Listen to the Right People
History is littered with a succession of religious charlatans. Some names which once were very well known are today forgotten but others will still be known to millions. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young of the Mormons; Mary Eddy Baker – the founder of Christian Science; Charles Russell whose followers once known as Russellites but better known today as Jehovah's Witnesses the Rev Moon of the Unification Church whose adherents are as "Moonies". The proliferation of such people have led to many others giving up on religion itself.
Some leaders who are influential one moment have very public and scandalous falls from grace which are splashed across our newspapers and TV screens. And what effect does this have? The man in the street in encouraged to declare "a pox on all your houses". And of course the unbelieving world simply rejoices as it says to itself "One more reason for not taking God seriously".
The crowds in Jesus' day were beginning to wonder whether John the Baptist wasn't just one more of those charlatans, another religious nut-case. Yes, he had impressed them for a time but perhaps he wasn't the man they thought he was. Perhaps they should simply forget everything that John had said.
Jesus takes the opportunity afforded to him by the coming of two of John's followers with John's question to make it clear to the crowd who John really was. While John was not God's final answer he did nevertheless occupy an important place in God's plan of salvation. But before we can consider Jesus' defence of John we need to begin with just why such a defence was necessary at all.
If John could be dismissed then the people might also dismiss the message he had so faithfully proclaimed. The content of that message was both true and of vital importance.
Why were the crowds turning against John?
Different answers suggest themselves. Here are a couple.
Fickleness. The human heart is so restless and what satisfies men and women one day quickly becomes like yesterday's newspaper. John had had his moment in the sun and now he was yesterday's man and it was time to revaluate.
When John the Baptist had first burst onto the scene his preaching had been dominated by a rigour and fiery enthusiasm that had appeared so attractive and so appealing. However all those serious calls to repentance and faith were now being re-evaluated. Perhaps they'd been seriously mistaken about John all along, after all his behaviour had been really somewhat eccentric hadn't it? Rumours were actually circulating that John was in reality demon-possessed! If that were the case then you really shouldn't trust a word he had said.
John's own inconsistency. While John had been at liberty his bold and fearless preaching had been full of certainty and it certainly impacted his hearers. Now with his freedoms having been taken away and being in prison it seemed that John's certainties had been replaced by doubts – after all hadn't he just very publicly sent two of his own disciples to Jesus with a question that revealed his deep-seated reservations. John's trumpet voice was sounding out a very uncertain clarion call. The conclusion was an easy one to draw – don't trust what this man has said.
In making such a radical reassessment of who John was and what had inspired his ministry the crowds were in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If the crowds rejected John as a false prophet or worse as a demon-possessed man they would inevitably reject what he had had to say and John's ministry had been taken up with speaking about Jesus.
Jesus' Defence of John the Baptist
As John's disciples are leaving to return to John, Jesus addressed the crowd and spoke to them about John. How easy it would have been for the crowd to conclude from the fact that John had openly expressed his doubts in a question to Jesus that he was a failed man. Jesus rapidly acted to ensure that John's reputation was not tarnished.
The situation afforded Jesus with an opportunity of standing up, as it were, for John the Baptist. We should take heart – here is another example which shows that Jesus does not give up on his friends: he won't give up on us either!
The way in which Jesus went about his defence of John was to ask a series of questions. As he focused upon who the crowd thought John might have been his questions are framed in ways that expect only one answer.
John had attracted the crowds when he began his ministry in the wilderness of Judea. People flocked to see him, to listen to him and to be baptised by him. It was obvious that they had initially thought he was someone special – that was obvious from the numbers who went to him.
Well, Jesus asked, what kind of man excites such interest?
Surely the people didn't mass around John because they thought him to be a weak, unstable and changeable man did they?
And the expected answer is no, of course not.
John was no reed shaken by every gust of wind that blew – that was precisely the kind of man he wasn't; he was strong and resolute and it was his unwillingness to bend that landed him in prison!
The second question was similar:
Surely you didn't go out to see a man with a comfortable cushy lifestyle did you?
And once more the anticipated answer was "Of course not!"
John's ministry was anything but a self-serving affair. The sycophants and the yes-men were the ones who lived in court lining their own pockets and enjoying the trappings of office. You don't find such people living under the harsh conditions that were John's lot.
By asking these questions Jesus was encouraging his hearers to engage in some right thinking. What was this man John really like? What was he really all about? Would such a one really change so easily and radically that he might safely now be written off by those who had so recently sought him out?
Having asked these questions which expected a negative response Jesus then asked a different question. This third question expected a different answer as he led the way towards his own more detailed analysis of just who John was!
Had they gone out to see a prophet? Was that who John was – a divine mouthpiece, one who fearlessly proclaimed the Word of God?
And to this Jesus gives his hearty endorsement. John was a prophet and what a prophet!!
Jesus' Evaluation of John the Baptist
What made John so special in Jesus' estimation? Why was he not content to simply describe John as a prophet or a great prophet, why did he press further and say he was more than a prophet?
Well the simple reason is that John the prophet had been himself prophesied! He was therefore not merely a man who had to declare God's word God's word had already declared something about him.
In other words John was no ordinary prophet – he was, in fact, the last in the line of OT prophets and as such his major function was to be the herald of the Messiah, the One whose task it was to prepare the way for the Messiah who was the Lord himself.
That is why we find Jesus making the quotation he did from the last book in the OT, the Book of Malachi:
Mal.3:1 "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."
