From Prison

Matthew 11:2–30; Luke 7:18–35

John the Baptist is next depicted as imprisoned, and the reason given is detailed in Mark 6:17–20. As a man who preached the message of repentance, John the Baptist was sure to know the law and point it out. Perhaps John’s resolution stemmed from his sense of duty as a prophet (Ezek. 3:18–19). John was right to warn Herod. The law prescribed that a man not marry his living brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), and both Herod’s wife and Herodias’ husband were still living when they married (Antiq. 18.5.4 [136]). Jesus would later preach that if one married another after divorcing for any reason other than infidelity, they were an adulterer (Matt. 19:9). This relationship was adulterous. John pointed that out to his disparagement.

The result of John pointing out that Herod and Herodias were sinning was imprisonment. While in prison, John heard about the works of Christ and sent his disciples to Him. However, his inquiry was odd given that John had previously acknowledged Christ as Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; cf. 1:32; 3:30). John’s inquiry may have been legitimate for several reasons: it may have been for the benefit of his disciples. They chose to remain with John after the revelation of Jesus being the Messiah (John 3:26). John may have wanted to continue to point to Christ while decreasing himself (John 3:30). Secondly, the expectation of Jesus doing the works John said He would perform may have created impatience within John. Perhaps John wanted to know when Jesus would fulfill the prophecy he had proclaimed (Matt. 3:7–12). A final possibility may rest within John’s humanity. The Baptist may have wanted to confirm what he already knew. Given the pressure of imprisonment on John, it is possible that he had a moment of weakness.

John’s scriptural knowledge was so excellent that Christ used scripture to answer John. When in prison, the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. When Jesus answered John (Luke 7:22), he quoted Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming age of the Messiah and those things that would accompany His coming (Isaiah 29:18–19; 35:4–6). To John, Jesus’ usage of this passage would have communicated what John expected from the Messiah. 

When the disciples of John left, Jesus addressed the crowd. “A reed shaken in the wind” speaks of John’s character in one of two ways: 1) Israel is described as a reed easily uprooted (1 Kings 14:15), and John was undeterred in his commitment to God’s mission, or 2) King Herod’s insignia on coins of his minting was a reed so that John couldn’t be bought. Either interpretation fits John’s character because he was a true prophet, not a straw man.

Luke further shows the typology of John being likened to Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17) when he quotes from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. The latter passage is linked with Malachi 4:5, where Elijah is identified as the messenger. These passages, along with Isaiah 40:3, are commonly identified with John the Baptist though he denied that he was Elijah incarnate (John 1:21–23).

Those who rejected his baptism and message were those who Jesus likened to brats. They didn’t initiate the game so they won’t play. Those who play and abstain are bad, while those who play and partake are bad too. Moreover, the imagery is akin to a marriage, and this imagery has been used of Christ being the bridegroom (Luke 5:33–35). Either way, those who rejected John and Christ could not be satisfied because of their lack of wisdom. 

Next, Jesus denounces the places where he performed some of his miracles (Matt. 11:20–30).  He does this by comparing them to cities that suffered wrath at the hands of God in a time past. These evil cities, whose stories were infamous to the Israelites, were Tyre and Sidon—who worshiped Baal and were notorious for their immortality and corruption—and Sodom, which was destroyed for their wickedness. Had these evil cities seen what Jesus had done, they would have repented, unlike the cities that saw the good works of Christ and did not. The point is this: those cities that didn’t repent were cozy with sin and not burdened by it in the least. Twice in Jeremiah, the prophet says that God’s people didn’t know how to blush (Jer. 6:15; 8:12). Every one of us has somehow become desensitized to sin. When was the last time someone used curse words that did not bother me? Was I one of the hypocrites who quit watching a television show because of homosexual relationships while the same show otherwise was about fornication and adultery (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy)? Maybe those aren’t the sins we’re desensitized to, but we all likely have some that just don’t bother us, and they may be some in our lives.

Jesus’ invitation, then, follows a prayer. After rebuking the cities, He doesn’t stew or fixate on them but prays. Then, He explains the prayer to those present, inviting them to come: The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of manufactured religious traditions spurred by the law. No one can measure up no matter how hard they try. The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of their sins. Sin is exhausting because we then think we must use our resources to please God. 

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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