Yet the One Who is Least in the Kingdom of God

Sermon preached on Luke 7:18-35 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/21/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Discerning the times and the things of God can be challenging.  Often our own presumptions and expectations can get in the way of properly understanding what God is doing.  For some people, no matter what God is doing they are never satisfied.  But today’s passage is a reminder to look to God’s Word to help us understand the times we live in and to discern what God is doing through them all. 

Here we find John the Baptist trying to understand the times he was living in and particularly as it relates to Jesus as Messiah.  Recall that we last heard about John’s ministry of baptism back in chapter 3, where we saw him calling people to repent ahead of the coming of the Messiah.  John’s baptism ministry included baptizing Jesus where he then witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon him in bodily form.  We learn in John’s gospel why that fact was especially important to John the Baptist.  In John 1:31-34, John recounts that he received divine revelation that told him how to identify the Messiah.  John was told that the one on whom he sees the Holy Spirit descend upon and remain – that one is the Messiah.  So, then John witnessed this happen to Jesus.  It’s why in John’s gospel he is recorded in John 1:29 as proclaiming that Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  But remember how we left things with John the Baptist back in chapter 3.  He had confronted King Herod about his sin and Herod put him in prison.

So then, by the time of our passage, John had been languishing in prison for some time when word comes to him with an update about Jesus’ ministry.  We see this in verse 18 and should see it in light of the previous verse which said that Jesus’ miracle to raise the widow’s son from Nain was reported throughout all Judea.  So, word of Jesus’ miracles, including this amazing resurrection make it to John.  Now you might think that would make John all the more certain that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  If you had any doubts before, you might think that reports of such mighty miracles would solidify your faith.  Yet, we see instead him asking this question in verse 19.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  In one sense, this is hard to believe John would have any doubts.  Besides the recent reports of such miracles, John had personally received that revelation from God that identified Jesus as the Messiah.  How can he have such doubt now?  Yet, I suspect the answer is simple.  John is still in prison.  Surely, with such wonderful reports of miracles through Jesus, you might imagine John might wondered if he’d be getting saved from prison soon.  Surely, when the fulness of God’s kingdom came, God’s people wouldn’t be still in prison.  So, we can appreciate John’s inquiry here.

So then, John sends his question via two of his disciples.  We can appreciate two messengers being sent.  Not only will John have two accounts of Jesus’ response, to make sure he doesn’t miss anything.  But as two people going to Jesus, it means that Jesus’s answer is witnessed to by multiple witnesses.  It essentially asks Jesus to go on record about his identity.

So then, the two messengers bring John’s question to Jesus.  We see in verse 21, that they bring the question to Jesus at the same time as when he had just been performing yet more and more miracles of healing of people and casting out of demons.  So then, Jesus answers their question.  But notice Jesus doesn’t just give them a simple answer.  John’s question really was just a “yes” or “no” question.  Certainly, Jesus’ answer strongly implies that he is indeed the one was to come, that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah.  Jesus’ answers strongly implies that they should not be looking for another, because he is the Christ.  But Jesus doesn’t just come out and say “yes” or “no”.

Instead, Jesus points to all the works that he had been doing.  These are works had had been doing and literally had just been performing when the messengers arrive.  The answer is there in verse 22.  ”Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”  I especially love the reference to the gospel preaching to the poor there, placed in the climactic place, even above the miracles.  Now while this answer comes across a little chiding for John’s doubt, I think even more important is that Jesus’ response is reminiscent of two prophecies from Isaiah.  Isaiah 35:4-6 and 61:1-2 speak in these terms to describe what will coincide with the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus points John the Old Testament prophet back to the Old Testament prophecies.  Then he says in verse 23, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Basically, Jesus concludes by saying that no one’s faith should be stumbled by him doing such miracles as prophesied.

So, while Jesus does answer John, he certainly chooses to leave John in a bit of mystery.  I think of how 1 Peter 1:10 describes how the Old Testament prophets received prophecy in advance about the coming of the Messiah, and how they searched and inquired to know as much as they could about how those prophecies would work themselves out.  But Peter’s point in 1 Peter is that those prophets didn’t get all the details that they wanted.  They get enough to foretell Christ’s coming and to excite them and the people at its prospect.  But those prophets naturally desired to know more.  Jesus has one of those prophets here come and inquire to know more.  But Jesus won’t really tell him more.  He basically points John back to what the Old Testament prophets already had been given.  And while it may not be the full answer John wanted, it was indeed a sufficient answer.  I could imagine John in faith receiving that answer and laughing a bit at Jesus’ response even as he took the message and point to heart.

