Jesus considered John the Baptist among the greatest of the prophets. Then why did Christ say the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John? Continuing his series in the gospel of Luke, today R.C. Sproul explains the significance of this statement for the Christian life.
This morning we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Today I am going to read Luke 7:28–35. I’d ask the congregation to please stand for the reading of the Word of God:
“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.”
There are things in this passage that are difficult to understand. No matter how difficult they are, they still come to us from God Himself, who promises His Holy Spirit to search out these things and illumine this text for our edification and understanding. So, please receive this Word, as it comes to you from God Himself. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we need Your help to comprehend the deep things spoken here by the Lord Jesus Christ. We know that He did not speak them to confuse us but rather to encourage us. Assist us to that end. In Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.
Greater Than John, How?
Last week when our time ran out, I was in the middle of verse 28, and I said if you wanted to hear the rest of the text, you’d have to come back this morning, which all of you who are here have done. I’m glad for that result. Now, let’s tackle the difficult statement Jesus made in verse 28.
After Jesus gave such wonderful praise to John the Baptist, He went on to say that of all the prophets, there was none greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
To put Jesus’ statement in perspective, let’s assume for the sake of illustration that the person standing in this pulpit is least in the kingdom of God. As discouraging as it might be to wake up and discover that of all in the kingdom of God, I am the very least, at least I can take some comfort in knowing that, despite my least-ness in the kingdom of God, I’m still greater than John the Baptist. That means you have one greater than John the Baptist preaching to you this morning—it can hardly get a whole lot better than that. This seems silly at one glance, because we know that John the Baptist, being one of the greatest prophets of all time, if not the greatest of the Old Testament, is far greater than you and I are in terms of his importance to the whole scope of redemptive history.
If we are thinking in terms of status, are we going to consider that when God gives out the rewards for faithfulness and obedience in heaven, your reward in heaven will be greater than John the Baptist’s? I don’t think so. I’m sure that my reward in heaven won’t look anything like the reward that will be given to John the Baptist for his martyrdom, fidelity, convictions, and public confession of Christ Jesus. So, what then does it mean to say that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist? We must look at the context of greatness.
A Greater State of Blessedness
There is a clue to what Jesus meant in verse 28 in the pages of the Old Testament when we go back to Genesis, to the time Noah gave his patriarchal blessing to his three sons. Do you remember how he divided that blessing? He said, “Blessed be Shem, enlarged be Japheth, and cursed be Canaan, the disciple of Ham” (Gen. 9:25–27).
When Noah addressed his sons, one was blessed, one was cursed, and the middle one, Japheth, was enlarged, or made greater. The context of that language from the Old Testament had to do not simply with the size of the tribes that would flow out of the descendancy of Japheth, but rather with the degree of blessedness that Japheth and his sons and daughters would experience. The greatest level of blessedness was given to Shem and his sons and daughters. Then, the second greatest level of blessedness would go to the descendants of Japheth. The quantitative terms of great and small are defined in terms of blessedness.
What Jesus is saying in His problematic statement about John the Baptist is this: even though there is none born of women greater than John the Baptist, nevertheless he who is least in the kingdom of God is in a greater state of blessedness than even John the Baptist enjoyed. Though John the Baptist was written about in the New Testament, he still belonged to the period of redemptive history called the Old Testament.
John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the prophet selected to be the herald of the coming Messiah, to introduce Jesus as the One who would be crowned the King and bring in the new covenant. But John was still on the outside, looking in. Anyone born after the cross, after the resurrection, and particularly after the ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Father is living in a better redemptive-historical situation than all the saints in the Old Testament.
As Peter said in the New Testament, even the angels desire to look into those things that have been brought to pass through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The covenant that we are in, we are told, is a better covenant. The situation that we are in is a better situation. It all has to do with the kingdom of God.
The Reality of the Kingdom of God
There are those in the Christian church who have been profoundly influenced by a theology which teaches that the kingdom of God is totally and completely in the future. You see this in the books of the Left Behind series, The Late Great Planet Earth, and that kind of approach to history. The New Testament, however, makes it clear that while the kingdom of God will be finalized and consummated in the future, it has truly and surely been already inaugurated in the past.
Jesus’ coming began the kingdom of God. John the Baptist preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Then Jesus came preaching the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God, and He said, “If you see Me casting out Satan by the finger of God, then you know that the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 11:20). The kingdom of God is here in a very real sense. Our situation in terms of redemptive history is far greater than anything John experienced, even though he was an eyewitness of Jesus and baptized Him.
Sometimes we think: “Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have lived back in the first century and seen the miracles of Christ, been a witness of the crucifixion, been there on Easter Sunday and seen the resurrected Christ, or stood on the mount of ascension and watched Him on the glory clouds being lifted up to heaven? Those people were so much more blessed than we are.” No—we live on this side of the enthronement of Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords. “Well,” we ask, “So what?”
No Matter What, Jesus is King
It may be the perfect time to ask the question, “So what?” In the last four years, our national debt has gone from $10 trillion to $16 trillion. Not too many people are all that concerned about it. They’ll say: “What’s the difference between $10 trillion and $16 trillion? Once you get up in the trillions does it really matter anymore?” Then I hear people say, “We really owe it to ourselves is all.” Let me tell you who’s going to pay that $16 trillion. You are, and your children, and your grandchildren, and your great grandchildren. That is a burden that can crush the very heart and soul of this country.
