The Matters of the Heart (Matt. 11:1-24)

In this middle section of the Gospel we begin to see the development of opposition to Jesus as the initial period of popularity begins to wane as he engages in his public ministry. The opposition will come mainly from the scribes and Pharisees as they attempt to reverse the influence of Jesus over people.

As we can see from verse 1, Jesus continued to travel around preaching while his disciples were away on their mission (mentioned in the previous chapter). Matthew mentions three incidents that occurred. One was the request from John the Baptist, the second was the denunciation of the places Jesus visited, and the third was the promise of rest to the weary. We could say that Jesus deals with three spiritual problems: loss of assurance, failure to believe and don’t listen to false teachers. We will focus on the first two in this sermon.

The problem of John the Baptist

It was common in the past to assume with regard to this incident that John did not have doubts, but was only personalising the doubts of some of his disciples. Apart from the fact that the passage says he asked the question and that Jesus directed his answer at John, such a suggestion also denies the reality of the experience that John went through and how he found relief.

The first detail we can see is the reality that anyone can lose their assurance. John may have lost his because of two reasons: (1) his circumstances and (2) Jesus did not seem to be a success against those who were in charge of God’s people. Misreading our circumstances and failing to appreciate what the activities of Jesus should be are common causes of loss of assurance.

John was a great spiritual leader, a man with a special role in God’s kingdom as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the one who as the predicted Elijah had the unique privilege of being the forerunner of the Messiah. Previously, on the banks of the Jordan, he had publicly announced that Jesus was the Messiah and had urged his followers, such as Peter and Andrew, to follow Jesus. John is a reminder that anyone can lose their assurance. There is something comforting in knowing that both Elijah and John had periods of doubt, even although they were called to serve in prominent positions for God.

Sometimes we imagine that engaging in sin is the only reason why we will lose assurance. Yet there is no suggestion here that John had done anything wrong. We know from other references to his time in prison that he remained faithful to God and warned Herod about his behaviour when the king asked to hear him. Some of the saintliest people have lost their assurance. We only have to read the psalms to realise that is often the case.

It was inevitable that those closest to John would have been affected by what was happening to him. Maybe it was the questions of his disciples that had helped bring about the situation. It is not always good to share your doubts because they may disturb others. Wisdom is needed in that regard. John’s response was to face the situation head-on and find out from Jesus himself, and when we share our doubts we should always come to that conclusion. The remedy is not found in our probing of our doubts and fears.

Jesus sent to John the remedy for his distress, which was that he should focus on what the Old Testament said the Messiah would do. If he thought about those matters, he would get his assurance back because he would realise that Jesus was doing what had been predicted. The obvious deduction from this is that we should read the Bible and meditate on it when we are losing assurance.

It is important to notice that Jesus defended John even although he was going through an experience of personal doubt. The loss of assurance is not a reason to remove yourself from the position that Jesus has given to you. People could have misconstrued that Jesus would abandon his servant because of his failure, and we can see how some would ask why Jesus did not seem to help John. They could wonder if he was allowed to be in prison because he had failed in some way. Jesus ensures that the truth about John remains. When we lose our assurance, who defends us and where does he defend us? Jesus defends them from his throne in heaven – he is always their Advocate.

The response of the public

In verses 16-19, Jesus gives his assessment of how the people had responded to his campaign so far. He says that in general the response had been childish and inconsistent whereas the reality was that they should have dealt with the combined message of John and Jesus seriously. As we read the analysis of Jesus, there are several warnings we should take.

The first is to beware a critical spirit. After all, those who criticised John the Baptist went on to criticise Jesus himself. Of course, in criticising John, they were finding fault with the One who sent him.

The second is that we should ponder whether or not we have read a person’s behaviour correctly. John chose not to participate in meals whereas Jesus went to them. Each of them was saying something very important. John behaved in the way he did because it was how he expressed his devotion to his calling. There is no record that he told his followers that they should live in the way he did. His lifestyle was chosen because he wanted to serve God as best he could. Yet the crowd deduced the exact opposite from his behaviour, and they were wrong to do so.

The crowd did the same with Jesus. They misconstrued his gracious behaviour and missed out on the blessings that he could provide. While they did not realise it, their description of him was accurate because he had come to be the friend of sinners. The problem was that they did not see themselves as sinners. That same kind of thing happens today when people fail to see that Jesus came to help them because they are sinners.

