Take Him As He Is
Today's text is the logical follow-up to what we saw last week.
In v. 1-17 of chapter 7, we saw Jesus perform two miracles—he heals the slave of a Roman officer, and resurrects a dead man. And Arnaud told us that these miracles underline Jesus's power and sovereignty over two particular areas: over the physical world and the spiritual world.
Now, in this text, Luke gives us the logical application of that: if Jesus is able to do these things, what does that tell us about who he is? Because if Jesus is indeed who he says he is, that changes everything—not just in our lives, but in the whole world. There is not a single area of the universe which isn't affected if Jesus is who he claims to be.
The One Who Is To Come (v. 18-23)
The last time we saw John was in chapter 3, where we see him locked away in prison. King Herod is sleeping with his brother’s wife, and John was calling him out on it publicly, so Herod has him imprisoned to keep him quiet. But now in prison, John has heard about all the miraculous things that Jesus is doing, and he sends his disciples to Jesus, to ask him a question.
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him [“all these things” were the miracles Jesus was performing—namely the two we saw Jesus perform last week, the healing of the centurion’s slave and the raising of the widow’s dead son]. And John, 19 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?” 20 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?’ ”
“The one who is to come” is a common way of referring to the Messiah—the Savior of the people of Israel who was prophesied by the prophets. The Hebrews had been waiting for the coming of the Messiah for centuries, and now their anticipation had reached new heights, because their country was occupied by the Roman Empire. They expected the Messiah to come in and free them from this foreign power. So when John asks, “Are you the one who is to come?” what he’s asking is, “Are you the Messiah?”
It’s a revealing question—let’s not forget that John and Jesus are related: their mothers were cousins. In addition, in the past John had actually confirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah (John 1.29). So it’s surprising that now that Jesus is actually coming out and doing these miraculous things, John sends his disciples to essentially ask him, “Are you really the Messiah?”
Why the doubt? Why is he now wondering something he’d already confirmed himself?
To be honest, the Bible never tells us. It could be because Jesus isn’t freeing Israel from the oppression of the Romans, like the Jews thought he would. It could be simply—and this is my personal guess—because John is a human being, and human beings, when they’re suffering, tend to see things in a darker light. John always did the right thing, said what needed to be said…and what is he getting for it? He’s locked away in prison for doing what was right. It would be easy for him to think, But it wasn’t supposed to go this way! and to suddenly doubt things he’d previously known as true.
Whatever the case may be, what’s most important is not the question, but the answer. V. 21:
21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 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. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
So in his answer Jesus quotes several passages from the book of Isaiah to confirm his identity. All of these quotes speak of the coming Messiah, the one who would free Israel; and Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah came, these are the things he would do—these are the ways you will know he is indeed the Messiah.
Jesus is essentially showing them his I.D., proving that he is who he says he is. And his I.D. consists in his fulfilling the promises of God. We know Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, because prophecies had been made centuries before, and Jesus is fulfilling all of them. And we know he’s not a charlatan who is simply organizing his life to meet certain prophetic criteria because the prophecies about him are humanly impossible: he’s giving sight to the blind, he’s making the lame walk, he’s raising the dead. This is what we saw last week: Jesus proves who he is by what he does.
In his grace, Jesus gently reminds John of his identity using impossible facts: John’s disciples can see him doing things no human being could do. And the impossible things they’re seeing are exactly what the prophets said the Messiah would do, hundreds of years before.
Now if you’ll permit me, I’m going to mark a parenthesis here, because there’s another remarkable thing about his answer—it’s not the main point, but it’s important. V. 22 again:
22 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.
The last thing he mentions—”the poor have good news preached to them”—comes from Isaiah 61.1, a verse John would have known well. But Isaiah 61.1 has another bit that Jesus doesn’t include. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor hear the good news…”
But he doesn’t say, “And the prisoners go free.”
John, hearing this from his prison cell, would have understood what that meant: “You’re not getting out. You’re going to die in there.” Which of course he did—not long after, Herod had John beheaded in prison.
