Wisdom and the Works of the Christ:

 Mission, Interpretation, and Persecution in Matthew 11:2-19


by John Drury





Matthew 11:2-19[i]


            2) When John heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent through his disciples[ii]  3) saying to him, “Are you the one who is to come or are we awaiting another.”  4) Jesus answered them saying, “Go and report to John what you hear and see:  5) the blind see again and the lame walk, lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and poor have good news preached to them.  6) Blessed is whoever do not does not take offense concerning me.”

            7) After they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the dessert to see?  A reed shaking by the wind?  8) But what did you go out to see?  A man clothed in soft garments?  Behold, those wearing soft garments are in king’s houses.  9) But what did you go out to see?  A prophet?[iii]  Yes I say to you, and more than a prophet.  10) This is the one about whom it is written:

   ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face,

    who will prepare your way before you.’

11) Truly I say to you: among those born of women there is none greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.

            12) “From the days of the John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and violent men seize it.  13)  For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 14) and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.  15) He who has ears[iv], let him hear.

            16) “To what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the markets calling to others, 17) saying,

   ‘We piped for you and you did not dance

    we lamented[v] and you did not mourn.’

18) For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’  19) The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners.’  And Wisdom is justified by her works.[vi]



            The kingdom of heaven is suffering violence.  John the Baptist is a persecuted prisoner and Jesus is rejected and attacked.  No wonder John doubts Jesus’ Messianic identity; this kingdom is getting off to a bad start.  But what John does not understand is that Jesus is doing the works of the kingdom, albeit in an unexpected way.  Jesus’ mission is to save the marginalized lost sheep of Israel: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them, and sinners and tax collectors are joined in table-fellowship.  As it offends the Law, this mission is justified only by Wisdom herself.  As it offends the Law, this mission will suffer violent persecution.  Those who follow Jesus discern according to this Wisdom and share in this persecution as they carry on the Messianic mission to the marginalized.  And just like Wisdom, they too will be vindicated.

Literary Context

            Why does Matthew 11:2-9 appear where it does?  What does John have to do with the flow of the larger story?  As he answers John’s question, Jesus offers a glimpse into his own identity and mission.  Hence Eduard Schweizer declares, “The obvious reason for placing the episode here is that it interprets what is happening in Jesus’ own person (chapters 5-7 and 8-9) as well as in his community (chapter 10).”[vii]  The discourse commissioning the twelve to preach and minister transitions into this narrative with the formulaic statement in “And it happened when Jesus finished...” (11:1).  The works and teaching of Jesus up to this point in the story are the impetus of the reaction in 11:2ff.

            This literary unit is preoccupied with rejection.[viii]  It is the first in a series of narratives running from 11:1-12:50, and, together with the discourse material of 13:1-52, form the so-called Book III of Matthew.  It is here that the tension driving his plot unfolds.  The pronouncement of woes (11:20-24), conflict with Pharisees over fasting (12:1-14), the first hints of their plotting against him (12:14), accusation of Jesus’ demonic power (12:22-37), and parables that only drive people away from him (13:1-52) all advance this tension.

            The rejection of the Jesus referenced here spills naturally into Jesus’ condemnation of the cities 11:20-24.[ix]  Furthermore, the wisdom theme continues through chapter 11, first as Jesus speaks on behalf of Wisdom (v. 25-27), then as Wisdom herself (v. 28-30).  Although these themes unify chapter 11, v. 19 closes off this particular pericope, for here the Q parallel ends (Luke 7:35) and the matter of John is completed.

Form and Structure

            Although there is little dialogue or dramatic action, the presence of doubt and Jesus’ complaint about this generation mark Matthew 11:2-19 off as a typical rejection story.[x]  The mention “prison”[xi] and “suffering” further indicate this victimized mood.  Matthew in his usual style uses large blocks of teaching even in a narrative context.

            This rejection narrative begins with John’s question and Jesus’ equivocal answer (v. 2-6).  By means of a quick switch of audience from John’s disciples to the crowds (v. 7a), John begins to address the issue of John.  Although it speaks of him throughout, this pericope is not primarily about John, but Jesus.  Such a thrust is evident in the turning point statement that even the least in the kingdom is greater than John (v. 11b).  The climax follows by the announcement that the kingdom is suffering violence,[xii] a matter developed by the parable and account of rejection (v. 16-19).  Even Matthew’s reordering of Q puts the stress on violence.  The law and the prophets in the forefront of Q 16:16 here play second fiddle to the announcement that the kingdom is suffering violence. 

