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"More Than a Profet!"


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          This morning we continue our study on John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel.  Last week, we saw that as John was sitting in prison, he expressed some honest doubt about whether Jesus was the Messiah.  We also saw Jesus response to that was to gently remind John of the prophecies that he had fulfilled.  This week, we pick up the story in Luke 7:24.  Luke says, “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.” (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 layers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

          This is a fascinating story because its one of the very few times in the gospels where Jesus spends significant time talking in detail about another human being.  He couches his description of John within a series of rhetorical questions.  What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  We need to see the flow of Jesus’ teaching here to see the ultimate point of his message.  Jesus first makes two observations about what John is NOT and we’ll look at those in a moment.  Then in the first part of 26, he tells us what John IS.  In the second half of verse 26, he progresses to tell us in general terms the unique place John occupies in salvation history and in verse 27, he develops that still further by revealing John’s specific role in redemptive history.  Notice that with each designation, Jesus is gradually sharpening his description.  With each new designation, he elevates his appraisal of John’s ministry.  Finally, in the first half of verse 28 he reaches a climax with this proclamation that John is the greatest man born of woman.

          We must see this gradual unfolding, this crescendo within Jesus’ description of John to understand what he means when he concludes by saying that John is in fact less than the least of those in the kingdom in verse 28.  Now let’s go back to the first rung on this ascending ladder of acclaim that Jesus gives to John.  First, he uses a couple of questions to describe John by clarifying for them who he is not.  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.” So Jesus tells us that John is neither “a reed shaken by the wind” or “a man dressed in soft clothing.” What does that mean?  Jesus is explaining that the reason John’s ministry has drawn such crowds out in the middle of nowhere is NOT because of anything personally compelling about him. That’s what Jesus is saying when he says first that John was not a “reed shaken by the wind.”

          Along the Jordan River, there is still today (I am told) an abundance of these reeds lining the river banks. When the wind blows, these tall reeds sway.  When the wind is calm, they stay still.  These reeds are completely influenced by the strength and direction of the prevailing wind.  Jesus is saying that John is not a person who is influenced by the prevailing cultural or spiritual wind.  Where truth was concerned, John didn’t have a political or consensus-building bone in his body.  It wouldn’t have entered his mind to convene a focus group to help him determine his message.  He doesn’t stick his finger up in the air to see what he should say.  He wasn’t the least bit concerned about what people thought of him. 

This is a man who repeatedly rebuked Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who on a human level, held John’s life in the palm of his hand. But John repeatedly rebuked him publicly and privately because he was breaking the moral law of God by marrying the former wife of his still living half brother.  Herod wasn’t even a Jew but he was breaking God’s law and John repeatedly and harshly rebuked him for it. He didn’t have to confront Herod’s sin.  That wasn’t his primary purpose, but Herod was in sin, so he confronted Herod without regard to the cost.  He didn’t care about the tide of public opinion—he was not a reed shaken by the wind.  The people weren’t attracted to John because he had a user-friendly message or knew how to schmooze a crowd.  That was NOT the secret of his ministry’s success.

          Neither was John attracting people because he was a “man dressed in soft clothing.”  John was not part of the Jewish cultural elite.  He was not a white collar prophet—it was a stretch even to call him blue collar.  To put it charitably, John was not an ordinary guy.  He stood out in a crowd and not in ways that were necessarily magnetic.  Some might assume that John had lived a typical, unremarkable agrarian life with his priestly family and at about age 30 God called him into ministry and told him, “Look, I want you to call attention to the parallels between you and Elijah, so you’re going to need to dress like him.  Behind that rock over there is your Elijah costume.  Now go slip out of that linen robe and put on the camel hair.  And, by the way—your menu is going to have to change.  No more lamb sandwiches—from now on its locusts and wild honey for you.”  That is NOT the way it worked.  We know that because after John’s father Zechariah got his voice back and gave that powerful prophecy about his son and the coming Messiah, Luke adds an interesting footnote in 1:80 about John.  He says, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” 

          That tells us that when John begins his ministry in the wilderness for his ministry, he was working out of his back yard.  He had lived off the land in the wilderness for years.  This man had carried the smell of locusts on his breath for a long time when he started preaching.   He probably learned the Scriptures from his father the priest, but this man lived several years in the wilderness.  He was probably as rough as a cob.  He wasn’t a member of the religious elite.  His only resume was the prophetic words spoken over him by his father.  He was Grizzly Adams and I daresay-- most of us living today would have given this man a wide berth. If anything, John was a man who on first blush you might not want your kids to get to close to.  He was not a born crowd pleaser and on his own merit he was certainly not a man most people would have walk miles out into the wilderness to see.

