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Sermon on the Mount
#23. Are You the One Who Is to Come? (Luke 7:18-28a)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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 John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them,  he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
 When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'"
 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.  So he replied 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 cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.  Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
 After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces.  But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written:
" 'I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
 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."
John the Baptist was the greatest man born of woman, and yet he had his doubts. This week and next week we'll be examining John the Baptist, breaking Luke 7:18-35 into two parts. This week we'll consider John's question to Jesus, and Jesus' high praise for John. Next week, we'll look at Jesus' astounding statement: "The one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
John's Question about Jesus (7:18-20)
Fairly early in Jesus' ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, because John called him to account for marrying his brother Philip's wife Herodias. Herodias never forgave him. Josephus tells us that he had been incarcerated in Herod's castle at Macheras, a desert fortress in Perea east of the Dead Sea. Josephus tells us, "What was walled in was itself a very rocky hill, elevated to a very great height."
John had spent his youth and ministry in the desolate region around the Dead Sea and the southern part of the Jordan River. Now he was locked away, far from any city. Though Herod Antipas didn't have a reputation as ruthless as his father, Herod the Great, John's prospects of release were poor. He wasn't cut off entirely, however. A few faithful disciples braved the desert to meet his needs and bring him news.
When everything seems to be going your way, you seem almost invulnerable. But when your health breaks, your marriage fails, your business goes bankrupt, and you lose everything you have, time and loneliness have ways of playing games with your mind. You second guess your former decisions. You wonder, What if.... Like his great spiritual ancestor Elijah, great victory had given away to questioning (1 Kings 19).
Had he been wrong about Jesus? He had foreseen the Messiah's ministry largely in terms of judgment:
"I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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 3:16-17)
John had seen the Holy Spirit dove alight upon Jesus at his baptism (John 1:32-34), heard the voice of the Father boom out, "You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11), and pointed his own disciples to Jesus as "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, 35-37). But now he wondered. All he heard of Jesus' ministry was miracles and powerful teaching. Where was the judgment? Had John misunderstood? Had he missed it?
John couldn't let the question rest. He had to know. So he sent two of his remaining disciples to Jesus conveying a single question: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (7:19-20)
Jesus' Miracles (7:21)
As is often the case, Jesus doesn't always answer questions directly. His answers are sometimes in parables, sometimes in stories. In this case the answer for John the Baptist consists in deeds performed before the eyes of his messengers. "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind" (7:21). I imagine that John's disciples stayed with Jesus' party for several days. They talked with some of Jesus' disciples whom they had known from the old days (John 1:35-37). They watched and listened and formed an impression.
Jesus' Reply to the Messengers (7:22)
After a few days, Jesus called John's messengers over and said to them:
"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (7:22-23).
For a person who knew the scriptures -- and John the Baptist, son of the priest Zechariah, surely did -- the words recalled passages from the prophet Isaiah concerning signs by which the Messiah would be known:
"In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind will see.
Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord;
the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 29:18-19)
"Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert." (Isaiah 35:5-6)
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion--
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor." (Isaiah 61:1-3)
These Old Testament parallels indicate that the healing miracles and preaching to the poor have Messianic significance, a divine accreditation of Jesus' mission. Jesus knew that John would understand when he told him: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (7:22).
This was a time of Messiah's healing and comforting and instructing. There is no way that John could know that the Messiah's healing and atonement would come first, separated by thousands of years from the judgment that would signal at the end of the age. (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; Book of Revelation, etc.). Jesus' words were meant to reassure John the Baptist that he had not erred, but that the signs of the Messiah attended Jesus' ministry.
Blessed Is He Who Does Not Fall Away (7:23)
Jesus' final word to John seems a bit harsh to some ears: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (7:23). The word translated "fall away" (NIV) or "be offended" (KJV) is Greek skandalizo, an interesting word, formed from the noun skandalon, "animal trap," then used figuratively to refer to a snare laid for an enemy. The verb skandalizo means " 1. 'cause to be caught or to fall,' 2. 'Give offense to, anger, shock.' "
Jesus is saying, Blessed is the person who doesn't get tripped up or upset or confused by my ministry and my teachings. Many do, you know. They find Jesus' forgiveness offensive, for example. The Pharisees were offended by his casual disregard for their myriad of niggling rules. They couldn't see Jesus for who he was because of their offense over some point they just couldn't get past.
You may have been offended by God at some point in your life, and can't seem to get past that, either. Your spouse left you utterly alone. You prayed, but your grandfather died anyway. You can't understand why God would do this to you. You are upset at God, and have been for years. And because of this you can't seem to grow in your spirit, in your spiritual life. You are stuck.
Jesus puts it to you today: "Blessed is the person who isn't offended on account of me." I remember a time when I was in college. For me it was a theological issue. (Figures, doesn't it!) I went around and around with it, and couldn't seem to understand it or resolve it. Finally, I just had to put it on the shelf of things I don't understand but hope to some day, and go on. As my wife has had to say to my daughter on occasion, "Deal with it!" :-) Today, when I look back on that issue, it doesn't trouble me at all. I think I understand. And I AM blessed! How about you. Don't get hung up on the things you don't understand. You are blessed if you aren't offended by Jesus.
