Matthew 11 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Matthew 11)
11:2  Now when John heard in the prison1 the works of the Christ, he sent by his disciples THE BAPTIST'S INQUIRY AND JESUS' DISCOURSE SUGGESTED THEREBY. (Galilee.) Matthew 11:2-30; Luke 7:18-35
In the prison. John had been cast into prison about December, A.D. 27, and it was now after the Passover, possibly in May or June, A.D. Herod Antipas had cast John into prison because John had reproved him for taking his brother's wife (Matthew 14:3; Mark 6:17). According to Josephus, the place of John's imprisonment, and death was the castle of Machaerus (or Makor), east of the Dead Sea (Ant. 18; 5:1,2). It was built by Herod the Great, and was not very far from that part of the Jordan in which John had baptized, so that it is probable that Herod resided in this castle when he went to hear John preach (Matthew 14:4 (Mark 6:20), and this fact coupled with the statement that John called two of his disciples to him, suggests that John must have been held as an honored prisoner with liberties like those accorded Paul at Caesarea (Acts 24:23).

11:3  and said unto him, Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another1?
Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another? The prophets spoke of the Messiah as the coming one, and John himself had done likewise (Matthew 3:11). This passage has been a puzzle to expositors from the very earliest times. Being unable to understand how the Baptist, being an inspired prophet and favored with visions of the supernatural, could give way to skeptical doubts, they have exhausted their inventive genius to explain what John meant by his question. Among these many explanations the best is that given by Alford, viz.: that John wishes to get Jesus to publicly declare himself for the sake of quieting all rumors concerning him, his fault being kindred to that of Jesus' mother when she tried to hasten Jesus' hour at the wedding of Cana (John 2:4). But the plain, unmistakable inference of the text is that John's faith wavered. The Bible does not represent the saints as free from imperfection. It does not say that inspiration is omniscience, or that visions and miracles remove doubts. It took two miracles to persuade Gideon (Judges 6:36-40); Moses harbored distrust (Exodus 3:11-13 Exodus 4:1-17), and was guilty of unbelief (Numbers 20:12); Elijah despaired of God's power (1 Kings 19:4-10); Jeremiah was slow of belief, and in his despondency cursed the day of his birth (Jeremiah 20:7,14-18). But the most instructive parallel is that of Simon Peter. He witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, beheld the glory of God, and heard the voice of the Father (Matthew 17:1-6); yet he sank below the Baptist, and denied the Lord with cursing; and no man has ever thought it at all incredible that he should do so. The trial of John's faith, though not so clearly depicted as that of Peter, was perhaps equally searching. His wild, free life was now curbed by the irksome tedium of confinement. His expectations were not fulfilled. The unfruitful trees had not been cut down, the grain had not been winnowed, nor the chaff burned, nor should he see any visible tendency toward these results. Moreover, he held no communion with the private life of Jesus, and entered not into the sanctuary of his Lord's thought. We must remember also that his inspiration passed away with the ministry, on account of which it was bestowed, and it was only "the man John", and not the prophet, who made the inquiry. The inquiry itself, too, should be noted. It is not, Are you what I declared you to be? but, Being all of that, are you "the" one who should come, or must we look for "another"? John no doubt shared with all Jews the idea that Messiah was to set up an earthly kingdom, and seeing in Jesus none of the spirit of such a king, he seems to have questioned whether Jesus was to be the finality, or whether he was to be, like himself, a forerunner, preparing the way for the ultimate Messiah. He did not grasp the thought that Jesus was both Alpha and Omega; that Jesus, the lowly servant of humanity, by service and sacrifice is evermore preparing the way for Jesus the King.

11:4  And Jesus answered and said unto them1, Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see2:
And Jesus answered and said unto them. John himself, when thus questioned, had answered plainly, saying, "No" (John 1:20,21), and he probably expected a like categorical answer from Jesus.
Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see. The indirect answer of Jesus, ending with a beatitude, was well calculated to waken in John beneficial thoughtfulness, for it threw his mind back upon the prophecies of God, such as Isaiah 30:5,6; Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 41:1-3.

