Luke 7:18 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Jesus is talking about John the Baptist here. I find v.28 particularly interesting. Since my bible reading plan sends me through the New Testament every year I read this passage at least once per year. And every year I sort of get stuck on v.28. What is Jesus getting at here? So I did a bit more digging this morning than usual.
First we have to think about John the Baptist. He was one portrayed in scripture as completely committed to following the ways of God. He was something of a zealot, choosing to live in the wilderness rather than in a city or village with other people. And frankly, he is portrayed as a bit of a weirdo. He is dressed in animal skins and eats locusts. Like I said, a weirdo. And yet I cannot think of anyone more committed to the law, nor one who actually followed the law more faithfully than John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is presented as an archetype of one completely faithful to the will and ways of God’s via the law.
So what does John do? He calls the people of Israel to be baptized in the River Jordan for the forgiveness of their sins, to get a fresh start in their faith life with God. The idea was they might become John’s disciples and grow in fidelity to the law – like John.
28a (Jesus said) I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John…
Pretty high praise from Jesus don’t you think? But then there’s this second half of the verse that makes things really interesting:
28 … yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
What does Jesus mean by this? There is the phrase “born of women” in the first part of the verse. Like everyone else in the days before Jesus, John the Baptist was born of a woman, but those who would follow after Jesus and become his disciples would be born of the Spirit. “Born again” as some like to say. And so, unlike John’s disciples, the disciples of Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit after Pentecost and would be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God breaking out through Jesus. As such their lives would look very different than John’s disciples.
John was one who followed the law and compelled others to do the same. His disciples did likewise, embodying the righteousness of the law and calling out those who didn’t measure up.
Jesus, on the other hand, befriended sinners in ways that John did not. Instead of calling them out, he loved them and invited them into a life of service, mercy, and grace. Jesus and his disciples would love their enemies, offer forgiveness rather than condemnation, and work miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit.
John and his disciples didn’t do those things.
So what does this have to say to you and me? Well, it means that the gospel of Jesus (and our place in it) is not so much about behavior management (following the rules) as much as loving others, showing mercy, and inviting those around us to embrace this life with us. It’s about being transformed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit, which was not available to John’s disciples. It’s about being used by God to change the world, beginning with ourselves.
Lord, let it be so. Amen.