            As Jesus addresses John’s identity and the rejection and persecution they both are facing, the focus from beginning to end is Jesus’ own ministry.  John hears of the ergon of the Christ (v. 2) and Jesus concludes that wisdom is justified by her ergon.  A summary of Jesus’ works comprises his ambivalent answer to John’s question (v. 5).

            These patterns of mission and persecution are uncovered by the following outline:


I. John’s Question and Jesus’ “Answer” (2-6)

            A. John sends disciples to inquire about Jesus’ identity (2-3)

Line Callout 3: inclusio
II.C.3 (19c)
                        1. John hears of “the works of the Christ” while in prison (2a)

                        2. John sends through his disciples (2b)

                        3. “Are you the one who is to come ...?” (3)

            B. Jesus points them to his ministry to the marginalized (4-6)

                        1. Command: “Go and report” (4)

                        2. Summary of ministry to the marginalized (5)

                        3. Beatitude for those who do not take offense (6)


    “After they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John” (7a)

II. Jesus’ Mission, Identity, and Persecution via Commentary on John (7b-19)

            A. The identity of John (7b-11a)

                        1. Rhetorical questions “What did you go out to see?” (7b-9a)

                                    i. negative response implied (7b-8)

Line Callout 3: Herod           Antipas

                                                a. “a reed shaking by the wind?” (7b)

                                                b. “man in soft garments?” (8)

                                    ii. affirmative response: “a prophet? Yes” (9a)

                        2. In praise of John (9b-11a)

                                    i. “more than a prophet” (9b)

                                    ii. messenger to prepare the way [Malachi 3:1] (10)

                                    iii. the greatest of those born of women (11a)


                “but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him” (11b)        

            B. The state of the Kingdom (12-15)

                        1. Persecution of the kingdom

                                    i. from John until now (12a)

                                    ii. kingdom suffers violence and is seized by violent men (12b)

                        2. John was last in era of prophecy (13)           [Jesus begins fulfillment era]                              

3. John is Elijah (14)           [Jesus is the agent of God]

                        4. “he who has ears, let him hear” (15)

            C. Rebuke of this generation (16-19)

                        1. Parable of the children piping and lamenting (16-17)

                        2. Rejection of John and Jesus (18-19b)

                                    i. rejection of John (18)

                                                a. came neither eating nor drinking (18a)

                                                b. response: “He has a demon” (18b)

                                    ii. rejection of the Son of Man (19a-b)

                                                a. came eating and drinking (19a)

                                                b. response: “glutton, drunkard,

                                                                        friend of sinners and tax collectors” (19b)

Line Callout 3: inclusio

                        3. “Wisdom is justified by her works




John, Elijah and the Works of the Christ

            Why is John questioning Jesus’ identity?  It seems odd that Matthew would record the doubt of a character who is so inextricably linked to Jesus’ identity.[xiii]  Perhaps there is some legitimacy to his doubt.  If John was expecting Jesus to usher in the Messianic kingdom, then why is he in prison?  Why has Jesus “not inaugurated the final judgment?” as one commentator puts it.[xiv]  Jesus' answer is equivocal, for he merely catalogues his works (v. 5), of which John has already heard (v. 2).  What about Jesus’ works makes him unlike the Coming One which John expected?

            After “answering” John’s disciples, Jesus begins to comment on John’s identity.  Who was this John?  Not a weak man or a rich man, but a prophet, and even more than one.  Quoting Malachi 3, the readers see that he is the great prophet who prepares the way of the Lord (v. 10).  This is a bit of a surprise, because of what it implies for Jesus’ identity.  Even more surprising is for Jesus to allude to Malachi 4 by saying that John is the Elijah to come (v. 14).[xv]  John does not claim this title in Matthew, and Jesus’ hesitant disclaimer, “if you are willing to accept it” (v. 14), exposes the shock value of this statement.  John A. T. Robinson suggests that John would have been quite satisfied if Jesus would have assigned the title of Elijah to himself.[xvi]  If John is Elijah, then there are no more prophets left to come.  Jesus is therefore the object of prophecy -- its culmination and fulfillment.  Hence, “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (v. 13).

            It is uncertain whether ercomenos of John’s question can be equated with Elijah.  Jack Kingsbury regards it as a formal messianic title used for Jesus throughout Matthew, rendering it as “the Coming One.”[xvii]  Despite this weakness of argument, Robinson’s thesis nevertheless reveals the focus of the passage: talk about John is talk about Jesus.[xviii]  The central concern of the pericope is “who is Jesus?”  The answer given is a double-surprise.  First of all, Jesus is not Elijah or a great prophet to precede God’s redemptive act; he is God’s agent of salvation (cf. 1:21).  Furthermore, he is an unexpected kind of divine agent.[xix]  The heart of his ministry is to the marginalized of Israel (v. 5, 19), and he ushers in a kingdom that suffers violence and is rejected.  This is not the kind of Messiah people are happy to hear about.

