In this chapter, John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Coming One. Jesus pronounces woe on unrepentant cities. He calls all those who work and are heavily burdened to come to him, and he will give them rest.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section, for discipleship.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. A pronunciation guide is also offered. But I keep things nontechnical.
The translation is mine. I do not offer it in competition with the excellent published ones or because I think mine is better or necessary. I wrote it to learn what the Greek text really says. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
Links are provided for further study.
The Messengers from John the Baptist (Matt. 11:1-19)
1 And so it happened that when Jesus ended his directions to his twelve disciples, he went on from there, teaching and preaching in their towns.
2 While in prison John heard of the works of Christ, and he sent word through his disciples 3 and said to Jesus: “Are you the Coming One, or should we expect someone else?” 4 In reply, Jesus said to them: “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5 the blind see again and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who does not fall away because of me.”
7 As they went, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in luxurious clothes? Look! Those wearing luxurious clothes are in the palaces of kings! 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even much more than a prophet. 10 This is the one of whom it has been written:
‘Look! I send my messenger before you,
Who prepares your road before you’ [Mal. 3:1; cf. Exod. 23:20]
11 I tell you the truth: among those born of women has not risen one who is greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God suffers violence, and violent people plunder it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied up to John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is about to come. 15 Anyone who has ears—let him hear!
16 To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market place who call out to the others, 17 saying,
We played the pipe for you and you did not dance!
We sang a sad song for you and you did not mourn!
18 For John neither ate nor drank and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look! A man who is a glutton and a wine-drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by its actions.”
Please note that most translations attach this verse to the previous pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-coh-pea) or section or unit of Scripture in Matt. 10:40-42.
“their towns”: the towns of his fellow Jews.
Let’s not skip over this transitional verse. Jesus had just instructed or ordered or commanded or directed (all sound translations of the one word I translated as “directions”) his disciple about how to do mission work, and now he went out to do mission work! I must say that he was fearless. Imagine what kinds of needs were awaiting him: unclean, dirty lepers, the blind, the deaf, the lame and even the dead. He was totally confident that he could, by the Spirit and the Father’s will, meet those needs. And he did not set up a big building and make people walk to it, but he went to the people. Also, his religious enemies often tagged along just to catch him in some minor flaw (as they perceived things).
He was physically fit and mentally strong and spiritually built up with faith in his Father. He was not lazy. He really was a man of action—not guided by his soul and or soulish “bright ideas,” but by the Spirit and his Father. He did not shrink back from his mission. Often I wonder whether I would have taken two weeks off and gone to the beach on the Mediterranean Sea (beautiful, by the way). I’m pretty sure I would have. But he didn’t. He had to be about his Father’s business.
I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this verse really moved me. Amazing, on a human level.
John was in prison. Matthew will tell this story a little later in his narrative (14:1-12). Any story teller can arrange his story as he sees fit. Osborne notes that Herod imprisoned John in his fortress at Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea. This is a hot desert. He was there for about a year (comment on 11:2). His mind and heart must have worn down, so he doubts the true identity of his relative, Jesus.
“sent”: this verb is apostellō (pronounced ah-poh-stehl-loh), and it is related to the noun apostle, but let’s not overstate things. It means “to send” and is used 132 times in the NT. BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, says it means: (1) “to dispatch someone for the achievement of some objective, send away / out” (the disciples are sent out: Matt. 10:5; Mark 3:14; 6:17; Luke 9:2; John 4:38; 17:18). (2) “to dispatch a message, send, have something done.”
“Coming One”: this is the Messiah. Will Jesus answer him directly? Not directly, but clearly enough (vv. 4-6).
“expect”: Osborne suggests “look for.”
John had said the one coming after him will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11-12). John had baptized Jesus and saw the Spirit in bodily form of a dove, descending on Jesus. He heard the voice from heaven (3:16-17). Why would John now send the emissaries to ask if Jesus was the Coming One? Luke already reported that John had been locked up in prison (4:12). It is likely that John was discouraged in prison. He was not doing his ministry. It is like a welder who is laid off (made redundant). He feels empty and discouraged. Let’s not see John as a super-saint. He lost track of his ministry and who Jesus was. His clear perspective dimmed a little, while he sat in the literal dark. I am glad his disciples never abandoned him. But some of them followed Jesus around and reported back to him. Jesus did not stand on a rooftop and announce, “I am the Messiah! I am the Lord!” He slowly unveiled his identity, and most did not catch on.
Jesus answered John’s question. Here’s how: At that period of time healings and miracles happened, beyond the healing from a distance of the centurion’s servant and the resurrection of the widow’s son.
One sign of the Messianic Age was the healing of diseases and broken bodies. Is. 35 describes this age. After God comes with a vengeance to rescue his people, these things will happen:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6).
Is. 26:19 says of the Messianic Age: “But your dead will live, LORD, their bodies will rise—let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout with joy” (Is. 26:19, NIV).
The phrase “in that day” refers to the age that the Messiah ushers in: “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll and out of gloom and darkness the eyes will see” (Is. 29:18, NIV).
The Lord’s Chosen Servant will do many things. Here are some: “I am the LORD: I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for my people, a light for the nations, to open they eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:6-7, ESV). Is. 42:18 connects hearing and seeing with walking in God’s ways, and deafness and blindness with national judgment. As for leprosy, Jesus referred to the time when Elijah the prophet healed Namaan the Syrian of his skin disease, and the return of Elijah was a sign that the Messiah was here (Mal. 4:5-6; Luke 9:28-36).
