A Profoundly Disappointing Book

Just today I received this new commentary on Judges in the mail. Usually, any time a new commentary on this book is published, it is cause for great rejoicing, since we have so little on it (which is really a pity, since it is so interesting a book of the Bible). However, I cannot rejoice at this commentary. For one thing, it is way too short to be of much help. The book is 290 pages. However, Niditch’s translation is printed TWICE in the book. Once throughout the commentary, and the very same complete translation at the end (taking up almost 70 pages!). Of commentary, there is only 211 pages, and of course, a lot of that is taken up printing the translation. Since the font-size is the same in both printings of the translation, we can assume that another 70 pages of the remaining 211 pages is translation. That leaves only 141 pages of actual commentary. Then I looked in the bibliography, and found only seven (!) commentaries in the bibliography! And guess who was missing? Daniel Block! The single best commentary out there on Judges isn’t even in her bibliography! There is no excuse for this, since Block’s commentary is now 9 years old. And it is not as if the pool is swimming with big fish, as Romans would be. Indeed, the lack of sufficiently acute commentaries on Judges has been a big problem for pastors for quite some time. Other bibliographical gaps: K. Lawson Younger, and Dale Ralph Davis. Now, I could theoretically understand not having Davis in the bibliography, since it is a more popular work. However, Niditch quotes Lawson Younger’s other works, but not the commentary! Younger’s commentary is a full 6 years old. There is no possibility that Susan Niditch did not know of these works. She deliberately excluded them from her bibliography in a gross display of liberal narrow-mindedness. Not exactly a vote of confidence in my book that this commentary is going to be helpful. These kinds of things really bother me, in case you couldn’t tell.

The Greatness of the Kingdom

Matthew 11:7-11


Audio Version

In music, one of the most exciting things a composer can do is to have a long drawn-out crescendo. A crescendo is what happens when you get gradually louder and louder until finally you reach a mountain peak of sound that stuns everyone with its beauty and power. That’s a little bit like what Jesus does here in our passage. The crescendo hits a high note when Jesus tells us about the greatness of the kingdom of God. We might think that Jesus is really talking about John the Baptist. However, as I hope to show, Jesus merely uses the subject of John to prove how great the kingdom of God is.

It is important to set the context. John had sent his disciples to Jesus in order to ask the question that had been nagging in John’s mind as he sat languishing in Herod’s prison. Jesus had told John that the new age of the kingdom had begun. It had arrived. Judgment had not come yet, but grace had. Jesus ended that answer to John with a gentle encouragement to John, pronouncing a blessing on the one who did not turn away from Jesus because of the unexpected character of Jesus’ ministry. That is the setting.

Now, the people might have begun to think that Jesus just blasted John the Baptist. That is why Jesus now addresses the crowd to talk about the kingdom, and simultaneously tell them how great John was.

The first question has to with reeds. Did the people really go out to see a reed shaken in the wind? The question implies a negative answer: of course they did not go out to see a reed shaken by the wind. Now, there is a lot here for us to see. First of all, reeds were extremely ordinary plants. The people therefore did not go out to see something ordinary. They went out to see someone who was weird. Secondly, reeds were not the most stable plant on the face of the earth. A shaking reed is therefore symbolic of a man whose opinion shifts around all the time. It reminds me of politicians. They hold up their wet finger to see which way the wind is blowing, or where the people are headed, and then get in front of the crowd and call themselves “leaders.” Obviously, John was anything but a shaking reed. Thirdly, there was a man especially known for reeds. Herod Antipas! That’s right, the very Herod who currently has John the Baptist imprisoned in his fortress/palace. This is the same Herod who will feature prominently in the passion of the Christ. It is not the same Herod who killed all the children in Bethlehem. Well, this Herod Antipas smelted some coins for money. Guess what he put on those coins? Reeds! Not exactly the symbol I would have put on there. So, what Jesus is really doing here is setting up a contrast between John the Baptist and Herod Antipas. This becomes clearer in the next verse.

The second question regards soft clothing. Again, the answer to the rhetorical question is “No, of course you didn’t come out to see someone in soft clothes.” And again, Herod Antipas is clearly the one in the palace with soft clothing. Soft clothing is another sort of jab at Antipas, since the implication is that Antipas is a real wimp. Soft clothing is only what wimps wear. Again, contrast Herod’s soft clothing with John the Baptist’s rough and tough clothing. John’s garment was made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. There is some fairly intense irony here, since John was actually in the house of the king. In fact, they both were! However, John was the prisoner, though he was a real man, and Herod Antipas was living it up in luxury in the palace. But John is the greater of the two men.

