Does Jesus fail to meet expectations in Matthew 11?

The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 3 in Year A is Matt 11.2–11, and as usual is rather truncated, so you might want to extend the reading by a verse or two before and after to be fair to its setting.

The chapter begins with the second of Matthew’s five summary statements that conclude the five focussed sections of Jesus’ teaching:

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities (Matt 11.1)

The summary phrase varies slightly each time, but consistently includes ‘When he had finished…’ (compare Matt 7.28, 13.53, 19.1, 26.1). That he is going on to ‘teach and preach’ hints that the following section will not be neatly focussed on Jesus’ actions, in contrast to the blocks of teaching, but will in fact mix Jesus’ actions and his teachings, before we come to the next focussed block of teaching on the nature of the kingdom in chapter 13. The last part of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 10 emphasises Matthew’s version of Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ theology: those going in Jesus’ name represent his presence, so that how people respond to Jesus’ disciples is indicative of how they respond to Jesus.

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt 10.40–42)

This idea is an essential hermeneutical key to the much misinterpreted ‘parable of the sheep and the goats‘ in Matt 25.31–46; the ‘little ones’ here correspond to the ‘least of these my brethren’ in the parable, being the disciples of Jesus who are in need of assistance.

In fact, this section is all about how people respond to Jesus and to his kingdom ministry. From Matt 11.20, Jesus denounces the towns and villages (‘cities’ translating πόλεις doesn’t communicate their reality as quite small settlements) who have not received him. By contrast, from Matt 11.25, Jesus celebrates God’s grace in revealing himself to the ‘little children’ who have received him. In between these two responses sits John the Baptist, who is not affected by scepticism so much as niggling doubts about who Jesus is and what he does. This range of responses (also found in chapter 12) is continued in the narrative in chapter 13, where Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom begins with the parable of the soils, each soil demonstrating a different response to the sowing of the seed of the word. Parabolic variety of response reflects the previous narrative variety of response.

This part of chapter 11 consists of four different sections, all connected by the theme of John the Baptist, but which do not sit together very well in terms of their narrative coherence:

  1. John’s question about Jesus (2–6);
  2. Jesus’ question about reactions to John (7–11);
  3. The epochal turning point of John’s ministry (12–16);
  4. The contrast between Jesus and John (17–19).

Parts of this section run parallel to Luke 7.19–35, and it is worth comparing the two. In the first section, Matthew is much more abbreviated than Luke, who adds in the explanatory comment that Jesus had cured and delivered many people, and restored sight to the blind (Luke 7.21). As elsewhere, the different gospel writers feel free to shape their narratives, but tend to converge together again when it comes to recording Jesus’ words; save for the slight adjustment of tense to take into account his explanatory comment, and Matthew’s grouping of the six things into three pairs using ‘and’, Luke records the same words of Jesus as Matthew does.

(There might be implications here in terms of synoptic relations—though it is hard to say in which direction the evidence points. On the one hand, Matthew might be construed as doing with Luke what he does with Mark, in cutting out extraneous detail and abbreviating his account—suggesting that Matthew was dependant on Luke. On the other hand, Luke might be construed as tidying up Matthew’s account, adding necessary detail, and making the whole thing flow better, thus suggesting Luke was dependant on Matthew, in agreement with Mark Goodacre’s argument about editorial fatigue.)

Although Matthew has identified the ministry of John more closely with the ministry of Jesus than the other gospels, he has already suggested that there is some tension between John’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus in relation to the question of fasting: where Mark and Luke note ‘people’ raising the question of why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast, in Matt 9.14 it is John’s disciples who ask the question.

John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas in Perea, and it would not be an unnatural place to harbour doubts about his own ministry and the ministry of Jesus. In the ancient world, prison was not a place of punishment so much as a place of holding whilst the prisoner awaits judgement and punishment, so John is awaiting his final fate.

