Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 11.2-11
3rd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Other texts:


11:1 is the second of five similar summary statements in Matthew

In most outlines, these summaries conclude what had gone on before, which suggests that our text begins a new section in Matthew's narrative.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) offers this brief outline of Matthew up to our section:

While 1:1-4:16 emphasizes God's initiative in commissioning Jesus, and 4:17-11:1 shows how Jesus faithfully carries out this commission in his words (chs. 5-7, 10) and actions (chs. 8-9), 11:2-16:20 indicates the necessity of discerning Jesus' identity from his actions and words, and of responding with commitment or rejection. [p. 249]

He goes on to include this outline that includes our verses:

Kingsbury (Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom) writes about the section that includes our verses: "[This] subsection of the gospels tells of the rejection of Jesus Messiah by all segments of Israel (11:2-12:50)" [p. 18].

Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) titles the sections that include our text: "The Doubts of a Man of God (11:1-6)" and "Receiving Prophets and More-Than-Prophets (11:7-15)."

While I will concentrate on the assigned text for this coming Sunday, there will be some comments about the whole section.


Why would a dedicated person like John, doubt, question, and be scandalized by Jesus?


Within the narrative of Matthew, he helps establish the identity of Jesus. Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) suggests the identity of Jesus as a preaching theme -- especially during the Advent Season. "Whose birth are we preparing for, anyway?"

This is the first time since 2:4 that the title Christ/Messiah has been used in John. What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ?

One thing that it means from our text and also from 13:53-58, which is not assigned in the RCL, is that Jesus' words and deeds are offensive to some people. "Jesus did not fit stereotypical messianic expectations" [Jensen, p. 103]. "...Jesus' failure to conform to popular messianic expectations" [Boring, Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible, p. 267].

Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) writes: "God does not always act the way his servants expect him to act (11:2-3). According to the Gospel tradition, John's expectations of Jesus were correct but incomplete, ...." [p. 335].

One might explore what John and Jesus' hometown might have expected from the Christ in contrast to what Jesus was doing and saying. Might contemporary people have false or incomplete expectations about the Christ that need correcting?

Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) wonders: "If one hasn't been offended by the gospel that is Jesus, we might wonder if that one understands the gospel at all!" [p. 104]

The Jesus Seminar gives this warning in their introduction to The Five Gospels: "Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you" [p. 5]. Although I mostly disagree with their methods and conclusions, I think that this warning needs to be heeded. Jesus did not quite fit all of John's or the people's expectations.

Gundry (Matthew) specifies Jesus' failure (in John's eyes), and suggests that Jesus also did more than expected:

Jesus had not yet fulfilled John's prediction that the Coming One would baptize the repentant in the Holy Spirit and destroy the unrepentant. He had not conformed to popular Jewish messianism by bringing political, social, and economic deliverance or by coming in the wake of such a deliverance. His failure to do so caused disappointment. But his performing miracles was more than the Jews expected the Messiah to do. Jesus' doing miraculously what only God was predicted and expected to do should more than counterbalance the disappointment. This is the import of Jesus' answer to John [p. 206]


Jesus' failure was also personal for John. He's sitting in prison. He will soon be executed by the political powers. Is Jesus really the Coming One -- the more powerful one? Mary Donovan Turner, in a Christian Century (December 6, 1995, p. 1173) article on this text begins with:

John sat in his prison cell staring at the four walls that kept him from freedom. He could no longer look upon the familiar landmarks of the country he loved. He was cut off from his friends. He was disconnected from his community and stranded in a limited world, a world filled with uncertainty. He remembered the days in the wilderness when every word he spoke exuded certainty and assurance.

John had been hearing about the deeds (erga) of Christ. Keener writes about this:

... Jesus' ministry had so far fulfilled none of John's eschatological promises; John had preached that the Coming One would baptize in the Spirit and fire, casting the wicked into a furnace of fire (3:10-12). John's questions arose when he heard of Jesus' deeds (11:2-3), not in spite of them. Thus when John asks if they should look for "another," "another" is in an emphatic position and the specific term emphasizes "another of a different kind." In contrast to the expectations of some of his contemporaries, John's expectations about the Messiah's future role were right; but John did not know that Jesus had another mission before the coming judgment. Jesus urged him to believe nonetheless. [p. 335]

John has heard of the miracles, but they are doing him no good. He's in prison. He will die in prison. There are no miracles coming his way from the one he called "more powerful" (3:11). The certainty of his wilderness proclamations has now turned into questions: "Are you the coming one?" This is hopeful for us, as Turner notes: "We can take hope in this story of a person who wavers between roles. He is both unflinching proclaiming of the word and doubter of what is and will be."

How can John proclaim the power of the coming Messiah to bring in a new age, when he is sitting in prison? How do we proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord when miracles are not coming our way? How do we invite the unchurched to our church when what happens there seems so mundane (and often boring)?


David Rhoads in his chapter on Matthew in The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels suggests that the major problem of the opponents in Matthew is hypocrisy -- namely, their inward motivations or dispositions don't properly correspond to their outward actions.

