Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 17. John what?
Mt 11:7,8 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes?
If anyone needs the reminder, we are studying the pictures that Jesus used in his teaching ministry as seen in Matthew’s Gospel. We arrive at a point where John the Baptist’s disciples have come to question Jesus and, now having received answers, they leave. The onlooking crowd watch with interest, and Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge them as to exactly who John was.
If Jesus lived today, imagine him using a PowerPoint presentation and it is as if he clicks up on the screen a series of pictures and asks the crowd about each picture as he asks them so say who John was. After all, they had gone out into the desert to the Jordan river to see and listen to John, so he starts by asking them, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” Why did they go? What did they find when they got there?
Click. First picture: “A reed swayed by the wind?” (v.7b) Had they gone out to the Jordan to just look at the reeds on the riverside? Was John just another ‘reed’, something quite ordinary? Not really! A shaken reed is often used as a picture of someone who is unsure of themselves, a doubter? Was that John? Definitely not! So, “If not, what did you go out to see?” (v.8a)
Click. Second picture: “A man dressed in fine clothes?” (v.8b) This would have produced a laugh. Definitely not! No, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) No, John had had a rather wild look about him. This was no rich man, but a poorly dressed man who lived off the produce of the land. Jesus prods their thinking: “No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces,” (v.8c) No, they definitely hadn’t gone out to see royalty. “Then what did you go out to see?” (v.9a)
Click. Third picture: “A prophet?” (v.9b) Well yes, I suppose so. We hadn’t had a prophet in the land for well over four hundred years, but from all we’ve been taught, yes, John fits the mould of a prophet.
Click. Fourth image. A question mark. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (v.9c) What? More than a prophet? How can you have more than a prophet? What does more than a prophet mean?
Click. Fifth image, just the words, “A Messenger”. “This is the one about whom it is written: ” `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (v.10) Ah yes, the last book of the scrolls, Malachi, spoke of this: “See, 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) If they had regularly attended the local synagogue from childhood, they would have been taught this. But there is also this surprise link to this messenger for after he has come, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” Wow! The messenger precedes the Messiah! What is Jesus saying? Is he saying he’s the Messiah?
Click. Sixth image. Another question mark. Jesus is now in full teaching mode: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (v.11) Hold on, let’s take all that in. John is greater than anyone previously born???? Why? He was just a messenger you said. But what messenger? The messenger who stands at the open doors to the room where all are gathered and proclaims in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the President of the United States.” (or “her Majesty the Queen, Queen Elizabeth the Second” or whoever the other very important dignitary it is) or in this case, “the Long-Expected Messiah”. Ah! John was greater than any other previous human being because he had the unique privilege of ushering in the ministry of the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah!
But what about, “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”? Well, any one of us who now take the name of Christian, is a child of God, uniquely born of the Spirit of God. Even John wasn’t that! We had better follow through Jesus’ teaching. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (v.12). Of the paraphrase versions I think the Living Bible puts it best: “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, ardent multitudes have been crowding toward the Kingdom of Heaven.” John had stirred a hunger in the lives of many, to get right with God (hence being baptized by him). As someone has well said, “the kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate.” The word ‘forceful’ above’ could be ‘urgent’, people who have come to see their need and been utterly convicted that they must do something about it – NOW!
Jesus comes to the end of his ‘slide presentation’: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” (v.13) Yes, the Law spoke and the Prophets spoke about the coming one, the Messiah, who will, according to Malachi be proceeded by Elijah, so….
Click. Seventh image. A photo of John overprinted with one word: “Elijah”. “if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (v.14) That’s it. You’ve been faced up with the ministry of John. Not just a reed, something ordinary, someone unsure of himself, not a rich, influential personage, not even ‘just’ a prophet, but the Lord’s Messenger, the herald of the Messiah, the ‘Elijah’, the heralding prophet that Malachi spoke about. He has come; the Messiah has come. Got the picture?
Pictures and more pictures as Jesus seeks to help us take in truth. Why do we preachers (and why have I) so long focused on rules and principles when Jesus gives us such a clear example of how to get into people’s minds? Use pictures. When we try to convey the Gospel to others, do we use principles or do we convey it in picture terms, because that is what the Gospels are – a treasury of pictures. Aren’t they wonderful! Isn’t the Lord wonderful that He hasn’t given us a book of laws or principles but a story book, true stories, but a story book nevertheless, because He knows that most of us operate in pictures in our minds and in our imaginations. How wonderful. Thank Him for that.