“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
In our reading today, we hear Jesus say
“I tell you, 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.”
Why, specifically, was John so great?
And what does it mean that “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he”?
We’ll get to that second question in a minute, but first, the key point:
You will of course recall John’s perhaps most well-known statement, which I know I mention often: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
And in the book of Revelation, chapter 13, we hear about the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.
“Slain from the foundation of the world.” As one commentator puts it:
“Think about this: before the universe was created, before time existed, before man was created, God knew that we (in Adam) would sin. He knew we would rebel against our Creator. And in the wisdom and love of God, in eternity, He predetermined a plan so that we could receive a free gift of salvation. In eternity, God planned for the Son of God to step into history to provide the ultimate sacrifice—the sinless Son of God would suffer sin’s penalty of death, be raised from the dead, thus providing a way of salvation. Hebrews 10:10 declares: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”[i]
And so, as the Apostle Paul will remind us in his own writings…in the process of describing his own call:
“That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (I Tim. 4:10)
And what is this great salvation that the Bible speaks of ultimately about? Not earthly foes. Not political enemies – even if this figures into the big picture as well. Rather this deliverance is ultimately from the curse of sin, from death, and from the demonic, the devil.
And this great salvation, this great deliverance, was foretold many times in the Scripture, including Malachai 3:1 which says:
“’I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?”
Who can stand? That should ring in our ears a bit!
The prophet is saying: “Who can survive the fearsome judgment of God when a sinful people, a sinful world, meets its Maker in the Holy God of Israel?”
The answer takes us back to John and His message: “The one who stands with the with the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
So as the book of Malachai prophesies and John fulfills, God’s messenger prepares the way for the Master to come to the Temple, the symbol of God’s people, and cleanse it of all its unholiness… to bring God’s judgement and mercy to the people Israel (Wright, 88)…
And it is revealed to us in the New Testament, sometimes subtly but surely, that the messenger is the forerunner of God Himself, who really will stand in His Temple in human flesh.
Who will replace His Temple with His human flesh![ii]
John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the One who the New Testament, echoing some Psalms, repeatedly calls “the coming One” (see Ps. 40:7 [and its use in Heb. 10:5-9] and Ps. 118:26)….
He was to announce to everyone in this Coming One, in this Messiah, God’s grace (Luke 3:3-6) and God’s judgment (Luke 3:9)… with an emphasis on God’s compassion and grace, as emphasized in the prophet Isaiah (see, e.g. Isaiah 35:5,6; Isa. 61:1).
The 5th century church father Cyril of Alexandria talked about Jesus’ own confidence-giving words to John the Baptist and put things this way:
“’For you have heard indeed’ he says, ‘that [the dead are raised] by the all-powerful word, and by the touch of the hand: you have seen also, while you yourselves stood by, that those things that were spoken of old time by the holy prophets are accomplished: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the dumb hear, and the dead arise, and the poor are preached unto. All these things the blessed prophets had before announced, as about in due time to be wrought by My hands. If then I bring to pass those things that were prophesied long before, and you yourselves are spectators of them, return and tell those things which you have seen with your own eyes accomplished by My might and ability, and which at various times the blessed prophets foretold….” (ACCS, and here: https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/cyril_on_luke_03_sermons_26_38.htm)
Again, all of this also reveals the greatness of John, who was the end of the age of preparation as the age of fulfillment dawned! (France, 130)
For, as Jesus would go later go on to put it in Luke (Luke 10), after John the Baptist’s death:
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 2For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
As so William Barclay sums up all of this nicely, also helping us also see why “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John the Baptist]:
“John marked a dividing line in history. Since John’s proclamation had been made, Jesus had come; eternity had invaded time; heaven had invaded earth; God had arrived in Jesus; life could never be the same again. We date all time as before Christ and after Christ—B.C. and A.D. Jesus is the dividing line. Therefore, all who come after him and who receive him are of necessity granted a greater blessing than all who went before. The entry of Jesus into the world divided all time into two; and it divided all life in two. If any man be in Christ he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).” (90)
Really, truly, such mysteries are too great for us.