          What he was and what drew the crowds like a magnet--Jesus begins to spell out in verse 26.  He says, “What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes…”  The infallible Word of God had not been heard from the lips of a prophet for more than 20 generations.  But now, the drought is over and the Word of God is flowing again!  And it’s flowing out of the mouth of this weird man.  But Jesus doesn’t stop at just calling John a prophet.  In the second half of verse 26 he says that John is, “more than a prophet.”  And then he explains what that means by referring to a prophecy in Malachi chapter three, “This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” John is not just your common, garden-variety prophet.  He was a very special prophet and his ministry itself was the subject of prophecy.  At least one scholar calls John’s ministry a “bridge” because it connected the Old Testament era of promise to the New Testament era of fulfillment that comes in Jesus.[1]  John’s ministry brings those two eras together because though he is the last Old Testament prophet, he is not prophesying about some future mystery man who will someday appear on the scene as the other prophets did.  He had the profound privilege of actually pointing to a man and saying, “THAT’S HIM.  He’s the One we’ve been waiting for.” And that places John in a class above everyone who has ever come before him. That is the context for Jesus’ astonishing statement in verse 28 when he says, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.”

          We must hear that John’s greatness in Jesus’ sight was NOT because he was some kind of super saint who was just made out of better stuff than those who had come before him. There was nothing in John’s spiritual DNA that made him any better than anyone else.  As we saw very clearly last week, John—like everyone who had come before him, had feet of clay. He doubted Jesus even though he had repeatedly been given unimpeachable evidence confirming his identity.  John was a sinner just like all the other Biblical heroes of faith.  The context tells us that John’s greatness was not rooted in any super spirituality, but how clearly he was able to point to Jesus.  The prophets who came before John, although they said many very specific things about the coming Messiah, simply could not do what John did and that is, look at a man and say—“it is HE!” It’s John’s proximity to Jesus that makes him the greatest, not anything about him personally.

          We see this even more clearly when we read this lightning bolt that Jesus throws in the second half of verse 28. Jesus says of John, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  That is a very strange statement because Jesus has just said that John, when compared with everyone who had gone before him in the old era of promise, is at the very top of the heap.  Yet in the next breath, Jesus says that compared with those in the kingdom in this new era of fulfillment, John is at the bottom of the heap. How can that be?  We can understand how these two claims fit together when we understand this truth.  That is—God determines spiritual greatness by how clearly a person’s life and witness point to Jesus.  John was able to point to Jesus more clearly than anyone who had come before him and that made him the greatest, but anyone in the kingdom living after the life, atoning death and resurrection of Jesus is able to point to Him with far more clarity. 

          We must hear the profound, Christ-centeredness of what Jesus is saying.  Initially this passage is all about Jesus’ testimony of the greatness of John, but it ends up being Jesus’ implicit testimony to his own supremacy.  Jesus says in essence, “John was the greatest because he pointed most clearly to me, but anyone to whom God has revealed my full redemptive purpose and saving glory is greater than John because they will be able to point to me far more clearly.”  Instead of John and his life being the main point of Jesus’ teaching, as it turns out, Jesus uses John only as an illustration to prove that true spiritual greatness is all wrapped up in the clarity with which someone points to him.  As we said, spiritual greatness—which is the only greatness that lasts--is determined by how clearly a person points to Christ in life and witness.

