(When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
From the beginning, people have heard Jesus saying what they already wanted to hear. Here are two groups of people that both misinterpret a statement of Jesus to boost their preconceptions of their own holiness.
Here’s the situation: John’s disciples have heard about Jesus, because He’s been doing all these miracles. Most recently, He raised the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17). Resurrection is kind of a spectacular miracle.
So John the Baptist, hanging out in the wilderness with his honey and locusts, hears of this other guy who’s performing miracles. He’s spent his entire life preparing the world for the Messiah, but—this is kind of weird—he’s still not sure Jesus is the real deal.
I’m guessing that’s because he lives way out in the woods, and Jesus tends to spend His time teaching in the synagogues and in the cities, Capernaum and Nazareth and such.
Anyway, John sends his disciples, because everybody has disciples, in to the big city to ask Jesus if He’s the Christ.
Spoiler: He is.
Jesus is kind of amused by this question. Instead of responding with a “yes” or by giving a parable, He turns around and performs more miracles:
In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.
Then He turns to John’s disciples and asks, “Okay, what do you think?”
They leave, presumably to tell John that yes, this guy is absolutely the Messiah, and Jesus turns to the crowd, which has no idea what just happened.
(Remember, John and Jesus have known each other since before they were born, so John will absolutely understand Jesus’s message, but I suspect the crowd is just staring in awe of the miracles, not understanding their significance.)
Jesus begins, tongue-in-cheek, to ask what people expected of John. Did they think he would look like the teachers of the temple? A weak man? A rich man? No, they went out seeking a prophet: one who would speak to them the word of God.
And He proclaims John as the prophesied messenger.
But that’s not His point.
He’s building John up not to call him great, but to say this:
“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Not what anybody expected to hear about someone Jesus just called a prophet, a man most of these people probably knew as a holy man.
How would you have responded? How did you respond just now when you read that?
Here’s how I responded this morning: “Hey, congratulations, Jerry, as a member of the Body of Christ, you, Jerry, are even greater than John the Baptist!”
These people, Jesus’s listeners, had exactly the same thought.
A reasonable response would have been, “How can we enter the kingdom of heaven?”
But their response was about themselves: “Ah! He is great, and he baptized me, so I must be great, and therefore God is just.”
This response is the first-century version of my response. “Excellent, Jesus must be talking about me, complimenting me.” Folks, if you read the Bible and find Jesus praising you, you have not found the God of the Bible. Keep reading and thinking and praying until you find Him.
But there’s a second group out there, and they approach Jesus’s statement from the other side: “Ah! I was not baptized by John, and I am great anyway; therefore Jesus is a liar.” Folks, if you read the Bible and find Jesus lying… you also have not found the God of the Bible, and you have some work to do.
Encountering Jesus Changes Your Mind
Yes, okay, also your life and your heart, but here we’re focusing on the mindset of the crowds.
These two groups responding to Jesus, the ones who heard Jesus praising them for having been baptized by John and the ones who heard Jesus denying their greatness, had the same problem.
They had encountered Jesus, and instead of listening to His words and asking how those words would change their lives, they twisted those words to fit their pre-existing lives.
Does this sound like anybody you know?
Does it sound like… you?
Here at VerseNotes, I encourage you to delight in the Word of God. Heard one way, it’s possible to think that means the Bible should make you happy as you read it.
Maybe it should! Reading about the triumph of the kingdom of God over sin should probably make you happy! Or maybe there’s a Biblical figure of speech you love, and it brings you joy whenever you read it.
But if reading the Bible only ever makes you happy—if you never read anything that you disagree with or that challenges you—you might be like these crowds, fitting the Word to your life instead of your life to the Word.
We all have a strong tendency toward pride. We want to believe that we already have it right, and we don’t want to let Jesus tell us to change our lives.
Professing Christians may even have this worse than others, because we tend to think we’ve already had our lives changed; we’ve already been “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).
This is the mindset of the second group listening to Jesus, who think they already have it right, and they can’t hear Jesus telling them they have more work to do.
So what do we do about it? How do we make sure we are more like the disciples of John, who encounter Jesus and go spread the word that Jesus is the Christ, and less like the crowds, who have the same encounter and leave unchanged?
We don’t have to look far. Here are some starting points that are right there in this short passage.
- Come to the Bible asking questions. John’s disciples wanted to know whether He was the Messiah, so they investigated, and Jesus gave them an answer, and they interpreted it, and they went back and spread the news.
- Come to the Bible with humility. John’s disciples could have been incredibly, even rightfully, proud of their master; Jesus Himself calls John the greatest “among those born of women.” But they accepted that one greater than their master had come.
- Come to the Bible looking for truth. John’s disciples came to Jesus assuming He would give them an answer, and He did. The crowds came to Jesus assuming they already had truth, and His words had no effect for them.
If you come to the Bible humbly, asking questions and seeking truth, you open yourself to a transformative encounter with Jesus instead of a God who just agrees with you.
And that’s a beautiful source of delight.