We, in fact, are not worthy…
But in the world, as we know, people have many thoughts that occur to them…
True, one indeed is what is going to happen to them when they die, and how they should live in light of this. This can be a good start.
Another, however, is one’s success, influence, and satisfaction in this world. Particularly related to one’s standing in the eyes of one’s fellow men and women.
And as is often the case, the importance of this question takes center stage and the former question – about that messy death and dying stuff – is suppressed and not dealt with very seriously. By the young, of course, but also by those who have many years under their belt.
And why not, right? After all, if one is considered to be good and successful by one’s fellow men and women, God’s approval certainly cannot be far behind as well, right?
This certainly seems to be the way the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders described in today’s Gospel text, looked at things. And it seems by their own assessment they had things going on pretty good in their world, as best they could tell… before these insubordinate John and Jesus guys came and started to mess things up!
This is exactly what Jesus is helping us to see here in our text today by the words he speaks….
By the questions he asks about swaying reeds and fine clothing he wants to get the religious leaders asking themselves questions about the meaning of John and their reaction to him.
John, after all, is certainly the opposite of a swaying reed (unlike the people’s leaders!)!
And he certainly is the opposite of one living in the lap of luxury, or one who could secure those gifts!
No… clearly the man was a prophet and more than prophet Jesus says – and he was preparing the way for the Coming One, the Chosen One, the One who was to Come!
The Messiah, Jesus.
As R.C.H. Lenski interprets it – and I agree with him – Jesus in our text today means to stir up the callous people who seem affected by nothing….
Jesus goes on after this too. He also, through the use of a short illustration, reveals how these seemingly sophisticated men are behaving.
They are in fact acting like children who would play in the market, getting one another to imitate the actions from weddings or funerals, for instance, but who would get upset when they would not get their way.
“To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’
In other words, the kids would get upset when everyone would not join their game; conform to their wishes…
This is just what, in a sense, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were doing with John the Baptist and Jesus, pouting like little children when they would not conform to their own expectations about what they should be like and do.
And when people do not do what you want them to do, if you are a child, you may childishly make obscene accusations and call them names. Jesus again:
“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.”
Again, remarkably, this is certainly what Jesus is saying the leaders of this generation, the “official” people, the “cultivated” people – and perhaps a great many other people with them — had done…
It is like the opposite of the Goldilocks principle: “Not too hot, not too cold… but just right…”
You see, it can never be “just right,” simply because of who John and Jesus are….[iii]
So these men – unless they turn – will never be satisfied…
You men won’t sing and dance to our tune? Submit to our whims and fancies?
Well then John – you must have a demon!
And Jesus, with the company you keep you must be glutton and drunkard!
To say the least, John and Jesus had really, really annoyed them…
As my children would say: “You are such a disappointment!”
In truth though, we know the abuse that John the Baptist and Jesus were to receive would be far worse….
But how wrong all of this was!
For as Jesus says “Wisdom is justified from all her children”….
As one commentator puts it, this is similar to our statement “time will tell” (Prange, 84)
More specifically, the eyes of faith could see that even as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ had very different “lifestyles,” so to speak, their actions were actually in accordance with one another, going hand-in-hand or being of “one cloth”…
And both were in line with the will of God, which is always good, and which will result in the ultimate good.
This is something the “cultivated” and “respectable” people Jesus is describing could not see or accept…
Let’s dig into this a bit more here…. Our text for today essentially says, in sum, that the Pharisees and teachers of the law nullify, make ineffective, the purposes of God as regards themselves:
“All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John…”(7:29-30)
Another translation would be that these men rejected God’s counsel for them… In any case, this is why Jesus is here making the case that “this generation” are basically corrupt children trapped in their childish ways…
And note also that in the book of Luke, Jesus also describes them elsewhere as “evil” (11:29), unrepentant (11:32), “unbelieving and perverted” (9:41), and responsible for the blood of the prophets (11:50). (Just, 318)[iv]
No one should want to identify with this group.
No one should want to identify with their deepest concerns.
No one should want to identify with their controlling “narratives”.
It is easy enough for each one of us, on our own, to be tempted to downplay or even despise the Word of God – even without all of their added temptations of status to deal with!