          Those who are in Christ have a spiritual resource at our disposal that enables us in the kingdom (inaugurated by Jesus on the cross) to far more clearly witness to Jesus than John ever could and that resource is the gospel.  As privileged as John was to stand above all those who preceded him, we are far more privileged than he was.  We who live on this side of the cross have the glorious truths of the gospel at our disposal and it’s the gospel that reveals the very heart of who Jesus is and what he came to do.  John didn’t have access to that.  Jesus came as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to solve humanity’s most lethal, vexing, hopeless problem—the problem of sin.  Sin blinds people to God and his purposes, sin imprisons people in self-centered living, it kills the soul and destroys relationships.  Sin keeps us from God and a life that brings him glory and us joy.  Jesus Christ came and lived a perfect life, never sinning and was therefore completely undeserving of death.  But out of his love for God and us, he took the curse of sin that we deserved upon himself on the cross as he paid the penalty for our sin and defeated its power to enslave us.  His death purchased forgiveness for anyone who would savingly believe on him and his resurrection vindicated the sufficiency of his atoning death.  We know in a way that John couldn’t that Jesus didn’t come to solve the Jewish problem created by Roman oppression.  He came to solve the universal human problem created by Adam.

          As we point to Jesus by living out the gospel in the power of the Spirit and speaking the gospel to others, we display this kingdom greatness that John was lacking.  One  application that flows from is—how clearly do our lives and testimonies point to Jesus Christ and therefore manifest this kingdom greatness we have been given?  How do the decisions we make about our lifestyle, our priorities, our schedules, How does our joy in Christ, our desire for his glory—how do those things put on display the kingdom greatness believers have through the gospel?  Those in the kingdom are by the grace of God greater than John.  Implicit within that truth is the call for us to live out that kingdom greatness we have if we are in Christ. 

          In the next section, Luke moves from kingdom greatness to a rebuke on those who reject John and Jesus’ call to repent.  A second truth in this section is in verses 31-35.  Jesus says to the crowds, “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.  Jesus shows here that he can be as pointed and in your face as John the Baptist because he calls his generation of Jews a bunch of spoiled brats.  He compares them to children in a crowded marketplace whining at each other for not playing the games they want to play.  We’ve all seen little kids do this.  One wants to play “wedding reception”—(these are probably girls) and someone starts whistling a dance song, but no one wants to join in the dance and so they tantrum about that.  Another little kid wants to play “funeral” and he starts to sing a sad song, but no one will play along with him by crying and he whines and screams about that.  They are brats or maybe they need a nap.

          Jesus brings that immature and obnoxious behavior to mind and says, “That’s what you in this generation are like.”  He supports that claim in verse 33. “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.”  He says, “The reason I say you are like those brats is because of the way you reject John and me.”  Jesus notes the extreme differences in style between his ministry and John’s.  John is all about separation—he doesn’t even go to the people—they have to come to him out in the wilderness.  His diet, his dress, his venue all speak of a radical separation from the rest of the world.  Jesus is about integration.  Without ever sinning, he goes right into the midst of the sinners and attends their parties.  His diet and drink, though certainly not sinful, were not intended to communicate separation, but identification with the people. Yet, in spite of the fact that God chose to raise up two men with radically different styles, the Jews use their ministry styles as a hammer to club them.  John’s lifestyle proves he is demon-possessed and Jesus is a drunk and glutton who hangs around the scum of society.

          The point Jesus is making about his generation and what we too must think about is:  Immature people cloak their rejection of the truth behind superficial excuses.  The people claimed to reject Jesus and John because they didn’t like their ministry style—John was demonically self-depriving and Jesus was way too chummy with the world.  But Jesus exposes those rejections as nothing but a smokescreen. The real problem wasn’t with their styles—it was with their message.  You see this in the church sometimes.  People go from church to church, complaining that this pastor or church is too this and that pastor or church is too that.  The truth is—in the case of some of these people, the problem isn’t with the pastors or churches and its not about style, it’s about immature people who veil their own immaturity under complaints about someone else. 