Here are the miracles so far:
Blind healed (9:27-31)
Lame walking (9:2-8)
Lepers cleaned (8:1-4)
Deaf hearing (9:32-33)
Dead raised (9:18-26)
The poor enjoy the good news preached to them (4:17, 23; 5-7, particularly the Beatitudes which begins with the kingdom of heaven belonging to the poor in spirit.
The list is scattered in Isaiah: 35:5-6; 26:19; 29:18-19; 61:1.
Turner puts them in a list:
1.. Blind people see (cf. 9:27-28; 12:22; 20:30; 21:14; Is. 29:18b; 35:5a; 42:7a, 18b).
2.. Lame people walk (cf. 9:1-8; 15:30-31; 21:14; Is. 35:6a)
3.. Lepers are cleansed (cf. 8:2; 10:8)
4.. Deaf people hear (cf. 9:32-33; 12:22; 15:30-31; Is. 29:18a; 35:5b)
5.. Dead people are raised (cf. 9:18-26; 10:8; Is. 26:19
6.. Poor people hear the good news (cf. 4:14-17, 23; 5:3; Luke 4:18; Is. 61:1c)
Healing points to the Messianic Age, ushered in by the Messiah himself. The list of miracles is people-centered. Jesus did not perform miracles in the sky. He was interested in helping people.
Jesus was not going to reform Judaism, like the Reformers intended to reform Christianity, though they did (up to a point). No, Jesus was going higher and farther. He was ushering a New Age, but this New Age was going to take time and expand gradually. It was starting out to be as small as the mustard seed at first but grow big enough for birds to light in its branches (Matt. 13:31). He was no Messiah riding on a white horse with a sword in his hand, shouting “I shall heroically defeat the Romans with the sword of God!” as he stormed Jerusalem with a large army behind him. He intended, instead, to restore people’s minds and bodies and deliver them from evil spirits and teach them what life in the kingdom looked like.
“are preached the good news”: the phrase is one verb in Greek: euangelizō (pronounced eu-ahn-geh-lee-zoh, and the “g” is hard, as in “get”). Eu– means “good,” and angel means “announcement” or “news”; and izō is the verb form. Greek adds the suffix -iz- and changes the noun to the verb (we do too, as in “modern” to “modernize”). Awkwardly but literally it means “good-news-ize,” as in “Let’s ‘good-news-ize’ them!”
Turner quotes another scholar: In the eyes of the first-century observers, “John is too holy; Jesus is not holy enough” (comment on 11:6).
“blessed” The more common adjective, which appears here in v. 6, is makarios (pronounced mah-kah-ree-oss) and is used 50 times. It has an extensive meaning: “happy” or “fortunate” or “privileged” (Mounce, pp. 67-71).
Let’s look more deeply at “blessed.”
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the main word for blessing is the verb barak, used 327 times throughout the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 76 times, Deuteronomy 40 times, and Psalms 76 times. Each time it is people-related. The noun is beraka, used 71 times, and “denotes the pronouncement of good things on the recipient or the collection of good things” (Mounce, p. 70).
The New Testament was written in Greek, and the verb is eulogeō (pronounced yew-loh-geh-oh, and the “g” is hard), which is used 41 times and means to “bless, thank, or praise.” The adjective eulogētos (pronounced yew-loh-gay-toss, and the “g” is hard), which is used 8 times, means “blessed, praised.” The noun is eulogia (pronounced yew-lo-gee-ah, the “g” is hard, and we get our word eulogy from it), and is used 16 times. It means to “speak well.” It is mostly translated as “praise.” The log– stem is rich in Greek, and it can include speaking a word.
The Greek word for fall away gives us our word scandal. But the meaning of the word back then meant “stumble” or “trip.” In this context, it means “fall away” even to be repelled by someone (BDAG). If he did not meet their expectations, then they tripped over him.
Don’t be scandalized by him. Don’t abandon Jesus. He was unassuming and meek and mild, except in some situations, when he took authority over bad ideas and oppressive people and death and disease.
This warning must mean something. It must not remain hypothetical or empty. The potential of falling can become actual: a true follower of Jesus can actually fall away, when the conditions are right. It may be difficult to fall away. Consider John, who languished in prison, out in the hot desert. But God sustained him, just like he can sustain you, if you are tempted to fall away.
God will put roadblocks in your wandering, drifting. His Spirit will woo you towards the Father. The good news is that if you do drift away, you can return, just like the Prodigal Son came to his senses and ran back home (Luke 15:17-19). Peter was restored (John 21:15-19), even though he denied Jesus (Matt. 27:69-75). God can redeem you too.
Jesus asks a series of question to the crowds. Did you go out to the Jordan River to look at reed plants swaying in the wind? In other words, did you just go on a nature walk, just to see reeds in the wind? No, of course you didn’t. That would have been ridiculous, and I know you did not.
Alternatively, the question could mean that John was more than a reed shaken by the wind. He had firm convictions. But that moves us from plant life to humanity in the next verses. The leap may be too far, so it is best to interpret this question as his asking about an absurd nature tour. But you decide which interpretation is better.
Then Jesus asked a related question. Did you go all the way out to the Jordan River to find a man looking aristocratic, dressed in fine clothes? If you did, then you were being absurd. No, you did not go out there expecting a rich man, because they live in king’s palaces. I know you did not go out there for that reason. It was a rhetorical question.
