Nov 4, 2012

Message from John the Baptist (Part 1)

Luke 7:18–35

As John the Baptist languished in prison for his allegiance to the kingdom of God, the prophet’s confidence began to wane. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke by focusing on Jesus’ words of assurance for John—and for us.


This morning we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 7:18–35, and it will only be through the grace of God that I’ll be able to cover all of that in this sermon. It remains to be seen how gracious the Lord is pleased to be:

Then the disciples of John reported to him concerning all these things. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”

When the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’” And that very hour He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight.

Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”

When the messengers of John had departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written:

‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’

For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.

And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying:

‘We played the flute for you,
And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
And you did not weep.’

For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by all her children.”

We’ve had the unspeakable privilege this morning to hear a word from God Himself. This is His Word, superintended and inspired by God the Holy Spirit for our instruction, edification, and sanctification. Please receive it as such. Let’s pray.

Our Lord, we look to You as the fountain of all truth to help us understand Your truth, to embrace Your truth, to love Your truth, and to obey Your truth. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

John’s Question for Jesus

When last we looked at Luke’s gospel, we considered Jesus raising the widow of Nain’s son from the dead. We read at the end of that episode that the people glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and, “God has visited His people.”

As a result of the astonishing act of raising one from the dead, Jesus’ reputation swelled throughout the land, and reports were carried everywhere. One of the places the report went was a dungeon five miles from the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist had been incarcerated for daring to publicly critique the morality of the king.

John was languishing in prison at the same time the popularity of Jesus was on the rise among the populace. Obviously, John was confused. He heard all the great things that Jesus had done, and while Jesus was doing these great things, John was in prison, and he wondered about this.

There are those commentators who assume that the reason John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus with the question, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” was: “John had not been shaken in his confidence. After all, he was a prophet, and he was simply having his disciples go and ask Jesus this question for their sakes, to confirm their faith, for John was going to transfer the allegiance of his disciples to Jesus.”

I think that is a stretch of biblical interpretation. We must go with what the text itself says. It was John who asked the question, and the reply Jesus gave was not simply for the benefit of his disciples, but Jesus says, “Go and tell John.” So, Jesus obviously received this question as it came from John, and He gave the response to John.

The Humanity of the Prophets

Why should it be a strange thing for us to imagine that John might have had second thoughts? He had gone on public record proclaiming Jesus as the One who was to come, the Lamb of God who would take away their sins, the One who would be greater than John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. He had made this public proclamation of the person of Jesus, and whatever his personal expectations were of Jesus, they had not been not fulfilled.

Is it impossible for a prophet of God to go through a dark night of the soul, a time of doubt? Not if we consider the prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah, for example, was clearly ready to turn in his prophet’s card when he had enough of the derision heaped upon him by the people, saying: “Your word has become a reproach to me. I’m in derision daily. I will speak no more in Your Name” (Jer. 20:8–9). Elijah cried out, “I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:10). Or consider Jonah, who boarded a ship to escape the responsibilities of the word of prophecy that God had given to him. We could go on citing examples of the humanity of the prophets in the Old Testament. Just like everybody else, they had moments of doubt and confusion in times of distress.

Every day John languished in a horrible dungeon, he must have wondered: “Where is Jesus? Did I make a mistake? Did I proclaim the wrong one to be the Lamb of God?” He couldn’t stand it anymore as he heard more reports. He finally sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Tell us, are you the One, or should we look for another?”

Millions Reject Jesus as the One

Before we look at Jesus’ response to John, I have a word of application. Do you know how many millions of people on the planet today are not persuaded that Jesus was the One?

The whole Jewish nation is still waiting for the Messiah. They have rejected Jesus and are convinced that He was not the One who was to come. Every Muslim on the planet believes that Jesus, ultimately, was not the One who was to come. There are others looking for a hero or a heroine, anybody that could fulfill the role of the rescuer, the deliverer, the savior. We’re not satisfied with Jesus.

There are many millions of people who believe that Jesus was one of the ones who was to come, but by no means the only One. They will acknowledge that Jesus is one way to God but will shrink in horror at the suggestion that He’s the only way to God. I can’t think of any proclamation or profession more repugnant to a secular culture than the proclamation that there is only one way to God and that one way is Jesus.

I’m sure with the number of people in this room this morning, there are many who say they believe in Him but have also said, “I think there many ways to God.” If there are many ways to God, then it’s likely that Jesus isn’t one of them, because Jesus said He was the only One, and the Word of God says He’s the only One.

