Greater Than a Great Prophet
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 7:16–7:19
Greater than a Great Prophet
February 11, 2018
I want to ask you to open your Bibles to Luke Chapter 7. We are moving from the opening two accounts—really dramatic opening accounts in which Jesus’ power is on display for us. And when he healed the centurion’s slave and when he raised the widow’s son from the dead—we’re moving from those two accounts and transitioning into a larger section of Chapter 7 in which Jesus interacts with and teaches about John the Baptist. I want to pick up where we left off last time, and so we’re going to begin reading, actually, in Luke 7:14 and then continue through that whole section about John the Baptist. We have heard the conclusion from the crowds in verse 16 when they said, “A great prophet has arisen among us and God has visited his people.” That was the popular opinion about Jesus among the crowds who followed him, among the villagers of Nain and even among his own disciples. And they came to that conclusion, mind you, after he had raised the dead with a word of command. They came to that conclusion after hearing the Gentile centurion address him not as “Rabbi” or “Teacher” or even “Great Prophet,” but as “Lord.” And the Lord commended that centurion for his remarkable faith. Luke records all of that. He notes this popular opinion about Jesus, and then he leads us to a different view of Jesus—one that aligns with the centurion’s faith. This is a redemptive, saving view that we need to have of Jesus Christ. Let’s start reading in verse 14 of Luke 7.
Then he [Jesus] came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 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.” (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.)
“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like the children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
As we read through that section of Scripture, you may have noticed there are basically three parts to that section: verses 18 to 23 go together, verses 24 to 30 go together, and then verses 31 to 35 go together. And in those three parts, Jesus answers John’s question, he explains John’s ministry, and then he joins John’s testimony to his own. And the unifying purpose of that entire section—all three parts—is to correct the popular and, yet, wholly inadequate conclusion about who Jesus is. Again, go back to verse 16 and note the crowds concluded after seeing all these miracles that “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” A great prophet? Is that the best way to characterize Jesus Christ? Is that the way God has visited his people—by sending them another great prophet?
Well, today, we want to ask and answer two questions this morning. First, what are we to make of that popular conclusion about Jesus? How do we understand that? Do we critique it? Do we accept it on its face? Or do we think it lacks something? The second question to ask is why this long section about John the Baptist? What is the big deal about John the Baptist? And why does Luke spend so much time unpacking all of this for us? In answering these two questions this morning, we’re going to see with greater clarity than ever that Jesus is not just a great prophet. He is far more than that. And that makes an eternal difference. To accurately identify and to rightly esteem Jesus Christ is to find eternal salvation. On the other hand, if we fail to do so, it means eternal condemnation and divine wrath, passing into eternity. By calling him a “great prophet”—that is not good enough. So we want to start here by addressing first the popular opinion about Jesus Christ. What about this popular conclusion that Jesus is a prophet—or even more than that—a great prophet?
So the first point, if you want to write this down in your notes, is Jesus greater than a great prophet. Again, verse 16, “Fear seized them all”— rightly so. They were witnessing the holy. They were witnessing something unearthly, something from heaven—holiness incarnate. And so no wonder fear seized them all. “And they glorified God,” rightly. And they said, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” A great prophet—the word there is megas. So they considered him a mega-prophet. This judgment is in their minds the right one. It’s a noble estimation. It’s the highest estimation and esteem they can think of that he is a mega-prophet. Calling Jesus a “great prophet,” a “mega-prophet” is high esteem. This is how God had visited his people—with restoration grace by sending Jesus, a mega-prophet. And to be sure, Jesus was a prophet. And he was a great prophet at that. But to land on that conclusion and to settle there is to fail completely and to be lost eternally. That is the problem here because that’s exactly where the people landed. That’s where they rested, and that opinion didn’t change. We need to look more carefully about what’s revealed about Jesus and come not to a good conclusion about his, we need to come the only conclusion about him because he is none other than Lord of all.
