The title of this post is a paraphrase of the question that is posited by Jesus Christ to those around him after John the Baptist (who is in prison at this time) sends his disciples to Jesus to try to determine whether or not Jesus is the Messiah that John had prophesied about (Matthew 11:2-3). Jesus provides proof to John’s disciples by describing his works so that they can return to John with confirmation of Jesus’ messiahship (Matthew 11:4-6). Jesus then poses this question to challenge the expectations of those around him about John the Baptist (and by implication himself).
” ‘What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.”
‘I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.’ “Matthew 11:7-11
In giving this response about John the Baptist I believe Jesus Christ is actually answering an additional question about himself and his identity as the Messiah.
The Scripture does not provide that Jesus said these things about John in response to a specific question from the crowds but my guess is that he knew the thoughts of those around him and that they had questions as to John’s identity because he did not match up with their expectations. Since John was the Lord’s messenger any questions of his credibility were also implicitly questions about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, so Jesus, in being John’s advocate, was also advocating for and defending himself. I think we can actually apply each of the questions Jesus poses about John to Jesus himself and the expectations that people had about him and so let’s take each of these in turn.
” ‘Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind?’ “Matthew 11:7
The people were probably comparing John to the hypocritical religious leaders of the time who were willing to compromise their beliefs in exchange for position and prestige in the world. However, John was not swayed by such things and the people should not expect a man of God to be swayed by the opinions of men or to attempt to curry favor with men. So too they should not expect Jesus to be swayed by the opinions of men, and I believe the steadfastness of Jesus is the reason that in Matthew he was earlier described as speaking with authority as compared to the other religious leaders of his time (Matthew 7:29).
” ‘Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces.’ ”Matthew 11:8
I think the people were expecting that the Messiah and anyone affiliated with him would be men of position and prestige, probably because they were expecting the reign of a political leader like King David instead of a poor wanderer like Jesus. Jesus corrects this assumption about John (and by implication him) by saying that their promised salvation would not come the way that they expected, that is it would not come at the hands of wealthy men and men of position and influence in the world.
” ‘Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and [John] is more than a prophet.’ “Mathew 11:9, 11
‘….I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.’ “
I believe this statement was made because some people were questioning in their hearts whether or not John was a prophet. After all if he was a true prophet then how could he not know that Jesus Christ was the Messiah? In affirming John’s status as not just a prophet but more than a prophet, that is, that of all who have ever lived no one was greater than John (not Abraham, not Job, not Noah, not Daniel…no one), Jesus is telling us something about the John (and by implication the elect) and about himself.
First, as to John, I believe Jesus’ statements are words of comfort to those listening and those reading. If even John the Baptist, the Lord’s anointed messenger, had doubts as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, then we should not be discouraged if we, as the Lord’s elect, suffer weaknesses in our faith. John’s doubts did not negate his standing with Christ Therefore, we should not judge another’s faith or doubt their position with Christ just because they have doubts. If John, the Lord’s anointed messenger (and cousin!), could not see clearly that Jesus was the Messiah then when we suffer doubts in our faith let us be encouraged that it doesn’t mean we are not chosen and loved by God.
Second, as the people perhaps did not recognize John as not just a prophet but more than a prophet because he was not what they expected him to be so too they perhaps did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah because he was not what they expected him to be. Yes Jesus, like John, was more than a prophet, he was the Son of God, as was later revealed to Peter (Matthew 16:13-16).
” ‘To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends,
“We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn.”
For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, “he’s possessed by a demon.” The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, “He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!” But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.’ “Matthew 11:16-19
Jesus summarizes the problem here. We come to God as if we bought tickets to a show and have certain expectations of what the performance will be like based on our own preconceived notions of God and religion. Jesus Christ and John the Baptist did not come to give us what we expect they came to give us what we need. Christianity is true religion and the packaging is not what’s important so much as the fruit it bears. We need to tear down our superficial ideas about God so that God can reveal himself to us. If we allow God to show himself to us and put into practice the commandments he gives us then we will see that the Word is true because it will be confirmed by its results.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.