Luke 7:18-35 – Greatness: Jesus, John and us

Last month I received, what could be Australia’s most prestigious sporting award – it wasn’t the Allan Border Medal or the Dally M player of the year award, or the green jacket for the Australian Open,  it was the coveted green singlet for the Maitland Parkrun, parkrunner of the month! The fact that this award was probably given more for volunteering than fast times, in no way diminishes its glory. 🙂 I was a little surprised it didn’t get the press coverage such a prestigious award deserves! I tried sharing it on my social media pages, but it hasn’t exactly gone viral. 🙂

IMG_20150228_141344On top of that yesterday I competed in one of Australia’s premier sporting teams – not the Socceroos or the Kangaroos, or the Australian Cricket team, but the MEC pastors Triathlon team! The selection trials for this team as you can imagine were quite gruelling, and it’s a privilege to have been selected to compete alongside such great athletes as my fellow pastors!

Now at this point you might be saying – Kev, seriously if these are you greatest sporting achievements,  you’re never going to make it into the hall of fame. And you’d be right. Very few of us here this morning would be considered great in any of our fields. Some maybe, but most of us will probably be pretty average.

Yet Jesus says an amazing thing in v28 of this chapter, he says  that among those born of women, there is no one greater than John – which means he is greater than Abraham, Moses, and King David, and yet he says, the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. He is saying that if we are in the kingdom of God, if God is our king, then even the least of us is greater than John, who in turn is greater than heroes of the faith like Abraham and David, is that possible?

There are a lot of questions this passage raises for us, and one way to unpack it is to ask three of those questions: 1. Why is John so great? 2. If he’s so great, why is he asking questions about Jesus? 3. Why if we are in God’s kingdom are we greater than John?

1. Why is John so great?

a) Prophet

Look at v24 Jesus says: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? (John wasn’t in any sense a speaker who  just swayed by what others thought) 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Again, no, John wore very basic clothes, he lived very simply in the wilderness, he definitely wasn’t in it for the money. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you…John was a prophet – someone who spoke God’s word – back in 3:2 we read that ‘the word of God, came to John’.  That’s what a prophet was- God’s word came to them, and they spoke it.

Mark tells us that the whole Judean country side, and all of Jerusalem came out to hear John, thousands of people from all walks of life came to hear him preach. (ordinary people, outcasts etc.) He spoke fearlessly and boldly, about the need to repent, to turn back to God to be forgiven.

b) More than a prophet

If you look again at v26 Jesus says a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: [Then he quotes from Malachi 3:1 ] ‘“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”

John was not just a prophet, he was prophesied about. As well as Malachi 3:1 There are at least two other Old Testament passages which refer to John. One is Malachi – 4:5 which speaks of God sending Elijah before he comes again. Jesus says in Matthew 11, John is that Elijah. The third is Isaiah 40, a voice of one calling prepare the way for the Lord. So there are at least 3 Old Testament prophecies, all written hundreds of years beforehand which all point to John. He is a prophet, yet he is more than a prophet, he is the one prophesied about who will prepare the way for God and personally point people to Jesus.

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1:29-30) John says two extraordinary things about Jesus: He calls him firstly the Lamb of God, and says secondly: Jesus was before him, even though John was 6 months older, Jesus was the preeminent one who existed before him.  Later John again calls Jesus the lamb of God, and two of John’s own disciples left him to follow Jesus. He pointed to Jesus so convincingly even some of his own followers left him to follow Jesus.

Later some of John’s disciples told him that everyone was now going to Jesus instead of John. John replied: ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.” …The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:27-30)

Incredible words of humility, John saw his role as not about him, but as pointing people to Jesus. Of course all the prophets before him, like Moses, David, Isaiah all prophesied of the Messiah, but  what they foretold from a great distance, John told more clearly. He was the immediate forerunner of Jesus who prepared the way and personally pointed others to him.

2. Why is John struggling with questions?

Notice Luke gives us this question from John the Baptist twice, to reinforce it: You see it there in v19 when John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ It’s repeated again in v20 when his disciples come to Jesus they ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ It’s a surprising question, is this the same John who so confidently called Jesus the lamb of God – the one who said his joy was complete, now that Jesus was here? Why would John who’s done such a great job at pointing people to Jesus, now be asking questions as though he was unsure who Jesus is?

