Remarks on Matthew 11

Matthew 11  •  24 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The chapter at which we are arrived is full of interest and importance; and specially, inasmuch as it is a kind of transition. And that which gives occasion for the Spirit of God to bring out and to illustrate the transition from the testimony to Israel to the new order of things that our Lord was about to introduce, is the fact that John the Baptist, in prison because of his own rejection, is now found in the exercise of his personal faith, responsibility, and patience. When he was simply fulfilling his prophetic office, none could be more unwavering than he in his testimony to Christ. But it is one thing for a man to preach the truth, another thing for him to enjoy it. And even if he feel the preciousness of what he teaches, there may be moments when faith is put thoroughly to the proof; and when the strongest may know what it is to be “cast down, though not destroyed.” Certainly this was the case with John the Baptist. It was not merely his disciples that were stumbled by his being in prison. Infidels ask now, If Scripture be truth, how is it that people do not receive it? Why is it not more widely spread? I do not deny that the bare geographical area which the profession of the truth covers is larger now than it once was. But we know that at first there were many tens of thousands that followed the name of the Lord Jesus in one city alone; and the moral weight and power was infinitely greater, for they walked in superiority to the world. Still the great difficulty comes up again, and we find that what works in the mind of a skeptic may be found more or less disquieting the believer, because the believer has got that which is of nature in him still. Doubtless he has life everlasting in Christ, but he has also in him what Scripture calls the flesh; and the flesh is always an unbelieving thing. The natural mind of man never has confidence in God. Hence it came to pass that, blessed as John the Baptist was, yet does he send his disciples with the query, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Here we find the great difference between the boldness of language that a man might hold in his office as a prophet, and what he now uses when everything is dark around him. I do not mean that he doubted thoroughly, but there seems to have been a question that passed through his mind, and a confirmation of faith was wanted: a most impressive instance of the solemn truth that there is no good thing in man. No doubt the most blessed things have been wrought by man, but they have been wrought because the power of Christ has rested upon him. But here we have this favored and otherwise faithful man putting such a question, the very last that we might have expected. We may try and make excuses for it, but it remains true and plain that John the Baptist, instead of answering with the confidence of faith, if it were the question of his disciples, has to send some of them to Jesus, saying, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another'?” The Lord replies, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see, &c. And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” Our Lord's answer shows that it was not the disciples merely, but John himself that was shaken. These are the two parts of Christ's ministry—His words and His works, “those things which ye do hear and see,” the word always having the higher place of the two; the works being what would appeal rather to the senses, whereas the word of Christ is that which deals with the heart all conscience by the Spirit of God. Still they were to go and tell John what they heard and saw. And therein we have what the Old Testament had predicted as signs and effects of the Messiah's power. We have not, I believe, one case of curing the blind before Christ came. It was a miracle which, according to Jewish tradition, was reserved for the Son of David. He it was who, according to Isa. 35, was to open the eyes of the blind. The Lord puts the blind receiving their sight as the first outward miracle, to indicate that He was really the Christ that was to come. And what the Lord puts last of all, but not the least weighty, is, that “the poor have the gospel preached to them.” What is it but a testimony of the exceeding tender mercy of God, that while the gospel is intended for all, if there be any difference, it is more especially for those that know misery, trial, contempt, in a selfish world? The Lord adds, “Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” A remarkable word. It was easy to be stumbled then. What a word of warning! A man sent from God for a witness, that all might believe in Christ. And here, when this very man is put thoroughly to the test, the Lord has to bear witness to him, instead of his bearing witness to the Lord! How constantly do we see man breaking down when he is thus weighed; but what a blessed thing that we have such a God to deal with man, if He be only counted on! Unbelief is the only key to so extraordinary a state of things; and this it is which was at work in the question put to our Lord by John. But when these messengers departed, the Lord shows His tender compassion and regard for him, and begins to vindicate the same John who had shown such feebleness under snaring and protracted hope. He asks them, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” A hard judgment might have concluded it was but “a reed shaken with the wind,” when John sent disciples with the question just put. But no; the Lord will not allow it. He maintains the honor of John. He has given a little rebuke to John privately by his disciples; but before the multitudes He clothes kin with honor. “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” It is in courts that you look for the grandeur of the world. “Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet;” because John had a peculiar place that no prophet had assigned to him—to be the immediate forerunner of the Lord, a contemporary herald of the Messiah Himself. John not only was a prophet, but the prophets prophesied of John; and the Lord says of him, “Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” But mark this word, for it is one of the most striking in this transitional chapter. “Notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What is the meaning? Our Lord first says that among those born of women, there had not risen a greater than John the Baptist, of course, Himself excepted. Here, then, He is speaking of John, not as compared with Himself, but with others. He was the greatest born of woman; “notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It means clearly that there was a new order of things commencing, in which the privileges that God's sovereign grace would confer (for it is not a question of man's forming his own scheme about these things) would be so great, that the least in the dispensation about to open would be greater than the greatest in all the past. Of course this is not as to their faith or as to anything in themselves; neither does it mean that a weak believer now is greater than a man of mighty faith in times past; nor that some poor soul, anxious and troubled about his acceptance, is in a healthier state than those who could rejoice, like Simeon, in God their Savior. Yet the Lord does say that the greatest of those gone by is less than the least now. “He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” i.e., than John the Baptist.
