Our culture loves you to be better than the best. You may have heard about the death of the Brazilian footballer, Pele. Some say he was the greatest who ever lived. Or maybe that’s Messi? Or Ronaldo?
Our world loves to know who’s best? Who’s top? Who’s in the Times 100 richest people in the UK? Or who’s richest in the world? Or the fastest, best, cleverest, most powerful, etc.
In our reading, Jesus said “among those born of women no one is greater than John” the Baptist. Why did he say that? And then he went further: “but the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Does that mean you? Are you greater than the great John the Baptist? In what sense?
In truth, we only want to know that because we’re so infected by our culture’s desire to compare. When you understand what Jesus is really saying here, you’ll begin to understand that joy isn’t in comparing yourself with others anyway…
The Great John the Baptist (24-27)
Last time we looked at the earlier events of chapter 7.
- In v1-10, a centurion’s servant had been healed as a demonstration of Jesus’ power and authority – and a lovely image of faith from the centurion too.
- Then in v11-17 we saw Jesus’ compassion for a grieving widow as they were about to bury her only son. Jesus brought the young man back to life!
Now John the Baptist was in prison. He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the long-awaited Messiah, or should they be waiting for someone else?
- The evidence was clear: Read Luke 7:22.
- We remembered that Jesus is picking up Old Testament imagery (especially Isaiah).
- Jesus is ushering in the “year of the Lord’s favour” and would one day bring about the “day of God’s vengeance”.
- We’re still in that year of God’s favour.
- Today, you can turn to God and find him ready to forgive your sin – in fact, he invites you come to him.
John the Baptist’s messengers went back to the prison to tell him what they’d seen and what Jesus had said. So now Jesus speaks to his own disciples about John.
- Read Luke 7:24. Obviously not. There’s nothing remarkable about grass blowing in the wind.
- Read Luke 7:25. If you want to see grand people in fine clothes, you don’t go to the desert.
- Jesus is forcing his hearers to really think about John.
Read Luke 7:26-27.
His greatness is seen in two things.
John the Prophet
First, he’s great because he was a prophet.
- Did he write a book, like Isaiah or Joel? No.
- Did John make predictions about the future? Not really.
- What makes him a prophet?
- Two things:
- He spoke the words of God, given to him by God, in the power of the Holy Spirit
- He pointed out the sins of others so that he could call them to repentance. The aim wasn’t ever condemnation, but repentance.
- (And he wasn’t afraid to do so to anyone – he was answerable to God, not men. So he got in trouble with the authorities and ended up in Herod’s prison.)
It’s important to think about what actually makes someone a prophet because of the prophecy of Joel – maybe read ahead for this afternoon!
More than a prophet
So John was great because he was a prophet. But secondly, he was “more than a prophet.”
- Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1.
- Malachi has an expectation of the Lord’s coming to rescue his people. There will be one who will come to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming.
- Jesus says that that’s John.
- In doing so, he’s claiming himself to be God, the Lord.
John baptised people with a baptism of repentance.
- He called people from their sin, calling them to live to God, for God.
- His message was painful to hear because of pride, but necessary. Until you’ve repented of your sin, you won’t go to Jesus for forgiveness of it.
- That is how John prepares the way in your heart still.
But as great as John was, Jesus goes on to shock us:
The least Christian is greater still (28-30)
Read Luke 7:28-30.
To really understand what’s going on, you need to put yourself in the scene. John is away in prison. Jesus is preaching and working in the open. Around him are his 12 apostles, loads of disciples, a crowd, as well as Pharisees and experts in the law. Many of those present had just been healed of all sorts of diseases; they’re in a good mood!
Let’s notice a couple of things:
- When Jesus said that “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John]” it suggests that John wasn’t in the kingdom. That’s odd.
- More odd is that the truth of what Jesus said was agreed and confirmed by the people there because they’d been baptised by John.
John’s greatness was in the fact that he was a prophet (speaking God’s words, calling sinners to repentance) and someone who prepared the way of the Lord (leading people to repentance so that they would turn to Jesus).
So who is greater than that?
- One who has heard that call to repent, and repented of sin.
- Having repented, they’ve gathered around Jesus and begun to experience life in his kingdom.
- A kingdom of life, healing, restoration, forgiveness – starting to break through in the healings Jesus was doing at the time, but with a promise of eternal life to come.
Greatness isn’t about being better than the best
It’s about being truly fulfilled, truly flourishing in humanity in God’s image, bringing glory to your creator, in fellowship with him. There’s no higher calling, no greater state.
And the path begins with repentance and ends with Jesus.
- You must see your sin as repugnant and offensive to God.
- Then know that God loves you enough to provide a means of salvation.
- Your sin must be punished, because God is just and holy.
- But he sent his Son into the world to be a human without sin – so that he could be punished in your place at the cross.
- That’s how serious your sin is – and also an expression of how much God truly loves you, and desires you to be reconciled to him.