So then, we come now to our second point and see how Jesus then, in light of John’s question, further instructs the crowds, verses 24-28.  Here we see that Jesus teaches them about the importance of John’s ministry.  In doing this, Jesus inherently teaches them about himself as well.  In a rather interesting twist,

Jesus in many ways gives the crowds a more explicit answer to John’s question than what he gave John’s messengers.  But you will notice that he waited to give this until after John’s messengers had left, verse 24.  But I think that only further makes the point Jesus will be making about John here.  John really stands as the culmination of all the Old Testament prophets, but they were only given so much revelation about the coming of Jesus.  More light was now coming through Jesus as he declares the coming of the kingdom to his disciples.

We see Jesus’ instruction about John the Baptist begins with some rhetorical questions about what the people had found in John when they went to them in the wilderness.  Did they find a reed shaken by the wind?  This is a rhetorical question.  No, absolutely not.  They didn’t find John to be a reed shaken by the wind.  The imagery of a reed shaken by the wind is of something limp vegetation that gets easily tossed back and forth by the wind, to and fro.  That was not John.  John was a bold preacher who didn’t budge from his message, even if the religious leaders gave him tough questions, and even if the King would arrest him for it.  John was more of a sturdy oak tree, not a reed shaken by a little wind.

Likewise, Jesus asks if when they went to John in the wilderness if they found a man dressed in soft clothing?  This is a rhetorical question.  No, absolutely not.  Jesus points out that nice soft clothing is the things of royalty.  It’s for the rich and the well off, to live in such comforts of fine clothing.  Think super high thread counts and super comfortable fabrics.  John did not wear such.  In fact, Scripture records that John wore camel’s hair and lived off locust and honey in the wilderness.  John’s message was one that called people to repent of their sins in advance of God’s coming to his people in the Messiah.  His attire of scratchy, rough camel’s hair outwardly matched the demeanor he was calling God’s people to have in their hearts.  John didn’t live a life of comforts and ease.  He lamented Israel’s estate in repentance ahead of Christ’s coming, and even his clothing reflected that.

So then, Jesus asks another question about John.  If he wasn’t a reed shaken by the wind or a man dressed in soft clothing, then what was he?  Was he a prophet?  Now, this is a rhetorical question where the answer is yes!  Yes, John was indeed a prophet.  But not only that, Jesus even says he was more than a prophet!  By the way, I love this.  While John the Baptist had this fleeting moment where he wasn’t sure about the identity of Jesus, Jesus clearly has no doubts about the identity of John.  And while John is in prison, Jesus honors and commends the important ministry that John had performed.

Jesus goes on to explain in what sense is John more than a prophet.  In verse 27, he quotes Malachi 3:1.  Jesus says that John was the messenger prophesied in verse 27, the messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah who would be the messenger of the new covenant.  So, John was not only a prophet, he was the object of prophecy.  Multiple prophets prophesied of a forerunner to the Messiah to prepare the way.  John was that forerunner.

Jesus further explains the great significance of John in verse 28 by saying that John was the greatest born of women.  To understand what he means, we have to see what he immediately contrasts that with.  He says that yet in comparison, whoever is least in the kingdom is greater than John.  What does that mean?  Jesus is making a redemptive historical point.  John is the greatest person the old covenant as the final prophet of the Old Testament.  Those prophets foretold the coming of the Christ who would bring a new covenant and would usher in the eternal kingdom of God.  John was not only the last prophet to prophesy that, but he also was alive to see the beginning of its fulfillment.  As such John is a transitionary figure, but Jesus speaks of him here from the perspective of the old covenant.  The old covenant spoke of Christ and the kingdom to come in promise, in type, and in shadow.  Those types and shadows involved earthly things, things of this present age, that prefigured better things to come in Christ in the age to come.  So then, John is the best and final expression of the old covenant with its promises and prophecies and with its earthly types and shadows.  That’s why he can be described as the best of those born of women because that emphasizes the earthly and physical and carnal aspect that characterizes this present age.  But those born of the eternal Spirit have a share in the coming kingdom of God through the Christ have far more than John did in his role as final prophet of the old covenant.  To clarify, this doesn’t mean that John wasn’t saved or that he didn’t himself have a share in the kingdom of God.  But Jesus is speaking redemptive-historically in John’s role as the final prophet of the old covenant.  The best of that old covenant, with as wonderful of a kingdom it had under David, pales in comparison to the least of the new covenant and kingdom of the Christ.

So then, I hope you see in this second point that Jesus’ testimony concern John, wonderful as it is, also tells us something even more amazing about himself.  If John is the forerunner, this implies that Jesus is the Christ.  It implies that Jesus is ushering in the kingdom of God.  It implies that Jesus can bring even the least to a place far greater than the best under the old covenant.  Jesus here announces again a wonderful transition in redemptive-history and that Jesus himself is at the center of the transition.

Let us now turn in our third point to see how this describes the differing responses to John and Jesus.  It is important to understand here, that while Jesus had just finished describing how there is a big transition from John to Jesus, they are both united.  One should either receive them both or neither.  While John’s ministry was one of promise and Jesus’ one of fulfillment, they can and should be received as fully compatible.  That is why we see in verses 29-35 several ways in which Jesus speaks of the ways people respond to both John and Jesus, and how they will either receive both or deny both.