What is the government going to do? They’re going to try to print their way out of it. If they do that, it’s going to cause more grief for you, because your currency will be continually debased, generation after generation. Your purchasing power, savings, and investments will diminish with every new dollar that’s printed. People don’t seem to understand this.
I look at that and say, “How can the country stand a debt of $16 trillion?” It can’t, and it may be too late, but we certainly can’t have any more of it. It must stop for the survival of this country and your children and your children’s children. I hope that you will consider these matters deeply.
Here is the good news: even if things get worse, and even if four years from now, we get another $6 trillion of debt added on and it’s $22 trillion, I guarantee you that Jesus Christ will still be King. Whoever wins elections, Jesus Christ will still be King. I just hope that King Jesus does not give us what we deserve. We need to pray for mercy and grace because we have been blessed beyond imagination. If the fig tree doesn’t blossom and there are no more cattle in the stalls, nevertheless we rejoice in the God of our salvation, because we are in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Childish Pharisees
Luke continues, “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 scribes rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.”
John the Baptist came as a prophet and called the people to come and be cleansed, to repent because the kingdom of God was at hand. The religious establishment, however, said: “We’re not going to do that. That’s for the am ha’aretz, the people of the land, the common folk, but not for us. We will not go into the water and be cleansed.”
In verse 31, Jesus said: “To what shall I liken the men of this generation? What are they like?” He answered His own question. They are like children. They’re childish. He said: “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 wait.’”
What is Jesus’ statement here about? When the marketplace was empty and the kids had a bit of space to play, they’d go in and create games. We used to play in the street in front of my house. We’d play four-man touch football, and we had to watch for cars coming down the street. We could only play if the cars were not on the street. As soon as the car went by, we used to throw the ball over the car, then we would continue our game.
Kids are great at inventing games. We used to dress up and say: “Let’s play Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. No, let’s play pirate. Let’s play cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers.” The girls would say: “Let’s say play dolls. No, let’s play dress up.” The kids would fight among themselves as to what they should do with their games.
This is how Jesus described the children in the marketplace. They play the flute saying, “We’re going to have a happy time of dancing.” Some of the kids say, “We’re not dancing; we don’t want to play the flute game” so they play the funeral dirge and say, “Let’s play funeral.” Then the others say, “No, we’re not going to play funeral. We’re not going to mourn.” This is the way children behave.
Jesus said: “That’s what I liken this generation to. John the Baptist came in his asceticism. He didn’t eat meat or bread. He didn’t drink wine, and what did you say? ‘He must have a demon. He won’t eat bread like normal people. He won’t drink wine like normal people. He must be demon possessed.’” So, they rejected him.
When Jesus came, it was a time of feasting, not a time of mourning. He ate with the people. He made wine for them at their wedding. The Son of Man came, and they said: “We can’t accept Him. He’s a glutton. He’s a winebibber.” They rejected John the Baptist because he was too austere, and they rejected Jesus because He was too happy and pleasant.
Justification by Faith or Works?
Jesus continued, “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” This is an important statement. Jesus made a figurative application of the word for justification in the New Testament. This plays a critical role in the history of the Reformation. The Reformation was fought over the battle of justification. How are we justified? How are we reconciled to God?
God is just, and we’re unjust. He is holy, and we’re not. Paul labors the point that we cannot be justified by our deeds or works, because they’re always tarnished: “By the works of the law,” he says, “shall no flesh ever be justified” (Rom. 3:20). We must be justified by faith and by faith alone, which means the only way we can be justified before God is by putting our trust and faith in Christ and His works, His righteousness.
Then James comes along and writes his epistle saying, “If a man says he has faith and has no works, will that faith justify him?” (James 2:14). He answers that question by saying that dead faith never justifies anybody. At the end of James 2, he goes on to say, “Was not Abraham justified by his works when he offered Isaac on the altar, and Rahab, and so on?” In these texts, we have Paul saying that we’re justified by faith and James saying that we’re justified by works. How do we handle that?
James and Paul were obviously not talking about the same kind of justification. When Paul was talking about justification in his major work in Romans, he was talking about how we are made justified in the sight of God. James asked the question, “If a man says he has faith and has no works, will that faith justify him?” Justify him before whom? Does God have to wait to see whether Abraham’s going to give Isaac on the altar before he knows whether Abraham’s faith is genuine? Of course not. According to Paul, Abraham is justified in Genesis 15, but according to James, not until Genesis 22.
James is saying that a man’s claim to have faith is justified to be a true claim before men when he or she manifests, shows, or demonstrates the reality of that faith by his works. He is using the term “justify” in the sense of manifesting or demonstrating something, and this is exactly the way Jesus used it in this text when He said, “Wisdom is justified by her children.”
Wisdom Is Justified by Her Children
Jesus did not say that wisdom is brought into a reconciled relationship with a just and holy God by having children. He said that wisdom is shown to be wisdom by its fruits, by results. We don’t know whether a decision we make is a wise course of action. We’ll only know for sure when we see the results.
Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees who rejected John the Baptist, and who rejected Him. He said: “We will see. Wisdom will be justified by her children.” The wisdom of John the Baptist and the wisdom of Jesus Christ was made plain and manifest by the power of God, showing the whole world that these men were men of God.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.