Our last essay was on Luke 7:1-17, which contains two significant stories about Jesus’ Galilean ministry: the healing of a centurion’s slave and the raising of a widows dead son. In this essay we are studying Luke 7:18-35, a section that discusses Jesus and John the Baptist.
Notice in verses 18-23 that John, who was in prison (3:19-20; Mt. 11:2), was perplexed about Jesus’ messianic ministry. Of course the question of why arises. I believe that Godet probably is correct in surmising that John was perplexed by the fact that Jesus was going about preaching good things and doing good deeds, which constituted part of the messianic program, but not all of it. John’s ministry as the forerunner of the Messiah had been to preach coming judgment. You will remember that John had proclaimed to the Pharisees and Sadducees that they were in danger of “the wrath to come” and declared to them, “Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:7-10).
But John’s disciples were reporting to him that Jesus was not bringing about the judgment that God had revealed to the Baptist would be part of the Messiah’s ministry. Thus he was confused. So he had his disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Scholars have understood this question in two different ways. First, John could have meant, “Do we need to look for a different person altogether as the Messiah?” This is the usual understanding. Or second, Godet suggests that he could have meant, “Is there a second messianic person, in addition to you, Jesus, that we should look for who will do the judgment part of the program? This seems less likely to me. Either way John did not know that God’s plan called for Jesus to do the judgment part at his second, rather than first, coming.
As you see in verses 21-22, Jesus replied to John by telling John’s disciples to go back and report to John the miracles that Jesus was performing. The reason he said that was because the miracles were messianic signs, and John would understand that. John would have known that the prophet Isaiah had set forth these very miracles as signs of the coming Messiah. In other words there was no need to look for another (Is. 35:5-6; 61:1-3).
Then in verse 23 Jesus declared, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This statement could apply to anyone; but in this context, it has special application to the Baptist. The verb translated “take offense” literally means, “cause to stumble.” So Jesus was saying that those who do not “stumble” over him, that is do not “take offense” at him and his ministry, would be blessed. One might take offense at what Jesus was doing, or one might take offense at what he wasn’t doing, which was the case with John the Baptist. Either way taking offense at Jesus is spiritually dangerous, because it is those who do not take offense who will be blessed.
After Jesus dealt with John ‘s disciples; and they had left the scene; in verses 24-28 he turned to crowds with him and began to speak about the importance of John’s appearing. Jesus asked the crowds, many of whom were familiar with John ‘s wilderness ministry, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wild?” Of course this was a rhetorical question that assumed a negative answer. Reeds shaking in the wind were common in the wilderness. And the idea of a reed shaking in the wind had become a proverbial metaphor that raised a picture in everyone’s minds of something weak that wavers at every wind that blows. But the Baptist was no reed shaking in the wind. He was a strong man of God.
Then Jesus asked a second question, “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?” This again was a rhetorical question assuming a negative answer. No one wore soft robes in the wilderness. People dressed that way were found in palaces, not in the wilderness. And John certainly had not been dressed that way. He wore clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt (Mt. 3:4).
What had they gone out to see? A prophet. And Jesus affirmed that fact. John was a prophet. But he was more than a prophet, says Jesus. He was the one who fulfilled the prophesy in Mal. 3:1, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” In other words, John the Baptist was the prophetic forerunner of the Messiah, a great role in God’s salvation history. Indeed Jesus declares in verse 28, “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John.” That means that Abraham was not greater; Moses was not greater; Elijah was not greater; no one in salvation history prior to Jesus was greater than John the Baptist.
Of course, we didn’t read the entire sentence a moment ago. Jesus continued, “yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Wow! In other words, the least significant believer in Christ, by virtue of his or her personal relationship with God in Christ, is living out a more significant ministry than the greatest of the prophets of Israel.
Now this truth, as wonderful as it is, has to be understood in its historical context. It does not suggest that John the Baptist and the other Old Testament saints are not now part of the kingdom of God. Indeed Jesus, as recorded in Luke 13:28, told some of those who would not be part of the kingdom, quote, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” So the Old Testament saints are part of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus said that believers in Christ were greater than John the Baptist, the salvation of the Baptist wasn’t in view. Jesus was simply saying that being part of the kingdom is more important even than being the greatest of prophets.
Verses 29-30 are parenthetical. Some scholars believe they are part of what Jesus was saying (Godet), but most scholars agree that the verses are a comment inserted by Luke. Either way, the verses are saying that those who were listening to Jesus fell into two groups. One group, including the tax collectors, had responded positively to the Baptist’s ministry and had been baptized by him. You will remember that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. This group justified God. That is, they declared him righteous. The other group, including the Pharisees and lawyers, had rejected John’s ministry and had not been baptized by him. And Luke says that their response was a rejection God’s purpose for them. And of course part of that purpose included repentance.
At verse 31 the chapter returns to Jesus’ discourse. “The people of this generation” are the people, including the Pharisees, who rejected the ministry of John and Jesus. Jesus likens them to children who refuse to play. Some children suggested playing a merry song and invited the others to dance, but they refused. So the first children pretended to mourn, but the other children would not join in that game either.
What Jesus intended by the parable is debated. Some believe that the first group of children represents the crowds who wanted John and Jesus to “dance to their tune,” so to speak. Others believe that the first group of children represents John and Jesus. And it is the crowds who refuse to “play.” I believe the second view is correct, because in verse 32 we read, “John . . . has come” and “the Son of Man has come.” That parallels the children suggesting dancing and mourning. But the crowds refused to “play.” That is, they rejected the ministries of both John and Jesus.
Finally, in verse 35, Jesus announces that wisdom’s “children,” meaning all who have responded positively to the message of John and Jesus, have vindicated wisdom. The word “wisdom” used in this way could refer to God; it could refer to the Messiah; or it could simply be a reference to the wisdom of accepting God’s plan. In any case, it is wise to accept God’s plan of repentance and redemption.
Turning to application, I would say, first, that unlike John the Baptist in prison, we must not make judgments about God based on what he is not doing. John made a judgment about Jesus, because he was not bringing in the final judgment (vv. 18-23). Some of us make judgments about God by what he is not doing in answer to our prayers. We must make judgments about God based on his Word and on what he des.
Second, I would say that we should take courage from Jesus’ declaration that the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than the greatest of the prophets (v. 28). Each of us has an important place in God’s kingdom.
Third, We do not want to be like children who refuse to play God’s “game.” Rather we want to vindicate God’s wisdom by accepting his salvation and all that he reveals to us in his Word.