Stumble or Stand? - Matthew 11:1-19
You’ve probably heard or said that younger generations don’t appreciate things that older generations do. You could likely list some examples. But I think there’s at least one thing that all generations can appreciate: a funny home video. Everyone, young or old or in-between, can come together to laugh at a clip of a baby giggling hysterically, or of one person pulling a light-hearted practical joke on another, or of a dog or cat doing something humorous. And you can’t leave out the pleasure we get from a home video in which someone trips and falls. If the person is unharmed, it is pretty much universally hilarious to see someone stumble – so long as the person gets up, dusts themselves, and joins in the laugh. Perhaps we find it funny because we’ve all tripped over something and stumbled before – sometimes in front of other people.
In this passage from Matthew 11 today, Jesus talks about stumbling, but it’s not funny. At various places in the Bible, Jesus is described as a rock or stone. The Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah into the world, and they said that for some, he would be a rock over which they would stumble because he would not be the kind of savior they wanted. He would not do things people expected the Messiah to do, and this would hinder them from believing in him and following him. In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is like a huge, immovable rock: we can stand on him and live, or stumble over him, fall, and die.
All of us are prone to stumble over Jesus because God does not always operate as we would. As a result, Jesus is not the kind of savior we naturally want. But while he may not be the kind of savior we want, the Scriptures say he is the kind of savior we need.
We cannot, on our own, endure the storm of God’s wrath against sin. We will be swept away to death if we do not stand on Jesus, our Rock, and live. And so, we should adjust our expectations of how God operates in the world so that we may stand on Jesus rather than stumble over him. But what is it about how God operates that results in some stumbling while others stand? On page 6 of the Worship Guide, three things are listed.
God does not always display His justice and truth as we would, His power and goodness as they would, His wisdom and holiness as they would. Those attributes of God are listed in Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 4: What is God? God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. But God did not and still does not always display these things they we think he would. So, let’s examine each of these.
Jesus sends out his 12 disciples and continues to travel around preaching and teaching. For maybe as much as a whole year, John the Baptist had been in prison, put there for speaking out against the immorality of Herod, the evil king of Israel. John had preached and prepared the way for Jesus’ message, as the OT prophets had said.
The nation of Israel had not heard from a living prophet in hundreds of years, and so, John had warmed up the people, setting the stage for Jesus by telling them the coming Messiah would bring the Day of Judgment, and so everyone should turn from sins. But Jesus did not seem to be doing that. Beginning her in Matthew ch. 11 and going through ch. 13, we see what D.A. Carson calls “the rising tide of disappointment in…Jesus’ ministry.” Case in point, John the Baptist is in prison, while Herod is free. Even John began to battle doubts about Jesus, Verse 2, “He sent word by his disciples  and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” What about justice and truth, Jesus? John speaks out for the truth and now he rots in jail.
We thought the Messiah would come to deliver justice and substantiate the truth. Jesus, are you the Messiah? Now, we might expect Jesus to reprimand John. But he does not. He simply sends John a message that Messiah-type things are happening. Jesus references the book of Isaiah and points out that the blind receive sight, lame walk, leprosy is cured, deaf hear, dead are raised, good news is preached to the poor. Then verse 6, Jesus says,  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” That could be translated “the one who is not caused to stumble by me.”
That is also an Isaiah reference. Chapter 8, the prophet describes the Messiah like this: “He will become…a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling…and many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken.” Why would they stumble? They misunderstand his purpose. They want something in this life that the Messiah won’t give them. So, they reject him.
Like many churches, we prayed for Andrew Brunson, the pastor held unjustly in Turkish prison because of his faith. Andrew is free now, but he spent about two years in jail. During that time, he battled discouragement. His wife confirmed that on the Facebook page that she continually updated. Who in that situation wouldn’t wrestle with questions of why God displays his justice and truth as he does?
Have you experienced within yourself, or encountered in others, an urge to reject Christ because God is not displaying his justice and truth in the world as you would if you were in charge? Sure, you have. You’ve questioned and doubted. If not, you will. But God understands. In Isaiah 55 says,  my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Doubts are normal and can even be healthy, if they lead us into deeper fellowship with God.
Each of us must persevere through doubt and face difficult realities about the will of God for our lives, and like John the Baptist and Andrew Brunson, by grace, we will stand on Jesus, trusting that God will execute justice and exalt the truth at the proper time.
Now, John’s struggle did not mean that he no longer believed and or that he was unsaved. Look at these next verses. Jesus defends John. He says that John did not easily waver under outside pressures, like a reed tossed back and forth in the wind. John was not soft or weak. He was a true prophet of the living God; he would receive Jesus’ answer, and he would stand. He was still that great messenger - verse 10 is a quote from the Old Testament prophet Malachi. But Jesus makes an interesting statement in verse 11. “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This sounds like John is not in the kingdom of heaven. In the big picture, he is, but John is part of the old covenant era. Like the prophets before him, John would not get to enjoy the new covenant era of the Messiah on earth.
