John the Baptist had preached repentance to the Covenant in the Jordan Valley because it was convenient for observing the baptism cleansing ritual year-round. In his preaching, he disparaged as sinful the scandalous divorce and remarriage of Herod Antipas. For a time, John languished in prison. He still had his disciples and they were permitted to meet with him and run errands. They brought him news of his cousin Jesus’ miraculous ministry. But there was no uprising and the Messiah didn’t march in and take over. So was Jesus really the Messiah? John sent two disciples to query his famous cousin about this.
Jesus had the two disciples follow Him around that day as He preached and healed. Then He quoted Isaiah 35, where the prophet rejoiced in a vision of restoring genuine love for Jehovah. The effects of sin would be healed and divine moral justice restored. It was considered a Messianic prophecy. Thus, Jesus was assuring them that He was the Messiah. The real question was whether they understood what the Messiah really was all about. His message through John’s disciples was to assure John it was worth being in prison for preaching the truth. He had fulfilled his commission as forerunner.
There is a reed that grew wild in the Jordan Valley. It would droop during the heat of the day, and rather quickly stand back up in the cool of the evening. It was a pastime in those days to go out and watch them rise like that, a social occasion for having a nice friendly chat in the evening. Jesus asked His audience: When you went out to the Jordan River Valley, was it just a nice couple of days out to watch the reeds do their thing?
Or perhaps they went out to see a scholarly man with civilized courtly manners? What did they expect? The wilderness of the Jordan Valley wasn’t the place for scholars to hang out. They usually serve on the king’s staff in his palace. So why all this herding of folks down the difficult roads to an uncivilized place? They went to see a very classic style of prophet, wearing the uniform adopted by Elijah and speaking a very challenging message. They went to hear a prophet speak about the coming Messiah, an obsession of folks who had too long lived under oppressive heathen Gentile rulers. There were dozens of such prophets running around in those days, and John was simply one of the biggest crowd draws because his ministry was more compelling than others.
He was the pinnacle of Covenant prophets. None of his predecessors were in his class; this was indeed the greatest of God’s prophets under Moses. But he was also the last of his kind. That’s because what follows is the final fruit of the long gestation of the Covenant, the ultimate realization of where the Covenant was pointing all those centuries. It would be the Kingdom of Heaven. Anyone who qualifies for entry into the Kingdom will have all the things John only dreamed about, in a yet higher class of closeness and communion with Jehovah.
People came down to the Jordan Valley in droves. They were full of zeal and ready to seize the moment to declare the Kingdom if only John were to claim he was the Messiah. They were ready to take up arms and die fighting the Roman troops to reestablish the reign of David’s dynasty. Jesus reaffirmed that His cousin John the Baptist was the prophesied return of Elijah, something they knew meant the Messiah was coming right along behind, but not the Messiah himself. Did they understand that John’s testimony about Jesus meant He was the Messiah?
Jesus then seized the moment to warn that His generation wasn’t ready for the Messiah. What could He say? He told a parable of children out playing in the village square. One group is fussing with another: Why won’t you play with us? What kind of game will satisfy you? You don’t want to play celebration and pretend to dance. You won’t play funeral if we sing dirges. Have you forgotten how to be children? Jesus was characterizing His generation as cranky, petulant children, impossible to please.
Here comes John the Baptist with his dark warnings of sin. He calls them to repent and leads the way with personal austerity. He was extra careful about obeying the Law of Moses. All the crowds came down to the Jordan, heard and saw the message, and walked away scoffing at his simplicity and zealous fervor. Jesus comes along celebrating the thing John prophesied and they say He’s not zealous enough like John. What does it take to get them to hear the Word of God?
He ends with a common figure of speech: You can tell a wise woman by how her children act. Whose children were these Jews, who were more like those obnoxious kids for whom nothing was good enough?