Alfred Place Baptist Church

7:24-35 No-one greater than John

Luke 7:24-35 “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.’ (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.) ‘To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place 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.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” 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.’” But wisdom is proved right by all her children’”

There are the people who go to religious meetings and there are those who don’t, and our tendency is to ask those who are absent why they stay away: “What are your reasons for not coming to church?” But here the question is the opposite: “Why are you here? What did you come to see? What did you expect?” and the questioner is the Son of God. The context is his watching the two disciples of John walking back to the prison to tell the Baptist what they had seen, and then it is that Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” He is going to ask them this question three times.

“Surely not reeds blown by the wind?” Plenty of them there, but you don’t have to walk fifty miles in order to see something as commonplace as that. You can see reeds from your front door. Then what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? A fashion parade? A catwalk? The ladies day at Ascot? Is that your interest? And so you went fifty miles out into the desert to see that? No of course not. You’d hang around the entrance to Herod’s palace to see people wearing expensive clothes and indulging in luxury. That would be the place to spot them. You wouldn’t go to a desert to see Chanel, Christian Dior, Lacroix, Givenchy, Gaultier, Armani and Yves Saint Laurent.

Why did you come here today? You didn’t come to see people did you? You can see people on streets, in shops and on the promenade. Strangers are commonplace. What did you leave your place today to see? People wearing the latest fashion? Smartly dressed beautiful people? You don’t need to come here to see that. There are pubs and clubs in the streets all around us where dressed up men and women gather. If you want to see what the fashion-conscious are wearing in 2008 then you wouldn’t come here. You’d go to Vanity Fair.

Why are you here? “Someone invited me,” you say, but there are many invitations which you receive and you say No. There is a woman mentioned in Proverbs chapter seven and she invites you to go with her; “‘I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! I have covered my bed with coloured linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full.’ With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose” (Provs. 7:16-21). You wouldn’t say yes when a seducer invited you would you? But you did say yes that you’d come here, and it was not to see the commonplace and not to see the exotic.

Jesus said to them, “You came here to see God’s prophet.” Life for them had lost its meaning. They had thought that when they grew up, and became independent, and got a job, and married, and had children that that would change things. One day, they thought, the emptiness inside them would be filled, and their guilt would evaporate. They’d discover that their life did have a purpose, but it never came. Then one day they heard that a prophet had begun preaching in the wilderness. Many were going there and listening keenly to his words which were quite convicting and awakening; friends of theirs were repenting of their sin and being baptized. So they had gone to the wilderness in order to hear a prophet.

Christ approves of their enterprise, because his Father, the Creator of the universe, has in the past spoken to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. We know God through his glory and godhead being seen in his creation; we know him through his voice in our consciences, but most clearly of all he has spoken to men through his servants the prophets. He has made his mind known to them through Abraham and Moses, Samuel and David, Elijah, Isaiah and the others. The only way we can know God is through what he has revealed to us, and before Christ came that had been by the prophets. John was the last of these prophets sent from God after centuries of silence to speak God’s heart and mind to the people, but he was more than a prophet. John was a selected, promised prophet. Jesus stood by his incarcerated friend saying, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’” (v.27). This is the messenger of whom the prophet Malachi spoke, the one God would send just before the arrival of the Messiah. The messenger would be the alarm clock to wake up sleeping Israel. He would be the one preparing the nation to think again in terms of the living God and his word. He was the herald announcing the arrival of the King. “You’d better prepare to meet Jehovah Jesus.” You can’t saunter up to God like Mr. Cool and introduce yourself as if you were an equal. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Angels cover their eyes when they see his glory. You had better prepare to meet God by dealing with your unbelief, your pride, your ungodliness. That was John’s task calling on the people to turn around, to repent.