The third question is different, because the answer is given for us, and it is yes. John is a prophet. Prophets did two things in ancient Israel: they foretold the future, and they spoke the word of the Lord. Of course, those two things were often the same thing. Certainly the prophet told the Word of the Lord. Everything they said was the Word of the Lord. But not everything they said was a prophecy about the future. In fact, sometimes it was a prophecy that was conditional. If Israel did not repent, or if a person did not repent, then such and such would happen.

However, John the Baptist was more than a prophet. Not only did he proclaim the Word of the Lord. He was also the Elijah who was to come. He was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The text that Jesus quotes is from Malachi, chapter 3, where the messenger is sent by the Lord in order to prepare the way for the Lord who is coming to His temple. By the way, this is a clear indication that Jesus is the Lord Who was promised. For Jesus is the one to Whom John pointed and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John had the very great honor of being the person who would point out to people the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. Indeed, no greater honor before the coming of the Kingdom could be imagined. That is why Jesus says that among those born of women, none is greater than John the Baptist.

And then comes the climax of the great crescendo. Jesus tells us that the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist! Now, let us be clear. Jesus is NOT saying that John the Baptist was not part of the people of God. In fact, Jesus is not talking so much about people, as He is talking about a change, a shift in era. We saw that clearly last week, when Jesus quoted from Isaiah, indicating that the new age had indeed begun with Christ’s Person and Work. Now, we see that the Kingdom of God has come in its fullness. And what a privilege it is to be a part of that Kingdom!

The privileges are great. For one thing, we can now see what was shadowy and unclear in the Old Testament. If all we had was the Old Testament, we would not necessarily have said, “Oh, yes, it points to Jesus Christ, who will bring grace, and put off judgment of humans until the Final Day.” There were many who believed in God’s plan, and believed in God, such that their faith was truly in Jesus Christ even before Christ came. Let me repeat: Jesus is not saying that the Old Testament saints are worse off, in terms of salvation. What Jesus is saying is that since Christ has come, we have greater clarity, more light, more of God’s revelation. It is not as if God was unclear. The problem is that we don’t understand what God is saying. So if God tells us more, then we will understand better. This change happened when Jesus Christ Himself, who is the true Word, came into the world, and fulfilled the plan that the Father had made from before the foundations of the earth.

So, do you belong to this Kingdom? There is no more important question that you can ask yourself than that. Belonging to the Kingdom means that you are a subject of the King. He is your Lord, and not just your Savior. In other words, you cannot simply believe in Jesus as someone who died on the cross for your sins, and then leave everything at that. Unfortunately, that is precisely what a lot of people do nowadays. They think that after they convert to Christianity, there is nothing more to it. What we are saying here is that when a person becomes a believer in Jesus, he is transferred from the Satanic kingdom of darkness into the glorious light of the Kingdom of God. A change in citizenship occurs. This new Kingdom has different laws, different codes of conduct than the Satanic kingdom. We need to learn what those rules are, and follow them out of gratitude for what God has done in transferring our citizenship.

A second application comes by way of seeing Jesus’ priorities. What impressed Jesus? It wasn’t likability, and it wasn’t wealth and social standing. If Jesus wasn’t impressed by those things, then neither should we be. Now, we are still to respect authority. However, we should not play favorites with people who are more likely to get us somewhere socially. Jesus was impressed with John the Baptist. John dressed horribly, lived in the desert, was always offending someone. He had no tact whatsoever, and yet Jesus called him the greatest man born of woman before the coming of the Kingdom. John the Baptist was greater than Solomon, greater than David, greater than Abraham, greater than Noah, greater even than Adam! So, again I ask: what impresses you? What should impress us in life is holiness of character in someone else. It should be their faithfulness to what God has called them to be.

A third application follows from the second one. For what ought we to strive? Should we strive to be liked by people? Should we wave our reeds in the air, and see what comes? Or should we seek to have a good standard of living? Is that our ultimate goal? Or is our ultimate goal to be faithful to what God has called us to be? Our priorities need to be those priorities of the Kingdom of God, not Satan’s kingdom, or an imaginary kingdom of our own construction. For only Christ’s Kingdom is truly great. And that is because God values it so. So let us make our priorities line up with God’s priorities.