11:5  the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them1.
And the poor have good tidings preached to them. Jesus sums up his work in the form of a climax, wherein preaching the gospel to the poor stands superior even to the raising of the dead. Attention to the poor has always been a distinctive feature of Christianity. To care for the poor is above miracles. Modern Orientals are not impressed by the miracles of the New Testament as such. The sacred literature of India and China abounds in wonders, and with the people of these lands a miracle is little more than a commonplace. With them Christ's love for the lowly is above the miracles. Beecher says,

"Wonders and miracles might be counterfeited, but a sympathy with the suffering and helpless, so tender, so laborious, so long continued, was not likely to be simulated. Such humanity was unworldly and divine."

11:6  And blessed is he, whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me1.
And blessed is he, whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me. The scribes had stumbled and failed to believe in Jesus because he did not fulfill their ideal, or come up to their expectations. Jesus seeks to woo John from a like fate by the sweet persuasion of a beatitude. John must realize that it is better for the subject to fall in with the plans of the all-wise King, as he fulfills the predictions of God the Father, than for the King to turn aside and frustrate the plan of the ages to humor the passing whim of a despondent and finite mind.

11:7  And as these went their way1, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John2, What went ye out into the wilderness to behold3? a reed shaken with the wind4?
And as these went their way. See Luke 7:24.
Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John. The commendation of Jesus which follows was not spoken in the presence of John's messengers. It was best that John should not hear it. We also do our work under the silent heavens and wait for the future plaudit, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21,23).
What went ye out into the wilderness to behold? After the departure of John's messengers Jesus immediately clears the character of John of unjust suspicion. John, who had testified with such confidence as to the office and character of Jesus, now comes with a question betraying a doubtful mind and wavering faith.
A reed shaken with the wind? Was John a vacillating man? Was he guilty of that lack of steadfastness which the world looks upon as intolerable in all who it esteems great? Was he blown about by every wind of public opinion like the tall reed (the "Arunda donax") which skirts the Jordan, and which stands, bearing its beautiful blossoming top twelve feet high one moment, only to bow it to earth the next, the slender stem yielding submissively to the passing breeze? John was no reed, but was rather, as Lange says,

"a cedar half uprooted by the storm."

11:8  But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in soft [raiment]? Behold, they that wear soft [raiment] are in king's houses.
But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in soft [raiment]? Was he a voluptuary about to condescend to flatter Herod and retract his reproof, that he might exchange his prison for a palace? Those who had gone to the wilderness to see John had found no such man, and John was still the John of old. One act does not make a character, one doubt does not unmake it.

11:9  But wherefore went ye out? to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.
But wherefore went ye out? to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you,
and much more than a prophet. Matthew 11:10 shows us that John was a messenger as well as a prophet. Prophets foretold the Messiah, but John was the herald who announce him. John was miraculously born, and was himself the subject of prophecy. Great as was John in popular estimation, that estimation was insufficient.

11:10  This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy way before thee1.
This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy way before thee. This quotation is taken from Malachi 3:1, where it reads "my messenger . . . before me". But Matthew concurs with Mark (Mark 1:2) and Luke (Luke 7:27) in the reading given here. From the change in the words it appears, as Hammond says,

"that Christ is one with God the Father, and that the coming of Christ is the coming of God."

11:11  Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist1: yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he2.
Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. We find from this passage that all true greatness arises from association, relation, and contact with Jesus Christ. To be Christ's forerunner is to be above teacher and prophet, Levite and priest, lawgiver and king, and all else that the world estimates as great. If all greatness be thus measured by contact of Christ, how great must Christ be!
Yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. But the least in the kingdom is greater then John. B.W. Johnson says,

"This shows: (1) That John was not in the kingdom of God. (2) That, as none greater than John has been born of women, no one had yet entered the kingdom. (3) That, therefore, it had not yet been set up, but as John himself, Jesus, and the Twelve under the first commission, preached, was "at hand". (4) All in the kingdom, even the humblest, have a superior station to John, because they have superior privileges."

