Given John the Baptist’s earlier declarations about Jesus, his doubts about the Lord’s identity raised in Matthew 11:1–6 could have led many to question the consistency of his ministry. How could they not doubt his steadfastness and teaching since he has gone from exalting Jesus (3:13–17; John 3:22–36) to inquiring if He is truly the Christ? Alternatively, how could they trust in Jesus as the Messiah if the beloved John the Baptist had doubts about Him?
Jesus addresses these thoughts with His own questions. When swayed by the wind, the long reeds beside the Jordan River are visual metaphors of those who teach according to the whims of men. Christ’s inquiry about the reed intends to ask if John is one to change his message with the blowing of the wind (Matt. 11:7). He expects the people to answer that John was a faithful preacher. Similarly, Christ’s question about soft clothing (v. 8) reminds them that they sought John, a prophet who like Elijah wears camel’s hair (2 Kings 1:8), not fine linen. Jesus is saying that John is a prophet whose words must be embraced.
However, John is not only like Elijah, he is Elijah. In verses 9–10, Christ says John the Baptist fulfills Malachi 3:1, which looks for a special messenger to come before the Day of the Lord. This messenger is Elijah (Mal. 4:5–6), and in going before Jesus, John is revealed as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Of course, John is not Elijah reincarnated. Just as the prophets refer to the coming Messiah as David (Jer. 30:9) because David is the prototypical king, so too does Malachi say the Messiah’s forerunner is Elijah since Elijah is the exemplary prophet. But Jesus is not literally David, nor is John the Baptist literally Elijah.
John is indeed great, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater still (Matt. 11:11). Here Jesus contrasts John’s place in redemptive history with that of the new covenant believer. John saw Jesus, but he died before the Lord’s death and resurrection. After His resurrection, we understand the work of Christ more clearly. Moreover, even today we experience new covenant benefits — like immediate access to God’s presence (Heb. 10:19–22) and the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 8:9) more powerfully than John did when he walked the earth.
John Calvin says the new covenant minister’s preaching is greater than John the Baptist’s because “it holds out Christ as having rendered complete and eternal satisfaction by his one sacrifice, as the conqueror of death and the Lord of life, and because it withdraws the veil, and elevates believers to the heavenly sanctuary.” John the Baptist was blessed, but we are more greatly favored to live in an era more cognizant of God’s grace in Christ.
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