Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jesus says some odd things about John the Baptist, Matt 11:7-20

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7 ¶And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
8 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.
9 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.
10 For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that 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 suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
13  But the days will come, when the violent shall have no power; for all the prophets and the law prophesied that it should be thus until John.
14  Yea, as many as have prophesied have foretold of these days.
15  And if ye will receive it, verily, he was the Elias, who was for to come and prepare all things. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
16 ¶But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,
17 And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.
20 ¶Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:  (Matthew 11:7-20, including JST 11:13-15)
In these verses, Jesus says some odd things about John the Baptist that we sort of understand in a general way, but when we think about it on a more granular level, they start to seem really puzzling. 

We understand that Jesus speaks to people who don’t quite appreciate John as he should be appreciated and that He praises John.  But how can Jesus call John “a prophet….and more than a prophet?  In what sense can one be more than a prophet while not being the Messiah?

Also, how is it that John is essentially called the greatest of those born of women yet in the very next breath Jesus puts him on a lower level than the least person in the kingdom of heaven? 

We also understand that Jesus wasn’t too pleased with the generation that He lived in and how they weren’t responding to the different messengers sent to them, even with the different ways those messengers worked.  But it is hard to tell whether He means that He and John were the pipers and mourners or whether the people were the pipers and mourners that Jesus and John were acting differently than what was expected of them.

And another question we might have is, in what sense was the kingdom of heaven suffering violence and being taken by force between the days of John and Jesus, and in what way will the day come that the violent shall have no power?  I’ve often assumed this would be the Millennium, but might it mean anything else in addition?

All these questions.  Let’s start from the beginning.

Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? – It seems John made it rather inconvenient to get to him if the people had to go out to the wilderness to hear him.  Jesus asks the people to ask themselves what their real reason for going to listen to John was.  This is about understanding your own motives.  We might well ask the same question today.  What do we go to general conference for?  Or stake conference?  Is it to be seen by others so that they think we are a good person?  Is it for curiosity?  Is it to hear something new? 

What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? – Jesus asks them whether they expected John to be someone who would cave to the pressure and teach something that pleased most of his audience or change his tune if some powerful person or vocal group was displeased with his message.  If they want someone like that, they don’t want a prophet; they want a politician.  I sometimes wonder if there aren’t some members in the church today who think doctrine is determined by vote or by special interest lobby and go to conference always hoping to hear prophets reverse themselves on some important issue.

But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. – Jesus asks the people whether they expected John to be someone who represents a comfortable life of luxury.  If so, they’re clearly looking in the wrong place.   The same thing might be asked of us today.  Do we take the prophets and apostles as examples of worldly success?  If we do, we’re looking in the wrong place because they gave those things up, and we should instead be looking at the captains of industry and business.

But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. – If people actually went looking for a prophet, Jesus tells them that they actually got more than a prophet because it wasn’t a random prophet, but one who had been foretold of, prophesied to come at a very important time, “For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.”  Think about that for a second—a prophet is extra special if their coming was prophesied ahead of time by other prophets along with prophecies of the Messiah.  We know of a few prophets who are given this “prophesied of” status.  Joseph in Egypt prophesied of Moses, and Joseph Smith.  Moses testified of Christ.  Isaiah testified of Christ and John the Baptist, and in fact Christ was quoting Isaiah about John the Baptist here.  Lehi prophesied of John the Baptist as well (see 1 Nephi 10:7-10).  John the Revelator prophesied of two prophets who would testify to Jerusalem in the last days.  That’s all I can think of off the top of my head.

Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – In what sense are we to understand this?  There may be several.  John the Baptist baptized the repentant, but he could not give the gift of the Holy Ghost.  He was in fact waiting for the Messiah to come who would give that gift, so those who have the power of the priesthood and who can confer the Holy Ghost are in that sense greater than John the Baptist.  From another perspective, the people noted that John did no miracles, but Jesus did, and Jesus also told his disciples that they would see and do greater things than Jesus had done.  This tells us that miracles are a natural part of the kingdom of heaven.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. – This is a little commentary about what it was like for believers in Jesus’ day of which we don’t see much evidence, so it must be taken on faith.  It tells us that believers in the Messiah did not live in safety; those who did not believe used violence and threats to intimidate them and often succeeded in silencing and squelching them. 

But the days will come, when the violent shall have no power; for all the prophets and the law prophesied that it should be thus until John. – I had to think about this a lot and ask myself under what conditions would the violent have no power.  The obvious answer was “in the Millennium” when all wickedness is swept away, but another answer suggested itself when I thought of the early Christian martyrs who gave their lives rather than deny their testimony of Christ.   When one is determined to stay true to Christ and the Gospel regardless of threats or violence, then violent people really are powerless.  And to discover in what way all the prophets and the law spoke of this would require a separate study of itself, which I don’t have time to go into now.  

I’m grateful for this added bit from the JST because it shows us that Jesus really did see the suffering of His people, and He did not intend for the violent to succeed. 

And then Jesus gives an interesting metaphor in indictment of His people in that generation:

16 ¶But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,
 17 And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.
 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
 19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

For a long time I thought this meant that John and Jesus were the children piping and mourning in the marketplace and feeling disappointed that no one was responding as they hoped.  But recently I realized that it was the other way around.  Their generation was annoyed that John and Jesus weren’t acting “appropriately,” as dictated by what everyone else was doing, not realizing that both John and Jesus were acting as examples of what should be done, even though it was different. 

John came neither eating nor drinking in order to demonstrate how the believer should have little attachment to worldly things, and this was incomprehensible to the Jews who saw it as crazy not to relax and enjoy life.  John’s way of life was considered too ascetic for the taste of the Jews. 

 Jesus, for His part, came eating and drinking with all sorts of people, associating freely with everyone, and especially with those whom the Jews considered “outcast” and “impure” and whom they mourned over as dead to the faithful.  Jesus did this to show the wisest way to reclaim the sinners and the lost, but the Jews couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted to be with those people and why He didn’t seem to demonstrate any sorrow over their state like everyone else did.

Seen this way, we can see that if we’re not careful, we may duplicate this attitude in our day toward our modern prophets, if we ever find ourselves thinking to ourselves, “I think Elder___ is too extreme.  What he’s teaching is too crazy/too permissive/too strong/too strict/too_____.” (I confess I have done this before, so clearly I'll have to guard against it and repent.)  It shows we want them to fit with our views, when we should be looking at them as an example of a particular quality that Heavenly Father hopes that we will learn to make us better than we were before and different from the world.  

The prophets can’t be politicians, nor can they be examples of worldly success.   The only way we’ll see eye to eye with them is if we also keep our eye single to the glory of God.