            These unexpected erga of the Christ are the revelation of this pericope.  John’s mission may be based on Malachi’s Elijah, but Jesus’ mission comes out of the pages of Isaiah.  The ministry summary (v. 5) is an allusion to Isaiah 35:5-6.  Jesus’ mission crosses barriers to reach out to the marginalized.  He is bringing salvation to Israel through healing[xx] and preaching.  The Son of Man hlqen -- a word commonly used by Matthew to introduce a messianic purpose statement (3:11; 5:17; 9:13; 10:34-25; 16:27; 18:11; 25:31) -- eating and drinking, and befriending tax collectors and sinners (v. 19).[xxi]  Son of Man should be glorious title, but Jesus is found with outcasts.[xxii]  Jesus builds his kingdom on these mikroteros (v. 11), the weak and marginalized “little ones” (10:42; 18:6, 10), which are given a greater status than even John himself.

Wisdom and the Law

How can Jesus’ justify this mission?  By what authority can he say the messiah will come in the manner of Isaiah 35 and not Malachi 4?  How can he claim that his ministry to the marginalized is fulfillment of the law and prophets when it crosses boundaries set by that very law?  These questions of authoritative interpretation are in the forefront of Matthew’s Jewish mind, and they receives more direct treatment elsewhere (cf. 5:17-20; 12:9-14).  Yet the answer is hinted at in peculiar final phrase of this pericope: edikaiwqn n sofia apo twn ergwn auths.

Who is this sofia?  What does she have to do with the ergwn of the Christ?  How will she be justified by her ergwn?  Elsewhere in his gospel, one can see Matthew’s interest in sofia.  Not only is Jesus’ wisdom praised (13:54), but Jesus is identified as Wisdom personified.[xxiii]  Matthew executes this perspective by redacting three Q texts.  In 11:28-29, he adds the phrase “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”  Whereas in 11:25-27 (Q 10:21-22) Jesus speaks on behalf of Wisdom, these added phrases are the words of Wisdom herself, as found in Sirach 6:18-21. 

Jesus is also identified as Wisdom in Matthew 23:34-36.  Whereas in Q 11:49, Jesus credits wisdom for sending the prophets (“The wisdom of God said, ‘I am sending them’”), Matthew has Jesus say, “I am sending them.”  The same redaction is evident here in 11:19, Matthew’s first reference to Wisdom.   Instead of regarding John and Jesus as teknwn of Wisdom (Q 7:35), Matthew says she is justified by her ergwn.  This harks back to the erga of the Christ in v. 2, and therefore equates Jesus with Wisdom.[xxiv]

            What does this declaration that Jesus is Wisdom defend his offensive mission?  How does Jesus’ identification as Wisdom address the issue of authoritative interpretation?  Comparative Jewish literature unveils the significance of naming Jesus sofia.  She is an intermediary between God and the world.[xxv]  God’s works are performed by her.  She has traveled about in search of a home until she rested in Jerusalem (Sirach 24:4-17).  She commands obedience from Israel (Baruch 4:1).  She is herself “no other than the Book of Covenant of the Most high God, the Law that Moses enjoined on us” (Sirach 24:23).  Jesus is not just another prophet or teacher.  He embodies the very Law of God.  Who better to be sent to do the works of God?  Who else has the right to define her own mission?

            Jesus as Wisdom substantiates Matthew’s already pronounced claim that Jesus is the authoritative interpreter and fulfiller of the Law.[xxvi]  Matthew moves and edits Q 16:16 into the middle of this passage (v. 13) to remind his readers ear of fulfillment has begun.[xxvii]  His identity will be justified by his works.  His mission is righteous, although it appears to violate the Law by drawing near to the unclean (v. 5, 19).  Only Wisdom herself can cross these sacred boundaries yet still be vindicated in the end.  By her works she will be justified.

            This Wisdom imagery not only reflects Jesus’ authority interpret, but foreshadows his rejection.[xxviii]  According to Ethiopian Enoch 42, Wisdom returns to heaven disappointed that no one would accept her.  Interpretation and persecution are linked in Jesus, for it is precisely his unexpected ministry to the outcasts which, although justified by his interpretive authority, results in his rejection.  His works are justifiably offensive to the law-abiding, and they appropriately respond by rejecting his messianic claim.  What they do not see is that Jesus is God’s Wisdom, sent with an unexpected mission to make her home with the little ones. 

