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24. The Least in the Kingdom Are Greater than John (Luke 7:28b-35)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Saint John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 6 x 9.25 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
You've been misunderstood by others in your life. I'm sure of that. John the Baptist was certainly misunderstood. But this passage has a powerful message for you -- that you may have misunderstood your own self.
"28 '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.' 29 (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 experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) 31 '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 flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry." 33 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.'" 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.'" (Luke 7:28-35, NIV)
The meat of this passage revolves around the first verse. The rest is commentary on the fickle Pharisees and casual observers who didn't recognize who John -- and Jesus -- actually were, and judged them by a wrong set of values and standards. What standards are you employing to evaluate Jesus and yourself?
Least in the Kingdom but Greater than John (Luke 7:28b)
Jesus gives very high praise to his cousin John the Baptist, forerunner and Prophet called to announce the coming of the Messiah: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John" (Luke 7:28b). It is high praise indeed, and warranted. But Jesus' next words you probably question: "Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." What in the world is Jesus talking about?
Loveland Pass, Continental Divide, Elevation 11,990 feet.
If you've ever driven across the United States, you've crossed the Continental Divide somewhere along the crest of the Rocky Mountains. I remember climbing the Rockies west from Denver on Interstate 70 pulling a loaded tent trailer behind our Impala station wagon. As the air grew thinner, the engine pulled slower and slower. Finally, the highway leveled out at the top of the Loveland Pass and we passed a sign that said "Continental Divide, Elevation 11,990 feet." It was all downhill from there. To the west all the rainfall flowed into the Pacific Ocean. To the east all the runoff flowed into the Atlantic. That invisible line along the crest of the Rockies defines the watershed for a continent.
The reason Jesus can assign John such a high position, and then make him least in the Kingdom of God is because John preceded and heralded the watershed of history, the Great Divide between the Old Covenant and the New. The era of Law that gave way to the era of Grace. The era of the Prophets that opened into the era of the Messiah. John stood just shy of the summit and proclaimed the coming of the King.
Sprinklings of the Spirit under the Old Covenant
If you were to rank great men in the Old Testament you would point to Abraham and Moses, Elijah and David, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Daniel and Ezra. Godly men, men of faith, men anointed by the Spirit of God to fulfill the task that God gave them. The Spirit's anointing was only a sprinkling in those days, few had it.
There is a wonderful story in Numbers 11 that I love. At God's direction, Moses has selected 70 elders to help share with him the task of governing. He is to gather the men together and then God has promised, "I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them" (Numbers 11:17). And so they come, as men come to a committee meeting to which they are summoned. But two can't make it. Whether they didn't get the message or forgot the time, we don't know. But when the Spirit of God fell on the seventy elders, they weren't present.
But where they were in the camp with the rest of the people, the Spirit fell on them too, and they began to prophesy. Someone ran to tell Moses, like a little brother telling Daddy about a naughty sibling: "Moses, Moses, Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp."
"Moses, you must stop them," advises Joshua, Moses' aide.
I can see Moses almost chuckle at the ridiculous situation, and then speak longingly: "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29)
Jeremiah had a glimpse of this new era:
"'The time is coming,' declares the Lord,
'when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,'
declares the Lord.
'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,' declares the Lord.
'I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord,"
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,'
declares the Lord.
'For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.'" (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Joel also prophesied of that Day
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
... and everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved...." (Joel 2:28-29, 32)
The Dividing Line
Jesus the King ushered in the new era of the Kingdom during his three year ministry, especially the last 50 days of his ministry between Passover and Pentecost. He died for the sins of the entire world, thus fulfilling and completing the Law. He rose from the dead, breaking death's power over all those who put their trust in him. He ascended into heaven at the Father's right hand to intercede for us. And poured out with his Father the wonderful baptism of his Holy Spirit. He spilled it out abundantly upon his church about 9:00 am one morning. Nothing was ever the same afterward. The church now caught fire, spread the gospel throughout the known world within a generation, and now encompasses one quarter of the earth's population, at least nominally.
Since the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been granted to each and every believer. That's the definition of being "born again," by the way -- "born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Even the tallest of the rugged prophetic "trees" of the Old Covenant could not see across the Great Divide to the era of the Kingdom. Just glimpses, just snatches of the great truth. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, a teacher of the Old Covenant era (and who happily crossed the Divide into the Kingdom himself), "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3).
Jesus wasn't saying this as a put-down. It was true of Nicodemus as it was true of John the Baptist. He couldn't see the Kingdom of God. He couldn't quite perceive it. It was as dim and foggy for him as vision is for my 93-year-old mother who is legally blind.
So though John stood as one of the greatest men of the Old Covenant era, he was as the least in the New Covenant, the new era of the Kingdom and the Spirit. Oh, we'll see him and converse with him in heaven, around that great table that will include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ... and you (Luke 13:28-30). But John the Baptist will be "grandfathered in," so to speak, while you will be there as an adopted son of the King.
"For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs -- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ...." (Romans 8:15-17)
I've spent a lot of time and quoted a lot of Scripture to try to help you understand one half of a sentence of Jesus' words: "... yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he" (7:28b). But I appreciate your patience. And as a result, I hope you understand better
"... The hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:18-19).
Now let's look briefly at those who judged John and Jesus without perceiving or sensing who they really were.
Rejecting God's Purpose for Themselves (Luke 7:29-30)
"(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. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)" (Luke 7:29-30)
There is some controversy over verses 29-30, whether Jesus himself said them or whether they are the parenthetical comments of Luke, stepping into explain at this point.210 I take them as parenthetical, but it matters little. They are part of this inspired Gospel, and both true and authoritative.