Think back to what we’ve covered. Ever since the Sermon on the Mount in Luke, Chapter 6—thinking back to the Sermon on the Mount—we can do a brief review. In the Sermon on the Mount recorded in the bulk of Luke Chapter 6, Jesus provided an exposition of the great commandment from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” No one ever heard an exposition of Scripture like that exposition. And Jesus has essentially given his manifesto for his disciples, for everyone who would follow him, for the sons and daughters of the kingdom of God—that’s how they live, manifesting that kind of love. Immediately coming out of that sermon, Luke records for us two miracles. We read about Jesus healing a centurion’s slave in Luke 7:1 to 10. And then we read about Jesus raising the only son of a widow from the dead in Luke 7:11 to 15. Two narratives featuring two people: a centurion and a window. They are two people who in first century estimation couldn’t possibly be more opposite. It’s not just that one is male and the other is female. It’s the contrast between stations in life, what each person represents. One of them is a powerful figure, a soldier with authority, wealth, influence, prominence. The other is a pathetic figure, no wealth, no power, no authority, no influence. She’s destitute and lonely, she’s weak and needy. One of them represents oppression and abuse, the dominating presence of a foreign, pagan power in the land. The other represents the very symbol of oppression—the oppressed, the abused people of Israel, who have been groaning in subjugation to the Gentiles.
So God has visited his people with one who is showing compassion to all kinds of people, on both ends of the spectrum and everybody in between. God is showing compassion to all of them. And no doubt these are some of the things the people reflected on as they, in verse 17, carried “this report about him [and] spread it through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.” But the report included—along with, no doubt, all of these reflections on this great visitation of God—a factual inaccuracy. And it’s a fatal one—namely, that God has visited his people by sending them a great prophet. Again, it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. And as we’ve said, the result of a partial truth in this case is eternal damnation. But the people just didn’t have a higher category in their minds to put Jesus in. They didn’t have a box to put him in, not at this point anyway. After four hundred years of prophetic silence, John the Baptist has come, and along with John this meant this great prophet, this mega-prophet. This is none other than God visiting his people. They remembered what Malachi had said in Malachi 4:5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” They identified John coming in the spirit and the power of Elijah.
Do you remember Elijah the Tishbite from your Old Testament reading? Ah, the Sunday school little flannel graphs or the pictures you used to color in Sunday School? And Elijah is a wild man. He’s the guy who, according to 2 Kings 1:8, “Wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” Powerful voice. And Mark 1:6 describes John the same way. “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” Both of these guys lived apart from the people. They roamed around in the desert isolated. They didn’t have great social tact and grace. They came preaching with prophetic power and convicting boldness. Now, coming along after John the Baptist, this Jesus comes. And he, too, is performing acts of great conviction. He’s speaking with boldness and clarity, and he’s performing also acts of great power. He is showing forth miraculous signs and wonders and this is, as they recognized, none other than the visitation of God. The last memory the people have of a time like this is the days of Elijah and Elisha. That is the last season of prophetic signs and wonders in Israel’s history.
There are three such seasons in redemptive history—the time of Moses and Joshua, the Exodus, and the entrance into the land of promise. Then there is the second period—the time of Elijah and Elisha. And then this time of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. Three seasons of an incredible outpouring of supernatural activity and miraculous signs and great wonders. And the people are recognizing, really here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, that they are entering into the third of those seasons, that this is something akin to what Elijah and Elisha did. That’s what they mean when they say, “God has visited his people!” They recognize the prophetic power of John the Baptist and the amazing miraculous power of Jesus of Nazareth.
And that’s why when Jesus began his public ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, he recalled those days of Elijah and Elisha when speaking to the people at the synagogue. In fact, turn back in your Bibles to Luke chapter 4, and I just want to call this to your attention and remind you of something. It’s an important connection that we need to make between Luke 4 and Luke 7. You may already have picked up on this if you’re one of those geographically-aware people who’s been plotting Jesus’ movements like on a map. You may have noticed that coming to Nain brought us full circle, geographically speaking, in the narrative. We started in Nazareth in Luke 4, went up to Capernaum, and then he’s in and around Capernaum as he is in and around Galilee. And now he’s back down to Nain, which is literally within eyesight of Nazareth. So Luke has been tracking the geography for us, which helps us, the reader, to make a historical connection and to make a prophetic connection, to make a theological connection so that we can come to the right conclusion about Jesus—namely, that he is greater than a great prophet.