The Kingdom Suffers Violence

            Jesus is rejected for the unexpected nature of his mission as the coming Son of Man and his offensive interpretation as Wisdom.  The rejection alluded to in v. 12 and developed in v. 16-19 links this identity-laden pericope with the rejection motif of its literary surroundings.  John as the preparatory prophet Elijah is the first object of this persecution.  As Michael Knowles wisely observes, “As Elijah’s antitype ... John the Baptist does not simply reflect the biblical antecedent, but fulfills and surpasses it ... [he] is not only the forerunner of the messiah, but also one who suffers.”[xxix]  The suffering of persecution that begins with John is spilling into Jesus’ ministry as he suffers rejection.[xxx]

Jesus declares the beatitude: blessed is he who mh skandalisqn en emoi (v. 6). Why would anyone be “scandalized” by Jesus’ ministry?  By reaching out to outcasts like the unclean (v. 5) and making friends with sinners and tax collectors (v. 19), Jesus is as scandalous as could be imagined.  The verb skandalizw is used throughout the remainder of Matthew in regard to the rejection of Jesus’ mission.  In the context of ethical discourse, Jesus uses the verb for someone or something that leads one into sin (5:29; 5:30; 18:6-9).  In a narrative setting, however, skandalizw more specifically means “to offend” (13:57; 15:12; 17:27).  Those who are offended by Jesus are those who reject him.  So when Jesus predicts the betrayal and fleeing of the disciples, he uses this verb (24:10; 26:31).  In the face of his blessing to those who are not offended by him (11:5), this generation will reject Jesus (11:16ff).[xxxi]

Aware of his inevitable rejection, Jesus asks “To what shall I compare this generation?”  The following parable portrays those who reject the kingdom as children who want to play pretend wedding or funeral but receive no response from the other children.  They are complaining that Jesus refuses to be the messianic figure they expect.  God has sent both John and Jesus, but this generation brushes them off as either demonic or drunken and gluttonous.  Neither John nor Jesus would dance or mourn, so they have been rejected.

            Amy-Jill Levine asserts that Jesus sees potential in John’s disciples and in the crowds.[xxxii]  This is a possibility, especially at an early stage in Jesus’ ministry.  However, Matthew’s perspective leads his rhetoric in a different direction.  The noun genea is repeatedly utilized to chastise those who reject Jesus (12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34).  This derogatory term is applied here to “the crowds” character.[xxxiii]  Jack Kingsbury insists that the crowds consistently avoid pledging themselves to Jesus.  They see him only as a prophet,[xxxiv] and eventually take offense at him along with everyone else.

            Jesus’ kingdom may experience rejection and even persecution, but violence is another matter.  Is the kingdom really biazetai kai biastai arpazousin authn? 

Some commentators would suggest biazetai ought to be translated in the middle voice, rendering the kingdom as “advancing forcefully.”  The further suggestion is made that biastai refers to the zealot element in Jesus’ ranks.  In an extended study on this logion, P. W. Barnett argues that the biastai refer to revolutionary uprisings trying to make Jesus king.[xxxv]  By pointing to material in Mark 6 and John 6, such an interpretation explains the pre-Matthean and pre-Lukan use of this logion of Jesus.  However, even if these were the former intent of the saying, Matthew’s use is intentionally different.[xxxvi]  So who were the biastai in Matthew’s mind?  How should we translate biazetai?

It must first be pointed out that these words say nothing about zealots.  The Q saying itself is focused on the law and the prophets.[xxxvii] Contra - this passage is about the prophets and the law, not zealots.  Furthermore, biastai in literature contemporaneous to Matthew is consistently used pejoratively.[xxxviii]  The clue to the identity of the biastai is hidden earlier in this pericope.  Jesus rhetorically asks whether the crowds went into the desert to see a “reed shaking in the wind” or a “man in soft garments.”  These sarcastic descriptions bear a striking resemblance to John’s persecutor.  The image of a reed appeared on coins minted during Herod Antipas’ rule,[xxxix] and he would quite obviously be clothed in fancy garments and dwelling in king’s palaces.  These are cryptic insults, for a kalamos can refer to a quickly tossed weather vane[xl] symbolizing Herod’s weakness, and malacos -- emphasized in Matthew’s wording over Luke’s -- connotes effeminate behavior.[xli]  This cryptic anti-Herod material implies Matthew’s intention to associate the pejorative biastai with Herod.  Just as Herod the Great spilled the first blood in Matthew (2:16-18), so Herod Antipas is the first of the biastai to persecute the kingdom itself.