I've often looked at verse 30 and thought, "How sad."
"The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John." (Luke 7:30)
How ironic! The experts were so dogmatic that they couldn't recognize the greatest prophet of all time and the Messiah himself when they met them. But it wasn't innocent. They had determined to resist and reject the truth taught by John. They had set their minds against it because it didn't fit with their interpretation of how things should be. And in so doing, they "rejected God's purpose for themselves...."
This is such a danger for any of us. Pride, and the inflexibility that is its seatmate, have a way of filtering out what we don't want to hear. In Jesus' day, it was the Pharisees who didn't recognize the Messiah when they met him (or invited him into his home, as Simon did in Lesson 25). I can remember a time when Bible teachers proclaimed that God hadn't granted healing miracles since the apostolic era. In the 1990s, it is scholars such as those in the Jesus Seminar who tossed out 90% of the Gospels as inauthentic, and not really Jesus' words after all. The filter through which we see truth has a profound effect on our spiritual life, and our eternal destiny, and can cause us to reject God's purpose for our lives. Scary!
Fickle Children (Luke 7:31-32)
Now Jesus responds to the criticism that has been thrown at both John the Baptist and Jesus. He begins with an analogy to children playing in the market square, and sing-songing their childish songs:
"We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry."
He may be quoting a saying that children of his day used when other children would not join their games. We called and you did not come. You didn't jump through the hoops we thought you should.
But notice the saying has two parts: dancing and mourning, that are, I believe, intended to correspond to the differences between John and Jesus. John is the mourner who would not dance, while Jesus is the dancer who would not mourn.
Criticizing John's Asceticism (Luke 7:33)
John was criticized for his ascetic ways, his preference for locusts and wild honey, rather than the bread and wine that others enjoyed. (Were the locusts dipped in honey before eating?) You just can't please everybody -- ever. Great men are raked with scathing criticism and fools are praised. It was that way in Jesus' time, and it is that way in ours. If you and I are set on pleasing people in order to feel good about ourselves, we must be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. Rather than reacting to the whims of people's flute music and funeral dirges, we need to listen for "the beat of a different drummer," and tune our ear to his rhythms.
Criticizing Jesus' Freedom to Enjoy the Company of Sinners (Luke 7:34)
While John wasn't liberal enough for the critics, Jesus was too liberal. The critics weren't consistent. When asked why his disciples didn't fast like John's disciples, Jesus answered "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?" (Luke 5:33-35) Instead, Jesus and his disciples accepted invitations to dinners held in the wealthy homes of tax collectors, as well as Pharisees. They were just people caught in different kinds of sins and myopia. Jesus ate and drank with them because he loved them, pure and simple. He hoped that his love and presence in their homes would make a difference, that some of the things that he taught them around the dinner table would be remembered and change their lives. Indeed, his dinner conversations did change lives.
Was Jesus a glutton? Of course not! Though he ate well and enjoyed his hosts' fare. Was Jesus a drunkard or winebibber? Of course not! Though he did drink his hosts' wine, and probably, as the Rabbi at the table, was asked to offer the traditional blessing upon it:
"Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam...."
"Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine."
His critics also tagged him as "a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners'" (7:34b). They meant it as a put-down, but Jesus wears it as a badge of honor. "Friend of sinners." Who else would be a friend to them -- a real friend? Who else would extend himself for sinners to the point of dying for their sins? No one. He was and is the friend of sinners. Thank God for that!
Wisdom's Vindication (Luke 7:35)
Men are fickle in their praise and criticism. You'll never please them, and if you try -- if you are foolish enough to try -- you'll be grievously disillusioned. Jesus did not dance to their tune or jump through their hoops. He was acclaimed by some and vilified by others. Yet it did not move him. John the Baptist did what he was called to do, though it brought him prison and execution by beheading. Jesus did what he was called to do though it required of him death on a cross. "But wisdom is proved right by all her children" (Luke 7:35).
What does that mean? The children of wisdom are those who are wise and discerning people. The verb "proved right" (NIV) or "justified" (KJV) is Greek dikaioō, "to show justice, do justice, justify, vindicate."211 The idea is that true wisdom is proved out by those who practice it. Those who have discerned that John and Jesus were of God will ultimately be vindicated in their choice. Their faith may be tested by hard times, but ultimately, it will be shown up as the path of wisdom.
Lessons for Disciples
What are disciples to learn from this passage? I see three lessons:
- We are to appreciate the gracious position we have in the Kingdom of God, and the ability to see things that even prophets could not see. We are not to take this for granted.
- We are to seek God earnestly that we do not miss his purpose for our lives, as the Pharisees did.
- We are to accept the fact that people will say all sorts of things about us, and determine not to be moved by it. That no matter what anyone says about us, our place in God's kingdom will ultimately be vindicated.
Oh, God. Help me not to be so "expert" a Christian that I reject the purpose of God for me. Help my heart to be simple and open before you. Help me to humble myself so I can hear you and follow you. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"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." (Luke 7:28)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- In what ways is your position in the Kingdom greater than John the Baptist's? (A hard question, but at the root of today's lesson.)
- Why were people so critical of John and Jesus -- and for opposite reasons? What are we learn from this?
- Do you know anyone who has "rejected God's purpose for himself"? What can you do to influence him or her for Christ before it's too late. What is doing too little? What is doing too much? Where is the right balance, do you think?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Morris (Luke, p. 114) argues that such an insertion into a speech of Jesus is quite without parallel, that vss. 29 and 30 should be taken as Jesus' commentary on the results of John's powerful ministry.
 Dikaioō, BAGD 197-198.
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