To say the least though, we still today are tempted to try to direct God’s prophets, and even God Himself…
And it’s easier when His authoritative voice comes to us rather veiled: that is humbly and simply not only as a helpless baby, but in a from like ink and letters on a physical page as well!
And, as we’ve often noted, things can go rather south rather quickly.
Again, the fourth century church father Cyril of Alexandria is very helpful here, as he puts the matter in a simple and blunt way:
“The prophet[ Isaiah’s] words will apply to us, ‘Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil. Who call bitter sweet and sweet bitter. Who put light for darkness, and darkness for light.’ This was the character of the Israelites and especially of those who were their chiefs, the scribes, namely, and Pharisees. Christ said of them, ‘To what shall I liken the men of this generation?’” (ACCS, 123)
Yes, sadly, the same things happen today, perhaps with much enhancement…
But always, at bottom, the cause is this: Many, many of high standing in the world especially, reject God’s purposes for them… they do not want to “justify God” and His righteousness, but rather their own…
Just like for the Pharisees and teachers of the law, it was clear that John’s baptism is not something they thought they needed…
Let’s quickly look at the alternative.
God’s purpose for the Pharisees and the scribes, as it is for all mankind, was for them was to receive John, his message, and his work en route to receiving Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
In contrast we see that all the people of Israel other than the religious leaders — even the tax collectors! – ran to John the Baptist to be baptized to them, “justifying God” or “acknowledged that God’s way was right” as Jesus says here….
As the Fort Wayne seminary professor Arthur Just puts it:
“[‘acknowledged that God’s way was right’ or ‘justified God’ means that the people “received] [God’s] plan… of salvation as it is manifested in the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance. Thus their submission to John’s baptism of repentance to the forgiveness of their sins 93:3) is their confession that God is just or righteous and that that God justifies the sinner by grace alone” (317)[v]
Interestingly, R.T. France says, regarding the “they justified God”, that in both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries “the social and religious outsiders” responded to them while the religious authorities refused… “Both are part of a ‘subversive’ movement outside the channels of official Judaism, and it is there that God’s purpose is being fulfilled.” (130-131).
But it, really, is not subversive, and certainly not revolutionary in any true sense.
Rather, John and Jesus are certainly showing forth what God’s plan always originally entailed and what sinful man — even sinful man in positions of influence within the church — has always been rejecting, in part – that is, in weak faith – or, in whole – that is, apart from faith…
But in our text for today, Jesus holds up the common people as the models of the spiritually poor… the receptive beggars who heard and received God’s message in faith…[vi]
This is to be a sign for us, for all of us!
Most all of the Jews of Jesus’ day – post Babylonian exile – were determined to be very religious in their practices… (they didn’t want to be judged again!) And yet, right from the beginning of the Gospels, we see that only some of the Jews are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah right from the very start!
There is Mary the Mother of God, of course.
And John the Baptist’s mother and father, Elizabeth and Zechariah. The wise men and the shepherds…
And faithful Simeon and Anna at the temple when Jesus’ parents bring Him there to be circumcised.
And then, when Jesus grows older, men like Nathaniel and other of the disciples immediately recognize something special in Jesus’ teachings and actions, and, informed by the Holy Scriptures in faith, excitedly ask “Could this be the Messiah?”
His Sheep hear His voice.
He wants us to hear – and hear so more and more – as well!
That said, particularly as a citizen of the United States, many of us of course see that politics has taken center stage like never before, and many of us are struggling with all kinds of issues that our nation faces.
And here, it is so easy to get caught up not only in the very practical concerns we each have, but the concerns and popular narratives that those in the elite heights of our culture promote…
So many of these issues and the questions they raise are not unimportant – and these matters too greatly affect us and have implications for us! — and yet, sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in these things that we downplay, ignore, or even begin to doubt the one thing that really matters most…
It appears even John the Baptist had a similar struggle.
