Three major strongholds existed in Palestine around the Dead Sea. They were Masada, Herodium (both on the west side of the sea), and Machaerus. Machaerus was built around 37 BC by Herod the Great immediately after defeating the Parthians (the empire to the east that previously controlled Palestine). Existing on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, the fortress was intended as a battlefront marker to withstand advances from the east. Herod built a lavish palace in the midst of this mountaintop fortress. And years later, Herod Antipas would make this palace his main home as he ruled Galilee and Perea (the territory to the west of the northern part of the Dead Sea and most of the Jordan River). This Machaerus, then, is also the probable place of imprisonment for John the Baptist.
John’s imprisonment was most likely not the dungeon cell we may have imagined, but rather a “house arrest” situation in which he could move about Machaerus, but not away from the fortress. We know his disciples had access to him (Luke 7:18), and Herod frequently “heard him” (Mark 6:20).
Chapter 11 of Matthew opens with John in prison hearing of all the deeds of Christ. We know from Luke 7:18 that it was specifically the hearing of the works of Jesus—his miracles of healing the lame, blind, and deaf and raising of the dead—that prompt him to send a question by his disciples to Christ. His question (11:3) was “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another.” Before getting to the answer of Jesus, we need to understand what may have prompted this question. Is it possible that John did not realize that Jesus was the Messiah, and only after hearing of his deeds did John come to that conclusion? No, this could not be. We read in John 1:29, the day after the baptism, that upon seeing him, John declared, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” He certainly, at least at that time, was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah.
A second possible reason finds its way into most commentaries. It is that although John had been convinced at one time, he was now beginning to doubt. To me, this is almost as unthinkable as the first possible reason—that he didn’t realize. John most likely knew Jesus from little on. They were cousins, and although Mary and Joseph lived in Galilee while Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in Judea, each year Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made their way to Jerusalem every year at Passover (Luke 2:41). Most likely the families got together (especially considering the bond formed between Mary and Elizabeth and the fact that they had children almost the same age). Most likely John noticed the extreme goodness of Jesus. And most likely he had a discussion with his mother about Jesus, and was informed by her of the hand of God on Jesus. She possibly even made John aware of the declaration with which she greeted Mary—“the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). No doubt this was the reason for his puzzlement as Jesus approached him for baptism. John knew—at least from experiential knowledge—that Jesus was at least a significant man of God, if not the Messiah himself. But we must couple that knowledge with the occurrence at the baptism. John had been spiritually informed that the Messiah would be the one on whom the Spirit as a dove descended. Jesus comes up from the water, and John sees the Spirit dove. More than that, John hears a voice from heaven—the very voice of God!—declaring “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16).
Sure John was in prison (probably about a year at this point), but could this man who lived in the desert on locusts and honey, who knew all his lifelong of the godliness of Jesus, who saw with his own eyes the Spirit of God descend on Jesus, who heard God himself declare Jesus to be his son, after all that now start to doubt that Christ was the Messiah? Did he really start to think that he may have to look for someone else who had more qualification? That, I think, is an impossible idea.
The only realistic conclusion has to be that John was confident that Jesus was the Messiah, but the reports he was receiving were not of the activity John was interested in. The OT told John that the Messiah would set up a kingdom; he would destroy all the enemies of God’s people. They would be freed from oppression; the Messiah would vanquish all evil. But what was Jesus doing? As report after report reached him on that distant mountain prison, John heard only that Jesus was giving sight to the blind, cleansing lepers, opening the ears of the deaf, sometimes raising the dead to life, and preaching about the kingdom. When would he REALLY do something?!
John was a man of action, and John knew what the Messiah was to do. So after hearing another report of the healings and preaching, John finally sends a message back to Christ in the form of a question with the intent that Jesus will start to get busy and finally do that which John expected—which was, after all, what the OT prophesied.
Upon hearing the question, Jesus immediately understands John’s intent. Consider his answer carefully. Remember that John formed his question after hearing a report that Jesus had given sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, opened the ears of the deaf, raised the dead to life, and preached about the kingdom. So Jesus answers, “Go and tell John…the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (11:4-5). What kind of an answer is that?! It is the exact kind of answer that Jesus was so good at giving. It was an answer that made you go back to examine what you previously had skimmed over.
Remember the man that came to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Wow, what an opportunity for Jesus to give him a good, succinct answer to set him on a new course of life, right? Jesus isn’t interested only in declaring propositional truth. He goes to the heart of the person. His answer was “Why do you call me good?” He answered with a question to go back to what the man had asked to make the man reexamine his question and his motives.
This is exactly what Jesus does with John. He puts back in front of him those things that John had so quickly passed over before as insignificant, and asks him to take another look. John knew what the Messiah was supposed to do. John knew Isaiah 61:1-2 which says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (also could be read, opening of the eyes to those who are blind); to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” John zeroed in on the day of vengeance. But Jesus told him to go back and understand all that the Messiah would do.
What John didn’t know was the timing. The Messiah would come first to set up his kingdom, and then he would come again to vanquish all enemies. Jesus indicated this himself in Nazareth, preaching in the synagogue. He opened to that very same passage and read Isaiah 61 verse 1 and only half of verse 2. He stopped before declaring that he had come to act for the vengeance of God (Luke 4:18-19). That would wait for his second coming. So Jesus tells John, “I am acting as the Messiah, don’t be offended at how I’m going about it” or “Don’t try to force your timetable on my work.” This is a rebuke to John.