“look!” it is an updated translation of the older “behold!” It means “Observe!” Pay attention!” Or some use a verb for a mental activity “Consider!”
But why did you go out there, then? To see a prophet? Now we’re getting warmer. Yes, but he was more than a prophet. Then Jesus quoted a verse from Malachi, which foretold the spirit of Elijah would come and prepare the way.
“This is a paraphrase of Mal. 3:1, though many believe the first line, ‘I am sending my messenger ahead of you’ conflates Mal 3:1 with Exod 23:20 (where God sent an angel before Israel as they headed toward the Promised Land), made possible by the fact that the two were quoted together in synagogue readings. If so, there is a further parallel as God sent an angel to guide his people into Canaan, so Jesus sends John to prepare the entrance into the promised kingdom (Osborne, comment on 11:10).
Jesus is the transition from John, who was the greatest man born of women before Jesus’s new kingdom. John was part of the old order, the old covenant. In contrast, the least one—literally “the smallest”—in the new kingdom is greater than John. People who are reborn, spiritually, into the kingdom are greater than John, who was the greatest born of women. This movement from one “dispensation” to the next does not exclude John from the kingdom, because all the prophets will be in the kingdom (Luke 13:28).
“I tell you the truth”: Matthew uses this expression thirty times in his Gospel. “Truth” comes from the word amēn (pronounced ah-main and comes into English as amen). It expresses the authority of the one who utters it. The Hebrew root ’mn means faithfulness, reliability and certainty. It could be translated as “truly I tell you” or I tell you with certainty.” Jesus’s faith in his own words is remarkable and points to his unique calling. In the OT and later Jewish writings is indicates a solemn pronouncement, but Jesus’ “introductory uses of amēn to confirm his own words is unique” (France at his comment on 5:18). The authoritative formula emphasizes pronouncements which are noteworthy and will be surprising or uncomfortable to the listener.
“born of women”: a Semitic way of saying “human” (Blomberg, comment on 11:11).
“kingdom of heaven”: Matthew substitutes “heaven” (literally heavens or plural) nearly every time (except for 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43, where he uses kingdom of God). Why? Four possible reasons: (1) Maybe some extra-pious Jews preferred the circumlocution or the roundabout way of speaking, but this answer is not always the right one, for Matthew does use the phrase “kingdom of God” four times; (2) the phrase “kingdom of heaven” points to Christ’s post-resurrection authority; God’s sovereignty in heaven and earth (beginning with Jesus’s ministry) is now mediated through Jesus (28:18); (3) “kingdom of God” makes God the king (26:29) and leaves less room to ascribe the kingdom to Jesus (16:28; 25:31, 34, 40; 27:42), but the phrase “kingdom of heaven” leaves more room to say Jesus is the king Messiah. (4) It may be a stylistic variation that has no deeper reasoning behind it (France). In my view the third option shows the close connection to the doctrine of the Trinity; the Father and Son share authority, after the Father gives it to him. The kingdom of heaven is both the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Messiah (Carson). And, since I like streamlined interpretations, the fourth one also appeals to me.
Now let’s go for a general consideration of the kingdom of heaven / God. As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
Now we come to a difficult verse, because the meaning seems open-ended within limits. I have moved my commentary to this post:
Why did Matthew write “Elijah who was about to come” when John, who represented Elijah in spirit (so to speak), was here already? Matthew is simply repeating a standard formula. He was not being extra-precise.
John fulfilled biblical prophecy, along the same pattern that Jesus was in the process of fulfilling his Messianic prophecies. John pointed to Jesus, and so did his ministry.
John is in fact Elijah in spirit. However, this is not reincarnation, because in no way would a spirit wait that long to be reborn into the world. Reincarnation teaches rebirth after death, not centuries in some sort of limbo. The Bible says that when a man dies, he faces judgment; he is not reborn (Heb. 9:27). So please don’t use the Bible to justify a belief in reincarnation that the Bible does not support.
This pericope or section uses the old-fashioned simile. This is similar to or like that. (Note that the word simile is related to similar.) To who or what will Jesus compare the people of his generation? Who are the children who play and sing and who the unresponsive?
Three interpretations, the first two of which borrow from Luke’s version (Luke 16:31-35):
First, when the Pharisees and legal experts play their two tunes, the people don’t respond. They don’t weep or dance, or they do so at the wrong times. The problem with this interpretation is that the next verses about Jesus’s celebratory lifestyle and John’s austere lifestyle seem out of place, too abrupt, as it jumps from one idea to the next.
Second, the unresponsive are Jesus and John. When the children (Pharisees and legal experts) played the sad song, Jesus did not mourn but celebrated with food and wine, with sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees and legal experts accused him of being too festive, too relaxed. When they played the happy song, John did not dance, but he maintained his ascetic life. They blindly claimed he had a demon, not knowing what they were talking about. Neither John nor Jesus listened to either tune, but the tune of the Spirit. The Pharisees and the legal experts just wanted control. John and Jesus slipped out of their grasp. The religious leaders never had them in the first place.
Third, Jesus played the joyful tune because he did not hold back from living a joyous life and associating with less-than-desirable people, but the people (this generation) did not respond. Then John played the sad song because he lived the ascetic life, but the people did not respond to him either in any significant way.
I like the second and third interpretations.
Keener says that the better interpretation says that the children are the spoiled brats of the entire generation. They piped to John, and he would not dance. They wailed to Jesus, and he did not mourn (p. 341).
