Sunday, March 18, 2012

Luke 7:18-35 - John's Doubts

John the Baptist in prison
Because of Jesus, we always have hope. But sometimes a heaviness settles on our souls. Questions about God and ourselves drag down our faith. Doubt starts to drag us under. Fears creep in behind the doubt. Uncertainty dims the light of hope. Darkness seems to engulf us, and suddenly we feel terribly alone.

Perhaps it is because we come to the horrible discovery that life is not fair. It doesn’t seem like everyone is treated equally. Hardships, unexpected death, or a disaster seems to lack a reason for being. Perhaps it is the prayers we have prayed over and over. We know it is God’s will according to Scripture, but nothing happens. We wonder about God’s goodness at weak moments, “Does God care?” We try to keep up the church routine, but something just isn’t right. Should we be afraid of our questions? Should we shove them back down? No, because sometimes in the depths of doubt we make our greatest discoveries of God’s greatest treasures. Almost all of the heroes of the Bible at one time or another despaired in doubt: Abraham, Job, Moses, David, Jeremiah. Even the forerunner of faith himself faced disturbing doubts – John the Baptizer.

John’s birth announcement was made by an angel. His conception was miraculous. His father’s prophecy, even his name, John, (Yochanan, “YHWH has shown favor”), pointed to his sense of mission. He was God’s steel-tipped arrow, tempered in the heat of the desert, and sent straight at the unbelieving heart of the nation of Israel. And like so many of the prophets, who usually operate an octave too high for most people’s taste, John found himself in a dark night of the soul, battling despair and its forerunner, doubt.

Key Truth: Luke wrote Luke 7:18-35 to teach believers that God uses the uncertainties to develop our faith, discomfort to strengthen us, and not meeting our expectations to develop our maturity.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about how God uses unpleasant things in life to grow us up.
Pray and Read:  Luke 7:18-35

Sermon Points:
1.   God uses our uncertainty to develop faith (Luke 7:18-23)
2.   God uses our discomfort to develop strength (Luke 7:24-28)
3.   God uses our expectations to develop maturity (Luke 7:29-35)

Contextual Notes:
In the first section of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4:13), he calls us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants (Luke 1-2). The first step of belief is to repent of one’s sin (Luke 3:1-20) through the sacrificial death (Luke 3:21-23a) of the true Son of God (Luke 3:23b-38), who has power to defeat the enemy in every area of human life (Luke 4:1-13).

Then in the second section of his Gospel, Luke unveils Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14-9:50), powerfully contrasting belief and unbelief in a series of events: unbelief at the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:14-30), is contrasted with the faith of the Capernaum synagogue’s (Luke 4:31-44). After Jesus’ first disciples follow him in faith (Luke 5:1-11), the religious leaders’ unbelief is offended when Jesus forgives sin (Luke 5:12-26). Levi’s response of faith (Luke 5:27-32) is counter balanced by the Pharisees unbelief and anger when Jesus dines with sinners (Luke 5:33-39). Against the Pharisees’ unbelief and Sabbath rules (Luke 6:1-11) are twelve apostles appointed by Jesus in faith (Luke 6:12-16).

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus lays out the blessings of faith and the woes of unbelief (Luke 6:17-26), saying we must put our faith into practice by developing Christ-like love (Luke 6:27-36), Christ-like integrity (Luke 6:37-42), Christ-like character (Luke 6:43-45), and Christ-like stability (Luke 6:46-49).

To illustrate greater faith among those outside Israel and Jesus’ mission to save all nations, Luke demonstrates the astonishing faith of a Gentile Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10) and Jesus’ gracious resurrection power for a widow (Luke 7:11-17). In shocking contrast in today’s passage is the doubt of John the Baptizer, the great herald of the Coming Messiah (Luke 7:18-35).

