Matthew 11

Structure:

Narrative 3: Three Cycles of Unbelief and Belief (Mt. 11:2–12:50)
 
Sayings Collection 1

1. Unbelief: John the Baptist (Mt. 11:2–19)

Jesus answers John’s question about the Messiah (Mt. 11:2–6)

(1) John’s question (Mt. 11:2–3)

(2) Jesus’s answer (Mt. 11:4–6)

Jesus’s teaching on John’s epochal significance (Mt. 11:7–15)

(1) John’s identity (Mt. 11:7–10)

(2) John’s unique role (Mt. 11:11–15)

Jesus reproaches unbelief (Mt. 11:16–19)

2. Unbelief: The towns of Galilee (Mt. 11:20–24)

3. Belief: “Come unto me” (Mt. 11:25–30)

 

Theme:

Matthew 11 contrasts belief and unbelief. Opposition to Jesus and his messengers had been increasing, but here the kingdom is being violently attacked. Nevertheless, the Son has revealed the Father to certain “childlike” people whose weariness has compelled them to find rest in assuming Jesus’s yoke. Those who are wise in their own eyes will all the more reject this humbling message as Matthew’s narrative unfolds.
 

Exposition of the verses

Verse 1-3 John’s question and Jesus’ answer

The unbelief of Israel is stressed in the verses which follow, and are shown in the question regarding Jesus’ and John’s identity. Both were not welcome in Israel (Mt. 11:16-19). But here it is John who is confused. Jesus had been welcomed by the people (Mt. 4:25; 7:28; 8:1, 18; 9:8, 33) but now faces increasing opposition (Mt. 5:20; 7:29; 9:3, 11, 34). John had much reason to believe in Jesus (Mt. 3:13-17) but the delay of judgment of sin (Mt. 3:10–12), John’s imprisonment (Mt. 4:12), and the increasing opposition to Jesus would inevitably shake his confidence. That is John’s reason to wonder if he must be looking for “another” Messiah (ἕτερος), one who would fit more his idea of Savior. Jesus answers John, but speaks not of judgment but salvation.
Jesus answers and He points the messengers of John to two things: that which is heard, and that which is seen. Many parallels are found in Isaiah ((Isa. 26:19; 29:18; 35:5–6; 42:7, 18; 61:1):

1. Blind people see (cf. Mt. 9:27–28; 12:22; 20:30; 21:14; Isa. 29:18b; 35:5a; 42:7a, 18b).

2. Lame people walk (cf. Mt. 15:30–31; 21:14; Isa. 35:6a).

3. Lepers are cleansed (cf. Mt. 8:2; 10:8).

4. Deaf people hear (cf. Mt. 9:32–33; 12:22; 15:30–31; Isa. 29:18a; 35:5b; 42:18a).

5. Dead people are raised (cf. Mt. 9:18–26; 10:8; Isa. 26:19).

6. Poor people hear the good news (cf. Mt. 4:14–17, 23; 5:3; Luke 4:18; Isa. 61:1c).

 
In verse 6, Jesus encourages John’s disciples as well as all other followers to look at Jesus and hear His words, and in doing so they will be blessed. Σκανδαλίζω refers to stumbling, taking offense, losing faith, or apostasy (Mt. 5:29–30; 13:21, 41, 57; 15:12; 16:23; 17:27; 18:6–9; 24:10; 26:31, 33) and is here used to encourage but also to warn. John can be comforted by the fact that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and is warned to keep believing, and holding on to Christ and His divinity. The focus in faith must be on Christ and His salvation and not the judgment of God (2 Pet. 3:8–9, 15a).
 