This latter interpretation has support from a chiastic structure embedded in vv. 17-19 (Osborne’s comments on 11:17). Celebrations and dancing were played at weddings, and Jesus enjoyed himself. And mourning songs were played at funerals, so John fits in with this austere and severe situation.
Here is the chiastic structure:
A Jesus inviting to a wedding (17a)
B John preaching a message of judgment (funeral, 17b)
B’ The people rejecting John’s ascetic ministry (18)
A’ the people rejecting Jesus’ joyous kingdom ministry (19)
You can choose which interpretation of the three is best here.
The people so badly misjudged John that they actually said he had a demon. Then the people so badly misjudged Jesus that they accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton.
“wine-drinker”: it could be translated, in context, as a drunk or drunkard. A false accusation, of course. Wine was thoroughly diluted by adding two-thirds water (at least). So it was weaker than grape juice. In the ancient world, people made fun of those who who did not dilute their wine.
Associating with sinners like them could get him stoned in certain circumstances (Deut. 21:20-21). Those verses in the old law speak of a rebellious son who hangs out with gluttons and drunkards. The remedy is to stone him to death.
Note: if you used to be a drug user or alcoholic before you were saved, then God will call you to be like John the Baptist. No more alcohol or other chemicals! Be austere. However, if you have been beat down by oppressive legalism as you grew up in a strict church, then God may call you to enjoy your life, by drinking a little wine, though without intoxication. Either way, let your Spirit-filled, Bible-inspired conscience be your guide.
“Son of Man”: it both means the powerful, divine Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
“tax collectors”: You can learn about them here:
“sinners”: It is the adjective hamartōlos (pronounced hah-mahr-toh-loss and used 47 times and used 18 times in Luke), and it means as I translated it. It is someone who does not observe the law, in this context: “unobservant or irreligious person … of one who is especially sinful.” BDAG defines the adjective hamartōlos as follows: “pertaining to behavior or activity that does not measure up to standard moral or [religious] expectations (being considered an outsider because of failure to conform to certain standards is a frequent semantic component. Persons engaged in certain occupations, e.g. herding and tanning [and tax collecting] that jeopardized [religious] purity, would be considered by some as ‘sinners,’ a term tantamount to ‘outsider.’” Non-Israelites were especially considered out of bounds [see Acts 10:28].)” “Sinner, with a general focus on wrongdoing as such.” “Irreligious, unobservant people.” “Unobservant” means that he did not care about law keeping or observing the law.
Do you fail to conform to certain standards? Maybe you did break the demands of moral and religious law. Pray and repent, and God will accept you.
“wisdom”: John and Jesus lived their lives so wisely that they are vindicated in the eyes of God, in front of the people.
Let’s define wisdom broadly. BDAG translates the noun sophia (pronounced soh-fee-ah and used 51 times) as “the capacity to understand and function accordingly—wisdom.”
So biblical wisdom is very practical. It is not like the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, which was very abstract. But let’s not make too much of the differences. In the classical Greek lexicon, sophia can also mean: “skill in handcraft and art … knowledge of, acquaintance with a thing … sound judgment, intelligence, practical wisdom.” In a bad sense it can mean “cunning, shrewdness, craft” (Liddell and Scott).
The adjective is sophos (pronounced soh-fohss and used 20 times) and according to BDAG it means (1) “pertaining to knowing how to do something in a skillful manner, clever, skillful, experienced”; (2) “pertaining to understanding that results in wise attitudes and conduct, wise.”
Wisdom is personified in the OT (Prov. 8-9).
“vindicated”: This is the verb dikaioō, (pronounced dee-ky-o-oh), and BDAG offers these definitions of the verb, depending on the context: (1) “to take up a legal cause, show justice, do justice, take up a cause”; (2) to render a favorable verdict, vindicate or treat as just, justify (3) “to cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer to be considered pertinent or valid, make free / pure”; “to demonstrate to be morally right, prove to be right, e.g. God is proved to be right (e.g. Rom. 3:4; 1 Tim. 3:16). In some contexts, it can mean to practice righteousness (Rom. 6:7; 1 Cor. 4:4; Luke 18:14). The verb is used when God justifies the sinner when he repents and puts his faith in Christ.
Jesus and John are vindicated (or proved right) by their actions. Jesus and John produced righteous action and influenced millions of people for the better.
GrowApp for Matt. 11:1-19
A.. John was going through a really tough time, languishing in prison. He doubted his relative Jesus’s mission. When you went through a tough time, did you doubt? How did you overcome it?
B.. Jesus and John were falsely accused, but they continued on their mission. How would you respond if you were falsely accused?
Woes Pronounced on Unrepentant Cities (Matt. 11:20-24)
20 Then he began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21 Woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida! Because if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, long ago they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes! 22 However, I tell you it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you! 23 And you Capernaum: Will you be exalted to the heavens? You will go down to Hades! [Is. 14:13, 15] Because if the miracles done in you had been done in Sodom, it would remain to this day! 24 However, I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!”
Jesus was in the middle of his mission trip (11:1), and the disciples of John came and questioned Jesus about his mission. Is he the Messiah? But let’s not skip over the bigger picture, however. He was still on his mission trip, and now he was taking stock of the towns which did not show adequate repentance, despite the miracles done in them.
The towns which would have repented were Gentile. And how much ungodlier can any town get than Sodom? But at least they did not have a self-righteous, cluttered version of who God was, as the Israelites of Jesus’s day had. His fellow Jews were filled with old traditions of a shopworn religion, and Jesus was bringing change. Would they receive it? Apparently not, as the next short pericope demonstrates (vv. 25-27).
