Sitting in prison for calling out Herod’s adultery with his brother‘s wife, John sacrificed his life for the sake of preparing the people’s hearts for Jesus. In challenging Herod’s open sin, John demonstrated that he did not love the approval of men, but the approval of the God who had raised him up to grab the people’s attention and to call them back to the Law. This was not a calling for the purpose of encouraging people to seek out their own salvation through the Law, but to call their attention to the impossibly high bar the Law sets and to drive them to see their need for a Savior.
Now that the last Old Testament prophet had been jailed for his faith, John seeks a final affirmation and encouragement from the Lord to prepare himself for death. In sending his disciple to ask, “Are you the one?” John knew the answer he’d receive. But what a comfort it must have been to hear his disciple retell Jesus’ answer to him. For Jesus could have simply replied, “Yes, I am the one you‘re looking for” but in doing so Jesus would have also deprived John of the better answer. Saying that the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cured; the dead are raised and the Gospel is preached to the poor, Jesus gave a far better answer than just saying, “I am he.” By his answer, Jesus is telling the suffering prophet that everything he is enduring in a stinking prison cell is worth it. He is saying to John, “Look at all things I’m doing, and everything that is being done for my Father’s sake and then judge for yourself if you’re suffering for the sake of God.”
John the Baptist was saturated with Old Testament Scripture. He knew the Law and the Prophets. He knew the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature. And here Jesus encapsulates all of the great prophetic signs of the Messiah in one simple answer. He tells John that he is doing the exact things that Scripture predicts the Messiah would do and must do. In other words, Jesus answers John with the deepest humility by candidly retelling his deeds which perfectly align with Old Testament prophecies that were given many centuries before.
But then Jesus gives John the best gift of all: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” This is a superior compliment and encouragement. In fact, Jesus could not have given John a better response. For who in Israel could have claimed Jesus better than John? Who had served Christ more faithfully and completely at this point than the prophet who made straight the way of the Lord? Who had projected faith in Jesus better John?
When Jesus fused this encouragement and compliment together, he gave John the rock solid assurance that his life was not lived in vain and that his faith was leading him to an eternal reward. John was the Elijah. He was the one who came out of the wilderness to proclaim the way of repentance. He was the desert dweller, who like his prototype, prepared the way to Christ. Now he is honored by God himself and given a massive gift: a direct confirmation from the lips of the Lord himself.
Yet despite all his good works, the very least saint in heaven is greater than John. And why not? This world is nothing and worthless compared to the greatness of heaven, and a janitor in heaven is far greater than a CEO in hell.
So Jesus urges us to strive for the greatness of his kingdom and we do well to follow in his servant John’s footsteps.
We Sang a Dirge
Jesus compares the complaints of his critics to those of foolish children. Like pouting youths sitting in public places they moan and complain about how they are not taken seriously. They cry out and whine: “You did not come play with us in public places. You did not follow after us as we sang or cried. Yet you followed John and Jesus. One came fasting, the other came eating, but both did not dance to our tune!”
But children playing in public places are just that….they are playing. They are not serious when they sing wedding songs and they are not serious when they make believe they are an important part of a wedding procession. They are not serious when they sing dirges weeping for the imaginary dead. Pretenders do not singing for joy or out of grief. Their singing is merely for show. Their play acting is simply for praise, and in this case these pretenders are trying to capitalize on the most public and intimate of celebrations in order to gratify their desires, not to serve the people.
The complaints of the religious elite are contradictory. John fasted, yet he was accused of having a demon. Jesus did not fast, yet he was accused of being an over-indulgent drunkard who affirmed the evil deeds of sinners. But which is it? Is it the act of fasting that’s a sin or is it the eating? The religious elite could not really say because throughout the Gospel we see that they that could not even decide among themselves. This is why the Pharisee’s criticisms could not be taken seriously. One sect rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat with tax collectors, another rebukes John for his ascetic life, but in the end these spiritual dwarfs couldn’t see any farther than the surface. For true wisdom does not depend on the surface of a person, but by the motivations of the heart in relation to God.
Woe to You, Korazin!