Verse 7-15 Jesus estimation of John: his identity and unique role

Jesus speaks of His estimation for John. He is not doubtful and weak, but no human ever lived is greater than John, of whom Malachi 3:1 speaks. John is the last one of the prophetic era and will be martyred (just as he is hated like the other prophets) before the new covenant is inaugurated.
Jesus starts to explain the crowd of John’s place in the history of redemption. Jesus questions are somewhat sarcastic. John is not a wavering reed. The reed shaken by the wind is a natural symbol (sometimes used by the rabbis) for the type of man (and of preacher) whose message is adapted to fit the prevailing mood. John was not this man, he was uncompromising, and lacking tact. Secondly, John was not dressed in king’s clothes (Mt. 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8). Sophistication and refinement was not John’s attribute, but he was a legendary ascetic. Yes, John was in the palace of Herod Antipas, but not in a royal garment but unwillingly in Herod’s dungeon. The third question calls for a positive answer: John is a prophet, and a great one, and his role is crucial in the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises (Isa. 40:3).
Verse 11 is the “amen” to that which was said before. Truly, John is the greatest of all human beings so far. Jesus speaks here of the kingdom of heaven which John had proclaimed but was inaugurated by Jesus’ message. And it is this greatest man ever lived who will be superseded by the lowliest of the Kingdom.
 
The problem of “violence.”
Since the days of John, violence has been part of the inauguration of the kingdom. Exegesis of this verse is very hard. βιάζεται “use force” (when active or middle voice) or “be treated forcefully or oppressed” (when passive) in Mt. 11:12a. The force or violence connoted by the word can have a positive or negative nuance, depending on the context. So the text can have two meanings; one, enemies’ forceful attack on the kingdom, or the kingdoms powerful attack on Satan’s domain.
The second difficulty here arises with the verb βιασταί, meaning “violent” or “impetuous people.” A third problem is with the verb ἁρπάζω which means “grab” or “plunder,” referring to violent men oppressing the kingdom or to impetuous disciples eagerly entering it. There are three major approaches to this problem:

1. Greek patristic sources: Both Mt. 11:12a and Mt. 11:12b should be understood as positive statements about the advance of the kingdom. The verb βιάζεται is interpreted as a middle voice reflecting the dynamic advance of God’s rule (Mt. 12:28). The forceful grabbing of the kingdom in Mt. 11:12b is viewed as enthusiastic converts pressing into the kingdom.

2. Both Mt. 11:12a and Mt. 11:12b should be understood as negative statements about the oppression of the kingdom by its enemies. βιάζεται is interpreted as a passive, reflecting the persecuting activity of opponents upon the kingdom. The βιασταί are enemies such as Herod the Great (Mt. 2:1–12, 16–18), the religious leaders (Mt. 9:34; 10:17; 12:14; 21:35–39), and Herod the Tetrarch (Mt. 14:1–12), who plunder the disciples (Mt. 5:10–12, 38–48; 10:16–39; 23:34; 24:9).

3. Matthew 11:12a and Mt. 11:12b contrast the forceful advance of the kingdom with the violent attack upon it. βιάζεται is interpreted as a middle in a positive way, but βιασταί is taken negatively. John’s ministry marks the beginning of both these trends, growth and opposition.

Verse 13 speaks of the way in which John fulfills the prophets and the law. John fulfilled the role of Elijah, and his ministry was the transition between the prophetic times and the inauguration of the new covenant. Elijah’s return was prophesied in Mal. 4:5-6), and interpreters have debated whether Elijah would return himself, or a person with a powerful ministry like him. (John 1:21 shows that people wonder John to be the fulfillment of the prophesy). The ministry of John is pressed upon the people with the warning “anyone with ears…” (Matt. 13:9, 43; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
 

Verse 16-19 Jesus reproaches unbelief

Jesus harshly confronts “this generation” with their unbelief. Jesus speaks of a parable, in chiastic form. John sings a dirge and Jesus plays a flute. In fact, the parable speaks of childish brats who will not play either a wedding game or a funeral game. Neither John’s abstinent lifestyle (compared to mourning or singing a dirge at a funeral) nor Jesus’s enjoyment of food and drink (likened to dancing at a wedding feast) could satisfy their contemporaries. They said of John that he was demon-possessed, and Jesus a glutton and drunkard. A chiastic structure of this passage is given by Turner:

A Flute playing but no dancing (Mt. 11:17a)

B Dirge singing but no mourning (Mt. 11:17b)

B′ John’s abstinence slandered as demon possession (Mt. 11:18)

A′ Jesus’s participation slandered as excess (Mt. 11:19)

 
The statement that wisdom (cf. Mt. 12:42; 13:54) is vindicated by deeds (Mt. 11:19) probably refers to the deeds of practical wisdom, deeds of righteousness of both John and Jesus.
 

