"Rejoicing in Others' Deliverance"
Dec.16, 2007 Matt.11:2-15
Wacky Warnings: How Dense Can We Be?!
Joy is not the same as happiness or laughing at jokes, but here's some humour that shines a bit of light on our human condition. Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a group that seeks to curb abusive litigation, on Wednesday announced the winner of an annual competition that highlights wacky and obvious consumer product warnings in the States. This year's winner, for $500, was a label affixed to a tractor that said: "Danger: Avoid Death". Now, wouldn't you have thought that should be rather obvious? Second prize of $250 went to a safety label for an iron-on T-shirt transfer that read "Do not iron while wearing shirt". Guess that would make you pretty hot stuff! Honourable mention went to a letter opener warning that urged users to don protective gear. It read: "Caution: Safety goggles recommended." For a letter opener? Really, now! [source: http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2007/12/12/wacky-warnings.html]
We laugh at such warnings because it seems any person with common sense wouldn't need to be told that. It unfortunately highlights that people are capable of doing some stupid things; and, more to the point of the sponsoring organization, how great are the precautions manufacturers are taking to avoid potential lawsuits. Conniving lawyers know they can file ridiculous lawsuits against innocent product makers and blackmail them into cash settlements. So it's not just an indication of our IQ, but also our lack of moral integrity - people do plot with evil intent.
John the Baptist was all about warning people, but his warnings weren't wacky: he cautioned them about the very real peril that awaited them under God's judgment if they didn't repent. For their sins, they would deserve to burn like chaff rather than find a home with God. Commoners, religious leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees, John was no respecter of persons - he warned them all. He even warned the king. Mark 6(18) tells us John had been saying to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, "It's not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" - for the king had married Herodias, his niece, the wife of his half-brother Philip who was still alive. Herod seems to have had mixed feelings toward John the Baptist: Scripture says Herod "feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man"; he liked to listen to the wilderness preacher (Mk 6:20). But Herodias, the wife in question, couldn't stand the prophet; at her instigation Herod had John arrested, bound, and put in prison. The historian Josephus records this would be at Machaerus, a strong fortress of Herod's 10 miles east of the Dead Sea.
So, some warnings are wacky; others are warranted. Some would say John shouldn't have been surprised to be put in jail for criticizing the king; Josephus the historian suggests John was held high in popular opinion, and Herod's advisers might have suspected the Baptist of trying to incite a rebellion. Some would say John lacked common sense in choosing to warn Herod, he should have known better, it was a dumb thing to do. But the real failure is on the part of the king and his household, who ought to have been more concerned with upholding righteousness and justice than promoting their own wayward schemes. God's truth and laws are not popular with the wicked - whether schemers who devise malicious lawsuits over tractors and T-shirts today, or who jail an innocent prophet back then.
When Doubts Arise - Get the Big Picture
There was a time in John's ministry when he knew great joy because of his role of introducing Jesus to the world. He told his disciples, "The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice.That joy is mine, and it is now complete." (Jn 3:29) John knew he must become less and shift to the wings even as the Christ became greater, front and centre. But John may have not been prepared to spend a long time in prison without release. Matthew 11:2 says "John heard in prison what Christ was doing..." Experts say he'd probably been in prison about a year. That's a long time when you're behind bars - likely in much more constricted and abysmal conditions than today. Like the Jews of his day, John may have expected the Messiah to conquer the Roman occupiers and square things up with wicked rulers like Herod. Didn't Isaiah 61(1) predict the Christ would "proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners"? John's joy was starting to wane, even as doubts started to invade his heart.
V2 says John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are You the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Maybe John hoped to prompt Jesus to proclaim His Messiahship; perhaps he was gently trying to force Jesus' hand. The Kingdom banquet would certainly be better fare than prison gruel! Is there a subtle hint between the lines here, "Any minute now would be a good time for a revolution, Cousin - before I rot away in this jail altogether."
But Jesus didn't tell John what he wanted to hear. Luke (7:21) inserts that, "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind." Then, after John's disciples had witnessed these miracles, Jesus gave them an answer, Mt 11:4f: "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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."
On the one hand, Jesus is reassuring John the Baptist that his mission and struggles haven't been all for nought: John was basically right, the Messiah had arrived, people DID need to be prepared. In fact wonderful miracles were abounding - sick people and lepers cured, the dead raised. In Luke's account this event occurs right after Jesus raises the widow's son from the dead at the town called Nain (Lk 7:11ff). The poor were having good news preached to them: God's reign was impacting not just personal health but communities and society as well. All this confirmed the Old Testament predictions about the Messiah, such as Isaiah 35:5, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped;" and 61:1, "...the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted..." Jesus' actions, not just His words, proved He really was the Christ as John announced.