Since the biastai are those who persecute the kingdom, biazetai is best translated in the passive voice.  This suffering of violence builds from this point in Matthew’s gospel forward to the cross. [xlii]  The present tense of the verb is the only good news, for the kingdom must be here in order to be persecuted.  Jesus’ mission is advancing despite the negative reaction.  The Son of Man has come and will be vindicated.

Mission, Interpretation and Persecution in Matthew’s Community

The historical situation of Matthew’s community was concerned with rejection.  As J. Andrew Overman and others have noted, Matthew’s audience was a Jewish-Christian community rejected by formative Judaism for their claims about Jesus and their interpretation of the Law.[xliii]  Persecution by Roman occupants and Pharisaic leaders defines their existence.  When Matthew’s readers see words like “prison” and “violence,” they know exactly what he is talking about.  The rejection of the Matthean community on the basis of their mission and interpretation frames this story of a rejected Jesus.

As with Jesus, the rejection of the Matthean community is predicated on their unique identity and mission.[xliv]  Formative Judaism questioned the validity of their Torah interpretation -- the only means to justify their claims.  John’s question was a question contemporary to Matthew, for if Jesus is not the Messiah, then their whole identity is unfounded.  Matthew’s affirmative answer is that Jesus is the coming one and those who follow him will be vindicated if they carry on his mission.[xlv]

How is this mission carried out in the Matthean community?  The summary of Jesus’ works in 11:5 is similar to the commissioning of the disciples in 10:8.[xlvi]  This ministry to the marginalized alters the identity of a Jewish community.  In contrast to formative Rabbinic Judaism, the “boundaries of the Matthean community are more open and the membership requirements have been modified.”[xlvii]  John and Jesus gather followers in wilderness (11:7) not in the large cities that reject him (11:20).  Amy-Jill Levine considers that “this comparison is grounded in part in the categories of center/periphery.”[xlviii]  Since his community may have been urban,[xlix] Matthew’s distinctions would criticize the powerful center.  Followers of Jesus are to welcome the periphery into their community.  By this ministry they are carrying on Jesus’ mission.

            How could a Jewish community justify such a ministry?  Matthew does not see Jesus breaking free from Jewish law, but rather fulfilling it.  Therefore, this passage is not about the Matthean community’s break from Judaism but the conflict between the marginalized and elites.[l]  In order to defend there own marginal status, as well as their ministry to those even more marginal than themselves, the Matthean community takes seriously Torah debate and study.  They would envision Jesus as Wisdom commissioning this scribal activity.[li]  The promise of v. 19c is that if they apply the interpretation of the Jesus tradition, they will be vindicated in the end.

            Why does the Matthean community need vindication?  Matthew’s world was a violent one.[lii]  They would suffer rejection from all sides.  Since “the violence against John was the start of violence against and rejection of the community and its message,”[liii]

these sayings affirm the struggle of the community and encourage them to continue their interpretation and mission.[liv]  “Jesus is justified not by the opinion of his audience, which is fickle and self-centered, but rather by the works of his ministry.”[lv]  In the same way, the Matthean community hears a rhetorical call to persevere even in the face of opposition.

Conclusion and Application

            Jesus, John the Baptist, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor,  Herod, violent men, Elijah, this generation, Wisdom, the Son of Man, sinners and tax collectors -- what do these things have in common?  What singular message singular does Matthew speak to his community?  John’s doubt is the impetus for a revelation about Jesus’ mission, interpretation, and persecution.  John’s identity as Elijah affirms Jesus’ messianic identity.  The news of his works defines his mission to the marginalized.  This mission is justified by his authoritative interpretation and rejected as a scandal.  Matthew’s readers are given this simple promise and command: carry on the mission of Christ and you will be vindicated.

            As we eavesdrop into Matthew’s message, modern readers can help but ask what this means for us.  The message is identical: carry on the mission.[lvi]  The mission to the marginalized is not complete.  We too can reach out to those on the periphery.  Our justification is found in Jesus’ authority.  By accepting the rejected we take the chance of being rejected ourselves.  This risk is part of the call.  Advancing the kingdom often results in a counter-advance.  If such is the case, then we can rest assured in our future vindication.  Wisdom will be justified by her works!



Winter 2001


                [i] This translation and following text study is based on the text found in United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1994) and discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1998) 23-24.  Each of the following variants received {B}support from the committee.

                [ii] v. 2  Instead of dia twn maqhtwn, certain manuscripts harmonize with Luke 7:19 and read duo twn maqhtwn.  Although is possible that scribes mistook original duo for a dia, it is equally likely that they would edit Matthew to concur with Luke.  Since dia is the lectio difficilior, and is attested to by significant witnesses (Sinaiticus, B, C, D, etc.), it is presented above as the original.

