We learn several things from this strange story in Luke 7. We learn that even God-ordained, miraculously-born heralds of the Messiah can doubt in the midst of trial. We learn that God can use the confusion of notable prophets to instruct and reassure His people. We learn that the greatness of John the Baptist doesn’t measure up to our own status as redeemed children of God. And finally, we learn that a God who can be fully comprehended and defined isn’t God at all.
Luke doesn’t mention it, but it’s important to understand that John the Baptist is in prison as this story begins. He’s not only in prison, but he’s in prison because he called out one of the Herods for immorality (Matt 14:3-5; Lk 3:18-20), and likely knows his odds of ever getting out of prison are small. Per Josephus, his prison is on the east side of the Dead Sea, roughly 75-100 miles from Capernaum (so his disciples travel a long way back and forth to get to Jesus). His current circumstances almost certainly affect his perspective.
It’s notable that Luke places this story right after the accounts of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave with a word and raising the widow’s son from the dead. Those are the types of miracles that John’s disciples tell him about (he apparently can have visitors in Herod’s prison). Even after hearing of those things, however, John questions whether Jesus is the promised Messiah. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus and asks, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?”
This is where the reader who’s familiar with John’s backstory says, “What??” What in the world happened to make John the Baptist, of all people, doubt Jesus’ identity? John is the man whose whole life is about Jesus. He proclaimed to everyone who would listen that Jesus was coming. When he saw Jesus at the Jordan River, he very publicly identified Him as the promised Messiah (“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – Jn 1:29). John saw the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove and heard the voice of God say, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). After witnessing this, John said, “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:34). So how is it that he now wonders if Jesus is in fact the Expected One?
Two things possibly shed light on John’s doubts. One – as already noted above – he’s in prison in a hopeless situation. Even the best and godliest men are subject to doubts when life is bleak and hopeless. Jesus preaches and heals and casts out demons and has throngs following Him, while John is in prison experiencing nothing but dark times day after day. It’s likely taken a toll on his perspective. Two – and this is probably the stronger of the two possibilities – Jesus isn’t doing what John said He would. When John proclaimed to the people that the Messiah was coming, he focused on the judgment the Messiah would bring. He said the Messiah would baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:16-17).
John prophesied about a fierce Messiah who would call a sinful generation to account. What he hears about Jesus, however, is that He preaches love and forgiveness and ministers to all in compassion and mercy. It’s not what John expected at all. So now he wonders if perhaps he was mistaken even in light of all that happened at the Jordan. It’s also worth remembering that John is in prison for preaching the exact type of judgment that He expected Jesus to bring, so it may be doubly disheartening to hear what Jesus isn’t doing.
[It’s interesting that John’s namesake – Elijah – also went through a period of doubt. After Elijah had a great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, he became discouraged because Ahab and Jezebel – perhaps the most wicked couple in Israel’s history – were still on the throne, and nothing really changed in the political/religious landscape. Like John here, he was impatient and even hopeless that God’s judgment hadn’t fallen (I Kings 19:1-18).]
The mistake John makes – assuming the second reason stated above is correct – is that he confuses prophecy about the end times with prophecy about the Messiah who comes to die. Jesus is not here to bring judgment; He’s here for salvation. There is a day when He will return with a winnowing fork to clear His threshing floor of the chaff. But that time isn’t now. He’s here to die for the sin of the world, and leading up to that ultimate sacrifice He’s here to proclaim God’s kingdom.
Jesus answers the disciples of John by pointing out the miracles they witness Him doing and the miracles they’ve heard about (they might not have witnessed Him raising anyone from the dead, but they’ve almost certainly heard about it from the followers of Jesus who have). He also quotes Isaiah (passages that John is likely very familiar with) to show that He’s fulfilling Messianic prophecies (same things He said when He visited Nazareth – Lk 4:18-19).
What’s interesting about the texts Jesus quotes (Is 35 & 61), is that in their original form they carry warnings of judgment along with encouragement (though Jesus doesn’t quote the judgment portions). It is as if Jesus says to John that while He heals and teaches now, the judgment will be fulfilled in Him also; just not right away. There will be judgment for those who reject the Messiah just as John preached, but it will be in the future. Jesus is the fulfillment of ALL the messianic prophecies in Isaiah.
Jesus ends his answer to John’s disciples with somewhat of an odd statement. He says, “And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me” (vs 23). He blesses those who stick with Him even though His ministry isn’t what they expect. This is a challenge and perhaps mild rebuke to John and any other followers of Jesus who expected His ministry to be stronger in judgment or more focused on the liberation of Israel.
After the disciples leave to carry Jesus’ message back to John, Jesus teaches His followers about John. He makes sure that anyone listening doesn’t misunderstand and think John has fallen away or stopped believing. John is a man who steadfastly stands for righteousness and is the herald for the Messiah; men like him don’t fall away.