There's a lesson for us here when bad things happen and it seems, like John, we're stuck in an undesirable place. When doubts arise, sit back and ask God to show you once more the big picture, as he did for the Psalmists on occasion: recall how much God has done for you already, saving you, restoring you, blessing you in the past, maturing you in His ways. Drive the doubts away by counting your blessings. Review what you know God has accomplished in your life. Whether or not deliverance comes in the way you hope, the Lord's mercy has already been showered upon you in this life and for eternity, when you're in Christ as a believer.
Having pointed these things out, Jesus adds in v6, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me." Perhaps this is a gentle rebuke or exhortation to the Baptist to stand fast, even in prison. The Greek word is to 'scandalize', to cause to stumble, to offend; the lexicon defines it, "to see in another what I disapprove of and what hinders me from acknowledging his authority". Even though Jesus didn't exactly fit John's expectations and categories, Jesus urged him to not fall away or take offence. Just keep trusting, whether he was released from prison or not. When it seems we're getting the short end of the stick, we need to allow God in His sovereign wisdom to unfold His plan as He pleases and chooses - even if it doesn't make sense to us. Maybe it's not the way we would do it, but don't fall away!
Jesus resisted the temptation to become a political figure; that's not how His Kingdom would be inaugurated. In John 6, after the feeding of the 5000, the crowd is wowed, and start to say this must be the coming Prophet. But v15, "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." He wouldn't fit into the box of people's expectations or demands. His mysterious, sovereign plan was far better.
A Godly 'Man's Man': Tribute to a Prophet+
A lot must have been going on in the Lord's heart when he replied to John's disciples. By declining to proclaim His own Messiahship, refusing to bust the prison doors, Jesus was in a way consenting to John's death, as the Baptist would soon be beheaded in response to Herodias' request of the monarch when he was very pleased by her daughter's dancing. Was Jesus foreseeing this even as he dismissed John's messengers? Was He even perhaps also being reminded of His own future grisly fate? By comparison with the torture of flogging and the cross, beheading would be mercifully swift. No, as Jesus once told the Pharisees, the Kingdom was coming in a way that was more internal than to do with outward observation (Lk 17:20). His Kingdom was not of this world, else His captors would never have been allowed to be arrested (Jn 18:36). "Sorry, cousin - request denied."
But Matthew notes that as John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. I'd like to think He spoke loud and soon enough that the messengers would be able to take back to John what Jesus said. It amounts to a tribute to John, perhaps even an epitaph if you want to think about it that way; commentator Plummer notes "it may almost be called the funeral oration of the Baptist", for John would be dead before many more days had passed. Jesus says at least 5 positive-sounding things in honour of John. V9, "What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you..." (ONE) "And more than a prophet." (TWO) V10 Jesus identifies John as the Messenger God would send to prepare the way for the Messiah, predicted hundreds of years earlier in Malachi 3:1.(THREE) V11 contains high praise: "Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist..." Now that's quite a commendation! (FOUR) And v14, Jesus identifies him with "the Elijah who was to come"; this refers to Malachi 4:5, "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes." So there are FIVE solid ways Jesus validates John's ministry - that must have encouraged the prisoner.
Commentators note that John had all the great qualities of the true prophet: "vigorous moral conviction, integrity, strength of will, fearless zeal for truth and righteousness." (Bruce) He was a godly 'man's man': there was something John could rejoice in - that the Kingdom had come, and the Lord praised him in public without reservation.
Jesus adds a couple of word-pictures to accentuate His tribute to John: not just titles, but something to capture the imagination. V7, He asks the crowd if they went out into the desert to see "a reed swayed by the wind". So many people are influenced by others' opinion, pressured by fear of man, what others will think. In the movie Booky and the Secret Santa, all that Booky's friend's mother could think about was getting invited to the Christmas party at the Eaton's, so she could make contacts with 'important people'. Yet her preoccupation with climbing the social ladder actually made her contemptible to those such as the Eatons who could spot it easily. John the Baptist was not a reed swayed by public opinion.