Farrar reminds us of the old legal maxim which says,

"The least of the greatest is greater than the greatest of the least,"

which is as much as to say that the smallest diamond is of more precious substance than the largest flint. The least born of the Holy Spirit (John 1:12,13; John 3:5) is greater than the greatest born of women. They are greater in station, privilege, and knowledge. The dispensations rise like lofty steps, and the lowest that stand upon the New Testament dispensation are lifted above the tallest who rest upon the dispensation of Moses. This is perhaps prophetically suggested by Zechariah (Zechariah 12:8).

11:12  And from the days of John the Baptist until now1 the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence2, and men of violence take it by force3.
From the days of John the Baptist until now. A period of about three years.
The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence. Jesus here pictures the kingdom of heaven as a besieged city. The city is shut up, but the enemies which surround it storm its walls and try to force an entrance --an apt illustration which many fail to comprehend. The gates of Christ's kingdom were not opened until the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36).
And men of violence take it by force. But men hearing it was about to be opened sought to enter prematurely, not by the gates which God would open when Simon Peter used the keys (Matthew 16:19), but by such breaches as they themselves sought to make in the walls. Examples of this violence will be seen in the following instances: Matthew 20:21 Luke 19:11,36-38; Luke 22:24-30; John 6:15. The people were full of preconceived ideas with regard to the kingdom, and each one sought to hasten and enjoy its pleasures as one who impatiently seizes upon a bud and seeks with his fingers to force it to bloom. The context shows that John the Baptist was even then seeking to force the kingdom.

11:13  For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John1.
For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. The Old Testament was the work of a long series of prophets, and this series was closed by John the Baptist. But John differed from all the others in the series; for they prophesied concerning the kingdom, while John turned from their course to preach that the kingdom was at hand, and thereby incidentally brought upon it the assaults of violence.

11:14  And if ye are willing to receive [it,] this is Elijah, that is to come1.
This is Elijah, that is to come. As to John the Baptist being the prophetic Elijah, see John 1:21.

11:15  He that hath ears to hear, let him hear1.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. See Mark 4:9.

11:16  But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the marketplaces1, who call unto their fellows2
It is like unto children sitting in the marketplaces. Oriental marketplaces were open squares where men transacted business and where children held their sports. We should observe that with all the cares of his great mission upon him, the great heart of our Lord took note of the sports of children.
Who call unto their fellows. Jesus here pictures two groups of little ones, one of which wishes to play, the other of which is sullen and intractable. The mirthful group first seeks to play a wedding game. They pipe and dance, but the sullen group sits unmoved. Not disheartened by failure to succeed, the mirthful ones try their hand again and hope for better luck by playing funeral. But this also fails, causing them to lift up their voices in questioning remonstrance.

11:17  and say, We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn1.
We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn. Singular enough, the authorities are about equally divided as to what parties this picture represents. Some say that the dancers and mourners are the Jewish rulers, and that Jesus and John refused to comply with their wishes. The grammatical construction rather favors this view, if we say that "men of this generation" are "like children who call" (Matthew 11:16). But such grammatical constructions are not reliable in interpreting Oriental imagery. Jesus means that the men of this generation are like the "entire picture" presented and does not intend that they shall be taken as the subjects of the leading verbs of the sentence. A parallel instance will be found in Matthew 13:24-43. In who sowed good seed in his field"; but in Matthew 13:37 he says "He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man", thus making the kingdom of heaven like the entire parabolic picture, and not the mere subject of its leading verb. Others say that John came mourning and Jesus piping, and that the Jews were satisfied with neither. This was the older view, and had not expositors been confused by the grammatical difficulties above mentioned, it would never have been questioned. For the context favors it, and the whole trend of Scripture demands it. It was God in his messengers--his prophets and his Son--who came to set the world right. It was these messengers who took the initiative and who demanded the changes. It was the people who sulked and refused to comply with the divine overtures. The whole tenor of Christ's teaching --the parables of the supper, etc.--represents the Jews as being invited and refusing the invitation. It was John and Jesus who preached repentance, but there was no instance where any called on them to repent. Jerusalem never wept over an intractable Jesus, but Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem because they "would not" (Matthew 23:37).

