Luke 7:18–35 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
John Has a Problem with Jesus
In the eyes of many a believer, John the Baptist was the greatest man born of woman; yet he had his doubts. Today we'll examine the personality of John the Baptist, breaking vv. 18–35 into two parts. First, we'll consider John's question to Jesus, and Jesus' high praise for John. Then we'll look at Jesus' astounding statement: "The one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
Part 1: Are You the One Who Is to Come? (7:18–28a)
We begin Part 1 by focusing on John's question about Jesus (vv. 18–20). Fairly early in Jesus' ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, because John called him to account for marrying his brother Philip's wife Herodias who never forgave him. John had spent his youth and ministry in the desolate region around the Dead Sea and the southern part of the Jordan River. Now he was locked away, far from any city; his prospects of release were poor. He wasn't cut off entirely, however. A few faithful disciples braved the desert to meet his needs and bring him news. Alas, his ministry had given away to questioning. John couldn't let the question rest, so he sent two of his remaining disciples to Jesus conveying a single question: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (vv. 19–20)
As is often the case, Jesus doesn't answer questions directly; his answers are sometimes in parables or stories. In this case the answer for John the Baptist consists in deeds performed before the eyes of his messengers (v. 21). After a few days, Jesus called John's messengers over and told them to return to John and report what they'd seen and heard (v. 22–23). This was a time of Messiah's healing, comforting, and instructing. Jesus' words were meant to reassure John the Baptist that he hadn't erred, but that the signs of the Messiah were evident in Jesus' ministry.
Jesus' final word to John seems a bit harsh to some ears: "Blessed is anyone who does not stumble [fall away] on account of me" (v. 23). Jesus is saying: Blessed is the person who doesn't get tripped up or feel upset or confused by my ministry and my teachings. In this sentence intended for the ears of Jesus' dear cousin and forerunner John, Jesus is saying: You had it right, John. Even if you don't understand why I haven't come yet in judgment, know that you were right in pointing men to me.
To make perfectly clear Jesus' assessment of John, he praises John in the strongest terms by asking three questions (vv. 24–25). Was John "swayed by the wind"? Not at all; in those verses, Jesus uses rhetorical questions to place John in proper perspective. John's opinions weren't swayed by popular opinion, but were convictions forged by God's word and voice during years of wilderness prayer and solitude. Did John "dress in fine clothes"? Again, no; he was dressed in the rustic clothing of a desert hermit, dressed remarkably like his spiritual forbearer Elijah. Was he "a prophet"? Yes, and no "ordinary" prophet at that!
Jesus highlights John as being "more than a prophet." In fact, John has the highest honor of having been prophesied by Malachi as the prophet who'd come just prior to the Messiah (Malachi 3:1). John had the very great privilege of announcing the Messiah himself. That's what Jesus told the crowds after John's messengers had left.
Finally, Jesus ranks John in the highest echelon of humans: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John" (7:28a). What high praise! Part of Jesus' heart is in that prison with John while part of his soul is tied up with John's. As he suffers, fears, and doubts, Jesus' own heart goes out to him. John is more than Jesus' flesh-and-blood relative; he's his colleague in ministry. Now in prison for the Father's cause, Jesus knew that he'd soon be martyred in the same cause that Jesus served. In Jesus' eyes, John was "number one." And Jesus wasn't afraid of saying so publicly — though not for John's ears; he waited until the messengers had left to say it.
Part 2: The Least in the Kingdom Are Greater than John (7:28b–35)
The meat of Part 2's passage revolves around its key verse: v. 28. The rest is commentary on the fickle Pharisees and casual observers who didn't recognize who John — and Jesus — actually were, judging them by a wrong set of values and standards.
Least in the Kingdom but Greater than John Jesus gives very high praise to his cousin John the Baptist, forerunner and prophet, called to announce the coming of the Messiah, "yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." What in the world is Jesus talking about? The reason Jesus can assign John such a high position, then make him least in the kingdom of God, is because John preceded and heralded the watershed of history, i.e., the great divide between the old covenant and the new. The era of the Law gave way to the era of grace; the era of the prophets became the era of the Messiah. John stood shy of the summit while proclaiming the coming of the King.
