24 April 2012

When the Lord seems harsh

by Dan Phillips

The story that opens Matthew 11 is intriguing and instructive from many angles.

First, we shouldn't miss how Matthew frames it in verse 2 — "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples." It is unique for Matthew to say so baldly "the Christ." He uses the title sixteen times in total, usually on the lips of persons whom he quotes (i.e. 2:4; 16:16, 20; 22:42; 23:10; 24:5, 23, 63, 68; 27:17, 22). He himself (i.e. not in quotation) uses only five times: four times in the genealogy/birth narrative (1:1, 16, 17, 18), and here. It is found without "Jesus" only in 1:17; 2:4; 16:16, 20; 22:42; 23:10; 24:5, 23; 26:63, 28, and of those several are spoken to Jesus or by Jesus.

So Matthew is stressing the point to us that the miracles Jesus was doing are miracles of Messiah, they are Messianic deeds, they are Messianic in character and serve to identify Jesus as the one foretold throughout the pages of the Old Testament. Matthew wants us to have that firmly in mind as we read what follows.

John the Immerser, however — the Messianic forerunner, the Messianic announcer, the King-maker who had identified Messiah to Israel — is languishing in prison. Whether he looks to the right, to the left, upward or downward, no glorious kingdom is in sigh.

Not for the first time, John calls to our mind Elijah, who after a terrific victory (1 Kings 18) knew bitter discouragement and frustration (1 Kings 19; do not fail to hear Ligon Duncan open this up to devastating and glorious effect).

So John sends Jesus some messengers (v. 3) to ask: given that nothing (that, to John's expectation, should happen) is in fact happening, is Jesus really the Messiah? Or is Messiah still to come?

How deep did John's doubt go? We can't know. He may have truly wondered if he had been mistaken in identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Or he may have been wanting to prod Jesus into action. Or he may just have wanted an explanation, a word of encouragement, as he awaited what would be his death, a death that apparently would come before the least glimmer of Messianic kingdom glory.

The key, again, is in verse 2. Where did John hear about "the deeds of the Messiah." Matthew tells us: "in prison." John expected (rightly!) that Messiah would bring political deliverance and victory and vindication, a golden age and an earthly kingdom. But John saw no deliverance for Israel, and no deliverance for himself. So he sent his students to ask the question.

How does Jesus respond?

Not as we'd expect, were we encountering this for the first time.

You have to say that our Lord's response is pretty brusque, even falls a bit harshly on our ears (vv. 4-6). It isn't cruel, but it isn't what some might call gentle and edifying and thoughtful and nuanced and careful and all that.

I mean, honestly, wouldn't you have said something different? I think I would have. I might have said, "Tell John to hang in there. Tell him I feel his suffering and pain, I know and I care. Tell him that the Messianic kingdom will come in all its glory, and he will live and rejoice as a great name in that kingdom. Tell him that he will see that all his suffering was not in vain, but brought great glory to God. Tell him that the present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory to follow. Tell him that, for that kingdom ever to happen, I must first make atonement for sin, and win the crown through the Cross. Tell him that, if he endures, he will eventually understand everything, and will rejoice."

I think that's what I would have said.

And, evidently (as I've noted before), I would have been wrong.

Jesus sees that John needs something different, and of course He is right. As I said, His answer isn't cruel, but it isn't soft, either. He says in effect, "Remind John of what he already knows, but is forgetting in his discouragement. Remind him that he already knows the answer to that question. And remind him that sticking with me solidly and faithfully guarantees blessing."

In no way did He tell John what John wanted to hear. Instead, He told John what John needed to hear.

And then, before I bring this home, note that it even gets worse, in a way. The second John's students leave, Jesus waxes eloquent about what a great man John was! I mean, He goes on and on about it (vv. 7-19). Now, seriously — couldn't He have said a little of that to John? Couldn't He have thrown him a wee little bone? I mean, come on; John's in prison awaiting death for his faithful service to Jesus. Jesus couldn't show a little love in that way?

Again, evidently not. Apparently John himself would never hear those kind words in this life. Evidently, what I think John needed is not what John actually needed.

Perhaps we get another peek in verse 7, where Jesus asks "concerning John: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?'" Even given this question, which the crowds evidently overheard, Jesus does not see John as "shaken." Oh, you'd think so, and I'd think so. But Jesus doesn't need anyone to tell Him the heart of man, because He knows what's in there (Jn. 2:25; Rev. 2:23).

So what Jesus sees John as needing (and what John actually did need), evidently, is a good, bracing shaking. He sees John as needing a splash of cold water in his face. Jesus is less concerned about John's feelings and his emotions and his mood than He is about his faith and his faithfulness.

I bring this up for your reflection, as I've reflected on it myself. Just ask yourself:  if Jesus was this"harsh" (as it seems to us) with such a favored and faithful servant, can it really be that shocking if He at times seems harsh in dealing with us lesser lights? Have there been times when you've thought Him a poor friend because He hasn't "shown up" as you would have done for one of your friends, because He didn't immediately relieve a depression, a distress, a difficulty, as you would have done for one of your loved ones?

Doesn't this give us good reason to re-think, to remember who's who, to remember that while Jesus almost always does give us exactly what we ask for, He reserves the right to give us something better (and therefore other) than what we think we need? Indeed, He does so regularly give us what we ask Him to give us, and does so frequently give us a good word from the Word directly or through others, or lets us get a peek of success or fruitfulness, that we get a bit spoiled, and expect Him to do it all the time. Then when He doesn't, we check in to Doubting Castle or its dark and dank environs.