Jesus points out through questioning the crowd some truths about John. Before prison, he lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and wild honey, dressed in course animal skins, preached repentance and judgment, called the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see him a brood of vipers, and is in prison for calling the most powerful man in Galilee an adulterer. John is no reed bending in the wind. He is also not a man in soft clothing like those who live in palaces (an apt description of Herod).
What is John? A prophet. And not just a prophet, but the most important prophet of all time because he came to pave the way for the Messiah. He himself is the fulfillment of prophecy (Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 in verse 27 – note that by doing this He clearly claims equality with God).
Jesus goes on to make an amazing claim about John and then about future believers. He says John is the greatest human born by a woman (thus excluding Himself from the comparison). It pays to step back and think about who all Jesus puts John ahead of in the pantheon of greats. He’s saying John’s greater than Abraham, Moses, Elijah, even David. He says this not because of who John is, but because of who he proclaims (as pointed out in verse 27). Jesus isn’t done with His amazing statements, however. He then says that John is not as great as the least believer in the kingdom of God. What He means is that John is the greatest of all humans who will not see the death and resurrection of Christ (He prophecies about John’s future here). For those who will or who will live after the resurrection, they are greater than John because they will experience the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. John – on this side of the cross – doesn’t see everything about the Messiah’s role in redemption; thus he is not as great as those living in the kingdom age (like us).
This incredible statement goes right along with what Peter says about the privileges of living after the redemption. The prophets of old LONGED to know how things would turn out. They prophesied about the Messiah but didn’t fully understand. We know the end of the story and get to experience the full effects of redemption; we’re thus blessed beyond all those who lived before.
Luke does something a little odd with these verses. He interjects some commentary about those listening to Jesus’ explanation about John. The people (and tax gatherers – note how he doesn’t include them with “all the people” – they are a classification all to themselves since they’re so loathed by Jewish society) who were baptized by John are happy to hear Jesus’ words about him. They repented and are encouraged. Those who – like the Pharisees and lawyers – weren’t baptized by John and didn’t repent, are not so happy to hear what Jesus says about him. They have rejected God’s purpose for themselves.
This shows the world as it’s always been. There are really only two types of people – those who have repented and accepted God’s purpose for themselves, and those who have not repented and have instead rejected God’s purpose for themselves. In this case the dividing line is John’s baptism. But in the kingdom age it’s those who have accepted Christ’s sacrifice and those who haven’t.
Jesus shows in these verses that mankind rejects God and His kingdom message no matter how or through whom it comes. Humans are like children playing in the marketplace who keep switching their game from ‘wedding’ to ‘funeral’ and become upset with their playmates when they don’t sing or mourn at the right time.
The Jews criticize John for being ascetic and Jesus for being self-indulgent (note Jesus’ use of Son of Man – to the Jews this is a clear Messianic reference). They call John demon-possessed and call Jesus a drunkard and friend of sinners. They don’t like the judgment of John or the good news of Jesus (it’s interesting how this comparison ties into John’s question that started this section). They want God in their own package and reject Him when He doesn’t fit.
He summarizes this condemnation in verse 35 – “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” The wise will recognize God. They will see God’s way in both John and Jesus. They will not walk as those who are never satisfied.
- If John the Baptist can doubt and become confused during a trial (admittedly, a really BIG trial), then we shouldn’t be surprised when we experience similar feelings during tough times in our lives. When it happens, however, we must learn from what John did. He went to Jesus. If we’re doubting and confused in the midst of trials, go to Jesus and His words. It doesn’t help to just marinate in our confusion and misery. We must go to Jesus both in prayer and through studying His word. Taking our questions to Jesus is the best way to address the darkness and doubts and confusion of trials.
- The generation that Jesus describes in verses 31-34 won’t believe in any God who doesn’t fit in their box. They want a God who meets their definition of what God should be. A God who doesn’t fit isn’t worth believing. This was man’s approach in Jesus’ day and it’s man’s approach in our own. It’s always been so. Man ultimately wants to be the arbiter of what makes God, God. Man puts himself in God’s place by deciding what expectations God must meet before He’s worthy of belief. And while that’s true of pagans, to a lesser extent it’s what we need to be very careful of when we become frustrated over unanswered prayer or excessive trials. God told Job that He’s incomprehensible and owes no one explanations. That applies to believers and unbelievers alike. A God who’s fully defined and understood isn’t God.
- We must never forget or take for granted the privilege of living in the kingdom of God. Jesus says we are GREATER than John the Baptist just by virtue of seeing the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan. We know Jesus died, we know Jesus rose, we get to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. We know we’re justified – we can boldly approach the presence of God – and even more, we know we’re adopted into the family of God. We are the most blessed people in world history because of what’s true of us and what we know about what’s true of us. Our biggest problem is solved and we’re never alone; knowing this should affect how we see the world and its trials and temptations.