“Being a Good Biographer”
October 27, 2013
As Good Biographers, we must magnify Jesus without shame.
I. Not ashamed of Jesus. (1-6)
II. Preparing the way for Jesus. (7-10)
III. Sharing the whole truth about Jesus. (11-15)
Writing biographies must be a real challenge. Of the many biographies I’ve read, there are some that seem to be influenced as strongly by the author as by the subject. It may be most notable in James Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, in which the literary brilliance of the biographer is the outstanding aspect of the story. Boswell has been both criticized and lauded, but he is fun to read.
I remember reading a biography of Sir Isaac Newton and thinking that the whole second half of his life was boring. I suspect the biographer had gotten bored. Others, after thoroughly researching their subject, can seem ashamed of the person they have studied, disgusted by what that person said or did. I read Robert Massie’s famous biography of Peter the Great, czar of Russia, and I think Massie may have found himself in just that situation. Then, of course there are writers so enthusiastic about their subject that they overlook or minimize anything negative. Eric Metaxes, in his good biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, may have been guilty of this. Bonhoeffer said and did many wonderful things, but he wasn’t an evangelical in the sense we understand that word, and for whatever reason, Metaxes seems to minimize that truth.
So this morning we’re looking at a passage in Scripture, Matthew 11:1-15 which helps us when we think of ourselves as biographers of Jesus Christ: we tell his story. In this passage we find instructions for what kind of biographers to be - how to tell his story, and how not to. First, those who tell his story, who point to him, must not be ashamed of him. Second, those who tell his story must prepare the way for him. And on our side of the cross, we must tell all of his story. As good biographers we must magnify Jesus without shame.
So we begin with Matthew 11:1-6 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Once again, those who divided up these chapters, centuries ago, probably should have put verse 1 with the previous chapter. Jesus finished instructing the disciples, and one presumes he sent them out. But he did not rest himself; he continued his mission teaching and preaching in the cities of Israel.
A new story begins in verse 2. John the Baptist is in prison. He’d been imprisoned by Herod at about the time Jesus began his ministry. According to Josephus, the historian, he was imprisoned in Herod’s fortress at Machareus. During that year, or so, Jesus has been doing all the things we’ve been told. But as John heard of these things, he seems to have had doubts about whether Jesus was in fact the one he was supposed to have pointed to. On the other hand, Matthew has no such doubt. He takes this opportunity to call Jesus ‘the Christ,’ the Messiah, the anointed king who sent to rescue.
But Jesus isn’t doing what John expected. By the Jordan river he had said “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It’s not that John was wrong in this prophecy, but that time had not come - and has not come, when Jesus would carry out judgment. In John’s day and in ours he’s been more about mercy. So John, having second thoughts, sends his followers to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus answers by describing the ministry he’s doing, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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.” That’s a pretty comprehensive list, and yet in this Gospel Jesus has already done all these things, except for healing the deaf, which for some reason is a miracle Matthew never records.
The answer summarizes both Jesus’ miracles and his teaching, but using language from Isaiah. Isaiah 35 says “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” Isaiah 61:1 “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.” Jesus claimed that these messianic visions were being fulfilled in the miracles he was performing and the Good News he was preaching. The powers of darkness were being undermined; the kingdom was advancing.
But there is a second, more subtle level to Jesus' response. The Isaiah passages do refer to judgment. Isaiah 35:4 says "your God will come... with vengeance; with divine retribution," And Isaiah 61:2 describes the Messiah as bringing "the day of vengeance of our God." Thus Jesus was responding to John’s implicit question: the blessings promised for the end time have broken out and prove it is here, even though the judgments are delayed.
Verse 6, then, is a gentle warning: “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Blessed is the one who does not find in Jesus and his ministry an obstacle to belief and therefore reject him. The miracles themselves were not irrefutable proof of who Jesus was; faith was still required to read the evidence against the background of Scripture and to hear in Jesus' claim the ring of truth. It is therefore an implicit challenge to reexamine one's presuppositions about what the Messiah should be and do in the light of Jesus and his fulfillment of Scripture and to bring one's understanding and faith into line with him.
So how should we apply this warning to ourselves and our culture? As those who are biographers of Jesus, telling his story, we must not be ashamed of Jesus on any level. The most direct level is where John the Baptist stumbled: Jesus was healing, raising the dead, doing all these amazing miracles and teaching blessing and good news, but he wasn’t bringing judgment on sinful people, whether the Jews or their oppressors. And that bothered John. And I think it bothers some of us who focus more on God’s promised judgment than his present mercy, to the point of judgmentalism toward those who struggle with sin. Some who would rather offer our whole culture judgment than mercy.