I’ll show you what I mean as we look at Luke 4:21. Jesus had come to Nazareth. He was speaking gracious words, words of God’s kindness, words of divine restoration. And in verse 21, he quoted from the gracious words of the prophet Isaiah, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He spoke words of prophetic fulfillment, pointing to himself as the fulfillment. The people recognized fulfillment. They recognized gracious words. But immediately after that, people started to indicate they were taking offense at him. Right away they started coming to the wrong conclusions. They started misjudging Jesus. In Luke 4:22, they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” It’s not only a monumental miscalculation; it’s rather insulting, too, especially in light of his gracious words. And Jesus doesn’t let it pass at all. He calls them out for it. Look again at verse 23, “And he said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Physician, heal yourself.”’” When are they going to say that? When he’s up on the cross, right? “Hey, come down off the cross. You who healed others, can’t you heal yourself? You saved others, can’t you save yourself?” His own hometown people are going to speak that way about him. “What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” They’re basically saying, “Come on, Miracle Boy, won’t you spin one up for us? Care take of your own hometown.”
People of his own village would reject him, just as Israel had rejected all the prophets God had sent. For evidence of that, Jesus points back to the last prophetic season and period in Israel’s most recent history—the days of Elijah and Elisha—because Israel had rejected them, too, in their own day. Look at verse 24:
He said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Neither of those two prophets—Elijah and Elisha—was accepted in their hometown. Neither was accepted in Israel. Neither one was embraced by idolatrous Israel. In fact, Ahab voiced the popular opinion, “You troubler of Israel,” pointing his finger at Elijah. And yet, both of these prophets had been sent by God, and they were the gracious visitation of God in their own day. They were rejected in their own time. They were spurned by their contemporaries. But, they were vindicated by God. Ultimately, they were vindicated in the judgment of history. They were honored by subsequent generations of Israel, and Jesus was saying, “Look, I am just like them.” As evidence that the people of Nazareth would reject him, Jesus pointed back to the last time God had visited his people with prophetic power. It’s like the days of Elijah and Elisha. Israel rejected them and remained devoted to Baal worship, and in the same way, the Israel of Jesus’ day would reject him as well. They would reject the testimony of his apostles. They would remain devoted to the false worship of a Christ-less Judaism.
People in Jesus’ day are in the same spiritual condition as the people in the days of Elijah and Elisha, and sadly, the outcome would be the same, too—judgment. Here’s where we see, though, the literary brilliance of Luke. This is what I want you to see. By the Holy Spirit, Luke demonstrates both the reason for the popular conclusion that “a great prophet has arisen among us,” as well as Luke’s literary purpose for including that conclusion. The people made a connection between Elijah and Elisha and Jesus, but they came to the wrong conclusion. Luke wants us to make the same connection, but come to a right conclusion. There is a connection, I hope you see, between Elijah’s ministry to the widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon, and Jesus’ ministry to the widow of Nain. There is also a connection between Elisha’s healing of the Syrian commander Naaman and Jesus’ healing of the Roman centurion. So the miraculous ministry of Jesus pointed to in Luke 4:25 to 27, Jesus himself performed in Luke 7:1-17. That’s the connection. That’s what brings Luke 4 together with Luke 7 and ties them together. People of Jesus’ day, as they’re following Jesus, as they’re watching him do what he does, they may have recognized that connection. They had concluded that he was a great prophet, coming in the power of Elijah. Luke is insistent here. He does not want us to miss it. It’s vital that we see Jesus for who he really is—that he is greater than a great prophet.
