* * * *
“And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art Thou He that should come? or look we for another? When the men were come unto Him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto Thee, saying, Art Thou He that should come? or look we for another? And in that same hour He cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind He gave sight. Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard: how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me. And when the messengers of John were departed, He began to speak unto the people concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ courts. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee. For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. And all the people that heard Him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him. And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? And to what are they like? They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of Man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! But wisdom is justified of all her children” —Luke 7:19-35.
* * * *
During the early part of our blessed Lord’s ministry, John the Baptist was arrested by order of King Herod because of his faithfulness in seeking to press upon the conscience of that wicked monarch his vileness and corruption, particularly in connection with his adulterous relation with his brother’s wife, Herodias. For months John was allowed to languish in prison.
According to tradition, this was the castle of Machaerus, a stronghold in the wilderness of Judaea overlooking the Dead Sea. There is no positive proof, however, that John was there incarcerated. Machaerus is quite a distance from Tiberias, where Herod held his court and where John was brought to be beheaded. At any rate, wherever he was confined, it must have been for him a strange ending to his great ministry. He who had been used to speak to thousands and who had presented the Lord Jesus to them as the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, now seemed to be neglected and forgotten. Doubtless, there would come to him from time to time rumors of the great miracles that Jesus did, and reports of His discourses, but there was nothing to indicate that He was actually presenting Himself to Israel as the promised Messiah. Whether John himself began to entertain doubts as to this, or whether it was simply his disciples who were perplexed, we cannot now say, but we are told in this passage that John called unto him two of the disciples, and gent them to Jesus, inquiring “Art Thou He that should come, or look we for another?” Could it be that Jesus, like John himself, was simply another forerunner of the true Messiah, or was He actually the promised King, and was there some reason for which He refrained from asserting His authority? These were the problems involved in John’s inquiries.
When these men came to Jesus, they asked Him according to John’s instructions. We do not read that He gave any immediate answer, but He permitted them to look on as He healed many of various diseases and plagues and cast out demons. He also gave sight to some that were blind. These were the visible tokens of His Messiahship and should have counted far more than any words in proving that He was truly the expected One. After John’s disciples observed the evidences of His power, Jesus told them to return to John and tell him of the things they had seen and heard: how that “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.” What more could Messiah do so far as ministering to the needs of men? Jesus added, “Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me.” That is, He meant those who would not be stumbled by His failure to assert Himself in the way that many in Israel expected Messiah to do.
No sooner had the messengers of John left than the Lord began to speak to the people concerning His forerunner. In a most appreciative way He insisted on the greatness of the ministry of this devoted man. There is something here that should be very precious to our hearts. We are all inclined, at times, to feel that we have been neglected and forgotten, and the Lord does not always speak words of endorsement directly to us, but we may be assured of this: if we have sought to be faithful to Him, He always approves us before His Father and the holy angels. John himself could not hear what Jesus said to the multitude. If he could have done so, it would, no doubt, have been a great encouragement to him, but he was left in ignorance of this for the time, in order that his faith might be more firmly established.
The Lord inquired, first of all, “What went ye out into the wilderness for to see?” And then suggested an answer to the question. “A reed shaken with the wind?” John surely was not that. He was a strong, fearless messenger of the truth, not turned aside by any opposition. “But,” continued the Lord, “what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” Was John like many of the leaders in Israel, one who looked upon his office as a lucrative profession and profited by it, and so lived in luxury, and dressed magnificently in order to impress the people? Such men had access to kings’ courts and were honored by enjoying the favor of rulers. But it was otherwise with this wilderness preacher. Again the Lord puts a question. “But what went ye out to see? A prophet?” Immediately He adds, “Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.” A prophet is one who speaks directly for God. He is not merely one who foretells future events, but he is one who speaks forth divine truth in the energy of the Holy Spirit. This indeed characterized John the Baptist.
The Lord then definitely identified John as the one whose coming was predicted in Isaiah 40:3. He declared, “This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” Whatever John’s doubts or those of his disciples may have been, if any, as to the Person and ministry of the Lord, because He did not immediately ascend David’s throne, Jesus Himself leaves no possible doubt in the minds of those who were prepared to receive His Word, as to the identity of John himself.
He was the one whose coming had been foretold over seven hundred years before he appeared. It was given to him to herald the advent of Israel’s Messiah, God’s Son, the world’s Redeemer.
Because of this special privilege granted to John, the last of the prophets, Jesus added, “I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and all the rest of the prophetic brotherhood, looked forward to the coming of Messiah, but it was given to John alone to actually present Him to Israel and proclaim Him definitely as the long-expected Deliverer.
John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. We are told elsewhere, “The law and the prophets were until John.” Following him we have the bringing in of the acceptable year of the Lord, the presentation of Christ Jesus as the only Saviour, who came to establish the kingdom of God on earth. It was given to John to direct people to the King and to stand, as it were, at the open door of the kingdom and invite people to enter; but he did not live himself to go into the new dispensation and so become a member of that kingdom in the form in which it has taken since Christ came into the world. And so Jesus said, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
We need to remember that the terms “the kingdom of God,” as used here, and “the kingdom of heaven,” as used in Matthew, refer at times to two different aspects of the kingdom. They speak primarily of heaven’s rule established on earth. That kingdom was offered to Israel, but rejected by them. Nevertheless, the authority of the Lord was recognized and has been recognized by millions since, and these enter into the kingdom of God in its present spiritual and mystical form. John will have his part in the coming age in the manifested kingdom, but he had no part in the kingdom as now set up in the hearts of men, while the King is on the Father’s throne, awaiting His own second advent.
We have the results of John’s ministry set forth in verse 29, where we are told that “all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” That was a baptism unto repentance. It was the acknowledgement on the part of the baptized that they were sinners and deserved to die. In making this acknowledgment they justified God. Baptism itself had no part in their salvation. That could only be through the Lord Jesus Himself, whose great atoning work John proclaimed when he exclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” John never taught that baptism, as such, could take away sin. His baptism was only the outward acknowledgment of the fact that men were sinners and needed a Saviour. Great multitudes in Israel listened to John with appreciation and exercise of conscience, and so received the testimony of God against themselves and humbly owned their lost condition by being baptized of John. But it was otherwise with the majority of the leaders. The Pharisees and lawyers, we are told, rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him. These proud, haughty legalists refused to take the place of lost, needy sinners, and so, would not stoop to a baptism which spoke of the necessity of repentance.
In the verses that follow, 31 to 35, the Lord draws a vivid contrast between the conscience-searching ministry of John the Baptist and the message of grace, which He came to proclaim. He likens the men of the generation to children sitting about in the market-place. One group of them are trying to arouse the others to take part in some childish games. First they say, as it were, “Let us play wedding,” and they attempt a merry tune upon their pipes, but the others refuse to dance. Then the first group say, “Well, if you will not play wedding, let us play funeral.” And so they pipe out a doleful elegy. But the others refuse to mourn. The ministry of John was more like the latter. He came with a very solemn message, calling upon people to recognize the seriousness of their condition as sinners needing a Saviour, but the Pharisees and those of their group turned away with a sneer and said, “He hath a demon.” Jesus came with a more joyous message, mingling with publicans and sinners, as He proclaimed that grace and truth which offered salvation to all who would trust in Him; but the legalists turned coldly away, declaring Him to be a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified of all her children.” That is, in the wisdom of God there is a time to stress the importance of repentance; there is also a time to stress the preciousness of the grace of God, and He will be glorified in both messages and in whatever servants He uses to give them forth.