In using language of ‘the one who is to come’ (Gk ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the coming-one), John is using the language of eschatological expectation, and contributes to the synoptic idea that Jesus was one who was sent into the world by God, an idea more fully developed in John’s gospel. We are not told of the grounds for John’s questioning and uncertainty about the significance of Jesus’ ministry. One possibility might be that Jesus’ ministry did not have the political dimension that many might have hoped for—but there is no evidence at all to support this thesis. Another, more likely, possibility is that Jesus’ ministry did not appear to have the element of judgement that John had anticipated, and that he associated too much with the sinful whilst playing fast and loose with issues of purity. If Jesus could deliver people from the Evil One in his exorcisms, why could be not deliver the nation from evil men?

The identification of Jesus as the ‘stronger one’ which John had made in chapter 3 is apparently now less clear to him. His question is not hostile so much as uncertain, looking for confirmation of his previous insight. (R T France, NICNT, p 422)

This doubt is not fatal for John, as he still refers to the ‘deeds of Messiah’ in his question; in Matthew, Christos is a messianic title rather than functioning as a proper name, introduced with emphasis in Matt 1.1, 16, 17, 18 and forming the heart of Peter’s confession in Matt 16.16. This is the only other place where the title is used.

Jesus’ answer should be understood to refer to his teaching as well as his actions, since he refers to ‘what you hear and see’, and he alludes to two texts in Isaiah:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. (Is 35.5–6)

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Is 61.1)

These allusions work better within the narrative of Luke, since Jesus has already read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4, but Matthew also draws on other passages in Isaiah to emphasise that Jesus’ coming is the fulfilment of the hoped-for coming of God to his people. As with John’s predictions in chapter 3, these passages look to both the coming of God himself, in person to his people and without intermediary (Is 35.4), and the anticipation of God’s anointed one making his presence felt.

Jesus’ concluding aphorism might naturally be translated ‘Blessed is the one who is not offended by me’. But the verb here, skandalizomai, has in Matthew a more specific sense of stumbling and failing to receive the kingdom or persist in its life—or even to reject outright the ministry of Jesus. Your sinful eye can cause you to thus ‘stumble’ (Matt 5.29); the plants with shallow roots ‘stumble’ and wither in the sun’s heat (Matt 13.21); and those in Jesus’ home town ‘stumbled’ and rejected him (Matt 13.57). Half of al the occurrences of this word in the gospels come in Matthew.

This does not tell us that John is falling outside the boundaries of the kingdom as such—but it does warn us that our frustration that Jesus is not doing what we expect him to do can be the source of serious spiritual problems.

In the next section, Jesus turns the tables: after John has asked Jesus a question about his ministry, Jesus now asks the crowds a question (or series of questions) about John’s ministry and their response to it.

The metaphor of a ‘reed swaying in the wind’ is a natural metaphor to use, since reeds would grow in the marshy banks of the Jordan, and John’s uncompromising message of repentance and judgement contrasted starkly with reeds flexing and giving way to each changing breeze. The language of ‘soft’ clothing uses the adjective malakos which we also find in 1 Cor 6.9; it suggests not just softness to the touch of clothing, but moral indulgence and compromise. The supreme irony here is that John sits in the dungeon beneath a palace where (morally) soft men wear (physically) soft clothing, whilst John contrasts in both his character and his attire.

John is a prophet—but he is the last and the greatest of prophets, because (in effect) he signals the end of the era of Old Testament prophecy before the beginning of the new era of the kingdom. Here Matthew includes Jesus’ mention of the prophetic word of Malachi, which Mark included (but Matthew did not) alongside the prophetic word of Isaiah which pointed to the meaning of John’s ministry in Mark 1 (contrasted with Matt 3).

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3.1)

But once again, the use of the OT is freighted with Christological significance: God no longer sends his messenger to prepare his own way, but the way of Jesus (‘you’ rather than ‘me’) who brings to Israel the presence of their God.

So despite being the greatest of the old prophetic age, John cannot compare with the age that is now coming in the ministry of Jesus. This is not to denigrate John’s ministry or his significance, but to signal that, in the coming of Jesus, we see the turning of the ages, and the beginning of God’s work to make all things new. In Advent, we look forward to this work’s completion when Jesus returns once more.