I want to look closer at this by going back to the Old Testament to refresh our memories on those two accounts. So first turn back in your Bibles to 1 Kings 17. We’re going to look, first of all, at Elijah’s ministry to the widow of Zarephath. You may recall 1 Kings 17 is where Elijah’s ministry starts. It doesn’t really have a great introduction—it just tells that he arrived on the scene and God uses him. And God commanded Elijah to go to King Ahab, to inform King Ahab, king of Israel, that God is going to judge the land with a drought. So Elijah came to Ahab and told him, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” You know great suffering ensued. People were starving. They weren’t eating. They weren’t drinking. God allowed that judgment to continue in Israel while he provided for Elijah elsewhere. And he even sent him to a widow who lived in Sidon, which is up on the seacoast—Tyre and Sidon—that whole land of the Sidonians. Look at verse 8 and following:
Then the word of the Lord came to him [to Elijah], “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” And she said, “As the Lord your God lives [and she uses the divine name there—Yahweh], I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” And she went and did as Elijah said. [What is that? Remarkable faith, isn’t it?] And she went and did it as Elijah said. And she and he and her household, ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Okay, miraculous provision there, right? Tender-hearted compassion for this widow from God, through Elijah toward the Sidonian widow. There is no indication that she deserved anything. God sent Elijah to her simply to show his mercy, his grace. And then the worst happened. Look at verse 17:
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself up on the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord, my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Powerful, powerful testimony. Clearly here, Elijah is the miracle worker, but the power clearly is from God above. He calls out to God, he pleads to God and God answers and visits him. By contrast, when Jesus raised the only son of the widow in Nain, no pleading with God above. Jesus simply spoke to the young man and commanded him to come back to life. Jesus is superior to Elijah, not just as miracle worker, but he is the possessor of omnipotence. He has almighty power. No other man has that.
Let’s look at the end of this period of prophetic activity in 2 Kings 5. You’re in 1 Kings toward the end—go to 2 Kings Chapter 5. Let’s look at this account about Naaman, the leper. This is the end of this prophetic period, which comes really near the end of Elisha’s ministry. Elisha is Elijah’s successor. He has the same spirit of Elijah upon him, same prophetic power. Take a look at 2 Kings 5, starting in verse 1:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” [Such a sweet word from a little girl who’s been taken captive and made a slave, don’t you think? Such a sweetness there.] So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. [I mean what would pay for clean skin? Obviously, it’s worth a lot to him.] And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” [Like, is it really that simple? Why don’t you give it a try!] So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. And he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.”
Stop there. “Now I know there is no God in all the earth, but here in Israel.” He became a God-fearing Gentile that day. Not just because he’s the object of God’s power—a power that healed his diseased flesh. He became a God-fearer because the healing went deeper than his flesh, deeper than his skin, far deeper. That power humbled his proud heart. It taught him to revere the true and living God of Israel. Naaman came to Elisha willing to pay a great price for the healing of his flesh, but he went home with not only healing of body, but healing of soul as well. Get this: it cost him nothing. The Gentile soldier came in as a pagan and he left as a God-fearer, one who believed in the God of Israel. The Gentile soldier that Jesus encountered—the Roman centurion—like the Syrian he was a model of faith to unbelieving Israel. The Syrian had to look beyond Elisha and beyond that command to trust the power of God to do what Elisha said he would do. The Roman centurion—he didn’t look beyond the miracle worker. He looked directly at Christ. And he saw in him the resident power of God and he called him, “Lord.”
Now, taking those two accounts together and thinking back to Luke 7, Elijah’s ministry to the widow of Zarephath is at the beginning of this special season of signs and wonders. Elisha’s healing of Naaman was at the end of it. Do you know what happened in between the beginning and the end of that season? Incredible power from God worked through these two men. For Elijah, there was miraculous provision of food for a widow, there’s raising from the dead, there’s fire from heaven, there’s rain from heaven, there’s the still, small voice of God, there’s fire falling on captains of fifty twice, there’s the parting of the waters of the Jordan River, there’s chariots of fire taking them up in a whirlwind into to heaven. And then through Elisha—he began his ministry by replicating the parting of the Jordan River miracle. That sign not only validated his ministry, but it also pointed back to the first season of signs and wonders when Moses parted the Red Sea during the Exodus and then when Joshua parted the Jordan River during the conquest. Elisha’s ministry continued with supernatural power all through with miraculous provision of oil for a widow, another instance of raising the dead, then the healing of Naaman and other miracles as well.