Let’s notice quickly 3 things about John:

1024px-Machaerus_Panoramaa) Difficult situation – We know from 3:20 that Herod had locked John up in prison. He was imprisoned in  Machaerus, Herod’s palace on the eastern side of the dead sea. He was in jail unjustly, he’d done nothing wrong other than to faithfully proclaim God’s word.

b) Unmet expectations – John preached of the coming Messiah who would bring judgement : His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17) The Messiah was coming to separate the wheat from the chaff and bring judgement. It seems John didn’t expect to be languishing in prison when the Messiah was here. He expected the Messiah to bring God’s righteous judgement. He was right, God’s judgement was coming, but not as soon as John expected.

c) Limited perception – John knows only what God has told him. He has expectations but his perception is limited, only God knows everything.

These three things – Difficult circumstances, unmet expectations and limited perception can lead to us asking questions, just as John does.

A friend of mine is currently a missionary in Peru. Over the last 50 years the evangelical church in Peru has grown dramatically, but like everywhere Christians in that country experience hardship. Outside one church in a village in Peru is a granite graveside marker. It’s the grave of the six month old son of one of the young missionaries who helped to found that church. The sudden death of his son seemed to crack this missionary, and caused him to ask serious questions.

You can see how all of these three would apply – a) difficult situation, horrendous pain, losing a child – one of life’s greatest heart breaks. b) Unmet expectations – he’d brought his young family over to Peru to serve God and see his kingdom grow, he’d prayed for God to protect them, and to heal their child, and it didn’t seem like God had done what he had expected him to. It didn’t seem fair! That his service of God was being rewarded this way c) Limited perception – the missionary knew his own great pain, he knew what he was experiencing, but he couldn’t know everything of how God might use this suffering to impact both their lives and others for eternity. That missionary, like John the Baptist was a man of God needing struggling with questions. One thing this passage shows us, is that it’s not wrong to ask questions:

The Scripture is honest and open about such struggles and doubts, just as the Christian community today should be. The way to deal with them is to express them, as John did. However, with the expression of [questions] should be an open and receptive ear prepared to hear the answer. (Darrell Bock)[1]

If you have questions about God, you’re not alone. The important thing is what will you do your questions? John is struggling, he has questions, so he asks them, and he’s receptive, prepared to hear the answer.

Notice how Jesus answers John’s question – he answers by pointing to his own life, and to the Scriptures. Look at v21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, illnesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he said to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

Almost every phrase in v22 alludes to verses from Isaiah. If you’re in a home group you may have looked at some this week. John was a man who knew Isaiah – he quoted it to the Pharisees when they asked him who he was. He would have known these references well. Each is a description of what God’s Messiah would do.  Although Jesus specifically refers to the healing in those verses, John would have known each in their context also refers to judgement. God’s judgement was coming, just not in the timetable John had expected.

Jesus is helping John here to better understand the Scriptures. He’s not condemning him for asking questions, he calls him the greatest man who’s ever been born, yet he is helping him to grow through deepening his understanding of the Scriptures and of who Jesus is.

There was a point in yesterday’s triathlon where I was getting concerned. I was watching Steve in the cycle leg where he had to do 6 laps, and I was thinking how easy it would be to lose count while you are zooming back and forth doing these laps. I called out to him as he rode past, what lap are you on and he said 3 – 3 to go, two laps later I said to him, what lap are you on?  and he called out 2 to go! I talked to Rog and he decided he would talk to Steve when he came past next about whether he should come in, as it seemed like he’d actually done his laps. Steve came in, and later Steve and I checked on Strava which is a cycling and running app which maps your ride. You can see this map of his ride there, but if you zoom in closer you can see it in more detail. Picture1If you count the lines here you can see that in fact Steve had done 7 laps when he came in – one too many! It’s actually an easy mistake to make, others did it to, but our high tech analysis has helped us work out a way to shave some significant minutes off our time if we do it next year – We need to just buy Steve a lap counter! If you’ve sponsored us, feel free to chip in a bit extra, because we’ve actually gone over and above what we needed to! It’s a good thing Rog called Steve in, or he would have done 8, maybe more, he could still be out there, he was obviously enjoying it!

