NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part II (Con’t)
Verse 12: Since the time John the Baptizer came until now, God’s kingdom has been meeting strong resistance; yes, aggressive people have been trying to stop it in its tracks.
In this we see a two-fold period of reluctance and resistance to the new covenant that would be brought by the arrival of the Messiah. The term “until now,” refers to all that had gone on before the Anointed One came to announce that the Kingdom of God was coming. Since this teaching of Jesus occurred early on in His ministry, He must be pointing to past resistance to the coming of Messiah. Herein lies the subtlety of what Jesus was saying. For most Jews, the Messianic age would provide freedom from any and all foreign powers holding sway over the Holy Land. But from the time of the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar to the arrival of the Romans, the Jews had lived under occupation forces coming both from within and without the country. So the resistance Jesus is speaking of may be better understood as longstanding doubt about any real Messiah.
In other words, even the most dedicated Jew had began to despair that the Messiah would come at all. Then in that same term “until now,” we see the resistance that John the Baptizer and Jesus met once it was announced that the Messiah was here. And that opposition was also based primarily on doubt and unbelief. However, we know that this skepticism and aggressive resistance would eventually become violent when they beheaded John the Baptizer and crucified Jesus of Nazareth on the cross.
An early church Bishop had this to say about the strong resistance that came against the arrival of the messenger for the Kingdom of God: “Every prophecy is fulfilled. The spirit of Elijah is sent in advance through John’s words. Christ is proclaimed to some and acknowledged by others. He is born for some and loved by others. The violent irony is that His own people rejected Him, while strangers accepted Him. His own people speak ill of Him, while His enemies embrace Him. The act of adoption offers an inheritance, while the family rejects it. Sons refuse to accept their Father’s last will, while the slaves of the household receive it. This is what is meant by the phrase ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.’”1
We see this more clearly in what Jesus now has to say about this resistance:
Verse 13: Before John the Baptizer came, the Law of Moses and all the prophets told about the things that would happen.
This was an amazing statement about John the Baptizer by our Lord, especially with the high regard and reverence the Jews had for Abraham, Moses and their venerable prophets. They said of them: “With every single word that went forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the whole world was filled with spices [fragrance].”2 It is extremely helpful that Jesus describes the state of things as He sees them at that point in His ministry. Until John the Baptizer started preaching repentance, and Jesus the Messiah arrived, all of the prophesies about His coming were known. But since the time of Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah and the advent of the Messiah, prophesies had ceased and were restricted to the time they were made and for limited purposes.3 According to Bible chronologists, from the time of Malachi until Jesus came was some 400 years of silence.
It can be safely said that although there were many Jews who hoped the Messiah would appear during this time because of their suffering, others turned away from their faith and their apprehension caused many of them to look for the world-to-come Jews and reject Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah.
So instead of the announcement of John the Baptizer and the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth receiving a joyful and excited welcome, they were both given a cold shoulder and ridiculed for the claims they made. In addition, many of the Rabbis believed that all these prophecies concerning the Messiah would apply only when that moment came for His arrival to set Israel free. Since this did not seem to be the theme of John the Baptizer’s preaching nor the subject of Jesus teaching, they rejected what they heard.
One Rabbi surmised that since goodness and prosperity would accompany the Messiah’s appearance, then why are the poor still around?4 Others concluded that based on Deuteronomy 15:11, this implied that poverty would continue up to the Messianic era and then be erased. This same Rabbi goes on to state: “All the prophets prophesied only for the Messianic age.”5 In other words, all that was scheduled for the world to come, that the “eye has not seen” would be for those who wait patiently for the Messiah to appear.
Since these critics of John the Baptizer and Jesus had seen nothing to convince them that the world-to-come had arrived, it was easy for them to dismiss the two as impostors. One Rabbi even went so far as to say: “There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah.”6 While other Rabbis disagreed, it still signaled there was a segment of Jewish society that did believe, and made the task for John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth even harder. But what they didn’t know, was that both these holy men and instruments of God were foretelling that the day would come when everything they dreamed about the Messianic arrival would go up in flames as the Temple crumbled before their eyes.7 It is important to notice, from that day to this, no prophet has risen in Israel who added one word to the prophecies of the Messiah.
So the disagreement between the Rabbis mentioned before gets wider and wider as they continue to look to the future, when in fact He has already come. But I don’t think that Jesus meant for what He said to be taken as far as some would do in completely dismissing what the Jews said and understood about how God spoke and what He said, as one church father indicated: “So, too, it will be no speech of the Father to the Jew: ‘Thou art always with Me, and all Mine are thine.’ For the Jews are pronounced ‘apostate sons, begotten indeed and raised on high, but who have not understood the Lord, and who have quite forsaken the Lord, and have provoked unto anger the Holy One of Israel’”.8 So Jesus leaves it up to His listeners to accept or dismiss what He was saying.
