Matthew 11:16-30.
Responding to Jesus' Call

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2016, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

When we thoughtfully observe the state of our world today, we probably come away rather disappointed with its globally sinful nature.  The dramatic increase in communication that has taken place in the last few decades has only served to exacerbate this imagery, as we are made aware of more and more of the violence, hatred, and injustice that takes place around the world. 

Actually, any objective study of human history will reveal that, for the most part, the character of man has changed very little, if at all.  The leading cause of premature death since Cain slew Abel has always been the killing of people by others.  The leading cause of premature death today is not gun violence, terrorism, or even wars; it is the killing of multiple millions of babies while they are still in the womb, killed simply because they are an inconvenience to the mother.  The self-serving spirit of evil has been at work from the moment that mankind had the capacity to choose it instead of the Spirit of God, and all manner of hatred, violence, and destruction has been the universal result.

From the days of Adam through the birth of Abraham, the number of people who chose to place their faith in God over the immersion in the sin of this world was extremely small, with its recorded number limited to one family line from Adam to Noah, and then one slightly larger line from Noah to Abraham.  However, when Abraham passed his faith to his twelve sons, the nation of Israel was born, and God’s promise to bless the earth with a community of faith that would be numbered as the sands of the seas would begin to come to fruition.  Today the number of people who have truly placed their faith in God could be approaching a billion people and are spread throughout the nations of the earth. 

This dynamic of religious activity also includes those who have, in their search to understand the nature of God, formed their own models of religion, and even the nation of Israel did this.  A revival of faith took place in Israel when leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah led the nation to rebuild Jerusalem following their return from exile in Babylon.  However, when that generation died, their zeal towards the faith was not passed down to their children, and the nation wandered away from faith and became dependent upon the written Law of Moses rather than placing their trust in God.  Their zeal for that Law became their religion and what was formerly expressed as saving faith in God was replaced by a secular religion of legalism that was formed by man.

Consequently, Jerusalem became a center of legalistic religious fervor in a largely secular and pagan world within which they were immersed.  However, the religious leader’s zealous adherence to their interpretations of ancient Mosaic Law and their addition of more rules and regulations blinded them to the coming of the Messiah.  Their legalistic and self-righteous world-view had no room for the grace of God, so when the prophesied Messiah came, they did not recognize Him.  It is this culture that Jesus is describing to the multitudes,[1] a culture that is not much different from that which we are experiencing today.

Matthew 11:16.  But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,

Jesus has been teaching among the people, fulfilling the prophecy that God would take His Word and put in in their hearts,[2] as Jesus gave context, meaning, and application to the Law, the Prophets, and the poetry of the Old Testament.  This was a dramatic contrast from the interpreted “head knowledge” of the religious leadership.  The teaching of the religious leaders was powerless to lead the people to faith in God.  Jesus describes their powerlessness and lack of wisdom as though they were children shouting commands at other children.  One could understand this idea as the “kindergarteners taking over the school.”  What the LORD had purposed in His Word had been “hijacked” by those who had no real knowledge of the gospel or God’s plan for His people, yet they were the ones demanding autocratic religious authority over all of the Jews.

Matthew 11:17.  And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.

The message that is being shouted out by the children is literally, “we are telling you how to play this game, and you refuse to play by our rules.”  There are two dynamics happening here.  First, the religious leaders, like the youngest of the school children, do not have the true knowledge of the Word of God.  Theirs is a religion of condemnation that despises anyone who does not play.  Second, it is they who have made up the rules of the “game.”  Imagine if kindergartners attempted to take over an actual public school, attempting to administer all of its myriad of responsibilities.  With no knowledge or experience, the children would make demands and decisions that were entirely ignorant of how a real school is operated.  The students and faculty would quickly dismiss the children’s leadership and run the program themselves.  Meanwhile the kindergartners would all be frustrated and angry that they are being ignored.

This is the state of the Jewish leadership at this time in history.

Matthew 11:18.  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.