11:18  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a demon1. Matthew 11:18,19
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a demon. Jesus and John each besought the people to prepare for the kingdom of God, but the people sneered at one as too strict and at the other as too lenient, and would be won by neither. To justify them in rejecting God's counsel, they asserted that John's conduct was demoniacal and that of Jesus was criminal, thus slandering each. But the lives or works of Jesus and John were both directed by the wisdom of God, and all those who were truly wise toward God--children of wisdom (see Luke 7:29)--justified or approved of God's course in sending such messengers.

11:20  Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done1, because they repented not.
The cities wherein most of his mighty works were done. That is to say, those cities which were especially favored. It does not mean that more miracles were worked in them than in "all" the other cities; but that more were done in "each" of these than in "any" other.

11:21  Woe1 unto thee, Chorazin2! woe unto thee, Bethsaida3! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon5 which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth6 and ashes7.
Woe. Rather, "Alas for thee"! an exclamation of pity more than anger.
Chorazin. Jerome says that Chorazin was two, and Eusebius (probably through the error of his transcriber) says it was twelve miles from Capernaum. Its site is identified by the Exploration Fund with the modern Kerazeh, at the northwest end of the lake, two miles from Tell Hum (Capernaum). Its site is marked by extensive ruins, including the foundations of a synagogue, columns, and walls of buildings.
Bethsaida was probably a suburb of Capernaum.
If the mighty works . . . which were done in you. We have no record of a miracle wrought at Chorazin, nor of one wrought at Bethsaida either, unless the miracles wrought at Simon's house (Matthew 8:14-17) were in Bethsaida.
Tyre and Sidon were neighboring Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast and were noted for their luxury and impiety. This comparison between the pagan cities on the seacoast and the Galilean cities by the lake no doubt sounded strange to Jesus' disciples, but in the years which followed, Tyre and Sidon received the gospel (Acts 21:3; Acts 27:3), and Tyre became a Christian city, while Tiberias, just south of Capernaum, became the seat of Jewish Talmudism.
Sackcloth was a coarse fabric woven of goat's or camel's hair, and was worn by those who mourned. It was called sackcloth because, being strong and durable, it was used for making the large sacks in which rough articles were carried on the backs of camels. Such sacks are still so used.
Ashes were put upon the head and face as additional symbols of grief. Jesus here uses these symbolic words to indicate that these cities would have repented thoroughly.

11:21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

11:22  But I say unto you1, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon2 in the day of judgment than for you. Matthew 11:22-24
But I say unto you, etc. Several great truths are taught in this paragraph. We note the following: (1) Every hearer of the gospel is left either much more blessed or much more wretched. (2) That the miracles which Jesus wrought were calculated to lead men to repentance, for they demonstrated his authority to demand that man should repent. (3) That even among those who stand condemned at the judgment there is a difference, and that it shall be more tolerable for some than for others. (4) That God takes account of our opportunities when he come to measure our guiltiness (Matthew 5:21,22; Matthew 10:15; Luke 11:47,48; John 9:41; John 15:22-24 Romans 2:12).
Tyre and Sidon. See Matthew 11:21.

