A few years ago, a Christian friend of mine gave me a CD to listen to. The CD was given to him by a mutual non-Christian acquaintance of ours. My Christian friend was disturbed by the teaching he heard on this CD and wanted my thoughts on it which he could, in turn, share with our non-Christian friend.
While I was on the road, I popped the CD into my player. It turned out to be the beginning of A Course in Miracles, a popular New Age teaching. The teaching is laid out in dramatic fashion as a dialogue between different characters. A Course in Miracles purports to be a revelation of two “ascended masters” who were, two thousand years ago, two of Jesus’ disciples. They claim, among other things, to present the true teaching of Jesus which has supposedly been distorted by the Bible.
My Christian friend asked me to write down my thoughts about the CD. But after listening to the whole thing I could think of only one question: Why believe it? Why should we believe the claim of the author of A Course in Miracles that he received some sort of revelation from two ascended masters and that this revelation has any correspondence to historical or spiritual reality?
Of course this same question could be asked of us as Christians: why accept Jesus? Why believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only way to the Father? Why believe any of it?
That is the question Matthew sets out to answer in Matthew 11:1-24....
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
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? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’ 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. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge
and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Why accept Jesus? Matthew gives us a few reasons. First of all, Matthew points out that we should accept Jesus because he fulfilled Messianic prophecy. This is a favorite subject of Matthew’s. As we have already seen, he is frequently quoting the Hebrew Scriptures and showing how Jesus fulfilled them.
Here we see John the Baptist, of all people, having the same doubts and questions many of us have. John was put in prison by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, because he had rebuked Herod for committing adultery. Herod had visited his own brother in Rome, seduced his brother’s wife, married her, and in the process, divorced his own wife. I wonder if Herod would have given the same excuse for his actions that so many people give today: “I have a right to happiness, don’t I?”
John paid a heavy price for speaking out against Herod’s actions. Herod imprisoned John in the fortress of Machaerus in the blistering hot mountain region near the Dead Sea. It is not surprising that John began to have doubts in the midst of such a situation.
Jesus probably seemed to John, the fiery preacher, to be a very different sort of Messiah, not the one he had expected at all. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, what was John doing in prison? Why wasn’t Jesus overthrowing the Romans and running bums like Herod out of office?
Wisely, John decided to address his questions to the source. He sends some of his own disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you really the Messiah after all, or should we look for somebody else?”
Would that we would follow John’s wise practice when we have questions and doubts. So many people in the world have spiritual questions, but not many seek answers where they can be reliably found.
I believe the most reliable place to look for answers to spiritual questions is the Bible. That’s what Jesus, in effect, tells John to do. Verse 5 in our passage for today alludes to two Messianic prophecies from Hebrew Scripture. Isaiah 35:5-6 says,
Then will the eyes of the blind be openedAnd Isaiah 61:1 says,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,If Jesus is restoring sight to the blind, lifting up the lame, curing deafness, preaching the good news to the poor, is it not evident that God’s Spirit is upon Jesus, that he is, in fact, the Messiah whom John longed for?
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners
When I was in college I acted in an original musical written by a friend of mine entitled How the West was Saved. It was basically the Gospel story lifted out of first century Palestine and set in the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. I played two ministers in the musical. One was a rather meely-mouthed local priest; the other was a loud-mouthed, fast-paced, traveling evangelist huckster. During some scenes in the musical I would literally turn around, change costume and change character all in the matter of a moment. Playing two ministers I understandably had a number of monologues throughout the play.
After performing this musical on the road for a couple of weeks everyone in the cast was getting a bit worn out. We knew our lines backwards and forwards, but we were doggone tired. I was so exhausted in fact that one night I accidentally started reciting the lines from a later monologue in the midst of a wedding scene. The whole cast was on stage for the wedding and they were all stunned when they realized I was speaking the wrong lines. No one knew what to do. They all looked at me with blank stares. Finally, when it dawned on me that I was speaking the wrong lines I quickly thought of a way out of it and returned to the right scene.
John the Baptist must have felt a little bit like my fellow actors did when I started speaking the lines they didn’t expect. John didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus’ words and actions. It seemed as though Jesus was following a different script altogether. Jesus was going around making friends with tax-collectors and “sinners”, something that just wasn’t done according to a strict view of the Torah. Was Jesus really acting out the part of the Messiah? John wondered.
Jesus believed, and Matthew wants us to understand, that Jesus really was the Messiah. But it was as though Jesus had started acting out a part of the script John didn’t expect. And when John asks Jesus what he is doing, Jesus points him back to the script itself, the Hebrew Scriptures, though not to the part of the Scripture that John was focused on.
Jesus didn’t think of himself as Elijah calling down fire from heaven. John was the Elijah. Jesus was acting out these bits from Isaiah which we have already read a few minutes ago. Jesus was acting out, not the judgment and condemnation of Israel, not the Exile, but rather restoration after judgment, healing the blind and the lame, setting God’s people free.
Jesus is one step ahead in the story line from where John thinks he should be. John wants Jesus to bring judgment, and so he will, eventually. But the message for right now is one of hope and healing. The good news of the kingdom is breaking the tough soil of hardened hearts with the refreshing rain of the Holy Spirit. Mercy was at the heart of Jesus’ mission and that’s the way it should be for us today, whether or not it seems like the script that others want us to follow.
