Luke 7:18-35

Bill McFarland

March 5, 2006


I believe that three of the most common obstacles to enduring and fruitful faith are first off the problem of personal weariness, when we get tired and begin to doubt; secondly, the problem of misplaced values when we become impressed with the wrong things; and thirdly, the problem of unfavorable public opinion when what we believe as Christians seems to be out of the mainstream, so to speak, of the world around us.

I am aware that all three of those pressures are sometimes felt in my own life and cause me to deal with doubts.  I also believe that when I get up to speak to a group of people that probably most of them at one time or another have confronted all three of those same obstacles to their faith.  That is why it impresses me when I read a passage like we find here in Luke 7 which deals with those very three problems in that same order.  This great passage is a conversation that arises because John the Baptist, the great forerunner of the Lord sent to prepare his way morally and spiritually, had some questions that he sent messengers to take to Jesus.  Then the Lord had some things to say about John the Baptist that call attention to what real values are, and then third, he made some observations about the effect of the ministry of both John the Baptist and himself.  These three little paragraphs allow us to do some reflecting on our own lives for the Lord and our own work together that will serve to strengthen us.  Here are three convictions that will help us to keep our faith strong.

Jesus Christ is worth of our trust and our loyalty.  He is completely worthy of those things being placed in him.  Notice what happens in Luke 7:18-23: “The disciples of John reported all these things to him.  And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’  And when the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’’ In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.  And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”

The first thing that is sort of surprising in this passage is that John the Baptist would have this question that he sent to Jesus.  After all, John had been a powerful witness to the fact that the Lord was coming.  John introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  His work by inspiration had been a mighty testimony to what God was going to do through his Son, the Christ.  And yet, John sends to say, “Are you the one who is coming, or not?” in effect.  Well, what is going on that causes this message to be sent to Jesus?  It might be that John is dealing here with a bit of impatience.  John had said that “the ax lies at the root; there is someone coming who will baptize you with fire.  The chafe is going to be blown away by the judgment that this one would bring.”  And now John finds himself in the prison of Herod, maybe a dungeon at one of Herod’s castles which was said to have been on the east side of the River Jordan about eight or ten miles out from the Dead Sea and about fifteen miles south of the north end of the Dead Sea.  And here he is lingering in that dungeon with the end of his journey through this world out there before him, and maybe he is hearing that Jesus is preaching good news and doing these acts of mercy and he is wondering if maybe acts of judgment might not be more called for and more effective right then.  I could understand how that could be.  Maybe John the Baptist is dealing with what all of us go through at one time or another and that is the question about whether our efforts have really done much good or not.  I deal with that, don’t you from time to time.  Are we getting anywhere here?  Had John’s efforts out there in the wilderness borne the fruit that would last or was it all going to be just snuffed out here with what Herod and Herodias were going to do to him?  And it might be that John and this question here is dealing with another part of what we go through as human beings and that is questions that are brought on when we are under pressure and when we don’t see a lot of bright spots out there in front of us.

Whatever the reason, I want you to observe something about the handling of doubts when they do occur.  John did not keep it to himself.  He called the messengers and he sent them to Jesus.  Sometimes we just let the doubts linger there until they have overcome us and we didn’t take any action to try to let them be better.  Notice carefully that John sent these messengers to the one who could help him – to Jesus.  What if he had sent these messengers to the Pharisees or to the Scribes?  What if he had sought out some whose doubts had already been so great that they had rejected Jesus, and he had looked to them for his answers?  Then he would have been, undoubtedly, overcome and would have turned away completely, and that would have been a tragedy.  John sent the messengers to Jesus.  And then notice what the Lord does.  He hears the question and right at the time he is already doing these great things.  He has raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, he has given the blind their sight, the lame are being made to walk, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf are being made to hear, and the greatest miracle of all is that the poor are having good news preached to them.  Then he said to these messengers, “I want you to go back and tell John what I am doing.”  Barclay observed that Jesus is the only man who ever could say without any kind of clarification, “I want you to just go tell what I am doing.”  The rest of us can tell what we are saying.  Jesus could tell what he was doing.  The point of what he does here is really to John, “I want you to take the evidence and consider what the scriptures said.”  All of these actions here are references to Isaiah 28, verse 16 or so, Isaiah 35:5-6, and Isaiah 61:1-3.  These are the things the prophets had said the messiah would do.  And John is hearing Jesus say in effect, “Here’s what’s going on.  What does the Bible say about this?”  And he expects John to be able to take that and to apply it and to understand the point that is being made.  And then the Lord made the application: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  The word for offended meant either a stone that you could trip up and stumble over or the bait stick on a trap that could lure you in and trap you.  Jesus says to John, “The one who can look at what I am doing and what I am saying and still believe in me and not be offended by me and not be tripped up by my actions, that is the one who is really blessed.”  In other words, the one who will keep on believing, the one who will put his trust in me, the one who will be loyal to me, that is the one who really is going to be blessed.

