For the Love of God, Volume 2/July 1
From Gospel Translations
Joshua 3; Psalms 126—128; Isaiah 63; Matthew 11
WE SHOULD NOT IGNORE THE OBVIOUS: in this passage (Matt. 11:2-19) John the Baptist is discouraged.
He is discouraged because Jesus is failing to meet his expectations. John has announced someone who would not only baptize people with the Holy Spirit (3:11), but who would come in stern judgment, separating wheat and chaff and burning up the latter (3:12). Yet here is Jesus, preaching to vast crowds, training his own followers, performing miracles—but not obviously imposing judgment on the wicked. John the Baptist languishes in prison for the fiery way he denounced Herod’s illicit marriage. Why hasn’t Jesus denounced Herod and then, utilizing his astonishing power, imposed judgment?
Jesus answers (Matt. 11:4-6) by describing his ministry in terms of two crucial passages from Isaiah—35:5-6 and 61:1-2. But John the Baptist certainly knew the Isaiah scroll very well. Elsewhere he himself quotes from it (3:3, quoting Isa. 40:3). So if Jesus is going to refer to these passages (John might well ask himself), why doesn’t he also mention the judgment theme in the same contexts? After all, Isaiah 35:5-6 mentions not only the lame leaping and the like, but “divine retribution” as well. Isaiah 61 talks about preaching good news to the poor, but it also anticipates “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2; see meditation for June 29). Why does Jesus mention the blessings without the judgments?
It is as if Jesus is saying, in effect, “John, look closely: the promised blessings of the kingdom are dawning. What I am doing fulfills Scripture exactly. If the judgment has not yet dawned, it will come, but not yet. Right now, focus on the good that is being done, and let it confirm that I am who I say I am.”
Jesus takes three more steps to defend John, of which I briefly mention two. (a) He warns those who were listening in on this conversation not to suppose for a moment that John is really some fickle reed, swayed by the winds of harsh circumstances, and still less someone interested in feathering his nest (11:7-8). Far from it: (b) John’s role in redemptive history makes him the one who announces the coming of the Sovereign, pointing him out, in fulfillment of a Malachi prophecy (11:10). That is what makes John the Baptist the greatest man born of woman up to that point—greater than Abraham or David or Isaiah—for he actually announces Christ and points him out explicitly. That is why the least in the kingdom, this side of the cross, is greater still (11:11): you and I point out who the Messiah is with even more immediacy and explicitness. That is where our greatness lies.