When you come to Jesus for forgiveness, you’re not just “let off” and left alone. God adopts you. You become a child of God; you call him “Father” and he hears. God cherishes you, cares for you, and will one day take you to be with him – no more tears, anguish, worry, pain, or grief.
When Jesus spoke about these things, John himself was in prison – not yet enjoying Christ’s presence.
- Anyone who had bound themselves to Jesus had already become “greater” than John simply because they’d moved from a baptism of repentance to joy in the kingdom
- To be with Jesus is joy and peace and life.
- That’s why the people with Jesus could agree and see that what he said was true. They had repented and been baptised, and now they were with Jesus – better by far.
But what about the Pharisees and experts in the law?
- They’d not been baptised because they refused to repent.
- They thought their religious lifestyle and knowledge would see them good with God. But they were so wrong.
The path to God is not through your religious efforts.
Neither is it in being better than others. Don’t bother comparing yourself with Putin.
Mourn and weep over your sin that separates you from God.
Repent, and turn to God for forgiveness. He will forgive you.
- This is for everyone.
- Don’t be so proud of your self-righteousness that you make the mistake of the Pharisees and experts in the law.
- Your only hope with God is repentance and forgiveness in Christ.
- Don’t think you’re too bad either. The “tax collectors” get a special mention in the crowd because of how wicked they had been – but now repented, and gathered round Jesus.
A time to mourn and a time to dance (31-35)
So Jesus has a crowd around him who know that to be with him is the best place to be. But he knows that most people will reject him – including the religious people who are also there with him.
He muses over the people of his time: Read Luke 7:31-35.
In all probability, that little rhyme is something children really did sing in the marketplace. (Maybe it sounds better in Aramaic!) But he uses it to think about people’s reactions to him and John.
“We sang a lament but you didn’t weep”
- John’s call to repentance isn’t easy to hear.
- I remember the first time a preacher said I was a sinner – it sounded ridiculous and old fashioned.
- But it’s not me, John or anyone else speaking. God himself calls you a sinner: He’s the one you’ve offended, and he’s the one who calls you to turn from sin to himself.
- I thought that old preacher was an idiot. People said John the Baptist had a demon. Same thing: You can’t handle the message so you dump the messenger.
“We played the flute for you but you didn’t dance”
- For those who had repented of sin and come to Jesus, they found they were coming to a feast!
- Tax collectors repented of their sins and held feasts with Jesus as guest of honour – being with Jesus is to be celebrated and rejoiced over!
- There’s a time to weep over sin and a time to sing and dance for the forgiveness of sins and presence of Jesus!
Getting the right balance
In truth, churches and individual Christians sometimes get an imbalance in proclaiming the gospel, the Good News about Jesus.
- It’s easy to preach sin and judgment, fire and brimstone.
- There’s sin in the world and in your heart.
- You are indeed bound to an eternity in hell unless you repent of the sin that’s carrying you there, make no mistake.
- The Good News is that salvation is found in Christ by faith!
- You’re not called to try harder, be better, etc but to cry out to God for forgiveness – he is ready to forgive everyone who will come!
But the Good News isn’t just a legal transaction of forgiveness of sin. You’re called to life, to joy, to a wedding, and to an eternal feast with Christ.
- The joy of heaven is Christ himself.
- Christ is life and peace and joy.
- If you know anyone already in heaven, Christ consumes their worship, awareness, vision and thought.
- If they think of you, it’s only to look forward to sharing this vision of Jesus with you and to encourage you on the way!
We’re imbalanced if we only ever speak of sin and judgment and the need for repentance and forgiveness but lack the joy of fellowship with God in Christ.
And we’re imbalanced if we only ever speak of joy in Jesus without first understanding the need for repentance and forgiveness.
Repent and come to Jesus!
If you’re a Christian and you still weep over sins of the past, remember that Christ has been punished for those very sins.
He calls you to fellowship and peace; there is no guilt or condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
If you’re a Christian and you never weep over the sins of the present, beware! You may be becoming dull to your own sin and temptation; confess your sins regularly, and rejoice in the forgiveness and fellowship of the Son of God.
If you’re a Christian and you feel there’s a hole in your peace, pause and think about it:
- Is it because you’re harbouring some sin that is bound to prevent you from flourishing with Christ? Repent! Turn from that sin. He will forgive.
- Or is it because you’ve not spent enough time contemplating Jesus himself, nurturing your time with him, experiencing his strength and grace? Repent even of that! Go to him; be with him. He’s the shade at your right hand, never actually far away at all.
Greatness isn’t about being better than others.
The least in the kingdom is blessed beyond measure:
- Repent of your sin and cry out for forgiveness.
- Enter into the eternal life of joy and peace with Christ.
Life will continue to throw tough things your way. But a life grounded in Jesus can’t be destroyed and will blossom into an eternity of bliss with Jesus, an eternity that starts now.