Jesus gave his hearers an example of the ignorance of the work of God in their midst in the example of the rejection of John the Baptist by the religious leadership.  While Jesus is currently teaching, John is languishing in prison after exposing the sin of the religious leaders, particularly that of Herod the Roman tetrarch of Galilee whose incest he criticized.  Had the Jewish leadership understood the content and the context of the Jewish scriptures, they would have recognized John the Baptist as the one “crying in the wilderness,”[3] proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

The words translated “neither eating or drinking” is an allusion to a Hebrew formula that refers to the vow of a Nazirite.[4]  John the Baptist demonstrated through his devotion to the LORD what it is to live a life of faith.  Other than Jesus, John was the best example of true “religious” piety that the Jews had ever seen.  Yet, the religious leaders could not see this.  They could not recognize the wisdom of God when it was being clearly preached in their presence.  Though they made great and sweeping gestures in their show of waiting for the Messiah, they did not hear John’s message proclaiming His imminent appearance.  Instead, they hated John because his preaching concerning the Messiah did not agree with their accepted view.

This statement concerning John the Baptist illustrates the dramatic difference between the view of the religious leaders and the truths of God’s Word.  Their rejection of the gospel has gone beyond opinion and entered the realm of persecution of those who turn their hearts to God. 

Matthew 11:19a.  The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.

Likewise, the religious leadership who proclaimed their own unimpeachable righteousness, did not recognize the Messiah Himself when He appeared.  Jesus’ ministry was not exercised in secret.  His ministry of teaching and healing was well-known in the region and He drew crowds everywhere He went.  Like John the Baptist, Jesus demonstrated to all people what a truly righteous life looks like.  Given the prophecies, and their fulfillment by both John the Baptist and Jesus, the religious leaders should have led the people to celebrate the coming of the Messiah.  Instead they saw both John and Jesus as a threat to their status-quo, and would work, not to praise the LORD, but to kill him.  Consequently, when they looked upon Jesus’ activities they did all they could do to discredit Him.

These two illustrations simply serve to expose the folly of the religious leadership in Jerusalem.  When they should be celebrating the return of the Messiah, they are conspiring to remove both of these influences from their Israel whom they tightly control.

Matthew 11:19b.  But wisdom is justified of her children.

Taken literally, this statement can be difficult to understand, particularly if taken alone.  However, when considered in the context of the passage, it works well to summarize the state of the religious leadership in Israel.  Throughout this passage Jesus has been comparing the religious leaders to children who are successfully demonstrating their youthful age by their folly.  Consequently, the word “wisdom” in this passage is a form of contradictive hyperbole, as it refers not to the godly application of God’s Word, but rather the foolish self-proclaimed wisdom of these leaders that is carnal and self-serving.  Their lack of wisdom is consistent with the behavior of children. 

Matthew 11:20. Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:

The fruitfulness of Jesus’ ministry was realized on a personal level.  As He taught and ministered in the region, people did come to Him in faith, but the numbers were not particularly large.  Even at the point of His ascension, His “disciples” amounted to less than two hundred people after three years of ministry.  The biblical narrative infers that many people were healed among the crowds that came to Him.  Yet, the communities were not swayed.  After two thousand years of opportunity, the cities of the world still remain unconvinced. 

We might recall the experience of the reluctant prophet, Jonah, who went to dramatic means to avoid preaching to the pagan city of Nineveh, yet when he relented he simply walked through the city and proclaimed God’s impending judgment upon their sin.  Having no love for the people, he waited outside the city to watch the judgment of God come down on them.  However, the king of the city led them to repentance, and no such judgment took place.[5]

Yet with three years of exposure to the ministry of the Messiah, Jesus’ words were rejected by the Israelite communities to whom He came specifically to share God’s message of grace.  Their adherence to their own definition of “religion” blinded them to the Word of God even more significantly than the pagans of Nineveh who only heard a few words one time from an uncaring street preacher.

Matthew 11:21-24.  Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. 23And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

The contrast that Jesus makes between these two sets of cities is remarkable, and instructive.  The cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida are cities of Israel who have been recipients of the special revelation of God since He promised to bless the world through the legacy of faith that would start with Abraham.  We have no biblical reference to Jesus’ ministry in Chorazin, but there are a couple incidents recorded of His work in and around Bethsaida.  Also, the Apostle Phillip was from Bethsaida.  Capernaum was Jesus’ “base of operations.”  He likely spent more time ministering in and around Capernaum than any other city. 