So with that in mind, go back to Luke 7. Those two Old Testament narratives are like bookends on either side of a prophetic period that sort of encapsulated and characterized the whole of that period. When you consider that Jesus mentioned those two narratives in Luke Chapter 4 and then Luke recorded the two corresponding miracles in Chapter 7, Luke has also used those stories like a set of narrative parentheses to open and close an incredible display of power in Christ. In Luke 4, Jesus told the villagers of Nazareth that God had visited his grace and power upon a Sidonian widow and a Syrian leper during the days of Elijah and Elisha. And then in Luke 7, Jesus replicated that power. But the power this time is resident in him, within him, comes out from him. He personally visited the grace of God upon a Roman centurion and a helpless widow. He replicated the same miracles that began Elijah’s ministry and ended Elisha’s ministry, but he did so from his own person. There’s a literary term that describes the bracketing of a theme like this. It’s called “inclusion”—it’s the bracketing of what are thematic parallels in the narrative content, and that is what Luke is doing here in a narrative sense. But more importantly, in a theological sense, he is driving us to a conclusion of absolute, unqualified, unmitigated certainty. The entire ministry of prophetic power on display during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha—Jesus sums that up doing what he did in just three chapters of Luke’s Gospel.
What acts of power? What miraculous acts did Jesus perform between Luke 4 and Luke 7? Just a few—he cast out a demon, healed Peter’s mother-in-law fully, cast out more demons, healed all who were sick with various kinds of diseases—just eradicated the diseases. He gave Peter and John a miraculous catch of fish. He laid his hands upon a leper, cleansing him thoroughly. He healed a paralytic, causing him to stand up, to walk, and to glorify God—and in the middle of the synagogue. He healed a man with a withered hand. We’re only a quarter of the way through Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is just getting started. This is more than a great prophet. This is none other than the Son of Most High God.
Listen, Jesus came with a display of spiritual power, one that is utterly unparalleled in all of history. No one met anyone like him. No power like this had ever been witnessed since the creation of the world. A great prophet? Yeah, at least, but greater than a great prophet. He’s in a completely different category, and we need to come to that conclusion and recognize that. Do you remember what the Sidonian widow said to Elijah after God raised her son from the dead? At the end of 1 Kings 17:24, she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” That is to say, “The word of Yahweh,” the personal name of the God of heaven. “His word is in your mouth and that word is truth.” Right conclusion, absolutely correct. She identified Elijah as a true prophet. She recognized the power of God that worked through him, and the word of God was spoken by him, but she looked through Elijah back to God. Rightly so.
What about Naaman? After he had been healed of his leprosy, he confessed after his flesh had been restored to flesh like the flesh of a little child, 2 Kings 5:15, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” God is the power working in and through Elisha. Exactly right, good judgment. Now we are able to come to the conclusion that escaped the crowds because Luke is making it abundantly clear for us. By the Holy Spirit Luke is guiding us to this inescapable conclusion that Jesus is not just a prophet, he’s not just a great prophet, he is the Messiah, the Son of God. He’s greater than a great prophet because he came with a display of unparalleled spiritual power from his own person.
Well, that’s our first question. What are we to make of this popular conclusion about Jesus? It’s close, but it’s not close enough. They were almost right. But almost right, as they say, only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes, right? Here, almost right means eternally wrong. Luke is driving us to the certain truth that Jesus is both Lord and God.