                [iii] v. 9  Certain manuscripts reverse idein and profhthn, rendering the verse to mean “Why did you go out?  To see a prophet?”  Although both readings are equally attested, the proposed reading above retains the ambiguity of ti, allowing it to mean “why” or “what.”  It is widely agreed that scribes would be tempted to diminish the difficulty of the passage by reversing idein and profhthn (Metzger 23-24).

                [iv] v. 15  Some manuscripts have the infinitive akouein after wta. This would be an easy scribal addition, for this phrase commonly contains akouein in the other synoptics, and there is no sensible reading for omitting it. Furthermore, the above reading is found in key mss such as B D 700, etc. (Metzger 24).

                [v] v. 17  A parallel umin is inserted after eqrhnhsamen in some witnesses. The shorter reading above assumes that this is a scribal addition for the sake of parallelism.

                [vi] v. 19  In some mss, teknwn replaces epgwn, and still others add pantwn. Some scholars point to the Aramaic similarity between the words (cf. Schweizer 260), yet translation into teknwn rather than pais is yet to be substantiated (Metzger 24). The alteration is more likely due to harmonization with Luke 7:35.

                [vii] Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975) 255.

                [viii] That ch. 11 begins a series of rejection narratives is argued also by John P. Meier, Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1991) 75; Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982) 204, 209; E. Schweizer, Matthew 255.

                [ix] J. P. Meier agrees, Vision of Matthew 78.

                [x] Jack Dean Kingsbury lists this pericope under the formal category of rejection story, Matthew as Story, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 137.

                [xi] R. H. Gundry agrees, saying, “The allusion to John’s imprisonment puts the following in the framework of persecution,” Matthew 204.

                [xii] R. H. Gundry locates the climax of this section also at v. 12, Matthew 204.

                [xiii] It has been argued that the potential disappointment for Matthew and Luke’s readers points to the veracity of John’s doubt; E. Schweizer say, “his question would be historically possible; for it is likewise hard to imagine that the Christian community merely invented the doubt expressed by the Baptist, who they considered the most important witness on behalf of Jesus” (Matthew 255); even Rudoplh Bultmann affirms the historicity of this question and answer between John and Jesus; see discussion, Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990) 333.

                [xiv] J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew As Story 74.

                [xv] It is worth noting that this pericope makes 16:14 rather comical, for Jesus has already made it clear that his is certainly not Elijah or John.

                [xvi] John A. T.  Robinson, “Elijah, John and Jesus,” New Testament Studies 4 (1958) 262-281; Reprint in Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM Press, 1962) 33-34.  Robinson points out that only Jesus is ever taken for Elijah (32). The so-called turn to Isaiah by Jesus is evidenced best in this distancing dialogue between the Malachi triumph way prepared for him by John, and the Isaiah suffering way Jesus must bear.

                [xvii] J. D. Kingsbury believes that “Coming One” = Messiah (Matthew As Story 46, 50, 53, 149).  He also notes that John is only a modified fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, for he is (1) the forerunner to Jesus, not to God specifically, and (2) preparation for ministry of Jesus, not judgment per se (Matthew As Story 49).  The thrust of my argument is that by designating John as Elijah, Jesus is claiming to be the agent of the great works of God.  The Wisdom Christology of v. 19 (see below) further advances this possibility.

                [xviii] Most commentators agree that the focus of the passage is on Jesus’ ministry and identity, not on John, see for instance E. Schweizer, Matthew 263.  On the other hand, Schweizer also supports the possibility that Matthew 11:2-19 has a polemic purpose aimed at contemporary followers of John the Baptist who, looking at first “upon [John] as the messiah, were asking just such questions about Jesus even at the time of Matthew; in this section Matthew is merely pointing out to them the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community” (E. Schweizer, Matthew 255).  Although Matthew would surely include any story that falsified other potential messianic figures, the focus of the passage is not polemical against John.  If anyone is the rhetorical opponent here, it is Herod and the generation who rejects Jesus.  J. D. Kingsbury’s narrative analysis furthers this thesis by pointing out that John’s disciples have no personality but just “facilitate the action of a scene” (26).  Unlike the Pharisees in subsequent opposition stories, John’s representatives are mere background information -- poor targets for rhetorical riposte.

                [xix] J. D. Kingsbury agrees that John’s evaluation of the Messiah’s purpose was insufficient, Matthew As Story 50.  Even Jesus’ disciples do not understand the purpose of Elijah (cf. 17:10-13).

                [xx] J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew As Story 68.  Although Matthew does not make use of the word play as Luke does, note that “heal” and “save” are two renderings of the same Greek word swzw.