I'm saying, we should think again. In looking back and making sense of our lives, or if we're there right now, we should think again. Like our Lord told John to do. Remember what you already know, but are forgetting. Think in faith, think with God's word and God's facts in view.

Just remember: it says He works all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28), and not necessarily for our definition of good on our schedule.

Seemingly harsh? Sometimes.



Dan Phillips's signature


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Really most excellent.

This message sets you up most nicely as a potential Charismatic Word-Faith Prosperity Gospel preacher.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

God simply works in the most amazing ways. I love how you have shown us that today, Dan.

I always keep this verse close in mind: Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy."

Excellent, excellent article!!!

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

Thank you for that encouraging word! I've been chewing on Ligon's talk ever since I first heard, and this and his talk have reminded me not to forget all I know about our Lord!

It's most timely!

Stephen said...

Wow, what a timely word! I am just now preparing notes on John 11, and in the opening verses we see almost the exact same scene only magnified: "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. SO (Greek 'oun,' therefore, then; causal relation, contrary to NIV) when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer where he was."

Mary and Martha wanted Jesus to come and heal their brother before he died. But, because of Jesus' great love for those siblings, he allowed Lazarus to die so that he could give them to what they (and the rest of us) need, a revelation of glory from Jesus and the Father (verse 4).

Nash Equilibrium said...

Argh! Dan, now with that message it's both you AND Phil that will never make it onto TBN! ;0

Lynda O said...

Thanks, Dan, for a very encouraging word. I also just listened to your Sunday message; your "evidently" style comes through clearly in both.

DJP said...

Thanks Stephen. From preaching on that passage decades ago I recall that James Montgomery Boice was very helpful.

Scooter said...

When David used the image of the rod in Psalm 23, I don't think he had a picture of large rabbit's foot in mind.

This post actually reminds me of Hebrews 11:6. Jesus is so fiercely committed to his sheep that he will speak harshly to John in order to help him gain his reward, the reward that Jesus himself will bestow.

Good word today Dan. I know I needed it.

Renee said...

I too have been mulling Ligon's sermon since last week. Your message just adds to: "God, you are just like that"

"Jesus is less concerned about John's feelings and his emotions and his mood than He is about his faith and his faithfulness."

I need to remember this with my 16 year old daughter.

will said...

Most excellent post Dan! Wonderful insights. I'm reminded again of Is 58:8-9
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Craig said...

Excellent. Thank you.

Richard Cheesman said...

A great post, nicely thought-provoking in ways I didn't want to think at this time :-)

It's true so often we expect to hear what we want to, only to be told what we need to hear - and sadly decide not to listen.

I'll have to check out this sermon by Ligon - any ideas where/how I can listen?

Anonymous said...

We are demanding, self-serving little creatures, aren't we?

DJP said...

Richard, the sermon is linked in the post.

Morris Brooks said...

Interesting, as I preached on this subject this past Sunday using Psalm 119:65-72. Verse 62, "You have dealt well with Your servant, O Lord, according to Your word. Verse 68, "You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes." Verse 71, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes."

His dealings with us are always good, and for our good (both temporally and eternally); even when we can't make sense of it. As with John, He always gives us what we need according to His eternal perspective for us. Our response should always be like the Psalmist..You have dealt well with me...because He always does.

Dan, for those of us who are pastors, this post dovetails quite nicely with Ligon Duncan's sermon at T4G this year.

Barbara said...

"...the immerser." Ha Ha Ha!

I like the way Matt Chandler put it as he discussed the latter half of Heb. 11, "Jesus quotes, begins to pull from Isaiah 61, go tell John that the blind are seeing, the Gospel is being preached to the poor', begins to quote Isaiah 61 and leaves off, 'and the captives are set free.' Jesus sends word to John, 'Oh, I'm the One, and you're going to die in prison.'" http://vimeo.com/10959675

It seems that while we all need to be treated gently and lovingly, the difference between loving the truth presented however gently and hating it, is simply a matter of the heart. When the Father and the Son and His Kingdom are the greatest desires of one's heart, then we can sing for joy in the midst of the darkest prisons - and knowing that we have seen the Son, faithfully fulfilled what He has called us to do, and will soon be face to face, knowing even as we have been known, having the very spirit within us that proclaims with Paul that to live is Christ and to die is gain....makes all the difference. I don't think it's about what's perceived as harsh (so long as it's given with with kindness and love and gentleness and patience and all those other facets of the fruit of the Spirit vs fleshly fruit)so much as it is a matter of speaking to the ultimate desire of the heart.

Susan said...

Thanks, Dan. I needed to hear this today, especially having gone through yet another bitter work-related disappointment yesterday (and the fault was all mine). As it was happening, I cried to the Lord, "Why did it happen again!?" And then I realized that the Lord doesn't really care about my success in the sense that if he has to teach me the same lesson over and over and over again without the success, he'll do without it. Sad to realize that I'm such a stubborn and slow learner....

LakeLady said...

I'm reading Pastor Mike Abendroth's "King Jesus, bowing to the gracious despot" and this post says a great deal about the King of the universe and how he deals with us. An uplifting post Dan, thanks so much!

Leslie Wolf said...

Great post.

Joy said...

Thank you for a wonderful reminder. I am reminded of a quote by Harry Emerson Fosdick who said, "He who knows no hardships will know no hardihood. He who faces no calamity will need no courage. Mysterious though it is, the characteristics in human nature which we love best grow in a soil with a strong mixture of troubles."