Now, why is this remarkable? It’s remarkable because it speaks directly to the doubt anyone in John’s position would have had: Why am I still stuck in prison if the Messiah is supposed to come and set the captives free?
And the reason is that Jesus came to bring a different kind of freedom. Not a military or political freedom, not even physical freedom from prison—but spiritual freedom from sin.
Jesus proves who he is by what he does. And after saying as much, he adds (v. 23),
23 “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
In other words, “Blessed is the one who accepts that I am who I say I am. I am the Messiah; I am the Son of God.”
To prove his identity, Jesus points to the things he is doing: healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor. It’s no accident that Jesus makes this statement in this context. Why is this fact so central to the Messiah’s identity? Why was it that Jesus would come to do those things?
Because Jesus, the Messiah, came to show us who God is, and what he is like. He always goes toward those who have nothing to offer him: the blind, the lame, lepers, the deaf, the poor (and I think we can reasonably add “the dead” to the category of those who don’t have much to offer). Jesus is drawn toward those who are stunted, handicapped and sinful.
Now, the question I can’t help but ask is why does the Holy Spirit inspire Luke to write all this, if he knows that some Christians, including us, will one day live in a place and time where we don’t see these same things with the same kind of frequency. Most of us have never seen a resurrection, or a blind man healed, or a lame man regain his ability to walk. So why should telling us that Jesus healed a bunch of people two thousand years ago convince us of anything?
And the answer is that we are sick too. When we read this, we are meant to see Jesus spending time with the physically disabled and healing them; and we are meant to see him look at us afterwards and hear him say, “You need my help as much as they do.”
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Blessed is the one who sees what I do, who sees me for what I am, who takes me as I am, and who trusts what I say. If Jesus says he is the healer of the sick and the Savior of the sinful, then he is. If Jesus says that you too are sick, that you are sinful and that you need his help, then you are and you do.
The Least in the Kingdom (v. 24-28)
24 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?”
These people had apparently gone out into the wilderness to see John, to hear him preach, to be baptized by him; and he’s asking them why they did it—what they went out there to see. It’s kind of a strange question—so here’s what he means. John had reached practically mythic status in a lot of people’s minds, and Jesus doesn’t disabuse them of that idea—rather, he’s going to play into that idea, to say something not about John, but about them.
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
Definitely not—“a reed shaken by the wind” was a colloquialism for an easygoing person, which John wasn’t. John was fiery, and passionate, and disturbing. V. 25:
25 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.
Again, no—John dressed in camel’s hair; he lived in the desert, so he was probably filthy and smelled bad. The man did not live in luxury.
26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet?
Aha!—that’s closer to the truth. There hadn’t been a new prophet in Israel for many years, so when John came, speaking with the authority he did, he had all he hallmarks of an Old Testament prophet. And Jesus confirms it:
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written,
‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
So Jesus is confirming that John was indeed the man that the prophets had predicted. John had the prestigious task of getting God’s people ready for the Messiah’s coming. John preached repentance, and he lived out a picture of repentance: he lived in the desert; he rejected comfortable homes and fancy clothes and turned aside to an entirely different way of life—one of self-denial and simplicity. It is a beautiful picture of repentance, because repentance means consistently and habitually turning away from and rejecting sin, denying oneself and living for God.
John’s task was to simultaneously anticipate Christ’s coming and show by his life what needed to happen for Christ’s salvation. And he performed his task perfectly. Which is why Jesus says of him (v. 28),
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.
Now that’s an amazing statement; but all he’s said about John so far is build-up to what he says next:
Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
As amazing as John’s ministry was, and as successful as he was in fulfilling it, God doesn’t consider success in the same way we do. What is important to God is not the success of our endeavors, but the simple fact that we belong for him and we’re doing what we’re doing for him. Jesus doesn’t say what he says—that the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than John—in order to diminish John’s importance. He’s trying to show why John was important. As great as his ministry was, what made John ultimately great was not that he announced the kingdom, but that he belonged to the kingdom.