Remember when Jesus taught with the parable of the sower.  In Matthew 13 in that parable this picture of this stumbling block comes up.  He was talking about the rocky ground, the one where the soil has no depth.  And he said, “As for what was sown on the rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”  Jesus is saying, “Have more depth than that.  Don’t stumble.  Don’t fall away; keep on believing.” 

One of the purposes of singing in the assembly is to teach and admonish each other.  Let’s do that as we sing No. 267, “I Believe in Jesus.”

The second great conviction that stands out in the course of this conversation is that citizenship in the Lord’s kingdom is the greatest privilege of all of life, the greatest privilege anyone can hope for.  The text continues in verse 24, “When John’s messengers had gone, 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?  What then did you go out to see?  A man dressed in soft clothing?  Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in king’s courts.  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.  I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.  Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

As if to say, “I don’t want anybody to think because John has sent this question that somehow John is slipping or that he is less than strong or less than admirable.”  The Lord addressed the crowd about John’s character and John’s work.  And notice in what he has stated here, there are two or three things about John that we can gather.  First, John was a man.  John was somebody who was not like a reed, like the cane grass that might have grown along the Jordan that would wave back and forth, depending on which way the breeze was blowing.  Morally and spiritually and character-wise, John was a man who would stand his ground.  He was a man capable of being strong.  He was someone who, whether he was talking to the king or to the religious leaders of the people or to soldiers or common people, he would tell folks the truth and let them see what they needed to see.  But John was not merely strong in that way.  He was also a fellow whose ruggedness was a testimony to the fact that he believed strongly what he was saying.  There are sometimes people who will say powerful things just because they want to be admired for taking a stand.  John was the kind of man whose way of life showed that he really believed what he was saying.

The Lord makes the point that people who are dressed in soft clothing are ones who are for king’s courts.  Where was John when the Lord said this?  John wasn’t in a king’s court.  He was in a king’s dungeon.  He was not dressed in soft clothing.  Remember, he wore the camel’s hair and leather, etc. of an outdoor man, a country man, a rugged man would have worn.  Notice, the Lord says now that John is not just a man; he is a prophet.  He is someone who has a message from God, who speaks for God.  He had a mission in the world that he intended to fulfill and did fulfill.  And then notice that the Lord said John was more than a prophet.  He was actually the fulfillment of the prophets.  He was somebody who was the Lord’s messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord, a reference there to Malachi 3:1 about John’s ministry.  Of course by way of implication, Jesus is claiming in that statement to be the Messiah, to be the Christ. He is the one whose way John had been sent to prepare.  So by any measure, whether you look at his strength or his sincerity or his mission, or his faithfulness to that mission, John has been great – a great man, admirable in every way.  And here comes the surprise.  Jesus said, “I tell you, the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.”  That is not what I expected to hear.  Is it you?  After just building him up like he had, how can this be true?  Well, it must mean that while John bore witness to the one who would establish the kingdom, he didn’t have the opportunity at that point to be in the kingdom because the kingdom had not been established yet.  John had preached that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  Jesus had promised, “I will build my church and I will give you the keys to kingdom,” to Peter and the apostles.  But that kingdom was not a reality in which John had the privilege of holding citizenship.  He had only been able to look forward to it.  And, when in Acts 2 it was preached that Jesus had been made both Lord and Christ and that he ruled at God’s right hand, people began to have the privilege to be citizens of this new spiritual kingdom.  H. Leo Boles commented, “John was not a citizen of the kingdom.  Jesus had not established his kingdom at this time so John was not in the kingdom.  However, the humblest member of the body of Christ or citizen of his kingdom is greater than John because he is elevated from the position of a servant as under the law to the place of a child in our Father’s house.  We have greater privileges than John.  John had great character, but we have greater blessings and opportunities and privileges as citizens in God’s kingdom.”  The way of life for the citizen of the kingdom is righteousness and peace and joy, Romans 14:17 says.  The realm in which a citizen of the kingdom lives is not the domain of darkness, but he has been translated out of that into the kingdom of God’s dear Son by forgiveness of sin and redemption.”  In Revelation 1:5-6, we learn that when Jesus washes a person, cleanses him of his sin, he makes that person a part of the kingdom which has holy privileges and holy opportunities.  You and I need to understand the great blessing we have been given, the privilege we have been given in the gospel invitation, to be taken from out of the world and transferred into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.  The hope of this kingdom is that there will come that day when God will bring his Son and that our lowly bodies will be transformed into something like his glorious body and we will have our homes forever with him, Phil. 3:20-21.  Isn’t that a great hope?

