Matthew 11:11-15

From The Kingdom series.

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Mt 11:11-15)

John in Jail

We are talking about John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin and ministry fore-runner, who is now on death row for daring to call out the most powerful guy in the land over his relationship with his brother’s wife Herodias. We know how that ends – head on a platter stuff (Mt 14:1-12).

Now John was getting reports of what Jesus was doing, and it seems they didn’t quite tally with the picture John had of what the Messiah would be doing (Mt 11:2). We are not told exactly what John was concerned about, but we are privy to Jesus’ reply.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Mt 11:4-6).

Jesus is quoting Isaiah. There are a few candidates:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

(Isaiah 61:1-3)

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

(Isa 35:4-6)

Seeing the Kingdom

Jesus is reminding John of what this coming kingdom was all about. And preaching (proclaiming the good news) and healing (the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, even the dead) are all part of the job! And of course this is what Jesus had been doing (Mt 9:35, Mt 10:1, 11:1). Don’t be mistaken John! This king wants to heal, wants to comfort, wants to free. This is the picture of the kingdom you need to have.

And perhaps Jesus is steadying John’s knees a little bit too. ‘Don’t stumble over this John”. “Don’t let your idea of God’s Kingdom prevent you from seeing and participating in the actual Kingdom” is the idea.

Are you listening?

Jesus had an important message about John for his hearers. Paraphrasing: “He was the return of Elijah you know.” (Mal 4:5-6, Mt 11:13-15). And, “Listen up! – are you really listening people? John was the wild-man prophet calling you to repentance and you didn’t listen to him – you called him a demon. (Mt 11:18). I came singing a different tune, eating with you, drinking with you and you didn’t listen to me either! I got called a glutton and a drunkard. So it’s not about our ministry style, it’s about your willingness to listen, to reflect, to repent. Are you really listening at all? The miracles are to show you what God is really like and to get your attention – don’t miss it.”

Least in the Kingdom

Now verse 11 and 12 are interesting.

 … whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
(Mt 11:11)
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.
(Mt. 11:12)

What is Jesus saying here? Was John not in the kingdom and now you can be? Or, is being the least in the kingdom the right seat to want to sit in, no matter who you are? This is the way of Jesus – the first will be last, and the last will be first. In his Kingdom, the reputation system is upside down. If you have worldly corporate eyes you are not going to get it.


Verse 12 sounds like a negative – violence is never good right? But other translations of the Greek word βιάζω (Biazo) choose  the sense of “forceful” rather than “violence”. Some have preached that as a positive- i.e. the kingdom is forcefully advancing, the idea being to be someone who is strong and  forceful in how you go about that ministry work. This interpretation does not chime at all well with the clear and consistent New Testament teaching about the requirement for gentleness in the character of church leaders and everybody else besides (Mt 11:29, 2 Cor 10:1, Gal 5:23, Eph 4:2, Col 3:12,1 Tim 3:3, 1 Tim 6:11,  Tit 3:2, 1 Pet 3:15). Either way, there is a very strong current flowing here. And what are they doing? ἁρπάζω (harpazo) – laying hold of the kingdom, taking it by force or advancing it? Destroying it or building it?

Context might give us a clue. Jesus is addressing the crowd about John. He is positive about the Baptist – saying that he is in a very small club – he’s an actual prophet. He was one of the greats alright. But now he’s in jail. So how do we view John as a result of that? Has he lost credibility because he is doing time? 

Perhaps Jesus is saying the actual kingdom of God is being subjected to the raids of violent non-kingdom people (like Herod) for their violent non-kingdom purposes? John was not one to dress up and live in a nice palace (like Herod), and now his life is on the line because of his kingdom convictions.

Violent political activity was a feature of the times. The zealots (one of whom became a disciple of Jesus [Mt 10:4] and who never seemed to lose his nickname! [Acts 1:13]), were a group who responded to Roman occupation through the use of military force and covert action. They would be called a terrorist group today, or at the very least dagger-armed assassins. Again, violence is not the way of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing.


The question for you, crowd, is this: Who are you going to listen to? Whose message will you be willing to accept? Are you prepared to endure the actions of violent kingdom-raiders in order to bring my kind of kingdom to the world?