These cities contrast dramatically with Tyre and Sidon.  These were pagan cities of the northern region of Phoenicia.  Though Phoenicia was usually an ally and trade partner with Israel, its cities were not recipients of God’s revelation of Himself. 

Jesus is contrasting the judgment that is going to come upon those who have rejected the grace that God has offered to all people.  All who chose to be separated from God in this life will be separated from God for eternity, whether they come from Capernaum or from Tyre, whether they have heard the gospel or whether they have not.  However, there is an increased measure of guilt assigned to the nation of Israel that Phoenicia does not share.  Israel’s reject of God’s love for them was, and is, deliberate.  Phoenicia’s (or any of the Gentiles of the day) rejection of God’s love for them is out of ignorance, as they are immersed in a world where the works of evil overwhelm their perception of the work of the Holy Spirit.

This contrast is quite relevant for today when there is a vast number of people who have heard enough of the details of God’s offer of grace to respond to Him.  Instead they choose to reject that offer of forgiveness, preferring to follow the impotent shadows of this world.  This contrast is still relevant for Israel who, before any other people on this earth, have reason to turn to the Messiah in faith and trust.  Jesus’ “upbrading” of Israel still holds.  This is an appropriate reason for the Christian community to continue to pray for the salvation of Israel who, with Christianity, are brothers in the receipt of God’s special revelation to mankind.

Yes, Tyre and Sidon are lost.  But so is Israel, and they will be facing a harsher judgment at the end of the age for their deliberate rebellion against God’s love.

Matthew 11:25-26.  At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.  26Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.  

The words, “wise and prudent” are an idiomatic reference to those in the communities that we would consider the “movers and shakers.”  Jesus expresses God’s pleasure that those who are not immersed in their own self-proclaimed righteousness are, without their deep knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, able to fully understand and respond to the gospel.  These people are not blinded by their presuppositions concerning the Law of Moses as are the religious leaders.  They are coming to Jesus like children who are open to leaning, quickly to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and placing their faith and trust in Him.

Likewise, there are those today who are the religious “movers and shakers” who are convinced of the voracity of their own systems of religion, systems that reject the deity and Lordship of the Messiah, Jesus, replacing it with an impervious barrier between themselves, with their adherents, and the saving grace of God that is found only through faith and trust in Him.

Matthew 11:27.  All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.

How does one come to know God?  How does one avoid the judgment that is to come to Israel and the rest of the lost world?  First Jesus noted His relationship with the Father.  The power and nature of God is far greater than the greatest imaginings of man, though we may sometimes think we know everything about Him.  God has revealed Himself to us in many ways, and of these we are given to observe three “sets” of well-defined attributes.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are wholly part of the nature of the One True God, yet each has unique and recognizable attributes.  Since they are one God, there is no barrier between them.  This is the significance of the word “knoweth” that is used here.  There is simply no capacity for man to know God as Jesus does, and His relationship with the Father is one of singular unity.  No man can know the Son as the Father does.  No man can know the Father as the Son does, simply because they are united as “one.”

However, Jesus offers a remedy for this impasse of knowledge where mankind stands on one side of this relationship and God “stands” on the other:  As He states that nobody can know the Father as the Son does, Jesus adds the statement, “and he to whom the Son shall reveal.”  Because of the nature and work of the Messiah it is possible for mankind to know the Father in a personal way.  It is possible for people to have an intimate agape-love based relationship with God that is similar to the unity that is found in the Holy Trinity.  This relationship is available to those who will those who have submitted to the gospel message of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who “taketh away the sins of the world.”[6]

This gospel message was revealed to Israel through the Patriarchs and the Prophets, yet Israel would not listen.  This gospel was proclaimed to Israel by John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, yet Israel would not listen.  The gospel message was revealed to Israel through the three-year earthly ministry of the Messiah, Jesus, yet they would not listen.  Israel had deceived itself as a nation much in the same way that the world today has deceived itself.  However, it is never too late to turn to God in faith.  The gospel message that Jesus brought to mankind is simple:  If you place your faith and trust in God, He will forgive you of your rebellion against Him, and bring you to Himself forever in a relationship that is found through the graceful dispensation of His forgiveness.