However, Jesus elevates John the Baptist even higher. Herod may have thrown him in prison but Jesus says, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no-one greater than John” (v.28). There were hundreds of anonymous prophets in the Old Testament who were instructed in the schools of the prophets. There were some prophets whose activities are recorded just once – a few verses. There is a prophet like Obadiah whose written prophecy measures one single chapter, and there is a prophet like Isaiah whose writings fill 66 chapters. Some prophets had such a magnificent ministry, but Jesus said that among those born of women is no one greater than John. Great in being filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Great in his commitment to his calling spending thirty years of preparation in the desert. Great in preaching repentance towards God. Great in preaching faith in the Lamb of God who take away the sin of the world. Great in his humility – “He must increase but I must decrease.” Great in his courage in speaking of the sin of King Herod. Great in his martyrdom. Surely this is why he was the greatest, a true prophet, and himself the object of prophecy, and adorning his vocation with such grace – “there is no-on greater than John.” Then hadn’t they done well to leave Jerusalem and Galilee and Judea to walk miles to the desert and hear him, and believe him, and repent of their sins and be baptized by him. Wasn’t that wisdom? He was the mouthpiece of God, and shouldn’t men hear what God says through his prophets?

Then Jesus adds something even more staggering. He says, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (v.28). The least in the kingdom of heaven may be you, or he may be me, and yet the Saviour says that that Christian person is greater than John. How can he be greater than great John? Greater in the privileges we enjoy that John never had. I have heard Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. I have seen Lazarus rise from the dead. I have witnessed the Son of God washing the feet of his disciples. I have heard the discourse in the Upper Room and the High Priestly prayer. I have seen the institution of the Lord’s Supper. I have seen Christ arrested, lashed, nails driven through his hands a feet. I have seen the spear thrust into his side. I have seen him dead and taken down from the cross. I have seen the stone rolled away on the third day and Jesus risen. I have walked with him on the road to Emmaus. I have stood with 500 others and met with him. I have seen him ascend to heave. I have seen the Holy Spirit poured out on the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. I have seen the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. I have seen the church grow and spread and fill all the world in 2,000 years. I have been to Wittenburg and seen Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door; I have been to Geneva and heard John Calvin preach; I have heard Jonathan Edwards preaching ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in Northampton in New England; I have heard Robert Murray M’Cheyne in Dundee; I have heard Spurgeon preaching at the Elephant and Castle. John the Baptist knew nothing of any of that. Aren’t I greater than John? Aren’t you? Isn’t the least in the kingdom of God greater?

So what do I want you to do today? You’ve come here and you acknowledge that it is not to see more people, or to look at the baubles of fashion. You’ve come here to hear something of God. Is there a God in heaven and what does he say to man? It is a great question. I have told you that the little Christian girl in the next pew is greater than John the Baptist because of all the privileges she has, and so are the other followers of Jesus you have met. So that means I too am greater than the prophet John the Baptist. Then what is it that I want you to do – from what these words of Jesus are saying? There is a movement called We Are What We Do, and this week the Government is sending to every state school in Britain a booklet that the movement has compiled. Its theme is changing the world. If a million people did some things it could change the world, so the booklet that is coming to your school next week claims. You can guess at some of the things it suggests because we live in a self-consciously ecological age; make sure you don’t spend more than two minutes in the shower; give complements; recycle your toys; cook a pizza; take your Dad for a walk; teach your Gran to text; don’t charge your phone overnight; read with a pal; find out about your food; turn the tap off when you brush your teeth; use both sides of the paper when you photocopy. So what does the Lord Jesus wants us to do – surely a million Christians can change the nation – for we are the salt of the earth. Three things from this passage:

ACKNOWLEDGE THAT GOD’S WAY IS RIGHT.
You see there is a parenthesis in verses 29 and 30, those two verses that are in brackets, you see them? It is as if Luke pauses at the point in the narrative and he and looks straight at Theophilus, the man for whom he is writing this gospel, and he says to him, “(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 . . .)” (v. 29). When Luke says “All the people” he doesn’t mean every single Jew without exception from Dan to Beersheba including the entire population of Jerusalem and the whole of the Sanhedrin. Phrases like ‘all the people’ have to be understood in context, and the context here is all, except the Pharisees and experts in the law who rejected Jesus’ words (v.30). It means that multitudes of the common people did listen to what Jesus said. They had been prepared for him by John who told them that the Christ was coming and he would baptize with his Spirit and lay his axe into the root of the tree. He was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Then the people heard Jesus for themselves on the mountain, they overheard him speaking in a house, they listened to him teaching from a boat at the side of the Lake. They thought deeply of what he said, his extraordinary claims, that beautiful character, meek and straight and loving. They had goose pimples as they saw him heal every sick person brought to him, and raising from the dead the son of the widow of Nain. They weighed up his teaching and his life. They weren’t swept by emotion. They weren’t bought by spin. They came to this conclusion, “He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Saviour of the world, God’s great prophet, the one promised by Moses and David and Isaiah.” They said, “God’s way is right.” And when they confessed that they were saying that the Pharisees’ way was wrong, and the worship of Caesar was wrong, and the Greek philosophers were wrong. Jesus alone was the way and the truth and the life. That was their commitment. “From now on God’s way will be our way.”