In v8 Jesus proposes another contrast to spotlight the Baptist's character: "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." To say more would be walking on thin ice, for the contrast is obviously to Herod and those who sought to win his favour at court. John with his camel-hair attire was no fine-clothes fop, no courtier hanging around at the edges of the royal entourage that would have flattered, schemed, and manipulated to secure favours from His Majesty. Not even like well-dressed businessmen who try to woo prime ministers to be on retainer for industrial purposes by large sums of cash (say $300,000) in an envelope; who then disdainfully suggest parliamentary committees are simply out of their league when it comes to investigating the world of politics and backroom business dealings. No, that was not John's style, and Jesus respected him for it, praising him publicly.
John was truly a godly 'man's man'; there was none greater among those born of woman. Yet - here's an encouragement for you - Jesus adds, "Yet he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Take heart, Christian! As a believer in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, with His fruit and gifts unfolding in you, greater is your privilege and position than that of the greatest non-Spirit-filled person who ever walked the planet. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians (2:6f), "And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus."
From Guilt to Grace: Seize the Opportunity
John the Baptist signalled the end of an era, the transition from Old Covenant to New. In some ways he was a storm-trooper, part of the advance party of the Kingdom invasion. V12 has given translators and interpreters trouble because it's somewhat ambiguous (more than one possible meaning), depending whether the verb uses the middle or passive voice. NIV: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." NLT is similar for the first part, "the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it." NRSV uses the passive option, "...the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force." This sounds pretty significant - what does it mean? Is the Kingdom itself attacking, or under attack - or both?
Luke 16:16 has a similar saying in a different setting: "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." The contrast seems to be between the law- or conditional 'blessings and curses' dispensation up until John's time, and the grace-based good news which somehow is more accessible to people. The law of Moses provided a yardstick by which to gauge our rebellion and sinfulness, but it did not provide real assistance to change, it was powerless to help us to live righteously. In Paul's language, "through the law we become conscious of sin"; it couldn't "impart life"; it was given as a "guardian", "put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith"; but until then we were "held prisoners by the law, locked up..." (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:21,23, 4:1) Death, sin, and guilt reign under legalism.
But the good news of Jesus, heralded by the Baptist, is that we can repent ('meta' or change our 'nous' /attitude), confess our sin, and be washed clean, receiving grace through faith in Jesus due to His substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf. In John's gospel (1:16f) it's put this way, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another." That is good news that even the poor can avail themselves of. It's attacked by those who rebel against God, violent forceful bullies like Herodias who are used to throwing their weight around to get what they want. But the joy of knowing God is something they'll never know; consequently they attack those who pursue righteousness, be it John or Jesus or the person who brings a Bible into the classroom or workplace. The Kingdom brings joy even into the prisons where countless Christians today worship the Master opposed by powerful dictatorships. Christians who will keep worshipping with joy whether they're ever released or not.
Learning to Rejoice Despite Trials
When John's messengers brought the news back to him of their interview with Jesus, there wasn't much for him to rejoice in by way of deliverance. The prison walls were just as solid the next day. But perhaps John found himself encouraged by other factors: the great miracles his trusted messengers had seen with their own eyes; the certainty that Jesus was the One and the Kingdom was in fact "forcefully advancing" at that moment; the Lord's commendation and praise for His faithful servant as "a prophet PLUS". Even if he himself were not freed, John could rejoice in others' deliverance.
The early American missionary David Brainerd died at the age of 29 after suffering for over 7 years from tuberculosis, compounded by miserable conditions on horseback and in smoky huts, poorly fed as he ministered among natives in the Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in the 1740s. He struggled with almost constant sickness; recurring depression; loneliness; and immense external hardships - frequently lost in the woods, suffering from cold and exposure, having his horse stolen or poisoned or breaking a leg. But his joy in God has inspired many missionaries since then. Despite all the hardships, coughing up blood with the TB, Brainerd enjoyed a deep fellowship with Jesus that helped him keep going in advancing the Kingdom. In his diary he wrote:
"Such fatigues and hardship as these serve to wean me more from the earth; and, I trust, will make heaven the sweeter. Formerly, when I was thus exposed to cold, rain, etc., I was ready to please myself with the thoughts of enjoying a comfortable house, a warm fire, and other outward comforts; but now these have less place in my heart (through the grace of God) and my eye is more to God for comfort. In this world I expect tribulation; and it does not now, as formerly, appear strange to me; I don't in such seasons of difficulty flatter myself that it will be better hereafter; but rather think how much worse it might be; how much greater trials others of God's children have endured; and how much greater are yet perhaps reserved for me. Blessed be God that he makes (=is) the comfort to me, under my sharpest trials; and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror or melancholy; but they are attended frequently with great joy." [source: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Biographies/1461_Oh_That_I_May_Never_Loiter_On_My_Heavenly_Journey/] Let's pray.