John’s Question vv. 17-20)
Three Critical Assumptions
One obstacle to appreciating these words is that we do not think correctly about life and history. Technology and abundance have deceived the West into forgetting most that came before us, so that in our own minds we have become the center of history. But electricity and circuitry do not make us special or able to escape the truth. By asking, “Are you the coming One?” John reveals several critical assumptions about life, assumption we also must make if we are to understand the truth about ourselves, the world in which we live, and the God before whom we must soon appear. The first assumption is that God has spoken in his word and given a great promise – that he will send a Redeemer into the world to save men from sin and death. This “Coming One” is thus the central truth, promise, and event in history. His coming defines everything else and is the realization of God’s purposes.
This is the second assumption – that time and history focus upon God’s promise of life and salvation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). Generations may forget this, except for a comparatively small remnant. Fallen man culpably forgets what God has said and the real purpose of his existence. And finally, since this is the case, present history in real events, crises, and troubles vindicates God’s truth. When the West built upon Christ and Scripture, there was blessing. Now that we are publicly repudiating our former commitments, there is chaos, confusion, and revolution in the streets. If there were no Coming One, no Christ, no true Bible, and no sovereign God, these things would be inexplicable. But these things are true, inescapably so, and therefore “the nation that forgets God will be turned into hell,” and on the way, experience enough of hell to vindicate the truth of God’s word and call his people back to the truth.
Are You the Coming One?
Had John lost faith in Jesus Christ as the Coming One? Had he not pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” Yes, but Jesus was not carrying out his work quite as John had anticipated. Where was the “winnowing fork in his hand” and the burning up of the chaff? Then as now, the way of our Lord in his kingdom is perplexing, for it is not in line with our earthly expectations. John himself was an inmate in one of Herod’s prison. These events were confusing to him. This should not surprise us, for the disciples who lived and worked with Jesus for over three years could not put the whole story together – until the Holy Spirit was poured out. He alone can gather up our confused notions about God and truth, illuminate our minds, and teach us heavenly wisdom. John heard of the great works Jesus was doing (vv. 17-18) and sent two of his disciples to inquire – are you the Coming One (vv. 19-20)? Or do we look for another? His second question is equally instructive – God’s word must come to pass. He will send a Deliverer. In John’s mind, if Jesus was not the One, then they must continue looking for him. What his personal circumstances were, he did not doubt God’s promise. Faith was confused but overcoming even in Herod’s dungeon.
I Am the One (vv. 21-23)
See My Works and Hear My Word
It should greatly encourage us that Jesus answers John – and remember that John was not keeping up a discipleship group opposed to Jesus but was continuing to fulfill as best he could God’s commission to him as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah – with the Scriptures. He quotes in effect from Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1. He is engaged in the works that the prophet predicted he would do – the blind are seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the dead rising, the deaf hearing, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. These were preeminently the confirming works of the Coming One. He did not gather armies to subjugate the earth and force conformity to his kingdom. He did not gather the rich and powerful around him. He did not lead a revolution against the governing authority. He dealt with sin and its effects, something absolutely no one else can do, has ever done, will ever do, or makes any pretense of doing. All the great ones around whom fools have gathered over six millennia have been geniuses in military exploits, philosophical inquiries, technological advances, statist control, or corporate greed. All have and are leaving men in a worse state. Jesus came with a two-pronged ministry – healing the devastating effects of sin upon the body and preaching the gospel that explains who he is and the salvation he comes to give us. By these two things, he pointed men to the true kingdom of God, bore their grief and sorrows, and delivered them from sin and judgment to righteousness and everlasting life.
Believe and Do Not Be Offended
And there is perhaps a special emphasis upon the “poor having the gospel preached to them.” There is no such thing as the “virtuous poor,” any more than the “virtuous rich,” but there is such a thing as the gross wickedness exercised upon the poor by the rich and powerful. And it is equally true that “not many mighty, not many noble” has God chosen to reveal the truths of his kingdom (1 Cor. 1:28-32). This is not because Jesus Christ is a social revolutionists and would turn the poor into the rich, which would then necessitate another revolution to bring them down. It is because the poor are despised and lack human comforters and defenders. In the midst of their grinding lives, they need the gospel preached to them so that they can aspire to God’s heavenly kingdom and serve God in their lowly estate, even as Jesus Christ their Lord did. Therefore, Jesus says to John, keep believing in me. I am bringing the blessings of salvation to all who build upon me. Do not be offended or stumble over me because my methods are not to bring immediate destruction upon the wicked and even to encourage the weak and poor to serve God faithfully where they are. This is my gospel – not make all man’s circumstances better immediately, although he often did through healing, but through giving them my gospel, to teach all men to live for my glory and in sweet fellowship with me in whatever circumstances they find themselves (Col. 3:17,23).