That is why you came here this morning, to hear those words from God, to acknowledge God’s way as your way. What does that imply?

i] That there is one true and living God. Let me catechize you.

What is God?
God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, hoiness, justice, good and truth. That is the God I am speaking about.

Are there more Gods than one?
There is but One only, the living and true God.

How many persons are there in the Godhead?
There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Acknowledge, I plead with you, that this is the one true and living God.

ii] Acknowledge that our Lord’s diagnosis of the plight of man is true, that the human problem doesn’t lie out there in the world but inside us, our bias to sin and our defiance of God, and it has made us all unclean. Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’” (Mark 7:20-23). So an internal solution must be found for an internal problem.

Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University was doing some research on Alcoholics Anonymous and one Saturday morning he went to an A.A. meeting in a church basement. He listened to a ‘crisply dressed young man’ talking about his problems. “In his narrative he was absolutely faultless. All his mistakes were due to the injustice and betrayals of others. He spoke of how he was going to avenge himself on all who had wronged him. ‘His every gesture gave the impression of griev­ously wounded pride,’ Delbanco wrote. It was clear that the young man was trapped in his need to justify himself, and that things could only get worse and worse in his life until he recognized this. While he was speaking, a black man in his forties, in dread­locks and dark shades, leaned over to Delbanco and said, ‘I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem.’

“Delbanco wrote later in his book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope: ‘This was more than a good, line. For me it was the moment I understood in a new way the religion I had claimed to know something about. As the speaker bombarded us with phrases like “got to take control of my life,” and I’ ve got to really believe in myself”—the man beside me took refuge in the old Calvinist doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope. What he meant by his joke about self-esteem was that he learned no one can save himself by dint of his own efforts. He thought the speaker was still lost— lost in himself, but without knowing it.’

“By ‘low self-esteem’ the man in the dreadlocks didn’t mean the young man should come to hate himself. He meant that the well-dressed young man was ‘all wrapped up in himself’ and hadn’t yet ad­mitted that he was a very flawed human being, a sinner. He would never be liberated to see his own flaws in their true light, to forgive those who had wronged him, or to humbly seek and receive forgiveness from others. The Christian doctrine of sin, properly un­derstood, can be a great resource for human hope” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, Durron, 2008, p.161). You need to change your heart, your attitude to yourself and others. The problem is not out there; it is in here, and I want you to acknowledge that.

iii] Acknowledge the way of redemption through the cross of Christ is your only hope of being accepted by God. God sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. In order for us to be forgiven the Lord Jesus had to die. I could say that that is how God is; that is his nature, that without a unique life summarily brutally terminated there can be no mercy. That is true, but let me say that in all true forgiveness someone bears the cost. Let me use this illustration of Timothy Keller’s; imagine someone borrows your car and as he backs out of the drive he hits the gate, demolishing it with part of the wall. Your insurance doesn’t cover the gate and the wall so what can you do? You can ask him to pay for the damage, or you can refuse his offer of paying for it and say you will pay for it yourself, or you both share the payment. Notice that in every option the cost of the damage is going to be borne by someone. Either you or he is going to absorb the cost of the bad driving. The debt will not vanish into thin air. When we forgive we bear the cost of another’s misdeed. When God forgives he bears the cost of our misdeeds

In the cross of Christ God pays the price of what we have done. He forgives us and repairs the damage we have done to our own lives and our relationship with himself by making his Son the Lamb of God and bruising him. He bears the blame and so he bears the guilt. The Lord Jesus chooses to suffer for what we have done. He confronts us with this fact – Christ died for our sins – my sins! Love so amazing demands that I become a different person; I will repent and change and make things right from now on. I will not live as once I did.