Tyre was known for its oppression of God’s people (Ezek. 27-28), and Sidon was famous for paganism, “but neither city had as much opportunity as Israel” (Keener, p. 345).
Chorazin and Bethsaida: archeology shows that they had substantial communities comparable to Capernaum. Chorazin is less than an hour’s walk to Capernaum. Jesus could reach it easily from his adopted hometown or headquarters, Capernaum. Bethsaida is on the northside of the Lake of Galilee, but the other side of the Jordan. Peter and Andrew were reported to have come from there (John 1:44; 12:21). Bethsaida is outside the territory of Herod Philip (France p. 438).
“miracles”: it is the plural of the noun dunamis (or dynamis) (pronounced doo-na-mees or dee-na-mis, but most teachers prefer the first one). It is often translated as “power,” but also “miracle” or “miraculous power.” It means power in action, not static, but kinetic. It moves. Yes, we get our word dynamite from it, but God is never out of control, like dynamite is. Its purpose is to usher in the kingdom of God and repair and restore broken humanity, both in body and soul. For nearly all the references of that word and a developed theology, please click on Miracles, Signs and Wonders.
“I tell you”: this clause, used twice (vv. 22 and 24), also denotes and authoritative and solemn pronouncement that may surprise his listeners and make them uncomfortable.
“repented”: it is the verb metanoeō (pronounced meh-tah-noh-eh-oh), and “to repent” literally means “to change (your) mind.” And it goes deeper than mental assent or agreement. Another word for repent is the Greek stem streph– (including the prefixes ana-, epi-, and hupo-), which means physically “to turn” (see Luke 2:20, 43, 45). That reality-concept is all about new life. One turns around 180 degrees, going from the direction of death to the new direction of life.
Now let’s look at the doctrine of judgment.
“on the day of judgment”: it does not last 24 hours, but “the day” is the dawn of a new era.
Yes, Jesus is employing firm rhetoric—even harsh rhetoric—but there are theological truths here that explain the strong rhetoric. First, the names of the towns stand in for people. It’s not clear (to me at least) how God through Christ will judge towns and individuals in the town, but he will. But towns seem to take on an ethos or character, probably because neighbors copy each other. It is easy to imagine, however, that a few people may have welcomed or would have welcomed the kingdom of God. If a few adults broke free from the crowd of unbelief, then God will judge them differently, like Lot and his family escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked. Abraham asked God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25, ESV). The answer is yes.
Second, people are judged according to the light they have. Sodom had very little light other than moral law, which they completely ignored to the point of extreme crimes, wreaking damage on people. So their judgment on earth was devastating and final. Now imagine how the judgment will be on these towns named in this pericope or section! They had a much brighter light than just moral law. They had the kingdom of God and the Messiah in their midst. If the towns could not accept them, then their judgment will be severe. With greater gifts and light come greater responsibility. If people reject God’s gifts and light, then their judgments will be severe.
Third, we don’t know how judgment and sentencing will be carried out. Three Bible-based theories are possible for Evangelicals to believe. (1) Will there be eternal, conscious torment even for your grandmother who never got around to repenting and having faith in Jesus, yet she cared for a dozen Lazaruses, as seen in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? (2) Or will everyone in hell / hades eventually be annihilated, including Satan, that is, pass into nonexistence, so the spiritual and physical realms are forever pure? (3) Or will God eventually reconcile everyone to himself, after they spend the right length of time in hell / hades (except Satan)?
First, eternal conscious torment, which says unredeemed people burn forever in the fires of hell, even Hitler and your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother, bobbing up and down, next to each other. This is the traditional or standard view.
Second, terminalism or conditionalism, which says the eternality of the soul depends only on God or is conditional only on God. The soul is not automatically eternal by virtue of being a soul. People are punished in hell for a time suitable to their good or bad deeds, but then they pass out of existence or their soul is destroyed. The ending may not be a happy one, but this theory eliminates the eternal torment.
Third, universal reconciliation or restoration, which says that each unredeemed person is punished in hell for a duration suitable to their good or bad deeds; then they are brought into God’s presence and restored and reconciled to him (but not Satan).
The issue of the afterlife and hell is more complicated than standard preachers believe. If you believe in eternal conscious torment, then do not call the people who believe in the other two options heretics or unorthodox. There is plenty of Scriptural support for the other two theories.
Please see my three posts on the topic and the Scriptural support for each theory:
All three theories have enough Scriptural support to be plausible. We simply don’t know enough about the details of punishment and its intensity and kind to be arrogant name-callers. Don’t believe it? Then take some time to read all three posts. Start with the first one, because the verses that seem to support eternal, conscious torment are not really “slam dunks” after all.
Personally, I consider the doctrine of hell and punishment to be a secondary issue. The fact that Christians of equal intelligence and sincerity can hold to any one of them indicates that we do not have sufficient data to reach decisive conclusions and name-call each other. In that case, let’s apply this principle:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).”
“Hades”: The term is not as clear in the details as we have been taught. It is mentioned 10 times in the NT: Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. And Matt. 11:23 // Luke 10:15 are parallels, so the number of distinct times is actually nine. And hades is not elaborated on in detail, and not even in Revelation, except for some symbolic usage; that is, even Hades will even be thrown in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).
Let’s take a brief look at the term.
