Who was John the Baptist? Matthew 11:7-15

What Jesus said about John the Baptist to his disciples?When disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask him if he was “the one who was coming,” Jesus responds that his messianic signs speak for themselves. He asks his audience, “Who did you go out into the wilderness to see?” (Matthew 11:7-8)

John the Baptist and Jesus

Large crowds went out from Jerusalem to hear John preach in the wilderness (Matt 3:5), including some Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 3:7). Some Pharisees and most Sadducees were aristocrats, wealthy priests who controlled the Temple. What did these people go into the wilderness to see?

A reed shaken in the wind? This might mean something like, “you did not go out into the wilderness to look at the scenery!” But the image of a weak reed blown by the wind is the opposite of John’s character. He was a fiery apocalyptic preacher who did not bend himself to conform to anyone. Davies and Allison suggest reeds shaken by the wind would evoke the Exodus, so the point is something like “Did you go out into the wilderness to see a man repeat the wonders of the exodus?” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:247).

A man dressed in soft clothing? John was not dressed in the trendy fashions of the elite citizens of Jerusalem. He was dressed like an Old Testament prophet in a camel hair cloak and a leather belt. John lived an ascetic life in the wilderness like Elijah. Perhaps they were looking for someone dressed like a king, like a Davidic messiah. John was not a professional, elite teacher. He was an apocalyptic prophet in the style of Elijah.

Was John a prophet? Yes, but Jesus says John was more than a prophet. He was the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 (11:9-10). He was God’s messenger sent to Israel before the coming day of the Lord. This line could be drawn from LXX Exodus 23:20, the wording is the same. Probably Malachi drew on Exodus, God will once again send his messenger, but this time he will prepare the way of the Lord when he comes to purify Israel. “The combination of Exod 23:20 with Mal 3:1 was not a Christian innovation” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:250).

Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1, the Lord will send “my messenger to prepare the way before me.” If John is the messenger, then Jesus is not just the messiah, he is the Lord coming to his Temple to purify it in the last days. The context of the line is important. In Malachi 2:17-3:5, the prophet begins by declaring the people have wearied the Lord by asking him why he does not act to punish injustice Maybe God is pleased with the evil doers? The Lord responds with the line about sending his messenger to prepare his way.

But Jesus does not quote the rest of Malachi 3:1: “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” The Lord is the “coming one” the messenger prepares the way for. The next verse in Malachi is a description of the apocalyptic day of the Lord. The Lord will purify the sons of Levi like a refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap, and then the offerings made in Jerusalem will please the Lord “as in the days of old.”

You can see John’s problem with Jesus. If John was the messenger of Malachi 3:1a, where is the refiner’s fire of Malachi 3:1b?

Jesus therefore claims John was the climax of the prophets (11:11-15). There are three difficult sayings in this paragraph. John is the greatest prophet of the old age, but the “least in the kingdom of heaven” is greater than John (v. 11). Who is the least in the kingdom? Although a few scholars identify the least one as Jesus, most think the least are those who are “in the kingdom,” either in the future when it finally comes, or at the present time in Jesus’s ministry.

What does it mean the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and violent people are trying to take it by force (v. 12)? Davies and Allison say this verse is “without a doubt, one of the NT’s great conundrums” (Matthew, 2:254). The verb translated as “suffered violence” (ESV; βιάζω) and the cognate noun (βιαστής) refers to violent people. When the word appears outside the New Testament is always has a pejorative sense (BDAG). These violent people are seizing (ἁρπάζω) the kingdom, another word with violent connotations. It is not the case they are trying to violently seize the kingdom, but that they are doing so (the indicative is used).

Some suggest the violent ones are the Pharisees and others trying to keep people out of the kingdom by preventing them from hearing Jesus.

Some suggest the violent ones are Jewish groups advocating violence against the Temple aristocracy or the Romans. They are trying to force God to send the kingdom by revolutionary action. This is possible since there was Judas the Galilean led a tax revolt against Rome as early as AD 6 and Josephus does mention “social bandits” closer to the time of Jesus.

Nicolas Perrin argued the line refers to the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. Since the time of John’s preaching, the eschatological conflict as begun and “the suffering of John and of the saints after him is interpreted in terms of the messianic woes or the eschatological tribulation of the latter days” (cited by Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:55). As Jesus made clear in Matthew 10, Jesus’s disciples will suffer violence from their own families and synagogues.

Jesus states John is Elijah, “if you are willing to accept it” (vv. 13-14), in Matthew 17:9-13 Jesus is even more clear: “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” The paragraph ends with the phrase “he who has ears, let him hear” (v. 15), inviting the reader to consider the subtle allusions to the story of the Hebrew Bible now being fulfilled in the preaching of John the Baptist and the messianic ministry of Jesus.

Who was John the Baptist?  According to Jesus, he was the last and greatest of the prophets in the of the old age, and the herald of the coming Kingdom of God which is even now breaking into history in the ministry of Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Who was John the Baptist? Matthew 11:7-15

  1. Excellent comment on the identity of the violent ones. I especially appreciate how it fits the immediate context. Thank you! KT

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