“The kingdom of heaven” never means heaven: they are different ideas as well as expressions. “The kingdom of heaven” always means that which, while it has' its source in heaven, has its sphere over the earth. It may be applied, as it often is, to what is going on now; or, as sometimes, to what will go on when the Lord comes in glory, and brings His rule in a manifested form to bear upon the earth. But the kingdom of heaven always supposes the earth as the scene upon which the privileges of heaven are made known. The Lord Jesus sees Himself rejected; but God, in His grace, turns the fact of the rejection of Jesus to the discovery and introduction of far greater blessing than if Jesus had been received. Supposing the Lord had been accepted by man when He came, He would have blessed man, and kept him alive upon the earth: He would have bound the devil, and brought in countless mercies for the creature in general. Still, what would have been all that without the vindication of God in the matter of sin? Neither moral glory nor supreme love would have been shown as they now are. For what could it be more than divine energy barring out the power of Satan? A mere though all-powerful medicine, or remedial measure, staying the power of evil and death in the world? But the death of Christ is, at once, the height of man's wickedness and the depth of God's goodness; for in the cross the one proved his utter hatred and iniquity, the other His perfect, holy love. It was man's unrighteousness that put Him there—it was God's grace that brought Him there; and Christ risen from the dead takes His place as the beginning, the Head of a new creation, and displays it in His own person now, as a matter of faith to them that believe; puts them, while they are still in this world, struggling with the devil, into this place of blessing; sheds the joy of redemption into their hearts, and fills them with the certainty that they are born of God—their sins being all forgiven—and that they are only waiting for Him to come and crown the work of His love, when they shall be raised from the dead and changed into His glory. It is true to faith now, and will be true to sight by and by; but it is true always from the time it was introduced. It began with Christ's ascension into heaven, and it will terminate by Christ's descent from heaven, when He will bring in this power of the kingdom over the earth. What, then, has the least believer got now? Look at saints of old. John the Baptist was resting upon promises. Even he, blessed as he was, could not say, My sins are blotted out, my iniquities are all gone. Before the death and resurrection of Christ, saints could only, but with joy, look forward to this certainty, and say, It will be blessed indeed! They might be sure that it was God's intention, but it hung upon a promise; it was not an accomplished thing. And, after all, if you were in prison, you would know the difference between a promise to get out and the fact of your liberty when you were fairly out. That is just the difference. John the Baptist could not say, nor could the most advanced saint say, before the death of Christ, My sins are all gone; though he would and ought to say, I am quite sure, that, when Messiah comes, everlasting righteousness will be brought in, and an end of sins will be made. But here comes in the wonderful thing, that Messiah is come, and has done the work. The atoning work is done; and the consequence is, that all who believe are entitled to say, I have not got one single particle of sin upon me in the presence of God.
This is not true of some Christians in particular. I say it about every Christian, and I want every Christian to say it about himself; that is, that every Christian should take the place that God gives him in Christ. And what would be the effect of this? Christians could not walk with the world in the way they do; nor could they use the language, either, that we so constantly hear taken up.