On the next level, some display shame toward Jesus by denying or minimizing the very things he pointed to in these verses: his healings, his mercies, or the good news that he brought to the poor. I have to say that this week I was confronted with the idea that I don’t take Jesus’ healings, or his power over demons seriously; that I minimize those things and thereby discourage people from discovering the power Jesus wants to have in and through their lives. So the verse calls me to self-examination: am I, like John, offended by who Jesus actually is, and what he actually does? I hope not. I know that Jesus heals and rescues today, and I believe there is a demonic world that opposes that. But I also believe that much of his healing and rescue, as seen in Paul and the other epistles to the churches, comes as he strengthens people to have joy and peace even in the midst of persecution, sickness and suffering. But I don’t want to so emphasize this so-called spiritual side of his rescue that I am in effect denying the miraculous that he can and does do right now. I don’t want to be ashamed or offended by Jesus, but as his biographer telling his story I want to display him as he really is.
On a third level, the church in western culture has exhibited wave after wave of shame about letting Jesus be who he really is. For many years all the sense of the miraculous in the life of Jesus was considered embarrassing by church people wanting to be accepted in a rationalistic culture. In more recent years it has been the ethic of Jesus that has been supposed to be embarrassing: he was homophobic, misogynistic, violent, racist, intolerant.
Whatever culture is surging toward, people accuse Jesus of the opposite. And then the church gets embarrassed about her Savior and his teachings. But there are really only two choices in life: you can either love the world and be ashamed of God, or you can love God and be ashamed of the world. “Blessed are those among my biographers,” Jesus says “who are not offended or ashamed by me. You can’t tell my story by apologizing for me.”
Second, blessed are those who prepare the way for Jesus. Matthew 11:7-10 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, and despite the doubts John might have had, Jesus applauds that ministry. He asks rhetorical questions about John, as a way of eliminating obviously false answers so he can tell them the truth. So “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Is John a fickle person, his words swayed by the winds of public opinion or private misfortune? No, the people did not go out to see a gutless politician. Nor did they go to the desert to find a man dressed in soft or fine clothes. The word evokes images of the rich in their useless comfort and is in contrast to the camel’s hair and leather belt the prophet actually wore. Jesus may have used this rhetoric to disarm suspicion among the people that John's question shows him to be fickle or weak.
Verse 9: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” It was commonly agreed that a true prophet had not appeared in centuries, so the assertion that John was such was cause enough for them to respect him. But Jesus goes on to say that he was more than a prophet. How so? Not only was he, like other Old Testament prophets, a direct spokesman for God, but he himself was also the subject of prophecy—the one who, according to Scripture, would announce the Day of the Lord.
Verse 10: This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ This is almost a direct quote from Malachi 3:1, but Jesus has changed the ‘person’ so that God is not talking to the people of Israel about a messenger, but the Father is talking to the Messiah about his mission. Jesus identifies John as the messenger and himself as the one whose way has been prepared.
So how do we apply this to ourselves as biographers of Jesus? The clear and direct application is to be messengers who rightly prepare the way before him. Early in this series we saw that John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, magnified Jesus by comparing him favorably to everyone and everything, and humbled himself to exalt Jesus: ‘he must increase and I must decrease.’ This is what we need to be doing. In our relationship with Jesus we need to be seeking to see him moment by moment as so real, so beautiful, so much the Messiah king that whatever the circumstances of our lives, or of the lives of the needy people around us, we instinctively and intentionally point to Jesus, and point others to Him as the only one who can help, rescue, heal and sustain.
We point to him; we magnify him: “I have made you too small in my eyes; Oh Lord, Forgive me. And I have believed in the lie that you were unable to help me; but now, Oh Lord, I see my wrong. Heal my heart and show yourself strong and in my life and with my song, story, words, acts, silences; in all of these Oh Lord be magnified.” Lord, help us live our lives such that you increase and we decrease. One of the great examples of this is John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace. Late in his life, as shown in the movie by that name we find him saying “I once was blind, but now I see. Didn’t I write that too? Well now it’s true.” And later, one of my favorite lines from the whole movie “Two things I know; that I am a great sinner and Jesus is a great savior.” Point to him; magnify him; allow yourself to decrease and fade away; thus you will become a fit biographer for the Messiah King.
Third, tell his whole story. Verses 11-15: Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus is continuing to speak about John, and he contends that among those born of women, John is the greatest yet. We have to infer he was excluding himself; he was the one John pointed to. John is greatest because he is a prophet who himself was prophesied, and he got to see the beginning of the fulfillment all the other prophets longed for. But, Jesus goes on to say, surprising us, that the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. How so? Well, we’ve seen that he’s the greatest prophet because he was the one who could point most directly to Jesus. But on this basis even the least in the kingdom is greater; living on this side of the life, death and resurrection of the Savior, he or she points to Jesus even more directly and clearly than John did.