However, one cannot place their faith and trust in God without placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ because He is the Messiah, the person of God who came to earth to share the gospel message and to take upon Himself the penalty for sin on the Cross of Calvary.  Jesus and God the Father are One God.  All people will come to God at the end of the age, but only those who have placed their faith and trust in Him will come to Him with forgiveness.  It is these that are sealed by the work of the Holy Spirit.  All who come to the end of the age and are still in rebellion against God will not have the mark of the Christian: the Holy Spirit in their heart, and the advocacy of Jesus, Christ.  Those without the mark of the Holy Spirit will have the “mark of the beast” which is simply the lack of the Holy Spirit which the Revelation describes as the number six hundred and sixty six: falling fully short of completion; total depravity; total submission to evil.

Matthew 11:28.  Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

The religious leaders thought that God’s promises were meant only for themselves, believing that they were the only righteous ones due to their zealousness for the Law of Moses.  Jesus is not going to find very many people of faith in this community.  The community of faith is to be found among those who are despised by the religious establishment.  This community is made up of those who the religious zealots hold to be “unclean” and “untouchable.”  It is these who labor and are heavy laden.  It is these who tire from their sincere efforts to live the godly life, yet still fall into temptation, who are still heavy laden by the consequences of their sin.  It is these who recognize their need for God, through the study of the Word, through the ministry of Jesus, or through any other means that God reveals Himself to them.

Jesus is calling to all people to come to Him in faith, and in so doing find rest from their struggle with the sin that separates us from God.    

Matthew 11:29.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Jesus describes the result of coming to faith as sharing a “yoke” with Him.  A yoke is the harness that is shared by two animals, usually mounted across their shoulders, as they work. 

  • The yoke causes them to stay together, and guides each to work in the same direction. 

  •  The yoke also allows each to contribute to the work based upon their own strength as it adds the work of the two together. 

  • The yoke also keeps the animals together as companions during the work, a relationship that, even in animals, brings them both encouragement.

Note that Jesus does not put the yoke on our shoulders.  Jesus fully demonstrates the qualities of meekness (strength that is under control and focused) and humility.  Though He is the Creator and Judge of this universe,[7] He loves us enough to allow us to choose Him after we learn of Him.  We are to “take on” the yoke that we share with Him.  Jesus also said, “I stand at the door and knock.”[8]  Jesus makes Himself available to us, but it is up to us to open the door and let Him into our lives.

Matthew 11:30.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

The religion of the Israelites was anything but easy and light.  The yoke that the religious zealots was a form of righteousness that was available only through the burden of impossible laws, rules, and regulations.  It was a burden that no person could bear.  Likewise, the burden of sin is one that no person can fully bear.  Sin separates us from God in this life, and will also serve to separate us from Him in eternity. 

However, when we place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, something amazing happens.  We are yoked with the Creator, Himself whose entire purpose is to bless us.[9]  Jesus removes from us the condemnation of sin,[10] and replaces it with forgiveness of that sin and the resources to overcome its power and consequences in our lives. 

The yoke replaces the burdens of law’s legalism with the illumination of its purpose in our own hearts.  People of faith do not need to research the book of Law in order to inform their daily decisions, but rather to simply look into their own hearts as the Holy Spirit guides and directs our thoughts and actions when we allow Him to. 

The Creator of this universe has offered to every one of us the opportunity to share the yoke of our burdens with Him who is all-powerful beyond the greatest of our imaginings.  He has offered to forgive us of the sins that the Law exposes, simply by placing our faith and trust in Him.

This is the message of the gospel that we can respond to, and the message of the gospel that we are called upon to share so that others in this lost world can become yoked with God, find peace and forgiveness, turn from their worldly ways, and find an eternal blessing in Him.

If we consider ourselves Christians, let us not be numbered among those of Chorazin, Bethsaida, or Capernaum who will face a greater judgment because theirs was a religion, but not faith.  Let us be yoked with the LORD so we can realize the blessings that He desires for us, and let us go to those of Tyre and Sidon that they might hear the gospel and also find grace in the LORD.

[1] Matthew 11:7.

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

[3] Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4; John 1:23.

[4] Numbers 6, 3-21; Judges 14:5-7, 16:17.

[5] Jonah, Chapter 4.

[6] John 1:29.

[7] John 1:1-4.

[8] Revelation 3:20.

[9] John 10:10.

[10] Romans 8:1.