Being compared to the Sodomites was no small thing. The Sodomites were the penultimate example of human depravity and their destruction was the ultimate example of God’s justice in response to their unrestrained wickedness. And so utterly depraved were the Sodomites that the night before their destruction they tried to gang rape two male visitors (who turned out to be angles) on the eve of their destruction. This was a city so wicked that God felt compelled to intervene in a spectacular and supernatural way.
So imagine, being a resident of Capernaum and hearing that Jesus had just compared your town to the most infamous people imaginable. Either it would have greatly offended your highly sanitized religious sensibilities or it would cause you to quake in fear.
But Capernaum did not fear Jesus’ warning.
From all outward appearances, it does seem strange that Jesus would make a comparison between an ancient town of morally depraved, pagan Gentiles and a contemporary Jewish village that Jesus had made his ministry’s headquarters. Capernaum was not a town of blood-thirsty rapists like the Sodomites. Of course, they did not believe in Jesus after his miracles had been performed. But that was no reason for Jesus to claim that Capernaum was worse than Sodom.
Or was it?
Here is why the sins of Capernaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida are worse than Sodom, and also worse than the sins found among the modern Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon: the town rejected the greatest of all gifts. Over the course of centuries, the long awaited Messiah was considered to be the greatest promise. The age of the Messiah was considered to be a golden age, that prophets and kings of old had longed for and could only look on from a distance.
And the Messiah had not just come to Israel in their lifetimes; he had come to their part of Israel. And he had not just come to their part of Israel, but he worked miracles before their eyes. The hatred that the cities of Capernaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida had expressed was a special kind of hatred towards God. They had doubted their own eyes and had shut their ears to the wisdom of God that flowed freely from the lips of Jesus.
In spite of their doubts, Jesus gave these towns a final warning. He gave them an opportunity to repent and come to faith in him. His rebukes were harsh, but his rebukes were given to them while there is still time for repentance.
All who receive the Gospel must be doubly diligent to not become hard hearted and to turn away from it. For if these people were condemned for rejecting miracles performed in their presence, what will become of us if we turn away – we who have been given the gift of the Gospel with the benefit of hindsight to learn from their mistakes? Their doubt is a thing that should make us shudder, just as the doubt of our age should make us tremble and run to Christ.
Resting in Jesus
Jesus invites us into his rest. He invites us to cease from our work and to accept his work as our own.
Do you see the paradox in Jesus’ invitation? Do you see the irony of his offer? I ask because in the verses just before this famous invite, Jesus thanks the Father that some who heard the Gospel were blind to it. Jesus rejoices that the wise and learned were unable to see on account of their blindness. He is happy that the religious professionals fail to see their need for rest in him, and he seems to savor that it was for the Father’s good pleasure that their rebellion is the source for their undoing.
The salvation found in Jesus Christ is hidden in plain sight. This is more than sobering because in a dark and fallen world the hard path is always advertised to us as the path to true enlightenment. But here, Christ offered his contemporaries such a simple solution to an impossible problem, that the wisest and most capable couldn’t accept such simplicity and rejected his answer.
The irony and the paradox here is a thing we must see. You must see that Jesus offers a better way through resting from your work and embracing his work. You must see that the Father has handed his Son the authority to reveal him though his invitation. You must see that God has revealed his Son, not to the wise and the strong, but to the weak and the lowly.
This righteous seeing, the sight that leads us to Christ, is to first see your need of Jesus. This seeing begins with the desire to want Jesus and to accept the rest that he offers. This sight is to feel weariness and heaviness of sin and to realize that you are in need of Jesus’ rest.
The Rest Giver wants our garbage trucks filled with religious pride and our uncontrollable lusts and our insatiable appetites for sin off our shoulders, and he wants to us exchange them for small backpacks filled with his freedom and his love.
For Jesus offers us love, though we are unlovely. He offers us hope, when we should have none. And he offers us rest for our souls through faith, though we are preprogrammed to work for our salvation.
So let us enter his rest. Let us be certain that we see this gift that is hidden from most of the world. Let us take his rest for our souls.