Question: "What does it mean that wisdom is justified by her children (Matthew 11:19)?"
Answer: Matthew 11 records a remarkable portrait of John the Baptist and provides an important reminder of God’s grace and understanding even when we are suffering from doubt. The section concludes with the curious statement that wisdom is justified by her children (Matthew 11:19, NKJV).
John had served faithfully as the forerunner to the Messiah, announcing the coming kingdom of Jesus, yet, instead of enjoying the fruits of his labor and the glories that one might expect in a newly installed kingdom, John was in prison soon to be executed—no kingdom had actually yet arrived. It seems that because of his circumstances he suffered some doubts and sent messengers to ask Jesus whether He was the expected One or whether John should look for someone else (Matthew 11:3).
Jesus responded to John’s query with patience and grace, reminding John of the miracles prophesied of the Messiah that Jesus was accomplishing (Matthew 11:5–6). After that powerful yet gracious affirmation, Jesus continued, reminding listeners of the importance of John and his ministry. John was a mighty prophet, but he was more than just a prophet (Matthew 11:7–9)—he fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi 3:1 and faithfully served as the forerunner to the Messiah, announcing the coming kingdom. John would be an important piece in that kingdom even if it wouldn’t come right away.
The response to the message of Jesus and John had been overwhelming: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12, NKJV). That is, there had been an extraordinary rush of people thronging to hear the gospel, and their eagerness to learn of the kingdom was so overwhelming it was as if they were attacking a city and beating down the doors to enter. Jesus pointed to John as the fulfilment of Malachi 4:6—John was the ”Elijah” to precede the great and awesome day of the Lord (Matthew 11:14). Jesus then chastises that generation for their inconsistent treatment of John and Himself, and He observes that “wisdom is justified by her children” (Matthew 11:19, NKJV) or “wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (NIV).
That generation was inconsistent in their judgments. They behaved like children who wanted to but couldn’t control other children (Matthew 11:16–17). They critiqued John for not eating and drinking with other people (Matthew 11:18), but when Jesus came eating and drinking with people, they criticized Him for doing it (Matthew 11:19). That generation was prideful, thinking they had the wisdom to judge rightly, but they illustrated the injustice of their judgments. In so doing they failed to recognize the forerunner to the Messiah and thus failed to receive the Messiah and His kingdom.
When Jesus challenged His listeners that wisdom is justified by her children, He was saying that the soundness of wisdom can be judged by the fruit of that wisdom. The people of that generation thought they had sound wisdom and were prideful in their own ability to discern and judge. But Jesus challenged their wisdom by looking at the “children” of their wisdom—what did their “wisdom” produce? Their deeds were woeful, in that they failed to recognize both the forerunner of the Messiah and the Messiah Himself.
It is remarkable that those who had spiritual pride and confidence in themselves Jesus rebuked soundly, while the one who was struggling with doubt Jesus affirmed and encouraged. Jesus had reminded John that Jesus was the King and that John was the forerunner, but it was important not to stumble over the King and His methods (Matthew 11:6). On the other hand, Jesus chastised those who had made arrogant and wrongful judgments against John and Jesus. This is an important reminder that God is patient with His children even when they are doubting, but God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). We should never be arrogant in our judgments but should develop our conclusions humbly and by seeking God’s wisdom revealed in His Word, just as Jesus was encouraging John to do.