bethsaida was the location where Jesus preached to the crowd about the Kingdom of God and healed many…and surprisingly, the king himself feeds them! (Luke 9:10-17). In Capernaum after preaching with authority, Jesus rescues a man with an unclean spirit merely by speaking. (Mark 1:21)
[By the way, the towns listed are in a wide arc at the top of the Sea of Galilee and very likely Jesus was in Capernaum, his chosen home town, and could punctuate his teaching by pointing towards each one!]
What was the conclusion which should have been drawn? Having heard the authoritative preaching of truth, having seen the miracles backing the veracity, the awareness of God’s Kingdom was blatantly obvious, awakening a desire to be a part of it and the need of repentance.
Actual Deeds of the Sovereign Lord – Beyond Expectations (vv. 25-30)
And so one might expect the Christ – the Son of Man – to preach and give an altar call. But the deeds of the Son of the Father Creator reveals a twist beyond expectation. Rather than erecting a pulpit, Jesus merely opens his arms and says, “Come.”
I am stunned by Jesus’ opening words of worship. Christ’s worship is stunning in directness. Jesus cuts to the heart of worship – knowing the Father – along with the means to such life – through him: “Come to me, the Christ.”
At the end of v. 25 Jesus praises the Father for revealing these things – this knowledge which leads to repentance and embracing the freeing grace of the Kingdom of God – to little children. I am delighted to be included in such humble company because I crave the rest he offers, and am delighted simple belief to the only requirement beyond my need. But I need the rest he promises. I need a new way to live so the rest is discoverable day by day. I turned to this passage this summer because I was weary. Bone-weary. Spiritually bone-weary. Since November of last year, I have been spiritually bone-weary wrestling with disappointments and sin, pastoral concerns and disciplinary actions. With each revelation, I was reminded of my own sin.
Having just returned from our rustic cottage in Canada I am reminded of one of my “privileged” duties: shoveling out the outhouse. As the stench fills my nostrils, I consider the vile odor my sins as they rise before the Throne of our Heavenly Father. And when I consider the incongruity of this smell with the aroma of Christ, I am overwhelmed by such extravagant grace Jesus offers which can expunge the reek of my life. And I pray that my Lord may give me a quick heart to repent and forgive that he may with equal quickness restore me and his truth be glorified in me.
It is this invitation which beats all of my expectations. How about you? Do you still carry mis-expectations of Christ which blind you to come to him? And should your eyes see beyond this, can you see a visions for Tenth – that all who come here will be drawn to the Throne of Grace by Christ’s invitation with the promise of rest and restoration. We’ll talk more about it next week, but right now, in Christ’s name, let me extend his invitation to the Table upon which are the symbols of Christ’s grace.
1 "Mui, Ylan Q. (31 August 2009). “Blue Chip, White Cotton: What Underwear Says About the Economy”. The Washington Post.Retrieved 1 February 2011. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men's_underwear_index#cite_note-1. Retrieved August 17, 2014"
2 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 189.
3 the blind receive sight (cf. 9:27–31; Isa. 29:18; 35:5), the lame walk (Isa. 35:6; cf. Matt. 15:30–31), lepers are cured (Isa. 53:4; cf. Matt. 8:1–4), the deaf hear (Isa. 29:18–19; 35:5; cf. Mark 7:32–37), the dead are raised (Isa. 26:18–19; cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:1–44), and the good news is preached to the poor (Isa. 61:1; cf. Matt. 5:3; Luke 14:13, 21). Jesus’ deeds gave sufficient proof of who he was and that the prophesied time of salvation had come (“the year of the Lord’s favor”; Isa. 61:1; cf. Isa. 62:1). [Ibid., 188–189.]
5 G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 38.
6 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 1, Rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001), 92.
7 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Third Ed., The New Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001), 9.
8 Johnny Walker with Jim DeFlice, Code Name: Johnny Walker (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2014).
9 Johnny Walker with Jim DeFlice, Code Name: Johnny Walker (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2014), p. 170.
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