Jesus Denounces Unrepentant Cities (11:20–24)

The following verses in Matthew provide a chiastic structure. The denunciation first of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Mt. 11:21–22 and then of Capernaum in Mt. 11:23–24 is expressed in a symmetrical structure that includes the denunciation (A and A′, not parallel in form), the reason (B and B′, parallel second-class conditionals), and the eschatological verdict (C and C′, parallel πλήν [plēn, nevertheless] statements).

A. οὐαί σοι, Χοραζίν, (Mt. 11:21)
Woe to you, Chorazin,
οὐαί σοι, βηθσαϊδά·
woe to you, Bethsaida;

B. ὅτι εἰ ἐν Τύρῳ καὶ Σιδῶνι ἐγένοντο αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ γενόμεναι ἐν ὑμῖν,
because if in Tyre and Sidon had occurred the miracles that occurred in you,
πάλαι ἂν ἐν σάκκῳ καὶ σποδῷ μετενόησαν.
long ago in sackcloth and ashes they would have repented.

C. πλὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, (Mt. 11:22)
However, I tell you,
Τύρῳ καὶ Σιδῶνι ἀνεκτότερον ἔσται ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κρίσεως ἢ ὑμῖν.
for Tyre and Sidon more bearable it will be on the day of judgment than for you.

A′. καὶ σύ, Καφαρναούμ, (Mt. 11:23)
And you, Capernaum,
μὴ ἕως οὐρανοῦ ὑψωθήσῃ;
not to heaven you will be exalted, will you?
ἕως ᾅδου καταβήσῃ·
To hades you will descend;

B′. ὅτι εἰ ἐν Σοδόμοις ἐγενήθησαν αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ γενόμεναι ἐν σοί,
because if in Sodom had occurred the miracles that occurred in you,
ἔμεινεν ἂν μέχρι τῆς σήμερον.
it would have remained until today.

C′. πλὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (Mt. 11:24)
However, I tell you
ὅτι γῇ Σοδόμων ἀνεκτότερον ἔσται ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κρίσεως ἢ σοί.
that for the land of Sodom more bearable it will be on the day of judgment than for you.

 

Verse 20-22 Rebuke of Chorazin and Bethsaida

Jesus starts to accuse specific cities of witnessing His miracles and refusing to repent. The pattern is charge, reason (Matt. 11:21), and verdict (Mt. 11:22). Their unbelief is worse than the heathen cities of Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities that were enemies of Israel since the beginning. The inhabitants of this city would have repented if they would have witnessed Jesus’ power, but the Jewish cities to which Jesus came are worse off. These two towns in Galilee are not mentioned elsewhere but apparently had seen and rejected Jesus and His ministry.
“Woe to you” (found 22 Times in Isaiah alone) marks out those whose actions and attitudes have aligned them against God and his purposes. Jesus uses it often against the religious leaders in Jerusalem or for others who do not repent.
 

Verse 23-24 Rebuke of Capernaum

Sodom, the well-known immoral city here is told to be better off than the town of Capernaum. The Old Testament had compared Capernaum to the arrogance of the pagan king of Babylon (Isa. 14:13–15; Ezek. 26:20; 31:14; 32:18, 24). Capernaum will be punished worse than Sodom, of which Jesus had also spoken in Mt. 10:15. The reason is, that Capernaum had received such a clear revelation of God, and therefore had more accountability. This provides a lesson for believers born in a Christian family, going to a Christian church. Unfortunately, those who seem close to the Kingdom can be farthest away.
 

