Each of the Gospels shows that after a few months of initial enthusiasm for Jesus and His ministry, opposition began to grow so that at last Jesus was rejected by both the leaders and the people and was crucified. This was a complex period historically, and a variety of factors were at work. In Luke the opposition begins with Jesus’ first teaching in Nazareth, his home town (Lk.4.16–30). Matthew records objections to Jesus’ healing of the paralytic and later two blind men (Mt.9.3, 34). Each of the Gospels unites in saying that much of the opposition came from the Pharisees and others who objected to Jesus’ disregard of their tight rules for observing the Sabbath (Mt.12.1-14; Mk.2.23-3:6; Lk.6.1-11; Jn.5.1-16).
In chapters 11 and 12, Matthew begins to describe this rising opposition. What holds these chapters together? The best way to hold them together is by asking the critical question: “Is Jesus really God’s king?” The kingdom of God has been Matthew’s theme from the beginning: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” He is presenting Jesus as the King of that kingdom. But is Jesus really God’s king? In these chapters we find three varying assessments of him.
John had identified Jesus as the Messiah (11.1-19). He had received an identifying sign from heaven. But now he sends disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
The masses had been exposed to John, and now they were being exposed to Jesus. But they were critical of both teachers – they would not believe (vv.20-30). Jesus compared them to pouting children who would not take part either in a happy game or a sad one. Here he foretells a final terrible judgment on the cities of Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because the people would not repent of their sin and believe on him.
Earlier the Pharisees had slandered Jesus by saying that he drove out demons “by the prince of demons.” In this section they go beyond mere slander and begin to plot “how they might kill” him – they now launch a formal opposition.
In chapters 11 and 12, Jesus deals with each of these objections in turn and in appropriately different ways. In the beginning Jesus’ overall response seems to have been a change in tactics since from this point on He restricts His most serious teaching to the disciples only while speaking to the rest of the people in parables or mysteries. Jesus’ parables are introduced for the first time in chapter 13, following Matthew’s account of the beginning of the people’s opposition.
Matthew starts with John the Baptist and his doubts. There is a link to the previous verses, particularly to Matthew 10.41, since the story about John is an illustration of Jesus’ words about receiving a prophet because he is a prophet. It happens in two ways. Some would not receive John, who came as a prophet. But also, John needed to receive Jesus by faith himself even though Jesus did not seem to be living up to what John had expected him to do.
An old interpretation of these verses considers doubt to be inconsistent with John’s role as Christ’s forerunner. Noted commentators such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and, more recently, John Ryle have argued that John’s question was asked not for his benefit but for the sake of the disciples. But Matthew says the question was John’s, and it is not strange that John should have had doubts about Jesus. The greatest characters of the Bible all had weak moments, and there is no reason to think that John was any less subject to human weaknesses than figures such as Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, and others.
There are several reasons why John the Baptist may have doubted. First, he was in prison. He was cut off from what was happening. According to Josephus, who writes about John in his Antiquities, Herod had imprisoned John in the fortress of Machaerus (modern Khirbet Mukawer), about five miles east of the Dead Sea, a particularly hot and desolate environment. So, although John must have had contact with his disciples, he was still sidelined, and this must have been excessively difficult for a man of his free temperament. Many a leader has languished in isolation who was at one time fearless in public speech and action.
Second, John must have been drained emotionally. It is difficult not to compare John to Elijah, whom he resembled in many ways. Elijah had denounced the sins of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, just as John had denounced the sins of Herod and his stolen paramour Herodias. Drained from his encounter, Elijah had fled to the desert wanting to die. Would John have been any less exhausted after his demanding ministry?
Finally, Jesus was not living up to what John had expected or prophesied. This is the most important reason. John may have been emotionally drained, but he was no weakling, and he knew what he had been sent to do. He had announced the coming of the Messiah and had rightly pointed out that He would exercise a ministry of judgment. John had said, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” That is what the Messiah was expected to do. It was written down that way in the Bible. But what did John observe? On the one hand, Jesus was clearly doing good, apparently empowered by the Holy Spirit, but where was the prophesied ministry of judgment?
What do you expect? Is Jesus Really God’s King? Do you acknowledge that you are made in His image – or are you trying to make God into your image?