When we had a question about our triathlon, we zoomed into Strava for an answer,  when we have questions about life, it’s an opportunity for us to zoom deeper into God’s word for help. A few years ago I heard John Lennox who was a maths professor at the University of Oxford, talk at a conference. One thing he said had helped him grow as a Christian, was that he made a commitment to work just as hard at studying the Bible on his own or with friends, or at church, as he did on his uni studies. He obviously worked hard as his studies to become a professor, but he also worked hard at knowing God – he asked the hard questions, he prayed, he thought through things, and as a result he’s grown significantly over the years. I’m not suggesting we all should be able to think like a maths professor, but sometimes we can be content with a  shallow or surface understanding of God and what he says. Difficulties can be a great opportunity for God to help us to zoom in deeper and grow. If you have questions, do what John did and ask them, pray about them and be willing for God to help you grow in understanding his word.

3. Why are Christians even greater?

Look at v28 Jesus says: among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. In what sense are Christians even greater?

The following two verses 29-30 show us two responses to God’s message. If you look at them, you’ll see they are surprising, because the religious people, the Pharisees and experts in the law are the ones rejecting God’s message, and who refused to be baptised by John, and it’s the more obviously sinful people who are accepting God’s message and who were willing to be baptised by John. There’s something very humbling about coming to be baptised. Even for John, baptism was an outward sign of a need for inner cleansing. There were really two responses to God’s message:

a) Pride / self-righteous – religious people who thought they were good enough for God, and were too proud to accept his grace.

You see an example of them I think in the last section where Jesus tells the parable of the children singing in the market place. He tells us what he means in v33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  They were inconsistent in their accusations, never pleased, always having an excuse. They were stubborn and proud in their unbelief.

b) Humble trust in God’s grace – some recognised they needed God to clean and forgive them. Those who are in God’s kingdom are humbling themselves to receive God’s grace, now shown through Jesus.

If that’s us, then what makes us greater than John is clearly not our great deeds or achievements. We are greater than John for the same reason John is greater than those before him, because we can point people to Jesus with even more clarity than John could.  John was beheaded before Jesus died on the cross and rose again, he was never able to explain God’s grace shown in Jesus as clearly as we can. Even the least in God’s kingdom, even the newest Christian can say, I’m a Christian not because I deserve it, but because Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross for my sins, he bore my sin in his body on the cross, so I can be forgiven, and be welcomed into his family. Even the least of us can point people simply to the grace of God found in Jesus.

Author Randy Newman tells the story of a time he had to have a needle put in his spine, and he said as the doctor was about to put the needle in, he was talking to him. The doctor discovered Newman was a Christian and started talking about how a friend had invited him to church when he was a kid. He said at that church all they seemed to speak about was hell. He said, everyone told him he was going to hell, they said if you dance, you’ll go to hell if you’d, drink you’ll go to hell, if you smoke you’ll go to hell. He said he’d gone home and told his mother, and his mother danced, and drank and smoke, so she told him not to go back, and that was the end of his church experience. Then he turned to Newman and said: you’re religious – what do you think about all that?

Answering questions about hell, is not the easiest to do graciously at any time, but especially not when a doctor is about to put a needle in your spine! Newman said he’d answer him after he’d done the needle. So when he’d done it, the doctor said to him again – what do you think about these groups that have all these rules, and say, if you don’t keep these rules, then you’re going to hell? This is what Newman said: He said, I think people like to have lists of rules because they make it easy to feel good about yourself, and bad about others. You feel good about yourself, because you feel like as long as you don’t do any of the really bad things on these lists you’re OK, but he said, the things that I need God to forgive me for, are a whole lot worse than dancing or drinking or smoking. I need God to forgive me for things like anger, bitterness, judgementalism, self-righteousness… He said, as he spoke, this doctor who all his life had been dismissive of Christianity, was really listening. Newman said, that’s what I love about the Christian message – it shows me how the forgiveness I really need is possible through Jesus.

If you’re a Christian you’re greater than John the Baptist, because you can graciously say to others, with more clarity than he could: I’m a sinner who needs to be forgiven and freed from the evil inside me, and Jesus, the Son of God came and died on the cross, taking my sin, so that I can be. Let’s pray.

[1] Bock, Darrell L. (2009-08-19). Luke (The NIV Application Commentary) (p. 215).

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