                [xxi] Note the play on words between uios tou anqropu and anqropos in v. 19.  This same pun can be found in 9:6-8.

                [xxii] J. P. Meier, Vision of Matthew 77.

                [xxiii] See a full defense of this thesis in James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (London: SCM Press, 1989) 196-206.

                [xxiv] The majority opinion among scholars is that Matthew enhances the subtle Wisdom references of Q into a full-blown Wisdom Christology.  See for instance R. H. Gundry, Matthew 213; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993) 311.  Some claim the Wisdom Christology was complete already in Q (see for instance Keener, Matthew 343).  However, this argument implies that Luke wished to diminish Wisdom Christology.  Why would Luke retain the references to Wisdom yet ensure that each one did not confuse Jesus with Wisdom?  Furthermore, Matthew consistently adds to Q where Luke does not (hence our referencing Q by means of Luke’s numbers).

                [xxv] E. Schweizer claims that sofia is nearly interchangeable with logos (Matthew 447).  Although noting their similarities helps to explain the unfamiliar by association with the familiar, it would be “wise” to distinguish between the two.

                [xxvi] Jack Kingsbury sees two purposes of the Law in Matthew: “they function ethically as a norm of human behavior; and they function salvation-historically in that they prophecy the time of fulfillment” (Matthew As Story) 65.

[xxvii] In Q, the law and prophets were until John, while in Matthew they are merely finished prophesying.  Matthew would not want the Law to be abrogated (cf. 5:17), but does want to claim that the time of fulfillment has begun. 

                [xxviii] Along with Wisdom, Son of Man imagery also refers to authority, rejection, and vindication, see D. C. Sim, Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew 94.

                [xxix] Michael Knowles, Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel: The Rejected-Prophet Motif in Matthaean Redaction (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 68; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 230-231.

                [xxx] According to Michael Knowles, Matthew’s redaction has a positive and negative purpose: “positively, to heighten the association of the messiah with suffering generally; negatively, by identifying John with Elijah to refute any suggestion that Jesus was himself an ‘Elijah-messiah’” (Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel 231).  Jesus’ mission will lead him into suffering.

                [xxxi] Amy-Jill Levine points out that John and his disciples are faced with the choice of accepting Jesus’ identity and mission or be rendered as among the Pharisees who take offence at Jesus, in The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Social History (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988) 245.  The rhetorical power of this categorization adds potency to this otherwise innocuous beatitude, for no one despised the Pharisees as much as John (cf. 3:7-12).

                [xxxii] The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Social History 246.

                [xxxiii] So notes J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew As Story 24, 57.

                [xxxiv] J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew As Story 62, 139.

                [xxxv] P. W. Barnett, “Who were the ‘Biastai’? (Matthew 11:12-13),” Reformed Theological Review 36:3 (1977) 69-70.

                [xxxvi] P. W. Barnett agrees by noting that Matthew missed the original meaning of the phrase, (“Who were the ‘Biastai’?” 70).

                [xxxvii] P. W. Barnett agrees that zealots in particular are not intended by biastai  (“Who were the ‘Biastai’?” 66).

                [xxxviii] E. Schweizer, Matthew 262; also convinced that it cannot be construed positively is Laurent Guyenot “A New Perspective on John the Baptist’s Failure to Support Jesus” Downside Review 114:395 (1996) 144.

                [xxxix] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 156.

                [xl] E. Schweizer, Matthew 260.

                [xli] Gundry Matthew 207.

                [xlii] W. D. Davies argues that Jesus can be an eschatological political figure yet at the same time choose the extreme sacrifice symbolized by the cross, in The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Debate (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974) 338-340.

                [xliii] J. Andrew Overman, Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew (The New Testament In Context; Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996) 3-26; see also Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

                [xliv] As noted above, identifying John identifies Jesus.  That this is true many primitive Christian communities is evidenced by agreement between all four gospels that Jesus’ ministry begins with John.

                [xlv] Robert H. Gundry down plays the importance of community teaching in this pericope.  He notes that stress is laid on John here while Luke focuses more on discipleship (Matthew 205). However, the attention to Jesus’ followers latent in the Q source still shows through.  Furthermore, Matthew does not have to mention discipleship in order to address it; discipleship is consistently on the forefront of his mind.

E. Schweizer’s structuring of Matthew supports this argument, for he regards 10:1-11:30 as a section about Jesus’ disciples.

                [xlvi] D. C. Sim agrees that the similarity is intentional (Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew 78).  J. P. Meier also concurs (Matthew 75).