Thus, to the challenge not to stumble if Jesus does not meet our expectations, Matthew adds the challenge of both recognising Jesus’ significance, and living in anticipation of his return.

For video conversation about the issues here, join James and Ian:

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26 thoughts on “Does Jesus fail to meet expectations in Matthew 11?”

  1. Thank you as always.
    I wonder what you make of the fact that Jesus, here in Matthew (and also in Luke) does not mention release of the captive. That is the element that John would want to hear, and that is the element the readers / first audience will note is missing. The one who is a captive hears back the response which does not include the captive being released!
    It strikes me that this further “explains” John’s anxiety, more obvious in Luke’s version where these verses have been read by Jesus in their fuller form in ch4. I think it does push us to include a political dimension to the discussion, even if John was also concerned that Jesus seemed rather lax and slow with his winnowing fork.
    Existentially many of us can hear the overall message of Isaiah 61 with joy and hope but then also ask why it does not include us or a loved one, whose life is blighted. Many of us live with this inner and unspoken tension, unspoken in the sense we are not sure we are allowed to raise it.
    To me, simply to say that we have heard enough of the list to assume the final element is not sufficient; as we will discover / as we know, John is beheaded; the captive is not set free.
    I find this, and the parallel passage in Luke, sobering and challenging and a reminder that the gospels, and Jesus before them, promise much, and challenge for an obedience, while not providing a full understanding or set of answers.

  2. A little curiosity: rare coins from the time of Herod Antipas have on the reverse an image of a reed. It makes me wonder if “a reed blowing in the wind” is a phrase used of Herod and his indecisiveness. It fits with the reference to “a man dressed in fine clothes” … “in king’s palaces.”

  3. “—– he (John the Baptist) signals the end of the era of Old Testament prophecy before the beginning of the new era of the kingdom.”
    John is affirmed as”he who will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah” – the words of an angel to Zechariah (the father of John) [Luke 1: 17]. “He is Elijah who is to come” according to Jesus [Matt 11: 14]. Moreover, Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 to buttress his argument.
    Nevertheless, Jesus would have been familiar with the whole of Malachi’s work; not least [4: 5] ” Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet *before the great and awesome day of the Lord*.” So if John’s ministry signals the end of an era, then exactly what period is covered by the great and awesome day of the Lord? The death of John? The fall of Jerusalem? Or something else?
    The same proclamation is to be found in Joel 2:31 and quoted in Peter’s Pentecost sermon [Acts 2: 19/20] – the reference in Peter’s address is to “the last days”. So here we have an OT prophetic utterance updated and within the context of a New Testament setting; moreover with a powerful reference not only to the parousia of the Messiah but to the outworkings at the end of the present age! So why is this not true for other OT prophetic passages, whose fulfilment,while clearly focused through the ‘lens’ that is Jesus Christ, are no longer deemed to have a prophetic significance for the future in general and ‘Second Coming’ in particular? And if this is the case, on what *Scriptural*basis do we make our judgements?

    • Interesting Geoff, though the fact he views 666 as referring to a parody of the Trinity rather than specifically to the Emperor Nero makes me wonder about his other conclusions. For there to be a parody, 777 must have been commonly understood to refer to the Trinity in John’s time, but where is the evidence for that?

      • Hello Peter,
        666 symbolism /parody
        Number is symbolic or figurative of some spiritual or theological reality.
        666 represents the archetype man who falls short in every respect.
        Triple sixes are merely a contrast with the divine sevens in Revelation and signify incompleteness and imperfection.
        777 is the number of deity, and 66 falls short in every digit.
        Again, “three sixes are a parody of the divine trinity of three sevens, That is, though the beast attempts to mimic God, Christ and the prophetic Spirit of truth, he falls short of succeeding. ” (Beale, Revelation). This number does not identify the beast, but describes him. It refers to his character.
        From Kingdom Come, Sam Storms. (He also discusses in the book the Historical view that the number refers to an individual power or kingdom).
        I’ll leave it here as it is well off-topic.

        • All of these seems to me to depend upon viewing six hundred and sixty six in the decimal positional notation which originates in India and comes to use through the Arabs.