Sermon Points:
4.   God uses our uncertainty to develop faith (Luke 7:18-23)
5.   God uses our discomfort to develop strength (Luke 7:24-28)
6.   God uses our expectations to develop maturity (Luke 7:29-35)

Exposition:   Note well,

a.   As John the Baptist languished in prison (put there by Herod Antipas – Luke 3:19-20), he begins to have doubts about Jesus’ identity. The doubts seem to be brought on by news of Jesus’ ministry. Why is Jesus not fulfilling the Messianic task of overthrowing the kingdom of this world and establishing God’s? John sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is indeed the one.
b.   Luke 7:19 – The Coming One: This is a title for the Messiah. The same verb (erchomai) occurs in Zech 9:9 LXX: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation.” The forerunner of Messiah is afraid of failure. He is concerned. Did he send people to the right Messiah? Has he been right or has he been duped? Was John sinking into hopelessness and depression in that jail cell? Did his disciples slant their stories about Jesus, planting doubt in his mind?
c.   APPLICATION: John’s question is actually comforting. If a man of such great commitment and faith can have doubts, we need not be overwhelmed at our own uncertainties. But John’s question is also a warning. John made the mistake of expecting Jesus to act as John supposed he must. Let us never suppose that God must limit Himself to act as we think He should. We must adjust to what God is doing.
d.   Luke 7:22 – Jesus is gracious to John. He didn’t lecture John. Jesus’ response is designed to redirect John’s expectations. He points to his demonstration of power, his healing and preaching, alluding clearly to Isaiah 35:5; 61:1-2. Jesus point is that the Messiah has arrived, something he already announced in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17-19). Jesus’ mission is not to conquer the Romans but to conquer sin and Satan and win the Romans and all nations to himself.
e.   APPLICATION: Did you notice the graciousness of Jesus when he hears of John’s doubt? That is his character. He is not interested in slamming you for your doubt. He is interested in pointing you to the Scriptures and to his work in our lives as a reminder that he has come to save those who want to believe but are afraid they need help in their unbelief. Jesus uses the uncertainties of life to develop faith in you – that diagnosis, that bill, that business opportunity, that friend who is just not acting right, that lay-off notice. God does not create suffering, but He often uses it to develop our faith if we, like John, have any inclination to follow him.
f.    Luke 7:23 – Blessed is the man who does not fall away: Jesus blesses those who are able to set aside their personal agendas and expectations in favor of God’s greater plan. The word skandalizo means “to cause to stumble or fall.” A Messiah coming with healing and reconciliation is an obstacle to Jewish belief (1 Cor 1:23; Isaiah 8:14). He is not doing it the way they expected or wanted. He is not making sense to them. How could the Messiah come and not take over? How could he leave his people under the oppression of the nations?
g.   APPLICATION: F.B. Meyer puts it this way: Blessed are those who stay unoffended when God begins to deal with them, those who do not stumble over the mystery of God’s dealings in their life. Job suffered yet stayed faithful. Joseph endured unjust treatment yet refused to live in bitterness. Hosea continued to walk in obedience even when his spouse was unfaithful and left him. Paul prayed for relief from a thorn in the flesh, but in the end submitted to the Lord’s work, “His grace is sufficient for me” (2 Cor 12:9).  Blessed are those who live with unanswered questions, who rest in the little they can see, trusting God for what they cannot see.
a.   Luke 7:24-26 – Reed swayed by the wind: The image is from a proverb, referring to something fragile, undependable, notoriously weak, and easily swayed (1 Kings 14:15; Isaiah 36:6; 2 Kings 18:21; Ezek 29:6). John is a man of conviction, not a spineless “yes-man.” He is in prison because he boldly spoke the truth against Herod Antipas. John was no court prophet telling rich and powerful people what they wanted to hear (Luke 7:25-26). He was paying a price for speaking the truth of God’s word.
b.   APPLICATION:  John was not a weakling. He was a strong man, a man of conviction. But he paid a price for his strong convictions. There are times when standing up for the right thing costs us comfort, and John was willing to do that.
c.   Luke 7:27 – I will send my messenger: The quotation combines Exod 23:20; Mal 3:1; 4:5; and Isaiah 40:3. These passages are all identified as John in the Gospels. John denied being Elijah in the flesh (John 1:21-23), but he came in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) to be the forerunner of the Messiah.