                [xlvii] Anthony J. Saldarini, “The Gospel of Matthew and Jewish-Christian Conflict,” Social History of the Matthean Community: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (David L. Bach, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 51.

                [xlviii] A. J. Levine, Matthean Social History 134.

                [xlix] Antoinette Clark Wire, “Gender Roles in a Scribal Community,” Social History of the Matthean Community: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (David L. Bach, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 116.

                [l] A. J. Levine, Matthean Social History 244.

                [li] Antoinette Clark Wire, “Gender Roles in a Scribal Community,” Social History of the Matthean Community: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches (David L. Bach, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 99.

                [lii] J. A. Overman, Church and Community in Crisis 169.

                [liii] J. A. Overman, Church and Community in Crisis 166.

                [liv] Overman agrees to the legitimizing effect of the Matthew’s rhetoric, Church and Community in Crisis 169.

                [lv] J. P. Meier, Vision of Matthew 77.

                [lvi] Although it is only a tertiary matter in the pericope, Matthew 11:2-19 would be a great text for preaching on faith and doubt.  Overman comments that “certainly the violence and perceived persecution made some members wonder if they had made the right choices” (Church and Community in Crisis 167). This passage takes doubt very seriously.  Jesus’ answer is not equivocal; there is an implicit call to faith.

                E. Schweizer wisely says, “The very security of disbelief as well as that of orthodoxy is probed by the New Testament, to see whether it still contains an openness to faith ... if faith is not simply assent to a proposition but life with God, then it can live only by increasing and decreasing, in experiences that strengthen or endanger it” (E. Schweizer, Matthew 256).  God is working through his agent Jesus.  We might be subject to chastisement for piping and lamenting and then waiting for a response.  Waiting is no good once the awaited has arrived.  It is time to join the Jesus’ mission and act on what we do know.





Text & Translation:


            Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed.  Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1998.

            Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration 2nd ed.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

            United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1994.

            Zerwick, Max and Grosvenor, Mary. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, 5th ed.  Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.


Background & Reference Materials:


            Bach, David L., ed.  Social History of the Matthean Community: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

            Charlesworth, James H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. I: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments.  Garden City,NY: Doubleday & Co., 1983.

            Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans.  Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research.  New York: E. J. Brill, 1994.

            Davies, W. D.  The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Debate.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.

            Dunn, James D. G.  Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  2nd ed.  London: SCM Press, 1989.

            Moulton, W. F. and Geden, A. S.  A Concordance to the Greek Testament, 5th ed. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978.

            Overman, J. Andrew. Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

            Sim, David C.  The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social Setting of the Matthean Community.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.




            Cawley, Martin.  “Health of the Eyes: Gift of the Father: In the Gospel Tradition ‘Q’.”  Word and Spirit 3 (1981) 41-70.

            Guyenot, L.  “A New Perspective on John the Baptist’s Failure to Support Jesus.”  Downside Review 114 (1996) 128-152.

            Kaiser, Walter C.  “The Promise and the Arrival of Elijah in Malachi and the Gospels.”  Grace Theological Journal 3:2 (1982) 221-233.

            Kazmierski, Carl R.  “The Stones of Abraham: John the Baptist and the End of the Torah (Matt. 3:7-10, Par. Luke 3:7-9).”  Biblica 68:1 (1987) 22-40.

            Lleyelyn, Stephen.  “The Traditions Geschichte of Matt. 11:12-13, Par. Luke 16:16.”  Novum Testamentum 36:4 (1994) 330-349.

            Robinson, John A. T.  “Elijah, John and Jesus.” New Testament Studies 4 (1958) 262-281. Reprint in Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM Press, 1962) 28-52.


Commentaries and Monographs:


Albright, W. F. and Mann, C. S. Matthew. Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

            Anderson, Janice Capel.  Mathew’s Narrative Web: Over, and Over, and Over Again.  Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 91.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

            David C. Sim.  Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew.  Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 88.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

            Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke 1-9. The Anchor Bible. Gen. Eds.: W. F. Albright and David N. Freedman. Garden city, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981.

            Gundry, Robert H.  Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

            Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Gen. Ed.: Bruce Metzger. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993.

            Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

            Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

            Kingsbury, Jack Dean.  Matthew as Story.  2nd ed.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. 

            Knowles, Michael.  Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel: The Rejected-Prophet Motif in Matthaean Redaction.  Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 68.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

            Levine, Amy-Jill.  The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Social History. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.

            Long, Thomas G.  Matthew.  Westminster Bible Companion.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

            Meier, John P. The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

            Overman, J. Andrew. Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew. The New Testament In Context. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996.

            Schweizer, Eduard.  The Good News According to Matthew.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.