But then Jesus turns to the crowd (among whom are his own disciples) who were probably beginning to think ill of John who had dared question Jesus. And Jesus defends John. Jesus defends John for being a strong, purposeful, get-things-done kind of guy. He asks the crowd whether they had initially gone to see John because they heard he was some wishy-washy feel good person. No. They had expected John to be strong and purposeful with a powerful direct message. So, he tells them, don’t get offended at him now. And this message that he brings in his strong, direct, purposeful way is the message for the ages. He was the prophet messenger that introduced the kingdom of God. No one born from Adam to John is greater. They all pointed to the Messiah, but as something far off. John had declared that the kingdom had arrived. He saw; he recognized that this generation was on the threshold. No one was greater in recognizing and understanding the coming kingdom. But yet, once the kingdom is established, all those who are able to enter the kingdom will have more understanding than John.
Then Jesus says something that really makes us scratch our heads. Matthew 11:12 reads, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This is one of the verses that give commentators fits. Traditionally, the verse is viewed in one of two ways: either the violence mentioned is taken in a positive light (for the kingdom) or in a negative light (against the kingdom).
The NIV understand it in a positive light. Their translation read, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” This seems to have the advantage of solving the puzzling wording in a way that seems to make sense with the immediate context. Jesus has been talking about the forceful personality of John; so this verse seems to continue the thought with the kingdom forcefully advancing. Yet there are significant difficulties with this translation. First, the word “violence” in the Greek is a noun. The NIV translation changes it to an adverb, which tends to make us question whether this is really making the meaning clearer as opposed to dramatically altering the original meaning. Additionally, the next phrase “the violent take it by force” seems to contradict much else of what we see in the Gospels. Certainly in the Sermon on the Mount we found Christ preaching meekness and humility, not aggression. Likewise in the stories of men and women coming to Christ we often see them as the harlot who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair. Again, this is hardly a picture of forcefully seizing the kingdom. Even the words of Jesus in this chapter argue against the idea. Verses 28 and 29 say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”
The Amplified Bible offers this translation: “And from the days of John the Baptist until the present time, the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force [as a precious prize–a share in the heavenly kingdom is sought with most ardent zeal and intense exertion].” This negative understanding of the violence has the advantage of being consistent with how we normally think of violence. But it seems out of place in context. Furthermore, the second clause is disturbing. It does not say that violent men try to seize it by force (as the Zealots did); it actually states that they do seize it by force. Violent aggressors against the kingdom succeed in seizing it by force? Hmm.
So we are still left without a satisfactory view. Even reviewing the Greek does not give us any other nuance than what we have in English. But we must remember that Matthew was probably first written in Hebrew or Aramaic. If we translate the verse back to the Hebrew, do we find any clues as to meaning? The answer is yes.
One word in Hebrew for the force implied in this verse is perets. It often carries the idea of a breaking down or breaching of a wall. Additionally, the Hebrew word achaz denotes a seizing as in taking possession of (such as when the Israelites under Joshua took possession of the Promised Land). When we substitute these ideas into the translation, we get something like the following: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is being breached and the breachers are possessing it.” But why would Christ be talking about breaching the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus often uses the analogy of shepherd and sheep when discussing himself and his people (in fact, he did so in the previous chapter and he will again in chapter 12). Shepherds out in fields would usually gather the sheep into a fold for the night. Something like a box canyon worked well because it already had three sides, and the shepherd had only to gather branches and rocks to form a barrier on one side. In the morning, the shepherd would tear open a passageway (or breach the wall) so that the sheep could be called out to the pastures to feed. This seems to be a perfect description of what the verse is telling us. From the days of John the Baptist—that is, since Christ began his ministry—Jesus has been creating an opening to the kingdom of heaven which the sheep may continue to breach as they come out to take possession of the kingdom. This interpretation has the advantage of following the progression of Christ’s discussion so far. From days of old, the prophets spoke of the coming kingdom. John was said to be greatest because he stood at the entrance to the kingdom, announcing the Messiah’s arrival. But John is least of those in the kingdom, since he (although right at the door) understood it still from an outsider aspect. But now since John, Jesus is opening the way to the kingdom, and his people continue to breach the walls as they enter to his pasture.
In saying this, Jesus must have had the OT passage in Micah in mind. Micah 2:12-13 reads, “I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the Lord at their head.”
Jesus concludes this thought stream by announcing that John was the Elijah to come promised in Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
Turning from thoughts of his forerunner John and from his people, Jesus then thinks of the current generation, hearing his words, yet rejecting him. Christ says that they are as children complaining to their playmates that they won’t dance when they play the flute and that they won’t mourn when they sing a dirge. In other words, that generation wants to command how God’s ministers should act. But neither John as forerunner nor Christ as Messiah will be as that generation wants. And since they are not, both are ridiculed and rejected.
These that reject are not like those of Sodom who rejected the words of God’s prophets. These people have rejected the very Messiah of God that had been promised through Israel’s history. They rejected the kingdom of God that had arrived before them. That is why their judgment would be worse, as Jesus points out in verses 20 through 24.
The chapter ends with a prayer by Jesus. In it he calls out for the people to come to him. His yoke, he says, is easy. This is in comparison to what they have distorted God’s covenant to be. That idea will be explored more in chapter 12.