After all, what was going on with John the Baptist when this Scripture reading takes place? Well, John had been locked up way back in Luke 3:20, in the fortress Machaerus, “located on a solitary peak on the east side of the Dead Sea” whose ruins I hear you can still see today (Prange, 81).[vii]
Perhaps John is wondering where the judgment he has promised was going to come… “Where was the work of judgement [Jesus promised (see Luke 3:9, 3:17)], his swinging of the winnowing shovel, the cutting of the ax?… How was this [lack of judgment] to be explained [?]” (Lenski, 404)
Maybe John was expecting, like many, that with the Messiah the wrath of God would be on the march…. That Jesus’ armies of this or that sort would take out the sinful Romans in a timely fashion…
In any case, for whatever reason, John seems to have had some real doubts about the story he’d been telling[viii], and he is perhaps even calling into question Jesus’ deeds here…. (on the other hand, John has certainly not given up faith in Christ and he indicates that he is still willing to submit to Christ…)
How does Jesus respond?
Well, the Epistle reading for today, written when Paul himself was in prison, talks about how we should always rejoice and let our gentleness, or depending on the translation “reasonableness,” be known to all… with this is included the idea of “thoughtfulness, patience, and consideration.”
How or why can we do this? Helpfully, the passage immediately goes on to say:
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…”
This is the comfort God always desires to give us, with the intent that we too, would bring comfort to others (see II Cor. 1)
When people are not sure who or what to believe… not sure about what life is all about, we can tell them about God’s creation, the fall, and Gods’ love for the fallen world shown in His Son…
When people know they have sinned against us and God, we can forgive them in the Name of Christ.
When our fellow believers doubt the Divine Drama, the Good News, the Story of Ultimate Hope that Jesus Christ brings, we can remind them that God is near them and does not abandon them, even now…
We can give them hope just like Jesus Christ gave John hope by essentially saying
“In Me the blind see, the lame walk! The dead are raised! The poor have the good news preached to them! I am indeed the One; Do not look for another!”
As R.C.H. Lenski puts it, do not let the absence of “certain works blind [you] to the glorious presence of the works that are now in full progress…”
Be satisfied with these and “trust that in due time the others will follow just as these are now being done…” [!] (Lenski 407)…
Behold! See how gentle Jesus is not just to John, not just to us, but even to those who would crucify Him!
And may they, like us, know the Lord Jesus, for blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Him!
And may they, like us now, hear both strong and gentle words like this:
““The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing…”
[ii] Also Exodus 23:20 is being referred to when Jesus says “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you…”
Garland says that Caird says there are two Messianic traditions from Scripture that are being incorporated here… “one which said that Elijah would appear as a herald of the day of the Lord, and one which said that God would raise up a prophet, a second Moses (Deut 18:15 – 19…). John has inherited both the mantle of Moses and Elijah.” We note that typically and traditionally, this prophecy has been understood as describing not John the Baptist, but Jesus Himself.
Garland continues: “Note how Moses and Elijah appear together as forerunners of Jesus in the transfiguration (9:30).” (314)
[iii] Are the Pharisees and teachers of the law just super inconsistent and hypocritical? Well, as with so many things, it most likely has to do with the question of “who,” not “what”. One commentator probably nails it when he says: “These people find John too unsociable with the right people and Jesus too sociable with the wrong people” (Findlay, in Garland, 317)
[iv] Conniving too. Earlier they on it seems they try to pit Jesus vs. John in Luke 5:33: “They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”
34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.””
[v] What it means that they “justified God” here is that they judged rightly about God’s work in John and the message that He brought. Just as God pronounces us right, just, and justified because of the blood of Jesus Christ which covers our sins, the people here also pronounce God as right, just, and justified because of His right work in the world…
[vi] Just: the word laos, “people,” often denotes the faithful remnant of Israel (see 1:68, 77; 18:43) (317)
[vii] Barclay: John, the child of “wide open spaces,” is undoubtedly discouraged, being put in a single prison cell…
[viii] “John’s question is the mildest example of man’s attempt to impose his will on God.” (Fraanzman, CSSC, on Matt. 11:1-15). Some say John does not doubt but maybe his disciples do and so he does this for their sakes. If John sent them for their sake Jesus is playing along… (“Having gone report to John…”). Lenski condemns this as being unworthy of both John and Jesus. (406).