So, when we have questions about Jesus’ mission and what he is doing in our lives, we need to return to the original script and focus on the scene Jesus wants us to act out with him. We should accept Jesus as the Messiah because he really is acting out God’s script.
The second reason Matthew gives us for accepting Jesus as the Messiah is closely tied to the first: because Jesus performed miracles. The word of God from the Hebrew Scriptures and the works of God performed by Jesus go hand in hand to prove that he is the Messiah. Even in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran there is a passage which predicts that when the Messiah comes he will perform miracles. The difference between Jesus and Qumran is that Jesus actually did what was predicted. Jesus restoring sight to the blind, curing the deaf, healing the lame, preaching to the poor, are all powerful signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
The only problem with this is the fact that signs and wonders do not compel belief. Jesus mentions his miracles being performed in Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, but many of the people there did not come to faith in him. Miracles are always veiled signs. If we are willfully blind we can always come up with an alternative explanation for the miraculous just to avoid committing our lives to follow Christ.
How did the people in Jesus’ day explain away the miracles he was performing? They said, “Oh, that Jesus, he’s just a glutton and a drunkard. He’s just a rebellious son leading Israel astray. He’s a false prophet. He can cast out demons because he is empowered by the devil himself.”
N. T. Wright tells the story of a fire-engine-red sports car that zoomed by him in the street one day. He was just able to catch a glimpse of the young man driving: sunglasses, long hair, with a fashionable bit of stubble on his chin. Rock music was pumping out at full volume from the car stereo. A bumper sticker on the car read: “I’m the one your mother warned you about.”
Most societies warn their children to watch out for certain types of people. Moses told the Israelites to beware of false prophets. Beware of a rebellious son who refuses to follow his parents’ instructions. Parents of such a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders of their town to have him stoned to death.
So this is what the Jews accused Jesus of being, just to escape the conclusion that they might have to surrender their lives to following him, if he was, per chance, the Messiah they had been waiting for. They didn’t want to follow Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. They didn’t want to embrace tax collectors and “sinners” like Jesus did. They didn’t want to love their enemies; they wanted to knife their enemies, or at the very least, drive them out of the country. So some of the Jews said, “Jesus is just a stubborn and rebellious son. He is a false prophet; don’t listen to him.” And in the end, they did bring Jesus to book for his strange ideas.
Matthew wants us to adopt an alternative response to Jesus. He wants us to look at Jesus’ miracles and come to a different conclusion. He wants us to hear the dire warnings of Jesus and heed them.
In order to wake us up to the reality of Jesus’ real identity Matthew presents us with a third, startling reason for accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That is: because John the Baptist was “Elijah who was to come”, preparing the way for God Almighty.
Jesus points out John’s true identity as a coded way of telling people who he himself really is. Jesus says that John is the one about whom it was written, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
This is a quote from Malachi 3:1 where we read,
“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.
Then in Malachi 4:5 we read the final words of the Old Testament where the Lord says,
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.So Jesus identifies John the Baptist as being the “Elijah” prophesied by Malachi, the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. And this is Jesus’ coded way of identifying himself. It is really a very dramatic claim indeed. For who is the one who follows Elijah, the messenger? It is the Lord himself coming suddenly to his temple. And this is exactly what Matthew will show Jesus doing later in his Gospel. Jesus comes to the temple, his temple, and he cleans house.
When I was in college I wrestled with a number of doubts and questions, just as we see John the Baptist doing in this passage. It was during that time in my life that I went on a month-long pilgrimage to England and Ireland. I took with me a bunch of C. S. Lewis books, seeking out the places where Lewis lived and worked and worshiped. That journey took me, at one point, to the town of Donegal on the west coast of Ireland. I felt like I had come to the end of the earth and suddenly I came down with a horrible head cold. It rained heavily during my brief time in Donegal and what with the weather and my feeling poorly I huddled in my postage-stamp-size room, hunkered down with a C. S. Lewis book entitled Mere Christianity.
Obviously, growing up in the family in which I was reared, I had heard all of the Bible stories and I had heard and seen evidence of the power of Jesus to change people’s lives for the better. But I had intellectual doubts; I wasn’t sure that Christianity was intellectually credible until I read Mere Christianity. Huddled in my little twin size bed in a room only twice the size of that bed, rain pouring down buckets outside my window, I read these words of C. S. Lewis,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Lewis continues at the beginning of the next chapter and says:
We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.After reading those words I was affirmed in the same conclusion that C. S. Lewis came to: Jesus was and is God in the flesh. Of course it takes the whole of one’s life to “flesh-out” that confession.
And so I ask you today: What is your response? Will you be like many in Jesus’ generation who accepted neither John the Baptist nor him? Will you be like Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum? Or will you accept Jesus for who he is: the Messiah, the Son of God, God himself in human form? Matthew gives us three excellent reasons for accepting Jesus as just that; Matthew gives us Scripture, the deeds of Jesus, and his startling claims. It’s up to us to decide how we will respond. And if we confess Jesus as our Lord and God then we must begin to act as his disciples going out on mission, carrying his message to the ends of the earth.