John had to ask about Jesus because these crucial events were still unfolding. On the others the disciples, the other followers, we ourselves have every reason not to be ashamed, to magnify him because we know the rest of the story.
And yet there are far too many people in our culture who claim to be Christians but who will not tell the whole story. We’ve talked before about Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. I’m sure there are many believers there; yet they are poor biographers of Jesus because they won’t use the word sin to describe the rebellious behavior of fallen people toward a Holy God. If you don’t have sin you don’t have the whole story, you don’t have good news, you’re offering a Jesus people really don’t need, a self-help Jesus, not the Messiah, King and rescuer we’ve been seeing. This reluctance to tell the whole story is widespread. But as biographers of Jesus we can’t be offended by him, we have to graciously point people to the way he offers, and we need to tell the whole story of his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.
Verse 12 is difficult: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Speculation on this verse has been endless and the Greek vocabulary doesn’t make it any easier. The trouble comes from the two uses of the same verbal root. Most translators try to keep the translation of the two uses as similar as possible. Thus ESV, the kingdom has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. NIV, it is forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.
But D. A. Carson and other commentators argue that the two verbs, are being intentionally used in opposite ways: “the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing and violent men oppose it.” This makes good sense of the verse, for after John pointed to Jesus and Jesus began to preach, the Kingdom’s advance was profound and rapid. We’ve seen the growing crowds and the miracles already in this Gospel. But violent men oppose it, as evidenced by the persecution Jesus prepared his disciples to endure, and by John’s imprisonment. That opposition will grow in the next several chapters.
Those who come to know the whole story of Jesus still find it powerful and very antagonizing. I recently read the amazing testimony of Rosario Champagne Butterfield. In the 1990’s she was an English professor, liberal and lesbian. She wrote against right-wing republican Christians, and decided to read the Bible “the book that had gotten so many people off track.” It soon became more than a research project. She says “I started to read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that year in many translations, all the while fighting the idea it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might.”
At the same time, in response to a critical article she wrote about the Promise Keepers, she received a letter from a compassionate and thoughtful pastor, Ken Smith, which soon became a friendship with him and his wife Floy. They befriended her with no strings attached, yet they shared Jesus openly and engaged her with the truth. They showed her how to read the Bible and understand its complexities and its hero, Jesus. And slowly, little by little, over two years, the foundations of her disbelief were eroded.
She says “In this war of worldviews, Ken was there. Floy was there. The church that had been praying for me for years was there. And then one ordinary day, I came to Jesus. And I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world. I drank, tentatively at first, then passionately, of the solace of the Holy Spirit. I rested in private peace, then community, and today in the shelter of a covenant family, where one calls me "wife" and many call me "mother." I have not forgotten the blood Jesus surrendered for this life.” When we are not ashamed of Jesus, when we point the way to Jesus, when we tell the whole story of Jesus, his holiness and his mercy, the kingdom advances even through the soul’s opposition.
Verse 13: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” John the Baptist is the final voice in God’s divine story before the coming of the kingdom. The prophets and even the law itself pointed to the one who was to come, and now the turning point has been reached; the kingdom of God has dawned and Messiah has come. So, Jesus says, if you are willing to accept it, John the Baptist is the prophesied "Elijah." Malachi 3:1 which we already quoted, looks for a messenger who will prepare the way before the Lord. Malachi 4, in language that connects it with the previous promise says “"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."
Now, Jesus is saying, I’ll tell you who that Elijah is: it’s John the Baptist who we have been discussing; the day the prophets looked forward to is here! Now it is true that on at least one occasion John denied being Elijah. Jesus says he is Elijah. But both are valid if we recognize that when John was born his father prophesied that he would go “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Just as Elisha received the same Spirit that had empowered Elijah, so too John received that same Spirit and power and fulfilled Malachi’s prophecies.
The clause "if you are willing to accept it" does not cast doubt on the truth of the identification; but, acknowledges how difficult it was to grasp, especially before the Cross and the Resurrection. If the people had truly understood, they would necessarily have seen and received Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes. They would not be offended or ashamed by Jesus and his words. They would take up the ministry of preparing the way for Jesus to work, just as pastor Ken Smith did in Rosario Champagne’s life. And they would tell the whole story, not watering it down by denying the reality but offering a full grace, offering forgiveness of sin through the cross.
Jesus ends this description with the familiar phrase “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And I believe that challenge applies to us just as much as it did to his original hearers. Will we be good biographers of Jesus; telling his story graciously but without shame? Humbling ourselves that he may be lifted up? Affirming his power today, to heal and change lives, not neglecting the reality of sin, but pointing people to the reality of the Savior and allowing him in his resurrected power to be the whole story, the answer to the deepest needs of every person we meet. We need to magnify Jesus without shame.