The True Savior

The Word of God says that there is only one mediator between God and man. There is only one who has given an atonement. If you think that God is stingy and lacking in grace by restricting it to one way, you need to ask yourself: “Why is there any way? What have we done that would merit God’s being moved to provide any way of salvation?”

Despite our lack of merit, God, in His glorious grace, He has given to us the monogenēs, the only begotten of the Father. If you’re not willing to stand for that, it may very well be that you’re an unregenerate person. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where your loyalty to Christ comes to the test. Are you going to please men and bow to political correctness in a pluralistic and relativistic culture, or are you really persuaded that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son? Are you persuaded that He is the only One to provide an atonement for our sins, the only One whom God raised from the dead, and the One whom God has appointed as Judge? Are you persuaded that God has appointed a day in which He will judge the whole world by Jesus, not by Mohammed, not by Confucius, not by Gautama Buddha?

Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead. Confucius is dead. Only Jesus has been raised and elevated to the right hand of God the Father, where He sits right now as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Is Jesus Enough for You?

Maybe you are thinking that God hasn’t done enough by sending His Son to pay the price for every sin that you’ve ever committed. God hasn’t done enough to raise His Son for your justification as the firstborn from the dead so that, if you put your trust in Him, you will live forever without a tear, without pain.

Is that not enough for you? If that’s not enough then I suggest you look for another. But such a suggestion is to suggest you go on a fool’s errand. There isn’t another who can do what Jesus has done for you. This is where you need to be able to stand in the face of all the hostility of the world out of loyalty to your Savior.

Consider Polycarp in his late eighties. He was arrested and taken into the Colosseum, where the lions were waiting to feast upon his body. Even the emperor did not want to be so harsh on this man in his old age, and he said: “You don’t have to die, Polycarp. All you have to do is say, ‘Away with the atheists’”—meaning the Christians—“and you will live.”

Polycarp responded to the emperor: “For over eighty years, my Lord has sustained me. Do you think I’m going to deny Him now? But if all you want me to say is ‘Away with the atheists,’ I’ll do that.” He looked at the crowd of Romans and said, “Away with the atheists!” The Romans were the atheists. Is there a Polycarp out there today? Are you willing to say, “Jesus is the One, the only One, and the One for whom I will die”?

The Prophetic Description of the Messiah

Returning to the text, the question came from John the Baptist: “Jesus, are you the One, or should we look for another?” Jesus was not angry at that question. He was patient with that question, and I love the way He answered it.

Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Go, tell John the things that you’ve seen and heard. Go, tell John that the blind see, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised. Don’t forget to tell him this above all else: the poor are having the gospel preached to them.”

Why was the last part about the gospel so important? The part that created such a marvel in the land was to see people blind from birth having their eyes opened so that they could see, the lame leaping for joy, the deaf hearing, and the dead raised. That was a big deal. Yet, Jesus said, “Go, tell John what you’ve seen, but don’t forget to tell him that the poor have the gospel preached to them.” It isn’t a mystery why Jesus included that statement.

In Isaiah 61, an agenda was set for the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah: “Behold, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor and deliverance to the captives.” This was the job description for the Lord’s anointed, for the Messiah set forth in ancient prophecy. Jesus was saying, “John, go read your Bible. Read Isaiah 61 and you’ll get the answer to your question whether you should look for somebody else.” Nobody else was fulfilling the prophetic description of the Messiah like Jesus.

Do Not Be Offended by Jesus

At the end of his answer to John, Jesus added, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” I don’t want to leave that out. That is an important beatitude. Why is it that professing Christians are so reluctant to say, “Jesus is the only way”? We know how the world thinks about that idea. They can’t stand to hear it. It is utterly offensive to them.

What do we do when we know the world is offended? We want to flee from the offense and say to them: “Christianity is right for me, but whatever you believe is fine for you. You pray to your god, and I’ll pray to mine, and we’ll all be happy together”—in hell.

Jesus pronounces a benediction on the believer who is not offended by Him. What a strange thing that our Lord would pronounce a benediction on people who say they believe in Him and are not offended by Him. How can you be offended by your Savior? How can you be offended by the incarnate Word of God?

People regularly come to me with passages they read in the Scriptures that they don’t like, and I say: “It’s wonderful if you can find things in the Bible that you don’t like. If you’re reading something in the Bible and you don’t like it, put a big mark next to it. Keep reading through the whole Bible and put marks down every time you find a passage you don’t like. Then, go back and concentrate your study on the places you’ve made marks. If you want a quick way to sanctification, that’s it.”