Consider a second question. Why this long section in Luke Chapter 7 on John the Baptist? What’s the big deal about John the Baptist, and why does Luke spend so much time unpacking all of this? Because, number two—write this down in your notes if you want to—Jesus is greater than the greatest prophet. He’s not only greater than a great prophet, he is greater than the greatest prophet. The whole section from Luke 7:18 to Luke 7:35—Luke includes this long section to demonstrate that Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah because he is fulfilling exactly what has been written about him. Jesus is not only greater than a great prophet; he is greater than the greatest prophet. He’s the Messiah filling all of the Messianic prophesies and texts. John the Baptist was widely recognized as a mighty prophet of God. When Jesus affirms that wholeheartedly, he doesn’t try to take away from John’s prominence or his greatness at all. In fact in Luke 7:26, Jesus says that John is “more than a prophet.” In verse 28 he says, “Among those born of women none is greater than John.” That is quite an affirmation. And when Jesus asked The Twelve, later on—this was after John had been put to death by Herod Antipas—he said, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” His disciples answered him—first answer—“John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” King Herod took the John-the-Baptist view. Do you remember King Herod Antipas? He’s the one who actually put John to death. His conscience bothered him about killing John. When he heard about Jesus performing powerful signs and wonders, he asked about him. And Mark 6:14 tells us that some said in answer to his inquires, “Some say John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” Herod Antipas was terrified, yet he was intrigued. “I want to see him. I want to see him for myself.”
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” “John the Baptist, Elijah, […] one of the prophets of old had risen.” And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He’s greater than Elijah. He’s greater than any of the prophets of old, and he’s greater than John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the greatest of all the prophets of the Old Testament era because of the mission he was given to do—to introduce Christ the Messiah to the world. That’s why Luke records this report. The popular conclusion about Jesus’ identity—how it spread—is in verse 17: “Through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.” And this report eventually made it to the ears of John the Baptist, who, by the way, was incarcerated at the time by Herod Antipas in the Machaerus Castle. It says that castle sat on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. It says in Luke Chapter 7, verse 18, “The disciples of John reported all these things to him.” So clearly, some of John’s disciples traveled up to Capernaum to witness Jesus’ ministry. John was locked up in prison. Not much to see there. So John the Baptist says, “Quit hanging around here. Go find Jesus. Learn from him.” They do. When they return to Judea, they report back to John to fill him in on everything they’ve heard, everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve witnessed. No doubt they conveyed to him what Jesus taught on the Sermon on the Mount. They tell John what they’ve witnessed in Capernaum. They tell John about the faith of the centurion. They tell John about the raising of the widow’s son from the dead. And you might think, based on those reports, John would respond by praising God, by rejoicing that the kingdom of heaven has indeed come, right? Not quite yet. Go to verse 18:
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Is this doubt by this more-than-a-prophet? The one of whom was born of women no one is greater? Is this John the Baptist? Is he wavering in unbelief here? Has the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” beginning to wonder if he spoke too soon? I don’t think so. I think he just needs more information because he doesn’t understand how to connect everything. He needed Jesus to point him back to the Word of God, back to the prophesies, to help him see how everything his being fulfilled in the ministry of the Son of Man, just as prophesied. Like everyone, John expected Jesus to bring a ministry of fire, of divine judgment.