iv] Acknowledge that a new birth by the Holy Spirit is your only hope for a new nature. There is still the problem of self reigning in our lives showing itself in the way we blame anyone else for what’s happened to us, except ourselves. Our hearts are still stony and against God though we have been forgiven. How can I change my own heart? I learn that God promises to take away the old heart from all whom he forgives, and he gives them a new one. I cry to God for life from above, that I may be born again. I want to be made a new creation; I want all things to become new. I cannot live a holy life without a heart that loves holiness. God gives me such a heart. No one has ever asked God for one in vain. Oh for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free! Pray it! This is the double cure of sin, its guilt is removed by God the Son on the cross, its power is broken by the indwelling of God the Spirit in my heart. I want you to acknowledge that to God.

Acknowledge that God’s way is right and be baptized as a public profession that you have done so; “they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John.”

ACCEPT THAT GOD’S PURPOSE IS BEST.
We’ve been looking back at God’s way of salvation, that he loved the world and gave his Son, and we have acknowledged that it is right. Now we are looking ahead to God’s purpose for our lives. We are told that “The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (v.30). They refused to repent and be baptized by John. They weren’t going to give up their ideas; they had no need to be ducked in a river. God had a different purpose for their lives, but they rejected it. God has a wonderful purpose for his own people; he has a set of beliefs for us; he has told us who we are, and what we are here for. He has told us what are the most important things we should spend our time doing, both in the public square and in our own private lives. He has given us a narrative about marriage, parenthood, work, church, the powers that be and even our enemies. We are not here by accident; when we die we don’t just rot. God has given us a master narrative, an account of the meaning of life along with a recommendation for living which is based on that account of things. We can call it a ‘worldview’ or a ‘narrative identity.’

Let me catechize you again about what your purpose in life should be;

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

What do the Scriptures principally teach?
The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

So the Scripture tells us to reverence God and keep his commandments. We are to have no other gods beside him. We are not to bow before idols and serve them. We are not to take his name in vain. We are to keep one day each week apart to his service. We are to honour Dad and Mum. We are not to be violent, not to be involved in sexual activity before or outside of marriage, not to steal, not to lie and not to covet. The rules are wise and simple. They are summed up in loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves. So we are especially concerned for those neighbours who are marginalized by our cultures, people of different races, people who have committed crimes, people who are educationally disadvantaged. We speak up for the elderly, the unborn child, women in many parts of the world today, lepers and people with AIDS. We love our unattractive neighbours because God has loved the unattractive people that we are. At the heart of our faith is someone who gave his life for his enemies and prayed for those who inflicted pain on him. That is God’s purpose for our lives.

However, many of these people listening to Jesus rejected that purpose. They wrote their own narrative and dismissed what the Son of God said. Jesus said, “‘To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place 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.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” 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’””(vv.31-34).

William Hendriksen describes this situation well. “The picture Jesus draws is that of children who on those days when no business is being transacted in the market gather in its ample spaces in order to play games. Today, however, nothing seems to succeed. Some children begin to play the flute, as an accompani­ment not to mourning but to merriment. They want to play wedding. Others object. So the players put their flutes away and start to lament pitifully and mourn a dirge, as they have heard their elders and the professional mourners do. That idea, too, does not go across. In a spirit of desperation they then scold their playmates for being so uncooperative, a complaint which the others return.

“We can easily imagine something of this nature happening today. ‘Let’s play weddings,’ says one child. Others chime in. ‘Let Mary be the bride, Ruth the maid of honour. I’ll be the groom. Bert can be the best man, Peter the father of the bride, Jack will do very nicely for the preacher.’ ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ say some of the others, and they start whistling a wedding march. But many voices scream back in disgust, ‘Not that silly stuff. That’s not for us.’ ‘Then let’s play funerals,’ says the boy who had been the first to suggest playing wedding, and he adds, ‘I’ll be the funeral director, the pallbearers are John, Bert, Peter, and Larry. Mike can be the corpse.’ Dolefully the speaker and some others begin to intone a funeral hymn. But their groan­ing is drowned out by loud protests: ‘Cut it out. We want none of this sad stuff.’ So a petty quarrel develops, in which those who had suggested the games are shouting to their playmates, ‘You’re never satisfied. You don’t want to play weddings and you don’t want to play funerals. What do you want to play?’ The accused hurl back similar charges. All are un­happy, disgruntled, sulky. Weddings are too silly, too glad; funerals, too gloomy, too sad. Not only are the children peevish and quarrelsome, they are also fickle, inconsistent: what they used to get excited about they now look down on.