If you find something in the Bible you don’t like, it means one of two things. Either you don’t understand the text and you need to study it more thoroughly until the problem is resolved, or you study it more thoroughly and conclude, yes, your interpretation is what the text is, and you still don’t like it. Then you have a wonderful mirror that shows you where you need to change your life, because if you don’t like what’s in God’s Word, either you’re wrong or God’s wrong. Any takers on which one it is? Blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus.

What Did You Expect?

When messengers left, Jesus gave a commentary about the man who had just asked the question, “Are you the One to come?” Jesus didn’t say: “It really irks Me when I get questions like that. What’s wrong with John? How quick he is in vacillating from his faith. How weak he is. What’s the matter with him?” No, what He says is basically a hymn of praise for John the Baptist.

Jesus spoke about John to people who were flooding to the Jordan River, huge crowds that thronged along the riverbanks so they might be baptized by John. At this point in Jewish history, John the Baptist was more famous than Jesus. Jesus said, “All of you who went there to see John, what were you looking for? What did you go out there to see? Did you go out there to see a reed shaken by the wind?”

That is what Jesus was saying: “What did you expect when you went out to the Jordan? Were you out there expecting to find a reed shaking with every zephyr, with every breeze of wind falling apart? No. You saw a towering tree filled with strength in John the Baptist. What did you go to see? A man clothed in soft garments?”

Not a Cartoon Preacher

The first year I was in seminary, my seminary had just merged with another seminary. The new faculty came up with a glorious plan to create a theological university of the highest academic excellence in the world. They thought the way to do this was to give assignments that no mortal could succeed in. We had to write two hundred pages worth of term papers every semester, and we were just writing to get them done. The reading requirements were so great that nobody could possibly read all the assignments. This was all an attempt to show how great the school was.

One of the assignments we received in class was a twenty-five-page paper that we had to write on the image of the minister in our contemporary culture. We had to examine cartoons found in magazines and images in novels, on television, and in the movies, and then write an analysis of it. I thought, “I didn’t come to seminary to study cartoons.” What a silly assignment this was, just more busywork. We would sit in the back of the classroom and sing a little song, “M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.” This was a Mickey Mouse assignment, not worthy of our attention, but we had to do it, and what an awakening it was to see what the image of the minister is in the United States of America. The chief caricature of the pastor in our land is that of a wimp, where there is no manliness and no strength, but only weakness and hypocrisy. Watch television, movies, cartoons, and you will see this image communicated day after day.

“What did you go out to see, a cartoon in soft clothes?” We are talking about John the Baptist, who came out of the wilderness, who lived on locusts and wild honey. He was the toughest man in Israel. Jesus was saying, “You didn’t go out to see a soft guy dressed in opulent clothes, reclining on a couch. You went to see a man. You went to see a prophet.”

The Prophesied Prophet

Before Pilate announced to the crowd about Jesus, “Ecce homo, behold the man,” Jesus announced to this crowd about John the Baptist, “Ecce homo, behold the man. You went out to see a man, a man of God.”

“What did you go to see, a prophet? Yes, of course you went out to see a prophet.” John being a prophet was the attraction after four hundred years of silence. Since Malachi, a prophet had not arisen in Israel, then suddenly, out of nowhere, out of the traditional meeting place between God and His people, a new prophet came proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling them to repent and to be baptized.

Jesus said, “You went out to see a prophet. What you saw was a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before you.’” The Old Testament prophets not only prophesy about the coming Messiah, but they prophesy about the prophet who will be the herald of the Messiah.

John himself was not just a prophet, but also the subject and object of prophecy. He was himself prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. Jesus said, “He is a prophet, yes, but he is more than a prophet. He is the prophet, the herald of the Messiah, the one who would usher in the Messianic era.”

No Greater Prophet than John

Next, Jesus gave this astonishing comment: “For I say to you, among those born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”

I often fool my students in seminary when I ask, “Who is the greatest prophet in the Old Testament?” They’ll say, “It was Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, or Moses.” I’ll respond, “No, the greatest prophet is John the Baptist.” They say, “John the Baptist is in the New Testament, not in the Old Testament.” Then I’ll get to my point: “We read about him in the New Testament, but this is still the period of the Old Testament. The New Testament hasn’t started yet.” John the Baptist still belongs to the old covenant in terms of redemptive history.

Jesus said, “Of all of the prophets, there is none greater than John.” That is easy enough to handle, but then He said, “He who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than He.” What? How can we understand that? There is only one way I know of, and that is to wait until next Sunday, because I told you I wasn’t going to get through this whole text today. We’ll have to leave the answer and the rest, God willing, for next week. Let’s pray.

Father, how we thank You for the testimony of John to Jesus and the testimony of Jesus to John. Help us, O God, even in our afflictions, to look no further than Your only begotten Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.