So John the Baptist—here is this guy coming in the spirit and power of Elijah. He is a wild man. He is not the one you want to bring to the dinner party with that weird clothing and eating weird bugs and all that kind of stuff because he’s going offend all of your guests. “You brood of vipers, you bunch of hypocrites.” You’re going to drive them all away. He is a tough guy. He is an uncompromising, fiery prophet. If you read back through the narratives about Elijah from 1 Kings 17 and onward, you see he is a man of that kind of character. And you see how many times fire is associated with Elijah’s ministry. Fire is a symbol of Elijah’s ministry. Remember when he’s up on top of Mount Carmel with the 450 prophets of Baal? Remember they are running around the altar, they’ve sacrificed a cow, they haven’t lit the fire, and they’re running around the altar gashing themselves and doing all kinds of insane pagan things trying to call down Baal’s fire from heaven? Baal doesn’t answer. Elijah prepares the altar, restores it, and fixes it because the prophets of Baal destroyed it. He arranges the wood, he arranges the sacrifice, the pieces of the animal. He has it doused three times with water. Then he just prays. And God consumed that entire sacrifice—all the water, everything around it that Elijah offered, sending fire from heaven. After that, do you know what happened? Judgment ensued. Elijah slaughtered the prophets of Baal—he took them out, slaughtered them and then the rain came, purging the land of evil, purging the land of false worship, purging the land of the idolatry of Baal worship. When soldiers from King Ahaziah came to arrest Elijah, fire fell from heaven twice and consumed them. The third captain who came—he’s a bit wiser—he bowed on his knees and said, “Oh, please, Elijah, don’t consume me with fire.” Good answer. Go with him, he’s safe. That protection by fire is going to be repeated, by the way, during the Great Tribulation when God sends two witnesses to prophesy in Jerusalem. It says in Revelation 11:5 and 6:
If anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed [roasted]. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain my fall during the days of their prophesying,
Again, who’s that? Many think those two witnesses will be Moses and guess who? Elijah. Elijah is the prophet associated with fire. What does all of this have to do with John the Baptist and his question for Jesus? Turn back to Luke 3:15 and John’s explanation of his own ministry and the ministry of the coming Messiah. It says in Luke 3:15:
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and [with what?] fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John is looking at Jesus’ ministry. He’s hearing reports about it and you know what he is looking for? He’s looking for the fire. He came in the spirit and power of Elijah. He called for repentance. He boldly confronted sin. In fact, that bold confrontation of sin— disregarding the rank of anybody he’s talking to—that bold confrontation of the sin of Herod Antipas landed him in a prison cell. Look at verse 18:
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
And later on we find out that he also cut off his head. So John the Baptist is here in prison. He’s expecting Jesus to continue this Elijah-like ministry that he started, and he wants Jesus to finish judging unbelievers in fiery judgment. We’re going to stop here and ask: What is the reason for the judgment in the first place? What is the reason for the fire? By the way, that fire is just emblematic of an eternal, unquenchable fire that all unbelievers will be thrown into—the fires of hell. What’s the reason for that fire? At the heart of all people’s rejection, at the heart of all idolatry—and you could define idolatry very simply as not worshipping the true Godin the way the true God wants to be worshipped—is sin. It’s sin. It’s something you and I were born into. We’re born into sin. We have sin in us. We exercise our thinking, our habits, our desires, intentions, all our ambitions and plans—and go forth in sin. And what John couldn’t see through his limited perspective is that God was visiting his people. As he’s visiting right now with mercy, a mercy that triumphed over judgment. Oh, the judgment of fire will come. Yes, it will. But first, there’s a mercy that triumphs over judgment. This is what Christ read, if you look at Luke 4:18 to 19. He read this to the people in Nazareth, to his own villagers. He read from the scroll of Isaiah 61:1 and 2. Go back up to verse 16:
He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He stopped reading Isaiah; in fact, he cut off the reading in mid-sentence. “He rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. […] ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” “This Scripture—the part I read—fulfilled. This Scripture.” Not all of it. Do you know what comes next in Isaiah 61 verse 2? The very next part that he cut off, the one he did not read and didn’t say was fulfilled right now—if you look back at Isaiah 61:2, it says, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Vengeance is coming. There it is. That is the fire. But the fire’s coming later, not now.
We’re going to study this next time. But when Jesus responded to John’s question in Luke 7.22, he answered by pointing John to his works of mercy and grace. Luke 7:22 says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” That’s what John needed to hear. And that’s what Luke wants his readers to see. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants you and me to see. John is a great prophet. But Jesus is greater than a great prophet because he came with unparalleled power and unparalleled grace. He brought a mercy that would triumph over judgment by atoning for sin, by absorbing the wrath of God, by paying the penalty that no idolater—including you and me— could ever repay, so that we might be reconciled with an utterly holy God. And as Jesus tells John, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Luke is not going to allow us to come to the same conclusion as the masses of the first century. We may come to that conclusion, but it won’t be because of what Luke did here. If we come to a wrong conclusion about Jesus, it’s not Luke’s fault. It’s inconsistent with what the Bible actually teaches about Jesus Christ. He does not want us to come to this entertaining, popular opinion that Jesus is just one of the prophets, or even a great prophet. We must rightly identify Jesus as the Son of God. And we must properly esteem him as Lord of all. Failure to do so results in divine rejection. Christ-rejecting Jews—as wonderful as they are, as intelligent, as bright, as studied, as educated as they are—they will not be accepted before God because they’ve rejected his Son. Muslims, who make a show of honoring Jesus as one of the prophets—along with Mormons, along with many people, along with liberals who say he is a great man—look, as educated and as studied and as eloquent as they are, God will not accept them because they’ve rejected his Son for who he truly is.