We must take seriously that the true Coming One, Jesus Christ, is set up for a “stumbling stone” and “rock of offense” (Isa. 8:14; 1 Pet. 2:7-8), not only to the Jews but also to the whole world. He is precious to us who believe, but we cannot forget how different his gospel is from every other “gospel” that originates in man’s mind. He does not come announcing that all your problems will be solved, or that everyone in your family will like each other and be at peace, or that the world will immediately experience the full justice of his kingdom. His methods are embarrassing, even to his professing friends, for he preaches the gospel. He preaches to the poor and despised. He does not come preaching rituals and religious calendars and saints’ days, for which trifles the Roman Catholic Church long ago gave up the true gospel. The pomp and circumstance of costume and ritual, impressive cathedrals, and human succession are not embarrassing – getting your hands dirty to help a sinner, hearing and doing the preached word of God, and loving one’s enemies, these things are embarrassing. They do not yield immediate fruit. No one can make a movie about them. But let us believe upon him nonetheless and be blessed. He is a stumbling stone in that we can easily trip over him, even in our lives, for our expectations, like John’s, can be very different from the way he actually works out his purposes and fulfills his word, which are the same thing.
John Announced Me (vv. 24-30)
You Should Have Listened to John
After John’s messengers left, Jesus began teaching the people about John’s greatness and his place in the kingdom of God. Perhaps he waited until they departed so that the crowds would know that Jesus was not flattering John in front of his messengers. John was not like a reed shaken by the wind (v. 24), but constant, even unto imprisonment. His self-denial gave proof of his sincerity and called to the people to listen to his word (v. 25). John was a prophet, as almost all recognized, but he was more than a prophet (v. 26). He was nothing less than my forerunner, my herald – here Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 – this is the Elijah to come (v. 27). John was greater than the greatest Old Testament prophet (v. 28). This is the Coming One’s assessment of John, and its purpose is to rebuke the people, especially their leaders, for listening to him. Even more, our Lord makes it clear that he and John are in the same stream of revelation, on the same team, if you will, not opposing camps. John may be confused at the moment about my methods, but I am not confused about him – he is my Messenger, whom the Lord has sent before my face, to make plain my paths so that all flesh would see my salvation. For I am come to this end: to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). If you do not hear John’s witness, you will die in your sins. If our age does not hear and believe John’s witness to the Lamb of God, it will perish in its sins. The Coming One, Jesus Christ, has come. His program for history is the only one that will be realized – that all the families of the nations would come and worship God through faith in his name. We must recover the truth that we need invent no new gospel; we need not modify the old one. We need but do as John did: believe it, proclaim it, not stumble over our Savior’s patient, lowly methods, and expect that in time all flesh will see his great salvation.
The Kingdom of God Has Come in Power
But Jesus makes another profound statement – that as great as John was, the least believer in his kingdom is greater than John. We must be careful, for Jesus certainly does not mean that the weakest believer is personally greater than John. Sadly, the piety of most new covenant believers does not match John’s. Most of us are not called to be preachers of the gospel. What makes us greater than John is that we live after the coming of God’s kingdom in power – Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the establishment of the new covenant order of God’s church. “Kingdom,” as Jesus uses the term in verse 28, is the kingdom whose arrival he came preaching. It was one of his most regular themes. “The kingdom of God has come.” It is not as though God did not reign over all things previously, but his reign was unto judgment upon his enemies, with only a small number of people enjoying his gracious reign. Even there, its true glory was veiled under types and shadows. What Jesus meant by “kingdom of God” was the saving reign of God in his Son, the promised mediatorial kingdom, the kingdom of grace and glory, of God with us, of the gospel going out into all the nations and multitudes pouring through the pearly gates of heaven opened by the preaching of the everlasting gospel. His kingdom was not a kingdom of empire and tyrant, but peace and righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As great as John was, and we might well spend the rest of our lives tracing out this delicious theme, we have access to more grace and power, more light and truth, than John could even imagine. Our Savior’s methods should not seem as strange to us as they did to John, for we understand, or at least profess to understand, the way of the cross. But do we take this seriously – that the kingdom of God has come among us? I think not. I think we have given way to the fear of our age, that all is doom and gloom, that we are in the hands of rebels and infidels, and there is nothing we can do about it. As long as we have this attitude, as long as we do not appreciate and live verse 28, nothing will be done, and God will allow us to languish in fear. If we would but avail ourselves of the resources of God’s kingdom, the powers of the world to come that are in reach of every believer through believing, Christ-centered prayer, and of course the indwelling Spirit of holiness and power, we should not need to speculate about future gains and glories, for they would speedily come. Christ is reigning. The kingdom of God is among us. God the consuming fire dwells in our midst. Let us not offend him by unbelief but draw near through Jesus Christ, pray as his kingdom of priests, and believe what our Lord Christ came preaching – the kingdom of God is within you, among you, power and grace, joy and glory, hope and peace.