In Matt. 11:23 and Luke 10:15, Jesus pronounced judgment on various towns, which will be brought down to hades. No elaboration on what hades is.
In Matt. 16:18, Jesus said the gates of hades will not prevail against the church, again without elaboration on what it is.
Luke 16:23, the term is found in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and hades in this parable expresses the standard Jewish and Greco-Roman view of the afterlife, with only a little description, such as fire and torment. Yet most scholars believe that parables are not a firm foundation on which to build gigantic doctrines about the afterlife. One scholar reasonably concludes that this story about a rich man getting what he deserves is a Jewish religious folktale, which Jesus adopted and adapted for the purpose of telling the earthbound point that one should be kind with money. See my post on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man
In Acts 2:27, 31 the word is found in a quotation from the Old Testament (Ps. 16:8-11), and hades translates the Hebrew word sheol, which can mean “the grave,” “the pit” or “realm of the dead.” So the detailed description of hades is not entirely clear in those two verses.
Rev. 1:18 says Jesus has the keys to death and hades, without explaining what hades is.
In Rev. 6:8, after the fourth seal was open, death rode on a horse, and hades followed him. So the terms are highly symbolic.
In Rev. 20:13-14, death and hades gave up their dead, the people were judged, and thrown into the lake of fire, and even death and hades were thrown into it.
Jesus singles out Capernaum, because it was his adopted home base (Matt. 4:13; Mark 2:1), and he had a successful ministry there (Matt. 8:14-17; 9:1-7; Luke 4:23, 31-37; 7:1-10; John 2:12; 6:24-25). If all of the people did not fully repent, then his adopted hometown would undergo severe judgment.
In contrast, I heard two TV preachers, who focus on the Word of Faith and now the Grace Revolution, tell their audience that God is not a judging God. They are wrong. Judgment is coming, and don’t let the Happy Highlight preachers tell you otherwise.
GrowApp for Matt. 11:20-24
A.. Does it seem just or fair to you that there are degrees of rewards and punishments on the day of judgment? Explain.
Only Jesus Knows the Father and Reveals Him (Matt. 11:25-27)
25 At that time, Jesus answered and said, “I acknowledge to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the ‘wise’ and ‘understanding’ and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, because in this way it was well pleasing to you. 27 All these things have been given to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father and anyone to whom the Son of Man decides to reveal him.”
Who was Jesus answering or replying to? It is probably the Jewish refusal to accept his message (Osborne, comment on 11:25).
“time”: the noun here is kairos (pronounced kye-ross and is used 85 times), which speaks more of a quality time than quantity. BDAG defines the noun as follows: (1) a point of time or period of time, time, period, frequently with the implication of being especially fit for something and without emphasis on precise chronology. (a) Generally a welcome time or difficult time … fruitful times; (b) a moment or period as especially appropriate the right, proper, favorable time … at the right time; (2) a defined period for an event, definite, fixed time (e.g. period of fasting or mourning in accord with the changes in season), in due time (Gal. 6:9); (3) a period characterized by some aspect of special crisis, time; (a) generally the present time (Rom. 13:11; 12:11); (b) One of the chief terms relating to the endtime … the time of crisis, the last times.
All of this stand in a mild contrast—not a sharp contrast—from chronos. Greek has another word for time: chronos (pronounced khro-noss), which measures one day, one week or one month after another.
In this context, it means the first definition and (b).
In this context, the contrast is not literally between the intellectual and simplistic, but between the arrogant and humble, the unteachable and the teachable.
Often translations have “praise” instead of “acknowledge.” But the verb mostly has the connotation of “acknowledge” or “confess” or “admit” by speaking out. I decided to keep this nuance to it.
Turner says that this is high Christology, similar to that of the Gospel of John (e.g. John 1:14, 18; 3:35 14:6-9; 17:1-8; cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:9-10) … “Here the trinitarian basis of Jesus’s messianic mission, previously seen at Jesus’s baptism, is reiterated and developed (cf. Matt. 3:17; 12:18; 17:5; 28:18-19). The unique relationship of the Father and the Son in redeeming God’s people is clearly described in 11:25-27” (comment on 11:27).
The intimate relationship which Jesus prays here indicates the doctrine of the Trinity, and this revelation will be more fully developed in the Gospel of John. Of course, the epistles have verses that also reveal the Father and Son being in close unity, so this doctrine grew early, but not formally. In any case, the Father has intimate knowledge of his Son, and their relationship was like none other. The long prayer in John 17 expands on this short prayer here.
Next, Jesus went on his mission trip, visiting all their towns. In the previous pericope or section he took stock of their inadequate response and absence of true repentance despite the miracles done there. So it seems the Father needs to clarify who his Son is, so that, unlike the denounced towns, people can repent. He is also referring back to the revelations about Jesus and John. Do the people know who those two men were?
Jesus realizes his Father’s plan. The towns did not have enough revelation to repent, and the people did not know who Jesus and John were. Judgment was coming, so that the temple complex and its religion would pass away, and God was going global.
The “wise” and “understanding” have quotation marks around them because of the irony. Irony means people believe that they know something, but they actually do not. Yet they strut around as if they in fact have special knowledge. Comical example: In the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, Col. Klink, the commandant of Stalag Thirteen, bragged that there has never been a successful escape from his Stalag, even though all sorts of tunnels were underneath the camp. The inmates escaped all the time to sabotage things around the camp. Col. Klink was a victim of irony. He thought he knew, but he did not.