And listen carefully, beloved, it may be easy for us to talk about Christ-rejecting Jews and Son-of-God-rejecting Muslims—why don’t we get uncomfortable for a moment and talk about us? Let’s talk about the host of evangelicals who will share in the same condemnation because so many mistake Jesus as a mere ticket to heaven. How insulting that he’s your ticket! Or a great therapist. Or a good buddy or a life coach. People say, “I accept Jesus as my Savior. I want him to get me into heaven, but I really don’t care much about his commands.” What about those who evangelize by putting all the benefits and greatness of Jesus up front—“You can get to heaven, you can enjoy God, have eternity, wonderful white clouds and angels and precious moments and everything else.” But none of the demands in your evangelism. We keep those tucked around behind because we want to get them in and then tell them about obedience. Beloved, that kind of Gospel witness makes false Christians. People who think they’re fine with Jesus and they’ve got him for a ticket to heaven, are going to end up standing before God in heaven, and Jesus will turn to them and say, “Away from me. I never knew you, you workers of iniquity. Depart from me.” From the very gate of heaven there will be a portal open down into the fiery pit of hell because they haven’t accepted Jesus on his own terms, as one who is both Savior and Lord, one who will rescue them from all of their sins, but not so they can continue in sin. It’s a grave sin to get Jesus wrong, one that comes with eternal consequences. And Luke, in writing this Gospel, wanted Theophilus to see—the Holy Spirit wants all of us to see—that Jesus is greater than a great prophet, superlatively greater, infinitely greater. We don’t trifle with him. He’s not merely a great prophet. He’s not even the greatest of the prophets; he is the only Savior and Sovereign Lord. He’s the only begotten of the Father. He’s the eternal Son of Man, and blessed is the one is not offended by him. We rightly identify him, properly esteem him all because of divine grace. We didn’t come to this conclusion by our own intuition. We didn’t come to it because we’re smarter than anybody. In fact, we are trophies of divine grace, which means God had to reach down pretty far to get us. As Paul told the Corinthians, “Not many wise, not many noble,”—that’s us. 1 Corinthians 1.27-31 says,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being[a] might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
So we rightly identify Jesus as who he is. We rightly and properly esteem him as God of gods and Lord of lords because of divine grace. We get Jesus right only because God has been gracious to us. It takes the regenerating power that raised the widows’ sons from the dead to awaken us to the same quality of faith demonstrated by those two Gentile soldiers, the Syrian Naaman, and the Roman centurion. It’s God’s grace that leads us to repentance. Amen! Let’s give thanks for it.
Heavenly Father, we recognize that you are our Father in heaven, as we’re going to talk about tonight. We recognize that you are our Father in heaven and we are yours, your children because of divine grace. We’re so grateful that you’ve been kind to us to open our eyes. This is not of our own doing; it’s “the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.” We are humbled before you, recognizing we are no better than the very worst of all sinners. And yet you have made even the least of us greater than John the Baptist himself because we belong to your kingdom. Thank you for your kindness to us in Christ. Thank you for your mercy to triumph over our judgment. Thank you that you’ve rescued us from just condemnation to make us partakers of the divine nature, having escaped this world and its lusts. We ask that you would give us a fresh understanding of your grace to us in Christ, that you elevate our image and our view of Christ where it should be, that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is Son of God and Son of man. And it’s only by faith in him—and exclusively by faith in him—that anyone comes to you and calls you Father. In his name we pray.