Many believers have had moments of doubt about Jesus. Is he who he claimed to be? Why does he not manifest his sovereignty more directly? How could such an unassuming ministry be the most significant moment in humanity's history? Is he really there? Such questions are not just products of the modern era. Their roots are as old as Jesus' ministry. Even John the Baptist had such questions.
Often doubt brings reflection and growth. Such is the case with John's inquiries about Jesus. Not only does the Baptist get an answer that calls for his reflection, but Jesus uses the inquiry to help others consider anew the roles John and he have in God's plan. The psychological adversity of doubt carries the seed of real growth, when the answer is sought from God's perspective.
The scene begins with John's question to Jesus, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" The question is brought by two messengers because John is in prison. In referring to Jesus as the one who was to come, John recalls his own description of the promised "more powerful" one in 3:15-18. The reason for John's question is much discussed. In fact, some interpreters are so embarrassed by the tradition that they argue that John is asking the question for the benefit of his disciples. But the most natural reading is to recognize the uncertainty as John's. He is in prison. He had proclaimed the approach of the powerful Messiah. As unusual as Jesus' ministry is, it is not what one would expect of God's chosen king. Scripture is quite honest about how people—even leaders like John—respond to God's unusual and surprising ways.
Luke sets the context for Jesus' reply by noting that Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. His ministry was filled with evidence of God's presence. Rather than answer John's question directly, he tells the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." Then he adds, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (NRSV). The term for "offense," skandalon, is frequently used in this sense of reacting negatively, often with a reference to Isaiah 8:14 (Rom 9:33; 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8; also, Mk 14:29 illustrates the possibility of failing by being offended by Jesus). This term could refer to a trap or a stumbling block in everyday speech (Bauer 1979:753). It refers to something that ensnares or prevents progress. Jesus is saying to John and others that blessing comes to the one who is not offended by the uniqueness of Jesus' way of ministry. The fact that Jesus' style of messianic ministry is unexpected should not trip people up. Though stated negatively, the verse is a call to trust Jesus and recognize that he knows the way he is going.
Jesus' reply relies heavily on the Old Testament, with allusions to Isaiah 35:5-7, 26:19, 29:18-19 and 61:1. All the passages occur in contexts where God's decisive deliverance is awaited. So Jesus answers the question about his person with passages that describe the nature of the times. The question is, "Are you the coming one?" The answer is, "Discern the times by what God does through me." We are not to be offended by Jesus, not taken aback by the unusual nature of his ministry. It might not be what we expected, but it is what God promised. Do not worry; the time of fulfillment comes with him.
Jesus takes the opportunity to get the crowds to consider who John is and what God has done through the currently incarcerated prophet. Did people journey into the wilderness merely to see the river reeds blow in the wind? Of course they were not merely taking a scenic trip in the Jordanian wilderness. Did they go to check out John's wardrobe? Of course not—kings' palaces could offer much better fashion shows. So why did they make the journey? Jesus' answer is a clear endorsement of John's ministry, a response reinforced later in a key scene in Jerusalem (20:1-8).
John is a prophet, even more than a prophet. If the Associated Press or Reuters News Agency had a "Top Ten Prophets" list, John would be at the top. Why? Malachi 3:1, quoted here, supplies the answer: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you." In fact, this reply combines two sets of images: one is that of the prophet who announces God's saving activity, as promised by Malachi; the other, from Exodus 23:20, is the image of the Shekinah going before the people and preparing the way for them. The Exodus imagery may well explain why Jesus says the messenger will go before you—that is, the people. Malachi 3:1 speaks of a prophet who goes before "me"—a clear reference to God—but Exodus 23 says the Shekinah will go before "you," the nation of Israel. This language recalls Luke 1:16-17. It says that John has functioned as a guide to produce a "prepared people." So John's greatness comes in getting God's people ready for God's salvation. He has pointed to God as a forerunner, but he has prepared the people as a prophet.
But as great as John is, he is nothing compared to those who share in the blessing of being in God's kingdom. Listen to Jesus: "Among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Jesus is indicating how great the difference is between the old era of the prophets of promise and the new era of the kingdom tied to Jesus. The greatest of the old era cannot touch the position of the lowest in the new! How great it is to share in the blessing Jesus brings. Even prophets sit at the feet of those who share in the blessing of the kingdom. Jesus' point reinforces the idea that the time of fulfillment has begun. Humanity has never seen a time like this. That is why Jesus said earlier that one should not be offended in him (v. 23). Other New Testament texts argue that the prophets and the angels longed for these days (Mt 13:17; 1 Pet 1:10-12). The kingdom's presence elevates everyone who shares in it to a new status. Those who know Jesus are greater than the prophets.
It is hard not to think that it would have been great, maybe even better, to have lived in an era when God was mightily at work, to have crossed the sea with Moses or seen Elijah defeat the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. But Jesus is clear that as great as the former times were, as great as John the Baptist was, nothing before that time matches what Jesus offers. If Moses and the prophets could speak, they would say that they longed for these days. They would gladly have traded places with us. That is how special it is to share in the salvation Jesus brings.
In a parenthetical remark, Luke notes that all the people, including the tax collectors, "justified" (Greek) or acknowledged (NIV) God—that is, showed the wisdom of his plan—by responding to John's call for baptism. But the Pharisees and scribes rejected God's purpose by refusing his baptism. Not only was the manifestation of God's plan surprising, but there were also surprises regarding which groups responded to the message. Often we cannot predict who will respond to the gospel.
The popular reaction to John leads Jesus to offer one final picture of the current generation. In what we might call "the parable of the brats," Jesus compares the current generation to children on the sidelines who will not play street games because others will not play by their rules. Note how the introduction to the parable is about the people of this generation, so that the two "tunes" played are what the current generation does. So the allusions in the parable cannot be about John (the dirge) and Jesus (the piper). Rather, the children of this generation complain that God's plan is not going according to their demands and expectations. Neither the ascetic John nor Jesus with his open association with sinners and his "wanton" lifestyle of eating and drinking fits what this generation wants to see.
Perhaps if Jesus were ministering today as he did in the first century, some of us too would complain that he was getting too close to sin. Legalism often takes neutral issues of style and tries to turn them into substance. The varying styles of Jesus and John show God's flexibility on such issues. No matter which lifestyle God's messengers choose, many will complain. Nevertheless, Jesus assures the crowd that wisdom is proved right ("justified" in Greek) by all her children. He means that God's wisdom is revealed in those who respond to his ways on his terms.
God often acts in surprising ways. His unusual path is often lined by people's doubt and rejection. Here Jesus points to his ministry as evidence for the nature of the times. In addition, he warns that others are not interested in seeing God work but simply want to control how God does things. But God comes to us in surprising ways on his own terms. The call is not to be offended by the One he sends or by how he brings his plan to pass. Even in the midst of doubt, we are called to see what God has done and trust that his way is the path of wisdom. Wisdom's children see his ways and walk in them. In wisdom's path is the blessing of sharing in God's presence beyond even what the best of God's prophets enjoyed. Even if many of their peers never acknowledge God's work, those who respond to Jesus are highly privileged. Sometimes the most precious gifts of God are the least appreciated.
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