The World’s Malignant Rejection (vv. 31-35)
The Fickle World Never Satisfied
But while this is the path of kingdom and joy and power, God’s own presence with us by his Word and Spirit, it remains a narrow path, with a strait gate, hated by the world. While we walk it, they laugh at us, and Satan hurls the same fiery darts he did at our Savior in the days of his flesh – you cannot trust God to take care of you and bring your suffering and warfare to a happy conclusion – go ahead in your own strength and wisdom. The world is ignoring you – do something to make yourself known and prove your sonship. And above all, why would you bear the cross for him, when by bowing to me, I would hand you pleasure on a plate? The world, like its master the devil, is never satisfied with the gospel we offer. Some ministers and believers have been like John – a bit austere, very consecrated and awe-inspiring, but the world accused him of being a demon-possessed madman (v. 33). The Lord Jesus came in a very friendly way, eating and drinking, willing to consort with all kinds in order to deliver them from sin and gain them for God’s truth (v. 34), but the world accused him of being a drunk and glutton. It is really pointless to try to gain the world’s approval on any front – come preaching strongly, or come preaching mildly, and eventually, however great the initial attraction may be, if sin is confronted and repentance urged, there will be a backlash. What the Lord Jesus said pointedly to the Jews applies as much to our day – the fickle world is never happy with the preachers he sends to warn them of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Sadly, some professing believers are likewise dissatisfied. Nothing ever pleases them. One wonders if they would be pleased with Jesus if he was their pastor!
Like Jeering Children at Play
And this seems to be part of Jesus’ point about the sing-songing children (vv. 31-32). The world is a group of jeering children at play – playing at wedding one moment and funeral the next. Has there even been simpler yet profounder wisdom? In one pithy saying he captured exactly the world’s spirit – “let us eat and drink” one moment, the next moment screaming about the end of the world – pleasure and doom – the truth about the unbelieving conscience – wanting pleasure on its own terms but scared to death at the same time. John came, more dirge-like, but the world hated his austerity. Jesus came, more wedding-like, for he is the Bridegroom, and the world hated his easy manners and winsome challenge. Again, the church has yet to take these simple words to heart, and many believers today seem wedded to the idea that if we could change the scene – like children quickly changing their games and tunes – the world would be more likely to join us. It is the old lie of Satan – a gospel without repentance and faith, a Savior without deity and exclusivity, a sacrifice without substitution and efficacy, other than what man’s agreeing will gives to it. We must remember our Lord’s depiction of the world – always changing its tune, never happy with God’s messengers, and above all, always protective of its own autonomy. A gospel the world will accept is no gospel at all. This is the reason that sinners must be born again before they can be brought to knowledge of the truth in a living union with Jesus Christ (John 3:3-8).
God and Wisdom Justified in Jesus Christ
But what does he mean by “wisdom is justified of all her children” (v. 35)? Commentators are very exercised by the statement. This is the second time “justify” is found in this passage. The first is in verse 29, where the sinners and publicans “justified God” when they confessed their sins and were baptized by John. When a sinner is said to “justify” God, the meaning is that by his conviction and repentance he recognizes God’s righteousness and sides with God to condemn his sins. For wisdom to be justified may have a bit of a double meaning here. On the one hand, wisdom is justified by the world’s rejection of Jesus Christ – fools who will not build their lives upon God’s word cannot see the truth and will ruin their lives by unbelief and rebellion. If this is at least one portion of the meaning, there would be a bit of a bite in Jesus’ words – yes, your rejection of John and then of me is expected. Wisdom said you would do so, for you did not seek the heavenly wisdom. On the other hand and closely related, however blindly the Jewish leaders were, however inconsistently the children of the world jeer back and forth, children of wisdom see in Jesus Christ the Coming One, who is the wisdom of God. Thus, wisdom’s true children are declared to be wise by their embracing of Jesus Christ. They have seen the world for what it is – fickle, unstable, blindly self-protective, and at war with God. In Jesus Christ, we have the Coming One who has made war with our sins, overcome them, and reconciled us to God. No one ever spoke as he did. No one ever came bearing our grief and our curse, opening heaven to us by his intercession, and giving us peace through applying his death and resurrection to our hearts. Truly, there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). And there is no wisdom or counsel like this.