“Jesus, then, is saying, ‘That is the way you critics are behaving. You are being childish. You are frivolous and are acting irresponsibly, incon­sistently. You are never satisfied. You used to be filled with enthusiasm about John; at least, you stood in awe of him and didn’t find fault with his austerity and call to repentance. But now you say, “He is too harsh and unsociable; his message is too severe. Why, he must be possessed.” But you are also turning against me, the Son of Man. You are pointing the finger at me and saying, “Though he demands self-denial in others, he him­self is a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. He is too sociable”’” (William Hendriksen, Luke, Banner of Truth, 1978, p.400).

J.C. Ryle says, “The plain truth is that the natural heart of man hates God. The carnal mind is enmity against God. It dislikes His law, His Gospel, and His people. It will always find some excuse for not believing and obeying. The doctrine of repentance is too strict for it! The doctrine of faith and grace is too easy for it! John the Baptist goes too much out of the world! Jesus Christ goes too much into the world! And so the heart of man excuses itself for sitting still in its sins. All this must not surprise us. We must make up our minds to find unconverted people as perverse, unreasonable, and hard to please as the Jews of our Lord’s time. We must give up the vain idea of trying to please everybody. The thing is impossible, and the attempt is mere waste of time. We must be content to walk in Christ’s steps, and let the world say what it likes. Do what we will, we shall never satisfy it, or silence its ill-natured remarks. It first found fault with John the Baptist, and then with his blessed Master. And it will go on cavilling and finding fault with that Master’s disciples so long as one of them is left upon earth” (J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke, Vol. 1, p.230). So people will always find an excuse for stopping going to church, but the Lord Jesus is saying that there is no credible reason for rejecting God’s purpose for your life. It is the best purpose. Please accept it. Don’t grumble about one church that it’s too light and full of entertainment, but the other church is heavy and dour – like a funeral. Those are excuses for you to do your own thing. Accept God’s purpose for your life; fear him and keep his commandments.

DISPLAY HIS WISDOM AS LIFE ENRICHING.
Jesus ends his observations with these words, “But wisdom is proved right by all her children” (v.35). The children of God who acknowledge God’s way to be right are wise children. The children of God who accept God’s purpose to be best are wise children. The proof of this is seen throughout their lives as they are guided by wisdom. Wisdom is proved right by all her children. The newspapers each day are full of descriptions of the folly of men and women who have disregarded God’s ways and purposes. They have stolen, lied, carried knives with them, killed, worshipped their idols, broken their marriage vows, indulged in their lusts, threatened others, and drunk themselves stupid. The foolishness of the free choice they made of how they are going to live is proved by what has happened to them. Foolishness is proved by all her children. They are the children of folly, and they are everywhere today and some are 70 years of age. They have never grown up. What child wants a recycled teenager for its father? They have never become wise. They have rejected God’s way and God’s purpose and they have ended up lacking God’s wisdom. Alas, they are the heroes of many of the younger generation.

I could introduce you to a hundred people this morning whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ, wise fathers, wise mothers, wise children, wise pensioners, wise neighbours, wise employers and wise employees. They are caring, loving men and women since they came to acknowledge God’s way was right and God’s purpose was best, and that is what we desire for you, to join them and receive that same wisdom from God for the demanding years that lie ahead for our world. We have had a sample of the uncertainty of our times in the collapse of some of the biggest banks in the world in the past week. The threat to our civilization by Muslim terrorists is frightening. Whatever you need for the future, the paramount grace is wisdom. Some of you have come to the town to study at the university and that is a worthy and important vocation; may the Lord give you a passion for study, but I say to you that here is a more worthy vocation; “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honour you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendour” (Provs. 4:4-9).

21st September 2008 GEOFF THOMAS.