d.   Luke 7:28 – Greater than He: When Jesus turns to the crowd to speak of John, he calls him the greatest of all the prophets, indeed the greatest person who ever lived (Luke 7:28) because he is the forerunner of the Messiah (Mal. 3:1). Yet Jesus takes the opportunity to add that the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. No one who came before can compare with those who now have the privilege of living in the age of salvation and the Spirit.
e.   APPLICATION: How could we possibly greater than John? Here’s how: John simply announced the kingdom, but we have the privilege of participating in it. Our privilege is greater, and so is our responsibility.
a.   Luke 7:29-30 – In another picture of unbelief, Luke points out that while all the people, even tax collectors, submitted to John’s baptism of repentance and were ready for Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the religious leaders rejected John and thereby rejected God’s purpose for them (Luke 7:29-30). That once-for-all baptism of repentance to which John called everyone came from the original design for pagan converts to Judaism. They were never going to admit that there was anything wrong with their faith. Too much pride involved.
b.   APPLICATION: Let me ask you a hard question. Is it possible that you know deep down inside of you that you have been religious for a long time, but that really you don’t know what people are talking about when they talk about the peace and contentment of being in Jesus’ presence. You kind of wonder what you are missing when people talk about how sweet the Spirit was in a worship service. You don’t quite get it when the preacher talks about having assurance that you are saved. You really never have, but you walked the aisle once a long time ago. You were baptized. The preacher told you that you were saved. The church made you a member. So who are you to question those? And goodness, you have served for years on committees, with children, as a church officer. Still, there’s this nagging pull about salvation, your salvation. That could be the Holy Spirit warning you. John preached that even religious Israel needed repentance and a commitment to this Jesus. But the religious rejected his message to their own destruction. Don’t be foolish like the Pharisees who refused to admit that their religion might not be right after all these years.  
c.   Luke 7:31-32 - Jesus compares the present situation to children playing make-believe wedding and funeral games in the marketplace. One group plays a flute and calls the other to a game of joyful dance, maybe a wedding feast, which would be a Lukan theme. But when the other children sulk and refuse to play, the first group switches to a dirge and calls them to play a funeral game instead. Jesus compares the sulking children to the present generation. Jesus’ and John’s opponents are like unhappy, spoiled children who won’t play either game because they cannot get everyone to do what they want.
d.   Luke 7:33 - When John came (neither eating nor drinking – Luke 1:15; Mark 1:6 says he ate locusts and honey) with his solemn call for mourning and repentance (like the dirge), the religious leaders accused him of being demon-possessed (a madman).
e.   Luke 7:34 - When Jesus came with his joyful announcement of God’s kingdom and free forgiveness for sinners (Luke 5:23-24) (like a wedding feast), he is accused of partying with the wrong crowd (Luke 5:29-30). The accusation is similar to the rebellious son in Deut 21:20 whose punishment was stoning. His arrival as the bridegroom means it is time to celebrate.
f.    APPLICATION: Chuck Swindoll puts it this way: They are impossible to please, like whining children who stamp their feet and take their marbles and go home when they cannot make others do what they want. The Pharisees turned their noses up at the bread and water truths of John and now they are turning in disgust at the great feast Jesus offers. Their self-righteousness finds fault in everything set before them.[1]
g.   Luke 7:35 - God’s way, here wisdom personified as in Proverbs, is proven right or justified by her children (followers, Prov 8:32), the tax collectors and sinners joyfully receiving God’s salvation. This is a difficult sentence in Greek, and it could read, “The proof of wisdom is the character of the people who hold to it.” In other words, Jesus is saying that those with wisdom are the tax collectors and sinners, not the Scripture-saturated Pharisees.
h.   APPLICATION: It is stunning that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day could not see that such a response was proof of God being at work. But believing is seeing. We are not talking about lip service, but a change in the moral direction of one’s life, not taking care of your religious duties to cover yourself and then living any kind of way you want the rest of the week.

[1] Charles Swindoll, The Continuation of Something Great (Luke 7:1-10:37), 15.