Biblical example: Job and his friends thought they knew more than they did, but God showed up and corrected their shortsightedness. They thought that they knew deep things, but they actually did not.
Now the “wise” and “understanding” think they knew God based on the old way of Judaism and traditions, but Jesus alone knows the Father, and he chooses the people to whom the Son will reveal him. The people of Israel who adhered to the old ways were victims of irony and their own conceits. They had the Torah and thought themselves better than the Gentiles, but “the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will perish” (Is. 29:14). (Osborne, comment on 11:25, p. 439).
Let’s discuss the Father’s and the Son’s relationships and roles a little more.
“Son of God”: Jesus was the Son of the Father eternally, before creation. The Son has no beginning. He and the Father always were, together. The relationship is portrayed in this Father-Son way so we can understand who God is more clearly. Now he relates to us as his sons and daughters. On our repentance and salvation and union with Christ, we are brought into his eternal family. Osborne: “Matthew’s use of ‘know’ ([epiginōskō (pronounced eh-pea-gih-noh-skoh, and the “g” is hard as in “get”] the present tense is gnomic, knowledge shared in eternal past, present, and eternal future) here is critical (Luke 10:22 has ‘know’ ginōskō). While the two could be synonymous, it is likely that there is perfective force in the prefix [epi] –with the meaning ‘know exactly, completely, through and through’ (BAGD, 291), with the added idea of recognizing and acknowledging” (comment on 11:27).
The bottom line is that the Greek aorist is timeless and supports the notion that the Father and Son knew each other intimately for eternity, past, present and future—forever. Jesus did not become the Son at his birth or baptism.
Quick teaching about the Trinity. The Father in his role as the Father is superior to the Son; the Father guides the whole of creation and the plan of the ages. The Son carries out the plan, notably by being born as a man, humbling himself, taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 3:7-8). He humbled himself so deeply and thoroughly that he died a death on the cross, the instrument of the death penalty.
However, the Father and Son are equal in their essence or nature. The Father is fully God and the Son is fully God, in their essence. Phil. 2:6: Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to hold on to, but he surrendered the environment of heaven and took the form of a servant. Look at it this way: a human father and son are equal in their essence. Both have a soul and spirit. But in their roles and family relationship, the Father is over the Son.
Function or role: the Father is over the Son
In their essence or essential nature: Father and Son are equal.
“Son of Man”: see vv. 18-19 for more comments.
GrowApp for Matt. 11:25-27
A.. Tell your story of how Jesus revealed the Father to you. Who, where, when, what and how.
Come to Me and Rest (Matt. 11:28-30)
28 Come to me, everyone who has been worn down and loaded down, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your lives, 30 for my yoke is easy. and my load is light.
These are the three most beloved verses in all the Bible, so I approach them with humility and even fear and trembling. They probably refer to Exod. 33:14. “The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’” (NIV)
Here we go.
“A yoke signified submission to another’s rule or authority (e.g. Gen 27:40 …)” Keener, p. 348).
These verses stand in contrast to the old religion of Jesus’s day, which got heavier as the years rolled on. In the Sermon on the Mount, it is true that Jesus upped his requirements, but he also streamlined things to basic kingdom living: righteousness. Here, in these three verses, he teaches us that the source of living righteously comes by surrendering to him and letting him guide us after he put his yoke upon us. Surrendering everything to Jesus is the only way to have peace. I have made so many foolish errors in my life, because certain areas of my life—usually relationships—were unsurrendered to him. I was not fully yielded. I did not let him guide me. I was my own yoke master. Bad idea, when it comes to life, because we have limited knowledge and can’t figure it out by our own brainpower.
“At one level it [your burden] speaks to those forced to carry the burden or ‘yoke’ of the law with all its regulations (here Jesus contrasts himself with the Pharisees; cf. 23:4 on the ‘heavy burdens …’ the scribes and Pharisees place on the people); on another level it is all who are burdened with life’s afflictions. They are not yet disciples, but those among the crowds are searching (called ‘seekers’ today)” (Osborne, comment on 11:28).
“worn down”: this verb could also be translated as “become weary, tired”; “work hard, toil, strive, struggle; labor for.” The whole image in this context is a man or woman who has been struggling too hard with life. They have not found the ease of living, after they have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus.
“loaded down”: it could be translated as “burdened.” The “heavy burdened,” as some translations have, is an insertion of an extra word, but it captures what Jesus means. The old Judaism and all religions generally are too burdensome. This is why you see monks of all religions separate themselves from people. I admire them in a superficial way, but their discipline is too burdensome. I don’t believe God intended this for them, but their choice is none of my business, so let me move on.
“In addition, ‘yoke’ implies a personal relationship with Christ as the disciple relinquishes control over to Jesus. … The essence of discipleship is hearing and doing all that Jesus teaches (cf. 28:19, ‘teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you’). This in fact is the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in Matthew, living life by God’s (and Jesus’) rules (see 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). For Jesus (indeed, for the entire NT as a whole) to ‘hear’ is to ‘obey,’ to ‘learn’ is to do’ (Osborne, comment on 11:28).
“give you rest”: literally the verb could be translated “rest you,” that is, Jesus causes you to rest. It can also be translated as “refresh” or “remain quiet.” In this context, Jesus is the one who makes you lie down in green pastures; he’s the one who leads you beside still waters; he’s the one who restores your soul (Ps. 23:1-3). Even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you don’t have to fear evil, because Jesus is with you and his rod and staff comfort you (v. 4). Ps. 23 is about the shepherd and his sheep, while Matt. 11:28-30 is about an ox or donkey that pulls the plow. But the results are the same. Let him guide you, and life goes much more smoothly. There is a certain rhythm of grace and flow to it.