And this is so hard for us to accept. We read that sentence—Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he—and we think, “Yeah, right.” Many of us feel the weight of our sin all too well. We look at ourselves, at all God calls us to do and all that we find ourselves unable to do, and we’re horrified by it. “I still wasn’t able to obey,” we say. “I’m still struggling with this,” we say. “I don’t understand why this is taking so long,” we say.
Rarely if ever do we say, “I am the least in the kingdom of God, so I am greater than John.”
Obviously when Jesus says that, he’s being hyperbolic (exaggerating for effect): God doesn’t show favoritism; he doesn’t rank his children. But that’s exactly the point: God doesn’t show favoritism—even in favor of his most important prophet. The smallest, weakest, most sinful human being, bought and redeemed by the blood of Christ, and united to God in faith, has as much value in God’s eyes as his most significant and world-changing prophet.
We need to recognize our need for a Savior—we need to recognize our sin and our frailty and our weakness. But when we turn to Christ for help in our need, for forgiveness for our sin, for strength in our weakness, we also need to recognize our worth in him, and thank him for it. Because of what the Spirit has done in our hearts, because of the faith he has given us, our worth and identity are no longer found in ourselves, but in whose kingdom we belong to.
The Simply Religious (v. 29-34)
Now Luke tells us how the crowd in front of him responds to what Jesus says, and we have two opposite reactions coming from the crowd. V. 29:
29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
So on the one hand we have “the people”—these people included the ordinary folks, those who were previously suffering from handicaps and illnesses, and those whom other people would reject as “sinners,” like the tax collectors. All of these people hear what Jesus is saying and accept it, because they had been baptized with the baptism of John.
John’s baptism is one way in which he was “preparing the way” for Jesus. His baptism was a baptism of repentance—repentance, by definition, is recognizing one’s sin and turning from it: humbling ourselves before God. And Jesus is saying that in bringing ourselves down through repentance, not only do we escape from the wrath of God, but we are invited into his kingdom through faith in him.
Or to put it another way: Jesus is constantly healing—he heals the sick, the weak, the helpless, those who know they are sick and come to him for healing. In the same way, in repentance we recognize that we are weak and sinful, and we come to God for help. This is what John’s ministry was pointing toward, and now, the people are actually able to do it, because Jesus is here—they can actually, really come to him for help and healing and forgiveness, because he is God.
So having been baptized with the baptism of John—the baptism of repentance—they understand that what Jesus is saying about himself, about John, and about the kingdom all fit together: it’s all in keeping with one and the same message, so they readily accept it.
On the other hand, you have the Pharisees and the lawyers, who refused John’s baptism, and who reject Jesus’s teaching too. In order to repent, you have to humble yourself, and that is the one thing these obstinate, prideful sinners will not do.
So Jesus continues by commenting on those who reject him in v. 31:
31 “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like 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.’
Apparently this was a couplet children would chant to other kids, to mock them when they wouldn’t play the games the others were playing. What he’s saying is that the Pharisees and the lawyers are like petulant kids, whining when the other kids don’t do what they wanted them to do. And he explains himself (v. 33):
33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 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!’
He’s right. The Pharisees mocked John’s asceticism and insistence on repentance, saying it wasn’t necessary—they even went so far as to say John had a demon in him.
Then when Jesus came, they flipped it completely around: Jesus didn’t insist on asceticism; he ate and drank freely with those who sought him, and they called him out for that, saying he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of the worst sinners around
So Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard, a sinner; and John had a demon. John was accused for being too strict; Jesus was accused of being too free; but the reality is that John and Jesus both pointed to two complementary realities of the gospel.
John’s asceticism pointed to the need for repentance—the necessity of turning away from sin and living a wholly new life to God.
On the other hand, without rejecting that need for repentance, Jesus’s life pointed toward the wonderful freedom the gospel affords: since we are accepted by God through faith in him, we are no longer bound by the regulations of the Law of Moses, but are free to go into those parts of the world where people are lost and hurting and give them what they need.