Looks at verse 29.  The people there who heard Jesus’ teaching about John, there was one of two responses.  The basic gist is that those who had accepted John’s teaching also accepted Jesus’ teaching and likewise those who had rejected John’s teaching also rejected Jesus’ teaching.  Notice how this is described in detail.  The people in general and even the tax collectors who were stereotyped as sinners received John’s baptism and declared God to be justified.  These agreed with both Jesus and John and for them to justify God means that they were agreeing with the Word of God through Jesus and John that declared them to be sinners needing forgiveness – remember that is what John’s baptism even represented.  In contrast, the Pharisees and supposed experts in the Mosaic law didn’t agree with the teaching of either John or Jesus.  They therefore rejected John’s baptism, not seeing the need to be baptized unto repentance for sin.  In doing this, it says that they were rejecting the purpose of God for them.

Jesus then gives a parable in verse 31 to describe specifically the people who rejected John and now himself.  Notice he calls them the people of this generation, which sometimes Jesus would refer to this present age as an evil generation.  That’s how he seems to use the language here, and surely has in mind especially these Pharisees and lawyers who rejected both him and John.  His parable is of children who are in the marketplace playing flutes but no one will dance in joy and then singing a dirge but no one will weep in sorrow.  Resist the temptation to try to overly analyze this parable and appreciate the big picture.  He’s describing how some people won’t be pleased or suited by anything.  They reject calls for rejoicing; they reject calls for mourning.  Nothing suits them.  Nothing stirs them.  He then explains and interprets this simple parable for them in verses 33-34 with himself and John the Baptist.  John came in a demeanor of mourning and lament and they rejected him for it.  Jesus came in a demeanor of joy and they rejected him for it.  Nothing will please those supposedly religious leaders.  They’ve rejected John and now they’ve rejected Jesus.  And thus, they have rejected the Word of God.  And thus, the have rejected the kingdom of God and the new covenant.

Jesus then returns one more time to describe those who do receive Jesus and John.  This is verse 35 where he gives a proverb about wisdom and her children.  Was this a known proverb at the time, or something Jesus himself made up?  We don’t know.  But I believe the key to fully understand what Jesus means by it is to appreciate that the language there of justifying is the same word used back in verse 29 where the people and even the tax collectors had declared God just.  The footnote in the pew Bibles will tell you that it literally is that they “justified God”.  They had said that God was right.  Take this back to the proverb in verse 35.  It says that it’s the children of wisdom that “justify wisdom”.  It’s the children of wisdom that say that wisdom is right and good.  In other words, if you aren’t a child of wisdom, you won’t say that wisdom is right.  The fool doesn’t agree with wisdom.  The fool rejects wisdom.  So then, by analogy, it’s the people who say God is right and justified who are the children of God.  It’s the people who reject what God is saying through his prophets that are not the children of God.  Do you see what Jesus is saying?  The religious leaders thought themselves children of God.  But their rejection of God’s Word through John and Jesus shows they really aren’t children of God.  They are actually children of the devil, as John’s gospel says in John 8:44.

So then, we’ve seen today the Scriptures commend to us the united ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus.  There we had a wonderful transition from the old to the new covenant.  John brought a transition from the old covenant and the typological kingdom to Jesus who came announcing the inauguration of the kingdom of God.  And yet as I draw this sermon to a close, for some application I’d like to remind us again of John the Baptist having some doubt about this.  We could say that John’s struggle dealt with the tension between the already and the not yet.  Already Jesus had come, but the fulness of the blessings that he would bring had not yet come.  There was a foreshadow of those blessings to come.  Every blind person healed, every demon cast out, and every dead boy raised was a foreshadow of the glory of the kingdom.  But such glory had not yet come in its full.  And here’s the application.  It still has not yet come in its full.  We might be tempted then in our day to have doubts along the lines of John the Baptist.  He had a doubt over Jesus when dealing with the already and the not yet.  We might too.  But Jesus pointed his doubts back to what the Word of God said.  And if you struggle with such doubts, Jesus points you again today back to the Word of God.  None of this should surprise us.  He told us what to expect.  Ours is a time of waiting.  Ours is a time to share in Christ’s suffering.  Ours is a time to keep preaching that good news to the world.  This is what he said needs to be happening and then finally he will usher in the end which will really just be the beginning of the kingdom of God come in glory.

Already, we’ve begun to have foretastes of it.  Today we are reminded again of how glorious it is.  He’s told us how even the least of us in this coming kingdom will be in a far better position that anything anyone can know of or experience in this present world.  As we approach our national day of Thanksgiving this week, may this reminder of what we have as citizens of the kingdom of God give us much to be thankful about again this year. 


Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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