In this sentence intended for the ears of Jesus' dear cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist, Jesus is saying: You had it right, John. Even if you don't understand why I haven't come yet in judgment, know that you were right in pointing men to me. Blessed are you if this doesn't become a sticking point for you.
A Reed, a Prince, or a Prophet? (7:24-26a)
But hundreds were listening as Jesus instructed John's messengers what to tell their mentor, and it may have sounded a bit harsh to them. Is this a put-down? Oh, no. It is a frank word from one godly man to another. And now, to make perfectly clear his assessment of John, Jesus praises him in the strongest terms:
"What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet...." (7:24-25)
Now Jesus uses rhetorical questions to place John in proper perspective.
Was he "a reed swayed by the wind?" No, John's opinions we not swayed by popular opinion, but were convictions forged by God's word and God's voice during years of wilderness prayer and solitude.
Did he dress in princely garments? No, he was dressed in the rustic clothing of a desert hermit. "John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:6). In fact, he was dressed remarkably like is spiritual forebearer Elijah, who was described as "a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist" (2 Kings 1:8). John was no slick politician or president or prince.
Was he a prophet? Yes, and no "ordinary" prophet.
Preparing the Way (7:26b-27)
In fact, John has the highest honor of being predicted by the Malachi as the Prophet who would come just prior to the Messiah:
" 'See, 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" (Malachi 3:1).
Though Luke's Gospel doesn't mention it, Jesus went on to identify John the Baptist with Elijah -- "and if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come" (Matthew 11:14) -- in fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy:
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." (Malachi 4:5-6)
John had the very great privilege of announcing the Messiah himself -- that's what Jesus told the crowds after John's messengers had left.
Greatest and Least (7:28a)
Finally, Jesus ranks him in the highest echelon of humans: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John" (7:28a). What high praise!
There is part of Jesus' heart in that prison with John. Part of his soul is tied up with John's. As John suffers and fears and doubts, Jesus' own heart goes out to him. John is more than a flesh and blood relative; John is his colleague in ministry. John isn't exactly a mentor in the sense of being a protege of John, but a role model that Jesus himself has looked up to and observed in action. An honest and brave-spoken prophet of God who has fought the fight and run the race. He was now in prison for the Father's cause, and, Jesus knew, would soon be martyred in the same cause that Jesus served. Jesus loved that man -- even though John didn't quite understand his successor in ministry. In Jesus' eyes, John was number one. And Jesus wasn't afraid of saying so publicly -- though not for John's ears; he waited to say this until the messengers had left. (Next week we'll examine the rest of this verse about the least in the kingdom being greater than John.)
The Question of Our Discouragement
If you were one of the Twelve listening to Jesus' words about John, what would you learn about Jesus from this? What are we intended to perceive?
One lesson that comes through loud and clear to me is that Jesus looks at a man's strengths, not his weaknesses. Jesus' assessment of John is not critical of his current discouragement, but appreciative of his faith and deeds in his heyday.
Friends, there are times when we are weak. When we have taken a blow. When we are still reeling. Know this, that Jesus is not there to chide you when you are struggling for air; he is there to help you. He does not push you down, but pulls you to the surface. It is the devil's voice, not God's, that incessantly condemns. If you need a shot of grace from God's throne, here it is:
"If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31-39)
God has a wonderful history of taking his stalwarts of faith, comforting them, and then calling them again to his service. I think of Elijah, whimpering like puppy in the wilderness after running from Jezebel's threat, recalled by God's still small voice on Mt. Horeb: Elijah, I'm not finished with you yet (1 Kings 19). I think of Peter's terrible guilt from denying his Lord three times to save his own skin, being recalled to service beside the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus tells him three times: Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep (John 21:15-17).
Dear friends, in spite of your doubts and fears, God thinks the world of you. He gave his only begotten Son to die for your sins. And has washed them away. If you're like John, shut away in a prison, feeling far away from the mainstream of God's work, hear this gracious word of God to you today: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (7:23)
Father, thank you for your extreme graciousness to us. Thank you that you look at us in love rather than in judgment, that you are for us rather than against us. I pray today for my brothers and sisters who are carrying an oppressive load of discouragement laid on them by the enemy of their souls. Lift it, I pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.
"Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Luke 7:23)
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- Why do you think John the Baptist had doubts about who Jesus was?
- Why didn't Jesus answer John's question directly? Why did he let his deeds speak instead?
- How was John intended to take Jesus' mild exhortation: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me"?
- How has God lifted your confusion and brokenness in a time of difficulty? How can you encourage those who are now under such a burden?
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 5, 2. http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/?book=Ant_18&chapter=5#2
- Ben Wirtherington III, "John the Baptist," DJG, pp. 383-391. Though Masada is the best-known Jewish fortress, rebel Jews in the fortress at Macheras held out against the Romans until governor Lucilius Bassus conquered Macheras in 71 AD, two years before Masada fell. Cf. Atlas of Israel (Survey of Israel, and Elsevier Publishing Co., Amsterdam, 1970), IX, 8. Cites Josephus, Wars of the Jews, vii, 163-215. http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/?book=War_7&chapter=6
- Morris, 142.
- An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (founded on the seventh edition of Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. Clarendon Press, Oxford, reprinted from 1889 edition), p. 731.
- BDB 752-753.
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- Listening for God's Voice
- 1, 2, and 3 John
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- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
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- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