So why is Philemon in the Bible?

What’s with Philemon? There’s no doctrine. There’s no history. There’s not really any ethical teaching. So why is Philemon in the Bible then? To ask those three questions and come up empty-handed is part of the reason! If our approach to the Scriptures is such that we are looking for everything to be s-p-e-l-l-e-d out in “do thisdon’t do that” terms we will miss most of what God wants us to learn. Such an approach is actually quite shallow, and perhaps lazy also. Much of Biblical teaching is implicit not explicit.

For example, when reading the Old Testament you find respected men of faith living polygamous lives  -e.g. Abraham (Gen 16). If we took an explicit approach to the Scriptures we could say: So the Bible condones polygamy then, it must be OK – just look at Abraham. However, if we take an implicit approach we observe the outcomes of such a domestic arrangement and then gather up the evidence. So when we see the marital disharmony that resulted from two wives in the house perhaps we can conclude it’s not such a good idea. Look also at king David – great king, great poet, lousy husband. Seemed to be in the habit of not only marrying more than one woman, but going to the extreme of taking that woman from another man (2 Sam 3:14-16, 2 Sam 11). The family disharmony that swirled around David would make Jerry Springer blush. His approach to family life led to murder, incestuous rape, political crisis. Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba took polygamy to legendary heights (1 Kings 11:1-6) which eventually led to spiritual disaster… I think we can safely say that the Bible does not paint a glowing picture of a polygamous life-style. If we still want something explicit on the subject, see Gen 2:24.

So, back to Philemon. Who’s involved? Main characters are Paul – apostle to the Gentiles, author of great slabs of the New Testament, founder of Christianity in Asia minor and Italy. Also, we have Onesimus –  a runaway slave (Phm 16-18) who had stolen his bus money on the way out. And finally, Philemon to whom this letter has been written (Phm 1). The letter is a wonderful redemptive tale. Paul was in jail again – in chains for the gospel (Phm 13) and he crosses paths with Onesimus the runaway slave. They form a friendship and Paul shares the gospel with him. Onesimus then becomes a Christian (Phm 10-12). During their discussions (which would have included Onesimus coming clean about his past) they discover they have a mutual relationship in Philemon – a fellow gospel worker to Paul and erstwhile master to Philemon. Paul’s a Christian. Philemon’s a Christian. Onesimus is now a Christian too, but now there is the tricky issue of the fact that Onesimus was AWOL and stole from Philemon. How to resolve this tension?

How Paul handles this issue is the reason we have Philemon in the canon. Paul is a major major church heavy-weight. If we were to look to ecclesiastical history for guidance on how to deal with tricky issues, we would assume that the use of blunt instruments such as threats, murder, excommunication, spiritual abuse and other unsavoury techniques are the way to go, particular for someone who had some real clout as Paul did. However, that is not what we see here. Rather:

(Phile 1:8-9 NIV)  Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, {9} yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. 

Paul could have thrown his weight around. He could have ordered Philemon to accept  and forgive Paul’s new buddy Onesimus. But no! Instead, he appeals on the basis of love. He builds up Philemon (Phm 4-7) and then humbly makes his appeal (Phm 10). He gives Philemon the respect of providing reasons for accepting Onesimus back (Phm 15). Paul does not want to act unilaterally but in partnership with Philemon (Phm 14,17). He offers to make the restitution (Phm 18). He appeals on the basis of their friendship (Phm 17). He is intensely personal (Phm 19). Paul is making a strong and compelling argument but he is not overstepping. At every point along the way, the love and respect for Philemon is maintained.

So what we have in the book of Philemon is a wonderful example of how a godly leader is to exercise influence. Philemon is all about showing how the gospel of love can work when the rubber meets the road in a conflict situation.  Without God, the one in authority can over-exert and damage the dignity of those he wishes to influence. With God, the dignity of all is maintained, love prevails and the best outcome results.

Which evidently it did as we find Onesimus popping up as a useful brother in Colossae (Col 4:9). All is good and we get to have a great practical lesson in leadership style.