Think of the fact then, that if that is the greatest blessing, the challenge in our lives is to live like God’s kingdom comes first for us.  We have to be people who do seek first the kingdom of God.  We have to be like those men Jesus told about who found the pearl of great price and sold everything to buy it, who find a treasure hidden in a field and sell everything to buy that.  He is talking about putting it first.  Let’s encourage each other to do that as we sing No. 290, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”

The third of these great convictions in Luke 7 is that those who appreciate and welcome God’s words will be blessed.  They will be able to see what really is important in life.  They will be able to put their lives on a course that will make a difference and will matter.  The passage says beginning at verse 29, “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors, too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.  To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like.  They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’  For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

Notice in the beginning the fact that some of these people had justified God, had approved of God’s ways, had accepted God’s words and ways by obeying what John preached about the baptism of repentance.  Others had rejected God’s purpose for themselves by just ignoring that and carrying on as if it had not been preached or said.  Jesus is trying to illustrate here, then, the responses of the people to John’s ministry and to his own ministry.  And the best illustration he could think of was to compare them to spoiled children.  He said it is like these little guys out in the marketplace, the public square.  They call out to each other, “Let’s play wedding.”  One says, “Aw, we don’t want to do that.  That’s too happy.”  “Ok, then, let’s play funeral.”  “Aw, we don’t want to do that.  That’s too sad.”  So it is just the fact that not knowing what they want, they are not satisfied with anything that is offered to them. 

Jesus takes that principle and applies it to their response to John and to himself.  John came as a man who, because of his message of repentance and because of the circumstance and the corrections that need to be made, it wasn’t appropriate for him to eat and drink like everything was alright.  Jesus came as the bridegroom to announce joy and privileges and opportunities.  He ate with people.  He went about normal life.  He befriended people who needed to be helped.  But, he was rejected as a winebibber and a glutton.  Someone said, “The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it.  They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms.  They will criticize the same person and the same institution from quite opposite grounds.  If people are determined to make no response, they will remain stubbornly unresponsive no matter what invitation is made to them.  Grown men and women can be very much like spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is.”  There is too much truth to that for it to be comfortable, folks. 

Jesus is saying that wisdom is justified by her children.  In other words, the fact that this is God’s way and God’s work can be shown by the fact that John’s ministry made a difference where it was intended to make a difference.  He went about it the way God wanted him to, and Jesus’ ministry was making a difference because it witnessed what he was doing when these messengers came.  Those who accepted what was going on and submitted to it proved that they agreed with God, and they wanted God to have his way.

I read of an old Mississippi riverboat captain who had been working on the river for 35 years.  He was being interviewed about his career going up and down that great river, and the interviewer said, “I guess you know where every rock and sandbar is.”  The old man said, “No, but I know where the deep water is.”  That is what you and I need to know about the Lord’s way and the Lord’s work.  We need to welcome his word and appreciate it to the point that we know where the deep water is, and we are committed to staying with him and staying with his way and following him no matter what.  It may be that you are here this morning and you are ready to place your life in keeping with these three great convictions, that you believe the Lord to the point that you want to be a citizen of his kingdom and you are willing to submit to his word to let that happen.  If you would decide to follow Jesus and if you are willing to make the good confession today and if we can assist you in being baptized into Christ, let that be known this morning.  If you are a Christian and you haven’t been true to these convictions and need to come home to them today, if we can help with that in prayer, let that be known right now while we stand and sing together.