Matthew 11:7-15

7 As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?

8 But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.

9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.

10 For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’

11 “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.

13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.

14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.

15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear! 

The quote in verse 10 is from Malachi 3:1. Also see Isaiah 40:3 — The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

born of woman (v.11)  — born naturally

he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (v.11) — The only way to understand it is to take it in close connection with all the rest of the defense of Jesus. Our Lord meant to say, You have seen this man who naturally is greatest among men; asking a question in perplexity. Yes, there are things he cannot know, there are methods that he cannot understand, an presently the least soul brought into the Kingdom will have greater light than this man, with all his natural endowments, has had in the past. Presently the little child who comes into My Kingdom by the mystery of My mercy, might, and passion, will have more light than John, until he also comes to understand the sweetness and mercy and majesty by coming into this Kingdom of power.  — Morgan, page 114.

The Pharisees and scribes who stand here before our Lord are the violent who take the Kingdom of the Heavens by force and seize on it. Our Lord says: “From the days of John until now.” The forerunner, John, was violently rejected by the Pharisees. This foreshadowed the rejection of the King, the rejection of the preaching of the Kingdom and the Kingdom itself. In this seizing upon the Kingdom, rejecting it, the Kingdom of the Heavens suffered violence. It was rejected by force and now is postponed till He comes again. If they had received John the Baptist he would have been Elijah. But he was rejected, they would not have it so. They did violence to what the King had come to bring. Another Elijah will come once more, and then no violence can keep back the coming of the Kingdom of the Heavens. — Gaebelein, pages 225-226.

the prophets and the law prophesied until John (v.13) — John was the last of the Old Testament prophets

he is Elijah (v.14) — Malachi 4:5-6. See also Matthew 17:10-13 and Luke 1:17.

This is a tough passage, and I’m not at all sure I have a complete handle on it. Here are the unsettled issues:

1. he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (v.11) — I copied Morgan’s take on this because it works in context better than the others I read, although I’m not totally convinced. One commentary says that the “least” refers to Christ because He was younger than John, but that doesn’t make sense to me, at least not for that reason. Perhaps Jesus was teaching that anyone who will be in the Kingdom when it comes will have greater understanding than John did at that time

2. the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (v.12) — Some commentaries say that “suffers violence” means “vigorously proclaimed and laid hold of with energy.” In that view, it is those who accept the Kingdom message who are fighting to get into the Kingdom. This seems to be a stretch to me. I’m more inclined to think it refers to opposition to the Kingdom, the view taken by Gaebelein above. This makes sense in light of what the Lord says starting in verse 16.

3. he is Elijah (v.14) — The Lord clearly ties John with Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah. Yet in John 1:21, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah. In Luke 1:17, the angel tells Zacharias that his son, John the Baptist “will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah …” In Matthew 11:14, the Lord says John the Baptist is Elijah IF the Jews are willing to believe it.

Pentecost, in Things to Come (page 313) writes, “Inasmuch as John could not have fulfilled the prophecies because Israel rejected the offered kingdom, it does not seem possible to assert that the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 has been fulfilled. The fact that John could have fulfilled it, even though he was not personally Elijah, seems to indicate that Elijah need not come personally to fulfill the prophecies. During the period preceding the second advent, and prior to the outpouring of judgments upon the earth, there will be a ministry by one in the spirit and power of Elijah, which will fulfill this prophecy.

I think that makes sense.

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