In contrast to this hypocrisy, I think that Matthew is using John's question to indicate that Jesus' insides (his words) correspond to his outward actions. Or, to use a phrase from Rhoads: Jesus indicates that he is perfect like God, which means to have integrity between insides and outsides, between words and deeds.

Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) also takes this approach:

Why would people, including dedicated people such as John, doubt and be scandalized by Jesus? This section makes the point that it is because they consider Jesus' deeds without taking into account his words, his teaching and preaching. They take into account only one component of what constitutes the ministry of Jesus and of his disciples (10:7-14). The relation between 10:7-14 and 11:1-6 appears when we note that the rejection of the disciples is directly linked with the rejection of their words: "If any one will not receive you or listen to your words . . ." (10:14). [p. 157]

and later, he summarizes:

In brief, one has doubts, is scandalized, and ultimately rejects Jesus and his ministry when one interprets Jesus' deeds in and of themselves rather than in terms of Jesus' preaching and teaching. [p. 159]

Some supporting notes for this approach.

In v. 2, John has heard about the deeds (erga) of Christ (Lk has "things") and they produce his question.

In v. 4, Jesus uses the phrase, "what you are hearing and seeing," (compare Luke's tense and order: "what you saw and heard" (7:22). By placing it first, "hearing" is emphasized.

In v. 5, the first five examples are deeds, the last one is word. Both need to go together.

In vv. 7-9, it is not John's deeds the people go out to see -- how he is shaken by the wind or what clothes he has put on, but his words -- his prophesies.

In v. 15, this subsection concludes with: "Let the one having an ear, hear." This seems to stress the importance of hearing words. Luke's parallel passage does not include this sentence.

In vv. 18-19, it is the deeds of both John and Jesus that were offensive -- even though they were opposites! Verse 19 ends with a connection between "wisdom" (sophia) and "deeds". [Luke has "wisdom" and "children".] "Sophia" in Matthew is connected with speaking: in 12:42 the Queen of the South listened to the wisdom of Solomon, with the implication that we need to listen to the wisdom of the one greater than Solomon. In 13:54 Jesus is teaching in his hometown and the people say, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?"

In Matthew's outline, chapters 5-7 are concerned with Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 8-9 concentrate on Jesus' powerful deeds. In Chapter 10, Jesus gives the disciples the same word to proclaim: "The kingdom of heaven has come near" (v. 7, compare 4:17; and 3:12 where John had said the same thing) and the same deeds to do: "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons" (v. 8 compare with 11:5). However, Jesus tells them, "If any will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town" (10:14).

One may hear Jesus' words and either do or not do the deeds -- which is like building houses on rock or sand (7:24-28).

However, what one says seems to be more important than what one does in Matthew. For Jesus says (only in Mt): "I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account (logon) for every careless word (rhema) you utter; for by your words (logoi) you will be justified, and by your words (logoi) you will be condemned" (12:36-37).

In addition, Jesus says that the works of God -- heaven and earth, will pass away, but not his words (logoi) (24:35). And, "We do not live by bread alone, but by every word (rhemati) from the mouth of God" (4:4).

While the meanings of these two Greek words, rhema and logos, often overlap; there can also be differences. They can be distinguished by suggesting that rhema refers more to "rhetoric" -- the words one says; and logos refers to "logic" -- the inner reasons or motivations for speaking the words.

Why are words so important? "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (12:34b). "What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles" (15:18). "Words" (as logos) means more than just what is spoken. One can speak the right words (as rhema); yet have a heart far from God (15:8). One can say, "Lord, Lord," and do religious deeds, and still not get into the kingdom -- not because the words or deeds were wrong; but because Jesus says, "I never knew you" (7:21-23, 25:11). The words were just "rhetoric" and not "revelations" (another meaning of logos) of the (inner) person. One's inner motivation can't be discerned through deeds, but by hearing or speaking words of revelation. (Although the idea of God not knowing us or our hearts may be too anthropomorphic. Maybe the "revelation" comes more to ourselves -- and to the community? -- than to God who already knows all.)

We know that Jesus ate and drank and associated with sinners and tax collectors (11:19). Why was Jesus doing such deeds that were so offensive to some? What was the "logic" behind his actions? To know that, we need to listen to his words. What was Jesus "saying" by eating and drinking and being a friend of sinners and tax collectors? What are we "saying" by the deeds we do and our words of explanation?

One of the issues in many Lutheran congregations is trying to understand what we are "saying" by the way we do our liturgy; or who is welcome to communion. People will see our actions, but will they understand the words and reasons behind them? They need to hear our words as well as see our deeds.

Unfortunately, we Lutherans are not very comfortable talking about what is in our hearts -- whether our sinfulness or our thankfulness before God. We can give lip service in reciting the printed words to our confession of sins or our creedal statements of faith or songs of praise to our Savior. At the same time, those printed texts can be exactly the words we need to verbalize what is in our hearts. Those words can create the repentance and faith we need in our lives. We need to speak our logoi from the heart, and let The Logos direct our deeds.

