Bible croppedContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (‘The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived’ — Parts 1, 2 and 3).

Luke 7:24-30

24When 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? 25What 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 kings’ courts. 26What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is he of whom it is written,

   “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

 28I 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.” 29(When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

———————————————————————————————-

Last week’s post concerned John the Baptist’s questioning whether Jesus was really the Messiah. It’s important to remember that John — the last of the biblical prophets — was in prison at the time. This was because he told Herod Antipas in a private audience to clean up his marital arrangement. Herod and his wife Herodias took exception; later, his niece Salome would ask for John’s head on a platter as a present.

For now, John had asked his disciples — presumably a few could visit him at Fort Machaerus — to seek clarification from Jesus. This is why Jesus (see last week’s entry) performed many miracles within an hour. Having seen those, John’s disciples could then report back to him and the prophet would know in his isolation that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

John the Baptist is a pivotal person bridging the Old and New Covenants. He abided by Nazirite vows; the only other men in the Bible to do so were Samuel and Samson. John delivered an uncompromising message of repentance and charity as preparation for Jesus. (This is part of the reason why Advent is a time of intense charitable activity; it does not mean that Christians do not give of themselves at other times of the year.)

It is a pity that the Lectionary compilers have left out several passages — including Jesus’s words — about John. The result is — and I remember this from my high school and university days — that some Christians made fun of him as a honey-eating, long-haired eccentric, an aberration. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You might find these posts of interest concerning the person and message of John the Baptist:

Forbidden Bible Verses — Luke 1:5-17 and Luke 1:18-25

Advent reflections: John the Baptist and the Apocalypse

Advent: Make straight a highway

Advent: John the Baptist’s message of Good News — and repentance

Forbidden Bible Verses — Mark 6:14-20 and Mark 6:21-29

As today’s passage begins, we read that, after John’s disciples left, Jesus then turned to His audience and asked them about their expectations of John the Baptist (verse 24). He referred to their journeying out into the wilderness to seek John. Had they, He asked, expected to find a man who compromised truth for the world (e.g. not unlike a certain Archbishop)? Had they expected to find a man living in luxury (verse 25)?

No, He answered — they went to see a prophet ‘and more’ (verse 26).

Jesus went on to cite Malachi 3:1 (verse 27), to illustrate that John was fortelling Him:

1“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Then Jesus makes two astounding statements (verse 28):

1/ John the Baptist was the greatest human being who ever lived.

2/ The least of the people in Heaven is greater than John.

This had the effect of dividing Jesus’s listeners (verse 29). Most of them, who had followed John’s ministry and had received his baptism, affirmed that this was a sign of God’s justice to His people. However, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected this sign, and, consequently, Jesus.

What is our Lord saying here that appears to be immediately understood by most of His audience?

John the Baptist’s way of life, prophecy and baptistic ministry pointed to a kingdom greater than this earth. Matthew Henry explains (emphases mine):

Before he sent the Master himself, he sent a messenger, to give notice of his coming, and prepare people to receive him. Had the Messiah been to appear as a temporal prince, under which character the carnal Jews expected him, his messenger would have appeared either in the pomp of a general or the gaiety of a herald at arms; but it was a previous indication, plain enough, of the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, that the messenger he sent before him to prepare his way did it by preaching repentance and reformation of men’s hearts and lives. Certainly that kingdom was not of this world which was thus ushered in.

John had a powerful influence on the Jewish people. If there were newspapers at the time, he would no doubt have featured on the front page more than once.

John MacArthur says John’s spiritual strength persuaded the Jewish people (outside of the hierarchy) to accept baptism, which was traditionally given to converts to the Jewish faith, not to those born into it:

Everybody in Israel essentially perceived that John was a prophet. The whole of Judea had gone out to him. Matthew tells us that, and Mark tells us that. When he was ministering down at the Jordan River in the wilderness, all of Judea was going out to him, all of Jerusalem was going out to him because everyone perceived that he was a prophet. And when they got there what they heard was a message of repentance for sin and then a baptism of repentance was held. And these people were actually being baptized by John with what essentially was a proselyte baptism.

In other words, a baptism that was usually given only to Gentiles. When a Gentile wanted to embrace Judaism, there was a ceremonial baptism that they went through which was a confession that they were unclean and outside the covenant and outside the promises and uncircumcised and outside of Israel…in a word, a Gentile, a pagan.