But the Pharisees and the religious leaders, who were more attached to their religion and traditions than to God himself, reject them both—not because they disagreed with their form, but because they did not recognize the sin in their own hearts for what it was.
The point Jesus is trying to make is clear: there is simply no way to please the simply religious—those who are more attached to their religion than to their God. Those who are simply religious are unable to take Jesus as he is, with all of his complexities and the different aspects of his character.
But Jesus clearly says that those who have mature faith in him will grow in their understanding of him. After his scathing condemnation of the Pharisees, Jesus finishes (v. 35):
35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.
You see, he’s gone back to his main point, which is, I am who I say I am. But this time, he says it in the context of a condemnation of those who reject him—he’s saying, “If you reject me, you’re showing the wisdom you lack. Because wisdom is justified by all her children. The truly wise see things for what they are.”
Now partially, that’s meant for those who reject Christ altogether, like the Pharisees. But that’s not all—he points to the Pharisees, who want Jesus to do specific things, and who complain when he doesn’t meet their expectations.
So let’s not imagine that because we say we believe in Jesus, we don’t do this. There are things Jesus says and does which are perplexing to us, or bothersome, or even some things we just don’t want to accept. Because we know that God is love, any time Jesus talks about hell, or gets angry in the temple, or condemns hypocrites, or makes absolute, moral demands on us, it makes us uncomfortable; we don’t know how to process it.
We always want Jesus to take us as we are, but we find it difficult to take him as he is.
Listen closely: if we don't accept Jesus as he is, we don't accept Jesus.
It would be like me saying to my wife, "I'll always love you, as long as you stay blonde with blue eyes." That's a problem, because she's a brunette, and she has brown eyes. If I don't love my wife as she is, I don't love her.
And it's not just a question of what Jesus says in the Bible—the rubber really meets the road here when we see what he does in our lives...or what he chooses not to do.
"Why are you allowing this?"
"Why don't you change me more quickly?"
"Why do you want me to talk to him?"
"Why did you have me end up married to him (or her)?"
At some point, we'll all be confronted with the real Jesus, and he won't be what we were expecting. And we'll have a choice to make. Either to say, "Up to now, I was fine... But this, I'm sorry, but I can't accept this."
Or we can say, "Lord, I don't understand why you're doing this; I don't know why you said what you said... But I know who you are. And I know that what you say is better than what I want. So I trust you. Do with me as you will."
If we don't accept Jesus as he is, we don't accept Jesus. And as I said at the beginning, Jesus as he is changes everything.
If he really is the Messiah he claims to be, that means he is the Creator. He knows how he created the world, and how he created the world to work. So when he tells us to do something (or to not do something), it's because he knows what's best for us."
That means he is our Lord—he has the authority to give us commandments, and to expect us to obey them.
That means he is our Savior—he lived our life and died our death, that we might be declared righteous before God and reconciled to him. So he deserves our gratitude, our love, our joy and our allegiance.
Accept Christ as he is, not as you want him to be. (Because I guarantee you, the real thing is better than whatever it is you want.) Don’t be like the Pharisees, the petulant children who get angry at Jesus because he’s not doing what they want him to do. Don’t try to put Jesus in the box you’ve made for him; he won’t fit there.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. He came to heal the sick, to save the lost.
So he calls you—whether you are a Christian or not this morning—to accept that he is who he says he is. To not let the surprises you find in him put you off to who he actually is. He is the Messiah, and he came here to save you, because you need saving. All of us are sick and need healing, and Christ is the Messiah who came to heal his children. So believe in him: come to him for help. Repent of your sins and turn from them and trust him to make you new.
And when you do that, accept that you now belong to his kingdom—and the least in his kingdom is greater than John. Accept the value God places on you, and trust that you belong to him.
Finally, if any of that is to make any difference, if you are to persevere in our faith, you must accept Christ as he is, not as you want him to be. When you hear his words, obey them. When he tells you who he is, believe him. When he tells you how he works, trust him. He is God, and he does not fail.