From Jesus’ description of his generation, we see three marks of this kind of immaturity.  The first mark of a spiritual brat[2] is—they want to play games more than they want to bring the kingdom.  Jesus compares his generation to kids playing games and we mustn’t miss that.  Spoiled little kids are all about having fun and our culture today increasingly feeds this insatiable appetite for fun above all else.  At last year’s women’s prayer event I quoted John Piper who said, “I feel such a burden for us as a church to swim against the tide of almost every current in our culture. More and more and more, America is a nation given over to play. The industries of play are huge! Houses are built today with entertainment centers. Computers and videos and television and stereos all coordinate to give us ever more stimulating and captivating distractions from the realities of the world. When we need to be dreaming, for the glory of Christ, about how to spend our lives alleviating ignorance and sickness and misery and lostness, we are becoming more and more addicted to amusement.

Make a little test of evangelical vocabulary, and calculate, for example, the increasing frequency with which we use the world "fun" to describe almost everything we like. But when do we describe our good experiences as "meaningful" or "significant" or "enriching" or "ennobling" or "worthwhile" or "edifying" or "helpful" or "strengthening" or "encouraging" or "deepening" or "transforming" or "valuable" or "eye-opening" or "God-exalting"?...after death there is eternal life and glory and honor and peace, and there is eternal wrath and indignation and tribulation and distress. And in the twinkling of an eye, even before this service is over, you could be irreversibly in the one or the other… Get ready and stay ready.  Live in the light of eternity…When you have come to know your God, and love his Son so much that you can say, "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,"then living in the light of eternity will replace your "fun" with deeper, higher, wider, longer, more unshakable, more varied, more satisfying, more durable, more solid pleasures than all the fun that entertainment could ever give. O come, and let us be a different breed of people for the few short years we have to live upon this earth! Dream some dream of making your life count for Christ and his Kingdom. "Only one life, 'twill soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last." [3] Spiritual brats want to play games more than they want to bring the kingdom. 

A second truth about spiritual brats is--they would rather blame others than confront their own sin.  The whining kids in the marketplace were cranky and instead of dealing with that, they instead attacked those who refused to play their way.  When John and Jesus came, the brats of their day refused to look at their own idolatrous hearts, but instead fixated on the external things about Jesus and John.  The problem was really that they were immature and in those areas it’s always easier to shoot the messenger than to tear down your idols.  In the case of John it probably sounded like this, “he’s just too rigid on that point—he’s not being realistic—he needs to get out of the desert once in awhile and live in the real world.”  In the case of Jesus it might have been, “He just doesn’t understand the danger or compromise inherent in what he is doing—he’s flirting with sin--walking way too close to the edge.  He needs to clear his head by separating himself from all those sinners he’s always around.”  In neither case did the problem reside with John or Jesus—it was in the hearts of those whining people.  Rather than honestly search for truth and admit their sin, the people would deflect the problem back onto the messenger.   That’s a sign of immaturity.

A third truth about spiritual brats is—they are happy only when others indulge their selfish agendas.  The only way to keep a brat happy for any length of time is to give in to their idols and give them their way.  If you challenge them in the area of their idolatry, they will start to whine and attack you somehow.  Or, they will pick up their toys and walk away.  Jesus and John didn’t come to indulge people.  Their message was one of self-denial, not self-indulgence—it’s about transformation through repentance, not self-fulfillment.  Spiritual brats are sad because they never find what they think will make them happy until they grow up and see that Jesus is the only way to joy.

As you think about these truths—does your life clearly display the greatness that God has given to all those who are in Christ.  Does your life and ministry clearly point to Jesus?  Do the people around you readily identify you with Jesus Christ?  Do you honestly confront your areas of spiritual immaturity, or do you run from them by hiding behind the cloak of your whining and superficial excuses?  As we discussed what a spiritual brat is—do you find yourself identifying with any of those traits?  As we come to the Lord’s Supper, the answer to all of our sin is there.  It’s as we internalize the truths of the gospel and who God has made us in Christ through his blood, that we are liberated to live out the kingdom greatness in us.  It’s in the light of the cross that the difference between living to have fun and living in joyful obedience for the glory of God come into clear contrast.  It’s as we come to the cross and honestly confess are areas of immaturity and idolatry and stop deflecting our sin onto others, that we become free to grow up in Christ. 

May God give us the grace to live lives that clearly point to the kingdom greatness that God has given us through the gospel.

[1] Bock, BECONT, Luke, p.672

[2] “Brat” is a term Bock uses in his commentary and I think it is appropriate given the context.

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