However, this passage from Luke 7 shows that some of John’s followers did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah he fortetold. Therefore, Jesus went on to explain John’s greatness (not just because they were cousins) and calling as a prophet. This was to get people to accept Him as such, because if they truly accepted John’s message, they could not rightly reject Jesus. MacArthur explains:

‘I say to you, among those born of women,” and that would be all of us, “there is no one greater than John.” Now he’s not going to get an argument about this from the people …

That…unambiguous statement, that crystal-clear statement really wouldn’t get any argument…at least on the surface because the people had made very clear their belief that John was the prophet of God heralding the coming of Messiah, which would be the greatest prophetic assignment everybody…anybody ever received.

Yet, some would remain unconvinced about Jesus. Whereas John’s doubt was put to rest after his disciples reported Jesus’s miracles to him, other followers would continue to doubt Him. They might not have truly believed John, either, but could have been swept up in the spirituality of the moment. MacArthur:

He was the ultimate Baptist, the proto-typical, the first. And yet as you look back over his ministry, the truth of the matter is, many said, “Lord, Lord,” that didn’t mean it. You have to get used to that. But nonetheless, he was the greatest person who ever lived.

As for the Jewish hierarchy who rejected John’s baptism, Henry has this observation, equally important for those of us who question or reject the Gospel message:

God in sending that messenger [John] among them had a kind purpose of good to them, designed their salvation by it, and, if they had closed with the counsel of God, it had been for themselves, they had been made for ever; but they rejected it, would not comply with it, and it was against themselves, it was to their own ruin; they came short of the benefit intended them, and not only so, but forfeited the grace of God, put a bar in their own door, and, by refusing that discipline which was to fit them for the kingdom of the Messiah, shut themselves out of it, and they not only excluded themselves, but hindered others, and stood in their way.

It is also important to grasp the comparison of John the Baptist with Elijah, who was such a great prophet that he never died, but was assumed into Heaven in a whirlwind. This is because John actually saw and baptised Jesus. He was the prophet who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his conception. He also actually knew the Messiah and baptised Him. MacArthur explains:

Other prophets were great because they spoke about Messiah’s coming, they spoke the Word of God, but John saw His arrival, that makes him greater. And for all the prophets before John, it was a matter of faith, for him it was a matter of sight. And for all before him they could only speak of someone they couldn’t know, but John knew Him, touched Him, talked to Him, baptized Him. And so by virtue of his privileged calling he literally ascends to the highest peak of humanity. He is the last and the greatest Old Covenant prophet, the one nearest to Christ, the last preacher of the age of promise and the bridge into the age of fulfillment. He is the last preacher in the age of promise and the first preacher in the age of fulfillment. And he touches Jesus Christ.

As for the least in God’s Kingdom being more exalted than John the Baptist, this is because we are privileged to have divine revelation from the Gospels as well as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:

… the least of us in the age of fulfillment is greater than John in terms of the message that we have. What a privilege. He pointed to the Messiah, he was the one who literally announced the arrival of Messiah, but now we are commissioned by that Messiah to proclaim His truth to the world. And we know what John never knew. Yes he was the greatest in the age of promise, but the least of us in the age of fulfillment is greater…greater privilege because we have a full and glorious message. We know the full record of the life of Jesus in the four gospels. We know the full record of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the world recorded in the book of Acts. And then we have all the epistles in the New Testament to explain to us all the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ and the purpose of God in salvation. And then we have the book of Revelation to understand how it all ends in the glorious return of Jesus to establish His earthly Kingdom, and then the new heaven and the new earth and the glories of eternity as well as the horrors of eternal punishment. We know it all.

We also have a unique presence and power from the Holy Spirit. John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. That was unique to him as a prophet. And yet all of us, all of us are filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of our opportunity to come to Christ. We are indwelt by the Spirit of God. Once the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you shall be witnesses, Jesus aid in Acts 1:8. We have the New Testament, the glorious inspired record of the full gospel of Christ. We have everything we need. We have the full message. John didn’t have that. We understand truth that John never knew ...

The reason that we are in the Kingdom of God in its fulfillment age greater than John is not because of our personal character exceeding his, or our personal influence exceeding his, but because of our privileged revelation.

Next time: Luke 7:31-35