What I find, then, in the word of God is this: there was a new dispensation about to open, in which the very least is invested with privileges that the greatest could not and ought not to possess before. And this, because God sets infinite value upon the death of His Son. It is not only that there is the promise of it, blessed as that was; but God puts the greatest possible honor upon the death of Christ. And, therefore, as with an earthly sovereign it is the custom to put particular honor upon an epoch of special joy to himself; if man can do that about the birth of a child, still more how simple and according to what one may expect from God is it that He should attach peculiar glory to that work of Christ by which redemption has been accomplished—to the death of His beloved Son? Now, everything is given; and God can invite souls not to forget their sins, or turn away their eyes from them; but looking at them fairly and fully, before the cross of Christ, He can call upon them to say, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth from all sin.” That is the foundation of Christianity. Knowing this, we must see how entirely evil is the place of a priest now; that is, of one particular person being put in a position to draw near to God for others. Every Christian is a priest-man, woman, or child, it does not matter. All Christians are not ministers. That is another thing. Ministry and priesthood, though so often confounded, have not one idea in common between them. God gives this peculiar privilege now, that every believer is a priest of God; that is, he is entitled to draw near into the holiest of all, with all sin gone, all his iniquities purged away, so that he may be thoroughly happy in the presence of God while he is upon earth. I have given but a small part of the privileges of the least in the kingdom of heaven now. And remember this all the grand prerogatives of Christianity are common privileges. One man may preach, and another may not; but that is not speaking about the privileges of the kingdom. There was something that belonged specially to Paul, as the servant of' God, which others did not possess; but any gifted one might preach, and there might not even be life in the soul. Caiaphas might testify, and Balaam too, and utter true things; and Paul is willing to take such a place, and shows that he might preach to others, and yet, if regardless of holiness, be himself a castaway. Nothing can be more simple. But this has nothing to do with the blessings I have been speaking of as the portion of believers now.
The privileges of the kingdom are now the universal heritage of the family of faith; the least of them is greater even than John the Baptist. Great efforts have been made to shake the meaning of this verse. It has been taught that the least in the kingdom of heaven is Jesus Himself! Jesus, of course, in His humiliation, in His going to the cross. But what an utter ignorance of the mind of God is there manifested by such a remark! For the kingdom of heaven was not yet come. It was preached, but it was not yet actually set up. And Jesus, far from being “the least” in that kingdom, was Himself the king; so that it would be derogatory to His person to call Him even the greatest, not to speak of “the least,” in the kingdom. It would be want of reverence, as well as of intelligence, to say that He was in the kingdom at all: and perhaps it would be more true to say that the kingdom was in Him; for it was morally, and as far as divine power went, in the person of our Lord. “If I,” He says to the Jews, “cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” It was arrived in His person. He being the King, and having the power thereof, it was there in Him. But if you look at “the kingdom of heaven” as a state of things introduced into this world, Christ had to go up to heaven first: a rejected king, no doubt, but still, as such, to sit on the right hand of God and thereon the kingdom of heaven commenced. The kingdom was not actually established till Jesus went up to heaven. Then it began, first spiritually, as by and by it will shine in power and glory. Hence it is clear that in this chapter we stand upon the confines of the past dispensation, and the one that was about to open. John the Baptist is on the scene, as the last and greatest witness of that which was closing. Elijah was coming. But Elijah had come now in the person of John the Baptist. John was doing the moral work that was associated with Elijah's mission; preparing the day of the Lord, and making the way for Himself. I do not say that Elijah may not come another day, but that John was the then witness of Elijah's service. He was come “in the spirit and power of Elias:” and, as our Lord says a little after, “If ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Such he was to faith. Like the kingdom of heaven now, it is a testimony to the future kingdom when displayed in power and glory. John was to faith, then, what Elias will be by and by. The kingdom of heaven is to faith now what the kingdom of heaven will be to sight by and by. The Lord intimates that there is a dispensation of faith coming in, when the promises were not to be accomplished in the letter.
But just as John the Baptist was cast into prison—a tremendous trial for a Jew who was looking for a great prophet to usher in the Messiah in visible majesty so he says here, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” It has to be received by the hearing ear of faith. How extraordinary it must have appeared to Israel that the forerunner of the Messiah should be in prison, and the Messiah himself afterward nailed upon the cross! But before the outward glory comes, there must be the suffering—yea, and redemption effected. Hence, the least now who has this blessing of faith, who enjoys these astonishing privileges which the Holy Ghost now brings out as the gift of God's sovereign grace, is greater than John the Baptist. For it is God's doing and giving and ordering. Judgment is His strange work; but grace the delight of God's heart. It is His joy by Christ to bless the man that has not the smallest claim upon Him. And such is His work now. But what would be the effect of this among the Jews? Our Lord compares them to capricious people, who would neither do one thing nor another. If gladness is going on, they have no sympathy with it; neither have they with sorrow. John the Baptist called them to mourn. They had no heart for it. Then came Jesus, bidding them, as it were, rejoice at the glad tidings of great joy; but they heeded Him not. They liked neither. John was too strict, and the Lord too gracious, for them. They could not bear either. The truth is, man dislikes God. And there is no greater proof of his ignorance of himself than that he does not believe this. Whatever they might plead in the way of abuse of John the Baptist, or of Himself, “Wisdom is justified of her children.”