Jesus could equally have quoted from the very last words of Malachi's prophecy because Jesus understood these to speak of John the Baptist too!
Mal.4:5-6 "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction."
This was a great honour and a weighty responsibility. John had accomplished his work well. Although the crowds had flocked to him he had never lost sight of his duty. He had not allowed his popularity to turn his head but pointed away from himself to the One who was to come, the Messiah. Indeed when he saw Jesus he pointed him out to his followers with words of simple clarity:
Jn.1:29 "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
How humbly too John had carried out his important work! Early on in Jesus' ministry some of John's disciples told John what was happening and how Jesus was baptising and how more and more folk were going out to him – but John showed no sign of jealousy or envy. He knew that his work had been done and replied to his followers:
Jn.3:28+30 "You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’... He must increase, but I must decrease."
This was the reason John had appeared and he had carried out his ministry well. If he had expressed a doubt from the depths of an oppressive prison this did not call for a total rejection of all he had said and done so well previously. Jesus hadn't condemned John but tenderly answered his questionings – it would be utterly wrong for others to reject all that John had said on account of a question sent from the most trying of circumstances.
So that was how Jesus began to state his approval of John and his ministry but he had more to say yet:
Lk.7:28 "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."
Now what are we to make of what Jesus says here? This is how one paraphrase helpfully puts it:
Lk.7:28 MSG "Let me lay it out for you as plainly as I can: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer, but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him."
You see, something new was in the process of being established as Jesus came into the world. He was the Messiah and was bringing about the Kingdom of God in a new way. In fact in Jesus everything would be new: new birth, new life, etc.etc. John stood at the end of the long line of OT servants of God and the whole of the OT was leading up to this wonderful newness that Jesus was on the verge of introducing.
John in his ministry functioned as an OT man but those of Jesus' disciples and perhaps most importantly his apostles were to function in a NT way. As an individual John was a saved man but his preaching came before the event and the apostles (and with them every Christian proclaiming the truth) had a far fuller and more wonderful message to proclaim. John preached about the One to come – the followers of Jesus would explain how having come:
Jesus died for sin
Jesus rose from the dead
Jesus Teaching Divides
As Jesus explained his thoughts to the crowd there was, as was so usually the case, division amongst his hearers. The common people who in very large numbers had responded to John's preaching and received his baptism showed now that that baptism was beginning to bear its intended fruit – they justified God. That is an extraordinary phrase by which is meant that they respectfully embraced the Son of God, to whom John had directed them, and they accepted his teaching.
But sadly that was not the only reaction to Jesus' teaching that day.
The Pharisees and the lawyers who in their vast majority had not responded to John's call to repentance and faith and consequently not received his baptism continue to demonstrate a rejection of the Baptist's ministry by rejecting the One to whom he pointed. They hadn't thought that they needed to repent (perhaps they thought that was for the commoners and not for the religious high-fliers they imagined themselves to be) and so they were unprepared to respond to the Messiah when he himself spoke to them.
Do you notice how serious it was! Having refused the preparatory work of God through John these Pharisees and lawyers now rejected God's purpose of salvation for themselves!
How foolish they were. Jesus was there in their midst, speaking to them. The way had been prepared by God's messenger John and done in such a clear way that so many of the common people had been able to see and appreciate it. And yet these Pharisees and lawyers ended up rejecting the very glorious purpose for which the Messiah had been so long promised and anticipated. They were in one sense so close with such an opportunity and they quite simply blew it.
Are any of you running exactly the same risk today? You hear about Jesus and God's purposes of salvation that centre on him, you hear about the careful unfolding of the divine plan perhaps you even see others responding to him and yet you respond with disdain as though you know better than God and you reject the One who would willingly save you and your never-dying soul.
My friend I urge you to act as those ordinary people did, to believe in Jesus Christ and to believe what he says.
If you don't do that you may find yourself becoming like the description Jesus gave his contemporaries, they were cynical, petulant folk. They behaved in a childish way trying to manipulate and control and they ended up negatively critical of everything that God did.
John had been sent to prepare the way for the Messiah – oh but they wouldn't heed him at all. Why? Well just look at his austere lifestyle, he must be mad to behave like that. And they shunned him and his instruction.
Then Jesus came as the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour of the World, and what was wrong with him? Surely they won't find fault with him, after all he's not a bit like John, he's sociable and friendly! Oh, no they answered, but we certainly can't trust him because look at his lifestyle – he's not austere enough!! How could a man who eats and drinks like he does do us any good and just look at the company he keeps! And so they refuse God's purposes for their lives too.
My friend, there were many who rejected Jesus because of the company he kept. There are many today who don't like the company he keeps – the church after all is made up of cranks and weirdos and people with problems and short-comings – people dismissed him then because he was a friend of sinners and we who are Christians glory in that very fact! There would not be the slightest hope for us if he wasn't such a friend of sinners!!
How do you respond to Jesus this morning? Have you recognised the truthfulness of his teaching? Have you come to appreciate how he lived his life? Have you realised just how wonderful the purposes God has in Jesus for lost mankind? Will you still hold back or will you come to him as the common people did?
Or will you turn up your spiritual nose as it were and patronisingly say its good for others but you don't need him?
Just look at the last words of the text this morning as we close:
Lk.7:35 "Wisdom is justified by all her children."
We will all know one day what the right course of action was – but will we all have taken that right course before it is too late?