Gracious revelation in the midst of opposition (Mt. 11:25-30)

Verse 25-27 Gracious election

The rebuke of Jesus changes into prayer of thanksgiving. Jesus is resting in His Father, despite all the conflict and the tension and the rejection. The great Father hides “these things,” referring to perhaps eschatological significance of Jesus’ miracles?) from those who think they are wise, and He reveals them to those who are like children. Jesus had made a similar contrast before, between the ones who think they are healthy, and those who are ill (Mt. 9:12-13). Several times in this book Jesus had spoken of His disciples as childlike, or poor (Mt. 5:3; 10:42; 18:6; 21:16; 25:40; Luke 10:21–22), in contrast to those who esteem themselves wise in the world, but in fact know little of the Kingdom. The Father reveals and hides certain things according to what pleases Him (εὐδοκία).
In verse 27, Jesus affirms His Messianic status. He is the revelator of the Father. The Father delegates all things to the Son. It is through the Son that humanity can receive knowledge from the Father. Especially John and also other NT books speak of this reciprocal wisdom between the Father and the Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:35; 14:6–9; 17:1–8; cf. 1 Cor. 15:20–28; Eph. 1:9–10).
Details early in Matthew had prepared the reader for this Father-Son revelation. The name Immanuel signifies the unique saving presence of God with his people (Mt. 1:23). Jesus’s baptism demonstrates the pleasure the Father takes in the Son (Mt. 3:17; cf. 17:5; Isa. 42:1). Satan is unable to shake the Son from his resolve to please the Father (Matt. 4:1–11). Jesus’s miracles show that the Father has given Jesus authority to forgive sins (Mt. 9:6). In times of persecution, disciples must confess the Son if they wish the Son to confess them to the Father (Mt. 10:32–33, 40). Further in Matthew, the development of the Son’s grandeur will occur, culminating in the post resurrection Great Commission (Mt. 28:18–20).
 
Come unto Me (28-30)
Matthew 11:28-30 is a greatly memorized and beloved passage. The chiastic structure is as follows:

A Δεῦτε πρός με (Mt. 11:28)
Come to me

B πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι,
all who are tired and burdened,

C κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
and I will rest you.

A′ ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφʼ ὑμᾶς καὶ μάθετε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, (Mt. 11:29)
Take my yoke on you and learn from me,

B′ ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ,
because gentle I am and humble in heart,

C′ καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν·
and you will find rest for your souls;

D ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστὸς (Mt. 11:30)
for my yoke [is] easy
καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν.
and my burden light is.

God’s sovereignty is an invitation for people to come for Him. Jesus promises rest, as only God can give. God who rested after creating the universe promises rest through Christ to all His followers. Jesus tells His followers to come after Him, to take His cross/yoke and to walk in humility and gentleness (Mt. 5:5). This promise is similar to the promise in Ex. 33:14 where God promises that His rest will go with the people.
The purpose of the human yoke is to make it easier to carry or pull a load. If there is a burden to be borne, it is better with a yoke than without. The pejorative use of “yoke” imagery in the OT, if it refers to the human yoke (as it apparently does in Jer 27:2), therefore focuses not so much on the function of the yoke itself but rather on the unwanted imposition of the burden and the servitude it implies; the rabbinic use on the other hand focuses on the willing acceptance of an aid to carrying
The heavy burden that is laid upon the people are the rules and regulations of the Pharisees and Sadducees, while the yoke of Christ is meekness and humility and gentleness. Jesus fulfills the burden of the Torah, and provides rest for the people of God. “You will find rest for your souls” echoes the Hebrew text of Jer. 6:16 (LXX has “purification” instead of “rest”), where it is the reward Yahweh offers to those who find and walk in the good way.
The interesting part is, that Jesus links the sovereignty of God to a human decision. The Bible speaks of this side by side, (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23; 13:48; 2 Tim. 2:10). It is only the sovereign grace of people that draws sinners, but the invitation to come and rest in Him lies in the faith of people.