          Write the number as the Romans would have written it and the reasoning seems less well founded: DCLXVI.

          For Hebrew letters, one needs a final form mem, a samekh and a waw, and something similar can be done with the Greek alphabet, which I think some manuscripts have, rather than writing the number out in full.

          [If seven hundred and seventy seven is the Trinity, is seven the Father from which the others are derived? Or is the Father the seven hundred, the ‘head’ of the number?]

  4. If the church is supposed to be the Body of Christ, one wonders if John was to ask the same of the church, could the church give a similarly convincing response?

  5. On the 666 / 777 business – I pretty much stated that this was how I saw it (666 falling short – the imitation, which misses the mark) on an earlier thread. Ian Paul dismissed this out of hand and stated that he had dealt with this in his commentary on Revelation (I haven’t read the commentary).

    On the subject of the thread (Matthew 11), Matthew 11:4,5 gives John the Baptist all the assurance he needs; Jesus quotes Isaiah, in such a way that it would be very clear to John that the reference is indeed to Isaiah, pointing out that the miracles that Jesus is performing are precisely what one would expect when the words of Isaiah were being fulfilled.

    I understand that there are fine Christians within the Church, good and Godly people, who have appropriated a level of charismatic tendency, but for me it is always something that I approach with extreme caution – and I prefer to avoid churches where it is present. One very important reason is that the miraculous events (such as faith healings) look very much like the sort of things that were supposed to be signs pointing towards the once-for-all event, proving that Jesus was who he said he was.

    Matthew 11:4,5 becomes much weaker if such miracles become ten a penny among God’s people and aren’t specifically related to the once-for-all event.

    The other (of course) is that I worry about the psychology of those who think that the Lord has endowed them with special charismatic gifts (e.g. healing) – and even more about the psychology of those who are on the receiving end and I am concerned about whether
    the modern charismata represent following after the beast (which is the imitation of Christ and not the real thing).

    I do think that the passage in Revelation is important here

    • Well. Read Ians Commentary Jock.
      I got involved in charismatic stuff aged 15. I wanted to praise God but was tongue tied. I got prayed for and bingo, I started praising God in tongues. It opened me up to reading the Bible, which came alive. I have read a few commentaries and devotional books over the years. When I do I judge the work by whether I think the writer is ‘Spirit Filled’. As soon as I discover the writer is one or the other… well. Te feeling is the difference between, say, a four year old’s recounting his first sea /sand holiday and an adult trying to describe what paradise might be like. Both accounts are filled with wonders, but you know instinctively who has a grip on reality.
      I miss those days. But the gift is irrevocable. I only say this because I think you are missing out on Something. Like: ‘Something’ greater than Solomon’s wisdom…

      • Steve – yeah – I accept that I may be missing out. One of the participants here whom I particularly respect – Simon Ponsonby – turned out to be sympathetic towards the charismatic tendency – and hit the ceiling when I expressed my reservations (in undiplomatic terms).

        Fact remains though – in the context of this thread – Jesus sent back an answer to John the Baptist which only really made sense if the sign miracles he was performing were something that were in some sense unique and exceptional – otherwise how could the reply convince John the Baptist that Jesus really was the Messiah?

        So definitely (in my book) something to be taken with extreme caution.

      • I dont think God has said his gifts are ‘irrevocable’. The Holy Spirit chooses.

        And we must be careful not to think that speaking in tongues is for all Christians, when it is just one of many gifts. But he has clearly blessed you with that gift.


    • ‘One very important reason is that the miraculous events (such as faith healings) look very much like the sort of things that were supposed to be signs pointing towards the once-for-all event, proving that Jesus was who he said he was.’

      But Jock, surely the fact that the apostles (and others eg the 70) also did similar things negates such a view? If it had ‘just’ been Jesus, I would tend to agree, but it wasnt. And given Paul’s teaching about gifts, it seems clear to me they were continuing in the early church for the benefit of the church and evangelism. So that again negates your view. So I think they continue to this day, though of course can be abused by some or exaggerated by others, and I think sometimes if not often charismatic churches can have an unrealistic view of reality when it comes to God and this life. But Im a Christian who does not have any of the more obvious gifts such as prophecy, tongues etc but Ive yet to see a convincing argument from Scripture for the so-called cessationist view.