Accordingly He shows how wisdom was justified, positively and negatively. He began “to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not.” “Woe unto thee, Chorazin. Woe unto thee, Bethsaida. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works,” &c. What more solemn! They refuse the voice of heavenly wisdom, and the result must be, a judgment more unsparing than that which had of old made Sodom the monument of God's vengeance. Was there one place, one city, in the land more favored than another? It was Capernaum, where most of His miracles were wrought: and yet this very city should be brought down to hell. Even Sodom, the most notorious and depraved of all places, had not come under so fearful a sentence. The Lord never visits in judgment till He has exhausted all means to see whether things are as bad as they look. But when He does judge, who shall be able to stand? Thus should wisdom be justified, if I may venture so to say, by those that are not her children.
But now comes the positive part. “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” From “Woe, woe,” Jesus could turn round and say, “I thank thee, O Father.” Not that the events recorded here took place together. The whole scene about John the Baptist occurred long before the Lord alluded to the wise and prudent rejecting Him and the babes receiving Him. The Gospel of Luke occasionally gives precise marks of time, and shows that the Lord's reception of John's messengers was at an early period of His ministry, very shortly after the healing of the centurion's servant; whereas, His thanking the Father was after the return of the seventy disciples who were sent out on the final testimony, which is not mentioned in Matthew at all. The Holy Ghost in our gospel puts aside, in general, mere successions of time, and welds together events separated by months or years, provided they illustrate the great truth that it was His object here to bring out, viz., the true Messiah presented with adequate proofs, to Israel, but rejected; and this turned of God's grace to be the occasion of better blessings than if the Lord had been received. And while the solemn sight is before us of man's growing rejection, Jesus says, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (it is not now any hopes limited to the earth, but He is looked to as Lord of heaven and earth—the sovereign disposer of all things), “because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father.” I may be refused the throne of Israel; the Jews may reject, leaders despise Me; all this may be, but what is the result? Not merely what was promised to David or Solomon, but “all things are delivered unto me of my Father.” Where, when were such thoughts as these divulged before? Take the most wonderful prediction in the Psalms and prophets, and where do you get anything like them? It is clearly the rejected Messiah who, when man refuses Him, submits to it. They strip Him of His robe of Messianic glory, and what comes out? He is the Son of the Father, the Son of God from all eternity, the blessed divine Person who could look up and say, “Father.” Refuse Him in His earthly dignity—He only comes out in His heavenly one; despise Him as a man, and He is manifestly God.
“And no man knoweth the Son but the Father: neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” He is revealing the Father now. It is not merely that He is come to accomplish the promises of God, but He is revealing the Father—bringing souls into a deeper knowledge of God than was possible before. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Perfect grace—no restriction—no setting the Jew in the foremost seat of honor. But, “Come unto me all ye that labor.” Jew or Gentile, it matters not; do you labor? Are you miserable? Can you find no comfort? “Come unto me, all ye that labor,.... and I will give you rest.” It is without condition or qualification, if the needy but go to Him. “Come unto me.” That is the proof of the Father's drawing—that I go to Jesus. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” It is the Son of the Father in John; and Matthew here draws near, and we have the like freedom of grace. For grace is always found most full and free where the Son is brought out in all His glory. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Grace does not leave men to do as they list, but makes its object desire to do the will of God. So, immediately after saying, “I will give you rest,” He, our Lord, adds, “Take my yoke upon you.” Not the yoke of their fathers, but that of Jesus. God now reveals Christ, and the Son is revealing the Father. Therefore He says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” Mark the difference. In verse 28, it is, “Come unto me,... and I will give you rest.” There it is pure, absolute grace; but, “take my yoke upon you.... and ye shall find rest to your souls.” He is saying, as it were, Now you have got to obey Me, to be subject to Me, and the effect will be finding rest to your souls. When the sinner goes in his wretchedness to Jesus, the Savior gives him rest; yea, “without money and without price.” But if that soul does not follow on in the ways of Christ, he becomes miserable, and loses the comfort he had at first. Why? He has not taken Christ's yoke upon him. The terms on which the Lord gives rest to the sinner are, “Come unto me,” just as you are, “all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” The terms on which the believer finds rest are, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.” The Lord thus secures His dignity, and keeps up His moral government over His people. They are more disturbed than any, if not subject to Christ; they can neither enjoy Him nor the world. If I have got such a blessing as Christ, and yet am not bearing His yoke, God does not intend that I should be happy. All else is a false happiness. The only true enjoyment for our souls, now that we have got Christ, depends on taking His yoke upon us, and learning of Him, bound to Him as One that we have evermore to serve and to learn of.