The image of a yoke connotes social and political oppression (Gen. 27:40; Exod. 6:6-7; 1 Kings 12:4-14; Is. 58:6-9; Jer. 28:14), and that’s true here, but it also refers to the ethical demands put on people by the teachers of the law and Pharisees. You put on the “yoke of the Torah” (France p. 448). Some people are naturally disciplined, and they meet the demands of the Torah and moral law generally. Most people, however, are sloppy and undisciplined. They cannot meet those demands. What about them? They recognize their needs and call out to God in repentance, and he fills them with his Spirit, who helps them day by day to walk righteously.
“learn”: this verb is related to the noun “disciple” in Greek. And it means simply “learn” “find out.” In one verse, the verb could mean “hear” (Rev. 14:3), but in that verse “learn” and “understand” are possible.
“gentle”: it is the noun praüs (pronounced prah-ooss; it’s a two-syllable word), and it does not mean weak. It means “mild, soft, gentle, meek” (Liddell and Scott); a horse can be praüs, and it is not physically weak.
“humble in heart”: only Jesus can get away with announcing his humble heart! But remember this statement comes in the context of religious teachers of the law and Pharisees loading people down with heavy burdens that they themselves won’t do, as Jesus is about to declare (Matt. 23:4). They strutted around, but they did not live up to their own standards.
“humble”: The adjective can be translated as literally “low,” figuratively, of low social status or position, “poor,” “lowly”, “undistinguished.” In a good sense (used here) it means “lowly, humble.” Jesus is simply saying that he does not stand above people as a religious taskmaster and force people to make bricks. Instead, he guides them on their level. He gets down to where they live, unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who stood above everyone else as the demanding legalists. They were oppressive.
“lives”: it can definitely be translated as “souls,” but I like the word lives because it is broader than just our interior life. Now let’s look at the word more generally. it is the noun psuchē (pronounced ps-oo-khay, and be sure to pronounce the p in s-, and our word psychology comes from it). It can mean, depending on the context: “soul, life” and it is hard to draw a firm line between the two. “Breath, life principle, soul”; “earthly life”; “the soul as seat and center of the inner life of man in its many and varied aspects, desires, feelings, emotions”; “self”; or “that which possesses life, a soul, creature, person.”
“rest for your souls” also comes from Jer. 6:16. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (NIV).
We are not left without a yoke. Jesus takes off the yoke of sin and oppression and our own self-righteousness, and he places his yoke on us. We are not yoke-free. So what kind of yoke is it?
“easy”: the adjective chrēstos (pronounced khray-stoss), and its basic meaning is “useful,” “worthy,” “good.” Of things (as here): “good,” “pleasant,” or “easy.” Of people: “morally good,” “reputable,” “kind,” “loving,” “benevolent.” Since the yoke is a thing, it can be seen in this verse even as “pleasant.”
“light”: it means “light in weight.” Lexicographers Liddell and Scott add: “light to bear,” “not burdensome, easy.”
I used to teach world religions at two community colleges, and I learned that they are all about piles of rules that only the most discipled can follow. Buddhism says that unless you rigorously tame your desires, then you will be reincarnated to life on earth. If you failed by bad living, you would come back as a lower life; if you succeeded, you would come back as a higher human, possibly a monk. And the same is true of Hinduism, though a high level is Brahminism. Islam is the worst example, for they have literally thousands of strict rules. Judaism has 613 laws, and it is about law-keeping; though grace does enter in for those who know how to look for it, the dominant picture is rituals and rules.
Jesus sweeps all those things away with the words in these three verses.
Summary and Conclusion
From this chapter, we now know more clearly who Jesus is. Is he entirely “gentle Jesus meek and mild”? No. Not at all.
He was announcing the kingdom of God to “their towns,” when John’s disciples interrupted his mission for a short time. The sad case of this mighty prophet is that he had criticized the wrong man, Herod Antipas. And now he was thrown in prison and about to be executed. So Jesus told the crowds that they had the wrong motives when they went out to see him. In fact, many of them had “nonmotives.” They may have gone out there to the Jordan River out of a popularity movement—similar to religious fads that come and go. Real repentance? That was far from clear. John and Jesus played their tunes, but their generation did not dance. John played the sad song, but their generation did not mourn. Jesus played his social and friendly tune, but the people did not rejoice with him about the coming kingdom.
John doubted his relative Jesus’s mission. Was he the Coming One? Or should we look for someone else? Motive behind the question: why am I in prison, and where are you, my relative? Why haven’t you come in full power and implement or imposed righteousness so that the unrighteous rulers have been swept aside? Jesus’s reply was that his miracles were proof that he was the Messiah, but he was not going to ride them into Jerusalem and wipe out the whole system. That would come later by the Roman authorities.
The Jesus who denounced unrepentant towns in his key areas, where the most miracles were done, is the same Jesus who said he was gentle and humble of heart. He was gentle and humble for the oppressed, but he could thunder down woes on the recalcitrant.
We have now come to know who he was, more thoroughly and deeply. He responds to his environment and audience with appropriate words and actions.
I refer to a community of Bible scholars. They are excellent and are much farther down the road in understanding the NT than I am. But sometimes their commentaries can be technical. I hope I have simplified things. And I write from a Renewal perspective.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 1-14: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).
Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).