Verse 14: And if you believe what they said, then John the Baptizer is Elijah. He is the one they said would come. So you people who hear this, listen closely!
The coming of Elijah was no surprise to the Jews. After all, long after Micah made his prediction a Jewish scribe echoed the same promise around 180-175 BC: “At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob”.9 Moses and Elijah were important to the Jews for several reasons, but one of them was their shared experience of ascension. Said the Rabbis: “Did not Moses and Elijah ascend to Heaven? Is it not in fact written, ‘And Moses went up unto God?’10…But is it not written, ‘And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven?’11”.12 This may put new light on why Peter thought they should build three tabernacles on the mountain after Jesus, Elijah and Moses spoke to each other during the transfiguration.13
We also find throughout Jewish literature where Rabbis tell of having spoken to the spirit of Elijah and were able to ask him questions. In one case, Rabbah ben Abbuha encountered the spirit of Elijah and said to him: “Which of these reasons prompted Esther to act as she did? Elijah replied: All the reasons given by all the Teachers and all the Expounders’.14 In another instance, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi met Elijah’s spirit standing by the entrance of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s tomb and asked him: “Have I a portion in the world to come?”15
So Jesus knew He was speaking to people who accepted that Elijah could appear and speak to people. Yet, even though John the Baptizer proclaimed the coming of the Anointed One, his message was mainly to Jews before the crucified and risen Messiah would send out apostles to tell the whole world. According to Jesus’ own words, no human ever born of the flesh has ever risen to the stature of John the Baptizer in bringing the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Yet, the most insignificant Christian having been born of the Spirit is greater in the kingdom of heaven than John the Baptizer because of their mission to save the world.
Jesus then goes on to explain why: It’s not because John the Baptizer will be left out of the kingdom; it’s not because John the Baptizer was not anointed to preach the good news; it’s not because John the Baptizer did not fulfill God’s will for his life. It was because up until John the Baptizer’s coming the kingdom of God had little chance of advancing and being accepted because it’s concept of salvation by faith were rejected under the Law. But now, every born again believer will be able to advance the kingdom significantly and its acceptance under Grace.
This is significant because as Job says, “We are all human beings. Our life is short and full of trouble. Our life is like a flower that grows quickly and then dies away. Our life is like a shadow that is here for a short time and then is gone. So God, do You need to keep an eye on something so small?”16 But while this effort to spread God’s grace in His kingdom is momentous, it hasn’t been easy. Our Lord points out that many have been trying to force their way in. But this has been no surprise to God, He knew it all along. As a matter of fact, God used the prophet Malachi to announce it, “Remember and obey the law of my servant Moses. I gave those laws and rules to him at Mount Horeb. They are for all the people of Israel. Look, I will send Elijah the prophet to you. He will come before that great and terrible time of judgment from the Lord.”17
But the question is, will they believe what they’ve heard. Our Lord echoes the thoughts from Ezekiel: “They are people who refuse to obey, so they may not listen to you. But even if they don’t stop sinning, at least they will know that there is a prophet living among them.”18 This may have been because Jesus felt compelled by what God also said to Ezekiel: “This is what the Lord God says ….’ They may not listen, and they may not stop sinning, but you must still tell them my message.”19
What a wonderful commission this is to us today. Sometimes we feel let down and become discouraged because we don’t see the response we are expecting for the time and effort we take in sharing God’s Word. But the good Lord will not judge us based on how many responded to what we said. That work is up to the Holy Spirit. But He will judge us on the basis of our faithfulness to His calling. So, as the great Prime Minister of Britain said to the people of England during the height of the second world war: “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!
1 Hilary: Commentary on Matthew, 11:7
2 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 88b
3 Ibid., Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 34b
4 Ibid., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 63a
6 Ibid., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 99a
7 Ibid., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 12a
8 Tertullian, On Modesty (De pudicitia), Ch. 8, Of the Prodigal Son
9 Wisdom of Sirach (Book of Ecclesiasticus) Ch. 48:10
10 Exodus 19:3
11 II Kings 2:11
12 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sukkah, folio 5a
13 Luke 9:8
14 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Masekhet Megillah, folio 15b
15 Ibid., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 98a
16 Job 14:1-3
17 Malachi 4:4-5
18 Ezekiel 2:5
19 Ibid 3:15