      Regarding 666, Im pretty much convinced that Ian and others are right to view it as a direct reference to Emperor Nero. The 616 cropping up in copies in Egypt is very strong evidence for that, which Ian has shown. I get the impression that those who refuse to accept what is in my opinion pretty obvious given John’s words tend to take a futurist view of Revelation and Jesus’ words for example in Matthew 24, thus not limiting much of what is said to the 1st century ie John’s time, when in reality most of it does indeed refer to that time period, not some far off future (even if the general message applies to any age). As I said where is the evidence that the Trinity was viewed as 777 at the time of John’s writing and therefore John was parodying it with 666, or that 6 is ‘incomplete’? It sounds like some interpreter has just decided on that whilst ignoring the facts of gematria.


      • Peter (and Steve) – ok – thanks for the recommend – then I’ll read it. (Of course, Ian Paul is going to think that his own commentary is good – if it has a couple of other recommends from two of the sane people commenting here then that is more convincing than an auto-recommend).

        My tendency is to take Revelation as pictures that describe the entire period between the first and second coming (and something as specific as the Emperor Nero doesn’t fit into that framework) – but am open to persuasion.

        I know that Matthew Henry (I read this a long time ago) thinks that the Mark of the Beast occurred during the time of Pope Martin (again – I didn’t really like this because it didn’t fit into the framework).

        • You seem to have decided on the framework and then interpreted the text based on that. I would suggest that is not how you should read it. The text comes first, not some supposed framework.

          • PC1 – quite the opposite – I start with the text, note the key ideas that are clear to any Christian (including those who don’t know much about the world during the time of the Roman empire) and take the framework from there.

            The theology should be clear to those who haven’t read up on the Emperor Nero.

      • Peter,
        Storms is an amillennialist, not a futurist, and marshals arguments, (including gematria in some detail) opposed to Nero being 666. Likewise, Beale, I think.
        Storms also sides with Bauckham so far as the legend of Nero’s return- a rise from the dead, and while “Nero constituted the most obvious and ready-at-hand embodiment of that antichristian power which opposes and persists in oppression and persecution of the church …and,,, John used Nero’s legend to paint his portrait of the beast… whether the number of 666 is to attributed to his name is yet to be determined…”
        Storms continues with arguments against Nero including the use of
        1 Historical view and use of Gemartria, Citing a well known example from a bit of graffiti found in the city of Pompeii which reads, “i love the girl whose number is 545”. Apparently the initials of her name were ph=500; mu=40;epsilon=5.
        2 Isopspehism (a new handle for Ian, perhaps?) which seeks to establish a connection between two different words or names by showing that their numerical value are the same. An example is given concerning Nero from historian Suetonius (Nero 39). It read, “a new calculation . Nero killed his own mother,” – The point is that the numerical value of the name “Nero” is the same as the phrase “killed his own mother.”
        3 Symbolic view- this I greater reduced in a comment above.

        But my, how we love our categories.

        • Geoff I think the view that John’s 666 specifically refers to Nero is pretty much proven. It’s a man’s number, and John says you can work it out. Which is exactly what gematria is. So it has been determined. The fact that the alternative 616 appears in some other copies of the text is exceedingly strong evidence as the only logical explanation for that is the scribes writing those copies used the alternate and perhaps more common spelling of Nero which calculates to 616 instead of 666.

          It’s not about categories or whether youre premillennialist, amillennialist or ambidexterous, it’s about the correct meaning of the text and what John was saying to his readers.

  6. For those commenting here who know Greek: the translation of Matthew 11:6 that Emil Brunner uses in his `The Mediator’ is `Blessed is he who is not offended in Me.’ I like this a lot. I’m wondering two things (a) how does this match up with the original Greek? and (b) how does this translation match up with the theology of Matthew 11?


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