Seeing Is Believing. Not!
Matthew 11:7-9 (7) And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? (8) But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. (9) But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. John the Baptist had just sent disciples to Jesus Christ for confirmation that He was indeed the Messiah of promise (MAT 11:2-6). This may have been as much for their benefit as for John's. It was as they were returning to John with the answer that Jesus addressed the multitudes (our text). Concerning John, Jesus here thrice asked the multitudes what they went out into the wilderness to SEE. John had made quite a stir in Israel. The voice of prophecy had been silent for hundreds of years and suddenly a son of a priest in Israel had arisen, preaching repentance, baptizing penitents in the wilderness (MAR 1:4) and prophesying of One greater than himself that was about to appear (MAR 1:7-8). John had grown “...strong in spirit...” (LUK 1:80) and ministered “...in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (LUK 1:17). Jesus later identified him as the Elias (Elijah) that was to come (MAT 11:14 c/w MAR 9:11-13) “...before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord...” (MAL 4:5-6). Considering that Elijah was a noted prophet to Israel who defied an ungodly king (Ahab), made an open mockery of his false religion in a contest, destroyed his false prophets (1KI 18:1-40) and was later carried by a whirlwind into heaven (2KI 2:11), John the Baptist ministered in a mighty spirit indeed. He was a “...burning and a shining light...” (JOH 5:35); he not only illuminated, he burned. God's word is like a fire (JER 23:29): consuming, purifying and, like Jeremiah, it was in his heart as a burning fire which could not be contained (JER 20:9). Some even inquired as to whether he was the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet Moses said should come (LUK 3:15; JOH 1:19-20 c/w DEU 18:15-19; MAL 4:5-6). What a contrast he must have been from the light (i.e., flyweight) prophets that spoke lies and smooth things to gratify the people's fancies (ZEP 3:4 c/w JER 23:32; ISA 30:10). What a contrast he must have been to the tradition-touting Pharisees (MAR 7:1-13) and scribes who loved upscale urban living in long distinguishing robes (MAT 23:5-7; LUK 20:46) while he ministered in the wilderness in rough garments and ate locusts and wild honey (MAR 1:4-6)! John cut quite a figure; he was different, outstanding, compelling: someone to see! And many indeed were “...baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (MAR 1:5). But how is it that the multitudes who heard John preach righteousness and Christ were so easily manipulated by their leaders to call for Christ's crucifixion (MAT 27:20-23)? One possible explanation to the foregoing question is that many of them went out to SEE John the Novelty, not HEAR or OBEY John the Baptist and his words. True faith comes by hearing (ROM 10:14-17), not by seeing (2CO 5:7), and true faith is validated by obeying (JAM 1:22; JAM 2:17-20), something which did not appeal to that generation (MAT 11:16-19). How many are, like Simon the sorcerer, drawn to a notable minister by what they see (ACT 8:9-19) but are not at all attuned or submissive to the truth of that minister's message? How many are captivated by a particular minister for the wrong reasons, such as those for whom the prophet Ezekiel was “...unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but do them not” (EZE 33:30-33)? Such are the entertainment-oriented congregants. We read that “...Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (MAR 6:20) but then green-lighted his execution (MAR 6:21-28). He later was excited to meet Jesus because “...he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him” (LUK 23:8) and then shortly mocked Him and sent Him to Pilate (LUK 23:9-11) who ordered His crucifixion. Herod was not unlike many who profess to know Christ but in works deny Him (MAT 7:21-23 c/w TIT 1:15-16) and turn against Him if He has no entertainment value to them. Take the miracles, the spectacular or the entertainment out of a church today, then watch the interest wane and the numbers diminish. And woe be unto the minister who makes himself a showman for worldly praise and big numbers. Paul later said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number...” (2CO 10:12). If a minister must be an amusement to men, let it be rather for righteousness' sake that he is made “...a spectacle to the world...” (1CO 4:9), mocked like Samson (JDG 16:25) and Christ (MAT 27:39-44). David “...was the song of the drunkards” (PSA 69:12) and it wasn't because he was supplying the liquor for their party. Perhaps they had gone out to see if John was a “...reed shaken with the wind” (MAT 11:7), an upstart who would bend because of opinions, opposition or circumstances. What they saw was a man with backbone, integrity, consistency: he “...confessed, and denied not, but confessed...” (JOH 1:20) and stood to his confession later (JOH 3:28). He was not “...tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine...” (EPH 4:14), not a double-minded waverer (JAM 1:5-8). He would not be “...moved away from the hope of the gospel...” (COL 1:23), to wit, the Christ he preached, announced, baptized and deferred to, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (JOH 3:30). He preached not himself, but Christ Jesus the Lord (c/w 2CO 4:5), always. Perhaps they had gone out to see if John was “...clothed in soft raiment...” (MAT 11:6), “...gorgeously apparelled...” (LUK 7:25), not unlike Jerusalem of old which “...doted upon the Assyrians her neighbours, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously...” (EZE 23:12). Of those among the Jews who eventually became Christians there remained still a tendency in their assemblies to prefer the man in goodly apparel (JAM 2:1-4). But John dressed plainly in rough garments like Elijah (2KI 1:8) in whose spirit he ministered; he was no mealy-mouthed false prophet who wore “...a rough garment to deceive” (ZEC 13:4). Better a rough-garbed man of God by a brook (1KI 17:1-7) than a man of goods in a Brooks Brothers suit. Perhaps they had gone out to see if John was “...A prophet...” (MAT 11:9), one whose prophecy would be attended by miraculous signs and wonders (DEU 13:1; PSA 74:9) for that generation panted after signs more than substance (JOH 4:48 c/w MAT 12:38-39). But John did not provide them with awe-inspiring supernaturalism. The one miraculous event in his ministry was when he baptized Jesus Christ: the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descend and light upon Christ while the Father spoke from heaven, “...Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (LUK 3:21-22). What John provided them was personal integrity, a call to repentance and godliness, a new ordinance commensurate with a reformation of God's church in this world, and hope. So he did “...make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (LUK 1:17). As Jesus said, John was “...more than a prophet” (MAT 11:9). He was uniquely called, “...the prophet of the Highest...” (LUK 1:76) who would give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins through God's mercy (LUK 1:77-78). He was a uniquely prophesied prophet: “For this is he, of whom it is written...” (MAT 11:10 c/w ISA 40:3-5; MAL 3:1; MAL 4:5-6). Others had prophesied of the coming Christ; John beheld Him, touched Him, declared Him, baptized Him and presented Him as Savior for Israel to behold: “...Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (JOH 1:29). John is also the only minister who baptized a sinless man! He was the last and greatest of the O.T. prophets according to Christ Himself (MAT 11:11); he was the hinge that connected the testaments: “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it” (LUK 16:16). What they saw was far more than they had gone out to see, but how many had truly seen? How many truly heard? Blessed are they who have not seen but heard, and so truly believe (JOH 20:29; 1PE 1:8).