The necessity of repentance

The Saviour then spoke about the lack of spiritual response that people had made to his mighty works. No doubt, there were several responses. Some were amazed at what Jesus could do. Others attributed his ability to the devil. People discussed what he said and he did. Yet because they did not repent, they were going to face divine judgement. We can see that there was a particular aspect of their response when Jesus says that they were worse than Gentiles who had not heard the gospel (Tyre and Sidon) and Gentiles who had experienced a form of divine judgement (Sodom). The refusal of the listeners of Jesus to repent was connected to a determined rejection of the truth. Despite their great blessings, they had become hard in their hearts. Again they were reminded that judgement will be more severe for them, but they did not listen.

Although we have heard descriptions before of what it means to repent, we can summarise what is included in genuine repentance by using an acrostic of the word ‘repent’.

The r reminds us that repentance is a form of regret. We realise that we have disobeyed God and we wish realise that we should not have done so. Obviously, repentance is a response to information, and we receive such information in the Bible. It is information about our state as sinners and our destiny as sinners and what God says about them.

The e reminds us that repentance is energetic in a spiritual sense. I doubt if real repentance is ever calm. Repentance is not like ticking off items in a grocery list. We can always recall sins that we have committed. Imagine that we between 4pm and 4.10pm we lost our temper, told a lie and coveted something. At 4.10 we realise what we have done. So we say to God, in the space of ten seconds, ‘I am sorry for losing my temper, for telling a lie, and for coveting.’ Is that repentance? Would the depth of feeling depend on the one we had sinned against? If we had sinned against a friend, there would be strong feelings accompanying the repentance if it was genuine. If we had sinned against a spouse, there would need to be strong feeling for it to be genuine. But we have sinned against God. Our sins are against his love, his wisdom, his goodness, his authority, and our repentance must include strong expressions of regret.   

The p reminds us that often repentance of sin is particular. By this, I mean that repentance is focussed. There are some personal sins that are easy to repent of and there are other sins that we don’t wish to repent of. That is why we fall into the ones that we don’t repent about. In a sense, we can tell, and others can tell, the sins that we are not repenting about. Repentance takes time – it is a spiritual exercise connected to self-examination.

The e reminds us that true repentance is excuseless. Sometimes, when the Lord mentions sins to people, they make excuses. This is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden when the Lord asked them what they had done. Their excuses blamed someone else. We can blame circumstances, we can try and mitigate our sins by referring to character flaws, we can say that others caused us to do whatever the sin was. David could have blamed others when he describes his sins in Psalm 51, but he did not. His sin was his action, his choice, based on his wrong inner desire. No excuses.

The n tells us that repentance is normal for a Christian. The Christian life begins with repentance and continues with it. Every spiritually-healthy believers engages in frequent repentance. Repentance does not mean the absence of joy because it is a practice that helps the development of the fruit of the Spirit.

The t reminds us that all genuine repentance includes trust in Jesus. It is common to describe repentance and faith as spiritual twins that always go together. Usually, the focus of such faith in Jesus concerns his activities of grace for sinners, primarily his work on the cross.

Three lessons

The first lesson comes from the description Jesus gave of John the Baptist and concerns the defining of greatness. What makes a person great in the kingdom? When the listeners heard Jesus say that John was greater than Abraham or Moses or Elijah, they must have wondered what he meant by greatness. What makes persons great in the estimation of Jesus was linked to what they did with him. John was not the founder of a nation like Abraham, or a deliverer of an enslaved people like Moses, or a long-serving prophet like Elijah. But of them all, he gave the clearest evidence about Jesus and that qualified him as great.

The second lesson is the danger of misreading the activities of grace. Both John and Jesus were behaving graciously, yet both were misread by the people in general. We should always read actions through what people say they are doing. John did what he did because he wanted sinners to be converted and Jesus did what he did because he wanted sinners to be converted.

The third lesson is the importance of repentance. Without it, we are not true Christians. It is a grace that should adorn us every day. It gives real and lasting beauty to a Christian life. It is an indication that we have found what life is all about as we prepare for the certain and highly important date in our calendar, appearing at the judgment seat of Christ.

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