Jesus the King, ushered in the new era of the kingdom during his three-year ministry, especially during the last fifty days of his ministry, between Passover and Pentecost. He died for the sins of all the world, thus fulfilling and completing the Law. He rose from the dead, breaking death's power over all those who'd put their trust in him. He ascended into heaven at the Father's right hand and continues to intercede for us going forward.
Now let's look briefly at those who judged John and Jesus without perceiving or sensing who they really were (vv. 29–30). The two verses often evoke feelings of sadness and irony. The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because "they hadn't been baptized by John." How ironic! The experts were so dogmatic that they couldn't recognize the greatest prophet of all time and the Messiah himself, when they met them. But they weren't innocent; they'd determined to resist and reject the truth taught by John, setting their minds against it, because it didn't fit with their interpretation of how things ought to be. Sadly, in doing so, they "rejected God's purpose for themselves."
Luke informs us in vv. 31–32 that Jesus responded to the criticism that's been thrown at both John the Baptist and Jesus. He begins with an analogy to children playing in the market square, singing their childish songs. He may be quoting a saying that children of his day used when other children wouldn't join their games: We called and you didn't come. You didn't jump through the hoops that we made available for you. Notice that the saying has two parts: dancing and mourning, that appear to correspond to the differences between John and Jesus: John is the mourner who wouldn't dance, while Jesus is the dancer who wouldn't mourn.
In v. 33, John was criticized for his ascetic ways, e.g., his preference for locusts and wild honey, rather than bread and wine that others enjoyed. Verse 34 follows by criticizing Jesus' "freedom to enjoy the company of sinners." While John wasn't liberal enough for the critics, Jesus was viewed as too liberal. The critics weren't consistent. Was Jesus a glutton? Of course not! While he ate well he enjoyed his hosts' fare. Was Jesus a drunkard or winebibber? Never! He did drink his hosts' wine; probably, as the Rabbi at the table, he was asked to offer the traditional blessing upon it. His critics also tagged him as "a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (v. 34b). Although they meant that as a put-down, Jesus wore that tag as a badge of honor, namely "Friend of Sinners."
We see wisdom being vindicated by Luke in v. 35. Jesus didn't dance to the people's tune or jump through their hoops. He was acclaimed by some, vilified by others. John the Baptist did what he was called to do, although it brought him imprisonment and execution by beheading. Jesus did what he was called to do despite the fact that his dying painfully on a cross was the requisite action.
"But wisdom is proved right by all her children." What did Jesus mean by that? Children of wisdom are those who are wise and discerning. The verb "proved right" (NIV) or "justified" (KJV) is Greek dikaioo, "to show justice, do justice, justify, vindicate." The idea is that true wisdom is proved out by those who practice it. Those who've discerned that John and Jesus were men of God will ultimately be vindicated by their choice. Their faith may be tested by hard times, but it will ultimately be seen as an essential element when traveling on the path of wisdom.
[See in Warren's commentary on the Parable of the People of This Generation how Jesus presents this parable: A teaching session began when John the Baptist sent two disciples of his to question Jesus who'd answered the mens’ question; Jesus told them that he was fulfilling prophecies of Isaiah about John’s message regarding changes that the Messiah will make to the land and its people.]
- Q. 1 Why didn't Jesus answer John's question directly? Why did he let John's deeds speak instead?
- Q. 2 Why were people so critical of John and Jesus — sometimes for opposing reasons (vv. 28–30)? What does that tell you?
New International Version (NIV) [To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 7.]
† Watch this passage-specific video clip from Jesus Film Project titled "John the Baptist in Prison."
Jesus and John the Baptist
18John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"
20When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?'"
21At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22So he replied to 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 cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me."
24After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is the one about whom it is written:
"'I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
28I tell you, 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."
29(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)
31Jesus went on to say, "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
""'We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.'
33For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' 35But wisdom is proved right by all her children."