He would not live to see the crucifixion, and Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. He would not, during his earthly life, come to fully understand the mission of Jesus like those who saw and look back on the finished work of Christ. In that way, he is not “in the kingdom.” This is largely where his question comes from. Jesus then says, verse , that “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” That could also be translated “has been coming violently.” The NIV says, “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing.” Both are true. The kingdom had come on very strong with the miraculous works of Jesus.
At the same time, those who brought the kingdom were violently mistreated. This wasn’t expected by the people waiting for the Messiah. They thought he would arrive and crush his enemies right away. Jesus then says, “and the violent take it by force.” NIV says, “and forceful men lay hold of it.” Either way we translate that, the idea is that the Messiah and his followers would be mistreated by violent people who rejected Jesus. The shame of it was that the prophets foretold this. They said the Messiah would suffer and be put to death.
This did not fit the preferred narrative for how the Messiah would display his power. The religious leaders were especially at fault for misleading the people to think that when the Messiah came, it would be “easy street” for Israel. Obviously, it was not. Jesus says, verse 14, “if you are willing to accept it” willing to accept that this is God’s will. John was the modern-day prophet sent by God and calling Israel to turn from their sins. The fact that John is in jail does not change that. But not everyone wanted to hear that.
Isn’t that the case today? Someone sees suffering in the world, and they say, “See, there is no God.” Or they see Christians suffer, and they say, “See, the Bible is not true. There is no judgment coming from God. We are the judges.” Not everyone will trust that God is powerful even though he doesn’t exercise his power to fix all our problems right away? And many will reject the notion that God is good even if he does not exercise that power. Some reject Jesus for this reason.
Do you struggle to believe that God is good and powerful? Do you feel the doubt and skepticism pressing on your heart and mind, urging you toward bitterness, cynicism, anger or indifference to the Word of God? We are all prone to stumble over Jesus this way. Will you stumble, or will you stand? Can you accept that God alone is God, and while he does not always operate as we would in displaying his power and goodness, his ways are higher than ours and he can be trusted? His call to turn from our sins is valid. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Now, in these last verses, Jesus turns to address “this generation,” primarily the religious leaders of the Hebrew people in the present day there in first-century Israel. He compares them to children playing a game. Young children play games where they recreate the actions of adults. Did you ever do that? Jesus describes children pretending wedding, and then, funeral. Pretending wedding, the children play the flute so people will dance. Then, pretending funeral, the kids sing a song as people grieve. Have you noticed how some kids are naturally bossy? They want to give the directions. But they can get angry when their playmates won’t play along and follow directions. One child wants to play this, the other won’t play, so the one gets mad at the other.
John and Jesus would not play along with the religious leaders. Both men preached repentance and were severely criticized for their lifestyles, even though, ironically, their lifestyles were extremely different. On one hand, John had a strict diet, did not drink alcohol, and he was rejected. Some even said he had a demon in him. They said, “Oh, he’s too strict, too passionate, too countercultural. Don’t listen to him.”
Then Jesus comes along, and he’s not so strict or separated from the culture. He ate and drank – and they accused him of being a drunkard and glutton, though he was never drunk or behaved in a gluttonous way. The religious leaders said, “Oh, he’s too relaxed. Too laid back. Don’t listen to him.” John lived apart from society. Jesus associated with everyone in society, even outsiders.
Neither could win with these people. But both lived in light of God’s wisdom and holiness. Their lives demonstrated this, and that is Jesus’ point at the end of verse 19. “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” In other words, the lives of John and Jesus proved that they reflected the wisdom and holiness of God. But they were rejected by the Hebrew religious experts of that generation.
God does not always display his wisdom and holiness in the way we would expect. We should reject many of the ways of the world around us for the glory of God. Also, we should learn how we can engage with the world around us for the glory of God. It takes the wisdom of God in decision making and also a deep love for the holiness of God. This may sound strange to you, but at some times, but believers should speak, dress, and behave differently, in some ways, from the world around them. It’s not weird; it’s godly. Yet the same believer how lives differently from the world, may, at times, sit down in the home of worldly people to chat over food and drink. Both are wise and holy when a person is led by the Spirit, as John and Jesus were.
As we go to the table today, we see where this passage of Scripture leads us. God does not always display his attributes as we would, and this is nowhere more evident than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In him, we see the pinnacle of God’s wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth on display. Nowhere is the wisdom of God more evident than in the foolishness of the cross. Nowhere is God’s power more evident than the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Nowhere is God’s holiness more evident than in the perfect life Jesus lived for his people. Nowhere is God’s justice more evident than in Jesus paying the penalty for our sins. Nowhere is God’s goodness more evident than in Jesus redeeming us as God promised.
And nowhere is God’s truth more evident than in the life and work of the only One who never spoke a lie, yet gave his life for liars and thieves like you and me. Jesus is the kind of savior we need, not just at the moment of salvation by faith alone, but every day after as we wage war against sin by faith alone. John Owen wrote, “Both our introduction to Christ and our abiding in Christ are by faith.” Jesus is the only One on whom we can stand. Will you stumble over him, or will you turn from your sin, trust in him and stand on the Rock?
Let’s pray together.