11:23  And thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven1? thou shalt go down unto Hades2: for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in thee, it would have remained until this day.
And thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? Capernaum was the most favored spot on earth, for Jesus made it his home. He therefore speaks of it figuratively as being exalted to heaven.
Thou shalt go down unto Hades. "Hades" means the abode of the dead. It stands in figurative contrast to heaven and indicates that Capernaum shall be brought to utter ruin. Though Jesus was not displeased with the walls and houses, but with those who dwelt in them, yet the uncertain sites of these cities are marked only by ruins, and present to the traveler who searches among rank weeds for their weather-worn stones the tokens of God's displeasure against the people who once dwelt there. In less than thirty years these three cities were destroyed. Sin destroys cities and nations, and permanent temporal prosperity depends upon righteousness.

11:24  But I say unto you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee1.
It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. The history of the destruction of Sodom in the time of Abraham is well known. As it was one of the oldest cities of any great importance in Palestine (Numbers 13:22), this reference to its remaining is the more striking, showing that its destruction did not come from the mere operation of natural law, but as a divine punishment meted upon it for its sins--a punishment which might have been avoided by repentance (Jonah 3:10). There is hope for the greatest sinner if Sodom might thus escape.

11:25  At that season1 Jesus answered and said2, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding3, and didst reveal them unto babes4:
At that season. While these thoughts of judgment were in his mind.
Jesus answered and said. Replying to the thoughts raised by this discouraging situation--this rejection.
That thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding. The selfish and shrewd; the scribes and Pharisees, wise in their own conceit (John 9:40,41).
And didst reveal them unto babes. The pure and childlike; the apostles and their fellows who were free from prejudice and bigoted prepossession. God hid and revealed solely by his method of presenting the truth in Christ Jesus. The proud despised him, but the humble received him.

11:26  yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight1.
Yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight. This is a reiteration of the sentiment just uttered. It means, "I thank thee that it pleases thee to do thus". The Son expresses holy acquiescence and adoring satisfaction in the doings of Him who, as Lord of heaven and earth, had right to dispose of all things as it pleased him.

11:27  All things have been delivered unto me of my Father1: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father2; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal [him.]
All things have been delivered unto me of my Father. See as Lord of the kingdom were entrusted to Jesus, but for the present only potentially. The actual investiture of authority did not take place until the glorification of Jesus (Matthew 28:18; Colossians 1:16-19; Hebrews 1:8). The authority thus delivered shall be eventually returned again (1 Corinthians 15:28).
And no one knoweth the Son, save the Father, etc. Here again are many important truths taught: (1) While we may have personal knowledge of Jesus, we cannot know him completely. His nature is inscrutable. And yet, in direct opposition to our Lord's explicit assertion, creeds have been formed, defining the metaphysical nature of Christ, and enforcing their distinctions on the subject which Jesus expressly declares that no man understands, as necessary conditions of church membership in this world, and of salvation in the world to come. Morison says,

"It would be difficult to find a more audacious and presumptuous violation of the words of Jesus than the Athanasian Creed, with its thrice repeated curses against those who did not receive its those who did not receive its doctrines."

(2) We can have no correct knowledge of God except through revelation. (3) Jesus begins the revelation of the Father in this world, and completes it in the world to come. (4) By this exclusive claim as to the knowledge of the Father, Jesus asserts his own divinity. (5) Christ's exalted power comes by reasons of his exalted being.

11:28  Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest1.
Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. The preceding remarks are prefatory to this invitation. The dominion which Jesus exercises, the nature which he possess, and the knowledge which he can impart justify him in inviting men to come to him. The labor and rest here spoken of are primarily those which affect souls. That is, the labor and the heavy burden which sin imposes, and the rest which follows the forgiveness of that sin. Incidentally, however, physical burden are also made lighter by coming to Jesus, because the soul is made stronger to bear them. The meekness and lowliness of Jesus lend confidence to those whom he invites that no grievous exactions will be made of them.

11:29  Take my yoke upon you1, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Take my yoke upon you. "Taking the yoke" is a symbolic expression. It means, "Submit to me and become my disciple", for the yoke is symbolic of the condition of servitude (Jeremiah 27:11,12; Isaiah 9:4; Acts 15:10 Galatians 5:1; 1 Timothy 6:1).