Related to this theme are groups who may do a lot of good things, e.g., the Mormon emphasis on families or the Shriners and their hospitals; but whose words may not square with traditional Christian teachings. We need to hear the "words" as well as see the deeds.

Perhaps, by concentrating on Jesus' deeds, John's doubts may have arisen because Jesus -- the more powerful one -- hadn't released him from prison or saved him from persecution (and eventual execution). Jesus hadn't done anything to save him. However, Jesus' words are clear that arrest and persecution will happen to his followers: Matthew 5:11-12; 10:16-23; 16:24-26.

We, too, have to deal with the fact that Jesus doesn't often rescue us from our difficulties. We can ask, "If Jesus is so powerful, why didn't he save the thousands from the terrorists' attacks?" "If Jesus is so powerful, why didn't he heal my father?" "If Jesus is so powerful, why didn't he save her from that accident?" If Jesus is so powerful, why doesn't he stop the wars and killing of innocents?" "If Jesus is so powerful, why doesn't he provide abundant crops so that Africa can raise enough food to feed its people?"

We, like John, can find it easy to question and doubt Jesus when he doesn't save us (or even others) from problems.


By concentrating on or only looking for Jesus' deeds (even his death and resurrection), we may fail to hear the main message -- which both John and Jesus proclaimed: repent! This is a major theme in 11:20-24, (verses that are not assigned for any Sunday.) Whole towns are upbraided by Jesus for not repenting. In Matthew, Jesus doesn't criticize anyone for not worshiping or not praising him or God. The one time he is critical of those who don't believe, it is also connected with repentance (21:32).

Why don't these towns repent? Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith) observes that the only difference between the two groups of cities: Chorazin and Bethsaida, and Tyre and Sidon, is that the repentant towns are Gentile cities and the unrepentant are Israelite cities. They are unwilling to relate to Jesus' message and deeds and thus repent because they are Israelite!

Why is that a problem? The criticism of Capernaum illustrates the problem. They assume their privileged relationship with God will guarantee their "exaltation to heaven". It is their perception of their special relationship with God which leads to the rejection of Jesus and their need to repent, and thus their condemnation. For Israelites (or Christians, for that matter) who assume a privileged position with God, that assumption could be their downfall as it can lead to the conclusion, "We don't need to repent. We're good Christians," or "We have nothing to repent of." They are condemned by their words (or lack of words).

To back up a few verses, Jesus has declared that John is the greatest human born of women (v. 11). It would be easy for such an elevated one to fall into the same trap as Capernaum, but as great as John is, he is nothing compared to the least in the kingdom of heaven. Ironically, this promised-child and great servant of God is sitting in prison and he is expressing doubts about Jesus rather than having an unquestioning faith! In some ways, John's questioning is the first step to "changing his mind" (metanoeo) about Jesus. The proper response to the coming kingdom is repentance (metanoia).


Another approach to this text (actually to the parallel text in Luke 7:18-23) is taken in Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: The Study Guide, in reference to the first (and most important) key: "Specific Concrete Missional Objectives." It states: "People have a right to come to a congregation and ask, 'Are you really God's servants, or should we look elsewhere?'" Then asks, "How would you answer this question on behalf of your congregation?" How do we indicate to the world that we are the people of God?

After reviewing Jesus' answer to John's disciples, the study states, "This is quite specific, concrete mission with clear objectives and the proof is over-whelmingly conclusive." It then asks: "What are the specific concrete human hurts and hopes in your immediate community which are calling out for help? Are there two or three other people in your congregation who have the same concern as you do about a specific human hurt or hope in the community?"


There are two indications in the grammar of 11:5 (and in 10:8) that the healing ministry needs to continue and that neither Jesus, the disciples, nor we will cure all the disabled. (1) The verbs are all present tense -- the healing continues. (2) There are no definite articles (in spite of most English translations). It is not "the blind see again," but either "blind are seeing again" or perhaps "some of the blind are seeing again." If people seeking the Messiah expected all diseases and disabilities to be removed, that didn't happen, nor does this text say that it should have. "Some of the blind, some of the lame, some of the lepers, etc. are being cured." That's the sign of the coming one. Jesus gave this ministry to the disciples and should be part of our deeds in the name of Christ.

Most of the disabilities are mentioned in Isaiah:

Although not in Isaiah, Namaan the Syrian leper is cured in 2 Kings 5:1-19.

Jesus' deeds fulfill some of the OT expectations -- a prominent theme in Matthew.

Jesus in Matthew:

However, Jesus does not in Matthew:

This doesn't mean Jesus didn't do these other things, but perhaps he wasn't quite perfect in keeping a record of all his pastoral acts. <g>

Is Jesus the one who comes or should we look for another? John's question is not answered with a simple "yes" or "no". The answer can only come from faith. Like John in prison, we can only hear reports about what Jesus is saying and doing (as we hear these words in the gospels). Will we believe in our hearts the reports from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or not? Will these reports create metanoeo (a change of thinking about God, ourselves, and the world) in us? Will we believe in our hearts and in our lives Jesus' call to continue his work on earth? How do we through our words and actions reveal what is in our hearts?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364