Matthew 11 begins with a brief reference to Jesus’ commissioning the twelve apostles (see 10:2–5), then returning to His work as a minister of the Word. This is the context for understanding the events and sayings of Chapter 11. The general topic is the ministry of the Word — whether in the hands of John or Jesus — and how that ministry ought to be received.
During Christ’s ministry in Galilee, John the Baptist sends messengers to ask Jesus: “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3 kjv). The implication is that the public ministry of Jesus is raising doubts about His truly being the Christ.
Jesus responds by assuring them that He is doing the works of the Christ, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 35:5–6) — in particular, the great work of preaching the Gospel to the poor (61:1). He dismisses all doubt by declaring the blessedness of “whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Matt. 11:1–6).
Having dismissed John’s messengers, Jesus affirms the ministry of John as “a prophet…and more than a prophet” (v. 9). He was sent from God to fulfill the long-cherished promise of Elijah (Mal. 4:5) as the last and greatest of all prophets, the forerunner of the Christ (Matt. 11:10).
In the midst of His tribute to John, Jesus says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (v. 12). He may be referring to the violence of the unjust imprisonment of John as well as worse things yet to come. He may also be referring to the eruption of demonic activity in opposition to Christ and His kingdom.
Jesus confirms John’s status as a prophet, asserts His own claim to be the Christ of God, and declares that the end of the Old Testament dispensation is at hand. John is the greatest of the prophets, and he is also the last; his ministry belongs to an age that is coming to an end. Christ is about to usher in a new order for God’s kingdom on earth. Astonishingly, Jesus declares that “he that is least” in this new kingdom will be greater than John!
Jesus then compares John’s ministry to His own in terms of lifestyle. John’s extraordinary diet and commitment to total abstinence from wine were appropriate to his ministry as a preacher of repentance. By contrast, as the “Word was made flesh” (John 1:14), Jesus was fully involved in the lives of everyday people. He ate the food and drank the wine set before Him without compromising His personal holiness or godliness.
Unbelievers looking for any excuse to reject the Word of God deride John’s way of living — “neither eating nor drinking” — and call him a madman. At the same time, they criticize Jesus for eating and drinking by calling Him “a gluttonous man and a winebibber.” Denouncing these servants of God, a generation of critics dismisses the kingdom message that these servants proclaim. Christ regards this as the worst kind of folly, saying, “Wisdom is justified of her children” (Matt. 11:16–19).
Christ now reproaches the communities in Galilee. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus laments their rejections, saying, “Woe unto thee!” (v. 21). He alerts them to the great responsibility they bear for having heard His words and seen His works yet still finding fault with Him as they did with God’s other messengers.
Christ compares the lot of such communities with that of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, which were notorious for idolatry and gross wickedness. On the day of judgment, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum will be judged even more harshly for their unbelief than cities outside of Israel, since they rejected the ministry of Christ in the flesh.
Jesus’ cries of woe are followed by words of praise. Most of Jesus’ own people have spurned His Gospel ministry, but He rejoices that some are receiving Him and believing on His name (John 1:11–12). These believers may be “babes” in the eyes of their neighbors, but they have listened to and believed what others, even “wise and prudent” men, neither understood nor believed. Christ, the preacher of sovereign grace, attributes their faith to the Father and “the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5). He rejoices in the ministry of life that has been put into His hands (Matt. 11:24–27).
Jesus knows it is the Father’s will for Him to go on preaching the Gospel, regardless of the violence, slander, or unbelief of men. Thus He ends this discourse with a plain, powerful, and moving Gospel invitation to the weary and burdened to come to Him; He will give them rest (vv. 28–30). Let every preacher take note: Amid the frustrations and hardships of ministry, the most Christ-like thing is to stay focused on your calling, give thanks to God, and go on preaching the Gospel.