As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Matthew 11:7-10 (NRSV)
This comes on the heels of messengers from John the Baptist who ask if Jesus is the Messiah Israel is expecting or if they should look for someone else. Jesus answers them by pointing to the events that precede the Day of the Lord, and off they go.
It is here that Matthew records Jesus giving a sort of extended speech about John the Baptist, which is interesting considering how little air time he tends to get in the stories we tell amongst ourselves and from the pulpit. His primary purpose is to announce Jesus, and when Jesus shows up, we don’t need him, anymore, so he drops off our radar very early on in the meta-gospel we have in our heads. And, in fairness, he makes few other appearances in any of the gospels.
But here, we get a window into Jesus’ estimation of John the Baptist, both as a person and in terms of mission.
In the start of the John the Baptist speech, Jesus draws a contrast between John and the powers of his day. You go to rich palaces to see rich people in fine clothes. The “reed shaken by the wind” is an odd image, but may refer to Herod since Herod’s emblem was a reed. The overall point is that, if you want to find the rich and powerful, you go to the palaces and there they are.
But people found John in the wilderness. You go out to the wilderness to find prophets.
Jesus is going to make quite a bit out of John’s role as a prophet, so it helps to remember the often uneasy relationship between prophets and royalty in Israel’s history that only got worse as time went on.
You see, a prophet’s job was not primarily to predict the future, although that’s often what we think of when we think of prophets and prophecy. A prophet’s job was primarily to speak for God, and this primarily for the purposes of calling them to repentance and forecasting the things that might befall them if they were unfaithful. “Predicting the future” was a very small slice of what prophets did, and in most cases, their predictions were not so much spontaneous oracles as looking at the situation, seeing where Israel was going and what the landscape of powers looked like in and around her, and making a prediction and theological interpretation of what was likely to happen if she pursued her current course or turned aside from it.
When Israel’s rulers were interested in faithfulness, their relationship to prophets might have been awkward at times, but they were overall good. We might think of David and Nathan, for example.
For much of Israel’s history, though, and especially the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ day, this relationship was openly antagonistic. It turns out that people in power do not care to be told that what they are doing is wrong and, unless they lead the people in justice and righteousness, God will bring a horrible calamity upon their regime. Prophets found themselves in the wilderness often to hide from the powers that sought their lives moreso than the wilderness being a particularly spiritual place. The wilderness was a season of trial from which they hoped to emerge vindicated, and we see this in both Israel’s history in general and Jesus’ history in specific.
So, we have the contrast as we have seen so often in Matthew. On the one hand, we have the rich and the powerful and the established who may have the appearance of being favored by God but who are actually opposed by Him. On the other hand, we have these dirty homeless guys ranting about those rich and powerful in their palaces. It just so happens that God is on their side.
The quotation at the end of our passage is similar to the opening passages of Isaiah 40, but is more closely a quotation of Malachi 3:1.
We don’t know much about the book of Malachi. Malachi simply means “My messenger” and, as such, may be the author’s title and not his name. We also have no direct cues in the text as to what particular historical situation the writer is talking about. Because the Temple has been rebuilt and certain Persian political terms appear, we have a general idea that it is probably around the 5th century BC, but specific nations and battles and monarchs and events that are prevalent in some of the other prophets are absent from Malachi.
Yet, Malachi paints a very clear picture of the situation he is prophesying against. In Malachi, Israel’s priesthood is depicted as corrupt individuals going through the motions and lining their own pockets. They are faithless professionals who have led Judah astray, and as a result, Israel’s God is no longer paying attention to her. The wicked prosper, and people shrug their shoulders and assume that God must approve of them. Others wonder where the God of justice is in the midst of this situation.
God then announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way for Him to come into His Temple, but this messenger’s arrival will be a day of judgement that is to be endured as he “refines” the priesthood and purifies Israel. When this happens, God will arrive and set things right, putting down the evil, exalting the good, and restoring Israel.
Malachi delivers this message to encourage the people of Israel to return to faithfulness, but the book closes on a rather ominous note – that God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
So, to recap, Israel’s leadership has become corrupt. God seems absent. The prophet calls the people to repentance and announces a messenger who will come and refine Israel, and this will immediately precede God coming to the Temple in judgement to throw down the wicked and rescue the faithful.
It is very appropriate, then, that Jesus will take this passage and announce that this is about what’s happening now because… well… I mean… come on, right? This is exactly what’s happening in Israel in Jesus’ day.
And in this scenario, John is the messenger who refines Israel prior to the terrible Day of the Lord. He is Elijah, as Jesus will mention in the very next set of verses. John comes calling Israel to repentance, baptizing her into renewed faithfulness, and warning that the judgement of God on the powers of the age is near. When Israel’s religious leaders show up, John quite clearly indicates that they are the very people who are supposed to fall in that judgement. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist did not go to evangelism training.
All these things boil down to a powerful conclusion: Jesus’ expectation was that the great and terrible Day of the Lord was at hand, and John was the prophesied messenger sent to refine Israel before it happened.
It is interesting to me that Jesus does not identify himself as this messenger. In fact, he even changes the text of Malachi (do not try this at home). In the original passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “me,” meaning God Himself, presumably. When Jesus quotes the passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “you,” which I assume is Jesus. I’m not sure what other “you” Jesus would be talking about.
After all, Jesus also calls Israel to repentance, also leads her into renewed faithfulness, and also announces a coming judgement. Very John-the-Baptisty kinds of things that, at least in this regard, seem to be a continuation of John’s mission.
But remember, Jesus has just sent a message back to John that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and he establishes this by pointing to the actual deeds he is doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead. It would seem that Jesus sees his role less in terms of forerunner and messenger and more in terms of instigator and implementor. What John announced, Jesus has started doing. It is Jesus who is not only calls Israel to repentance, but also forgives her sins. It is Jesus who not only announces the coming kingdom, but also heals the lame and the blind and casts out demons. It is Jesus who will take up all authority in heaven and on earth, given to him by God. And it is Jesus who will judge the world, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile. Jesus may be announcing similar things to John, but where John was preparing Israel for an event, Jesus has brought the event with him. Whereas John is preparing the way for what God will do, Jesus is how God is doing it. Jesus is not Malachi’s Elijah; he is Daniel’s Son of Man.
We will explore the depth of this as Jesus continues to praise John the Baptist, but for this opening passage, it sets the stage. John is the prophet speaking against the rich and powerful in Israel, and like the prophets before him, he is being persecuted by Israel’s leaders. But this is what prophets do, and in this particular case, this prophet is the last warning before the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
- Given what prophets actually did in the Scriptures, how does that influence how we might understand the gift of prophecy, today? Are there people you know who are gifted in speaking for God to His people, calling them to greater faithfulness and warning of what might happen if they continue to go astray? Do you do this?
- What is our responsibility in speaking to power? How does power typically respond? How does the church typically respond to power?