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God’s Word for You

Luke 7:28 Greater than John?

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, February 22, 2018

28 “Yes, I tell you,  among those born of women there is no prophet greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Job said, “Man born of woman is few of days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). His friends replied, “What is man, that he could be pure, or one born of woman, that he could be righteous?” (Job 15:14), and “How can one born of woman be pure?” (Job 25:4). And of course David confessed, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). These passages all emphasize the condition of original sin in mankind. We are born sinful, and we are born mortal, no longer having the image of God and no longer having immortality as part of our nature—these things were lost in the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. By expressing himself in this way, Jesus seems to mean “Among fallen mankind, there is no prophet greater than John.”

Jesus is speaking as if John’s work had ended, and that was just what had happened. John had been arrested and imprisoned, and very soon he would be executed by Herod’s foolishness. But without pausing, Jesus adds, “Yet the one [or “no prophet” – see the note below] who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

What does this mean?

Jesus cannot mean that John’s prophetic office was beneath that of any ordinary Christian, as if his coming before Christ meant that he was inferior to the apostles. Some people think that the phrase “in the kingdom of God” somehow sets John outside the New Testament kingdom, as the tail end of the Old Covenant. But “the kingdom of God” is never restricted to the New Testament in the Bible, and Jesus talks about the coming of the kingdom of God during the Last Supper (Luke 22:18) as reference to the kingdom in eternity—which existed before creation, and will exist in heaven after Judgment Day. This is the kingdom prophesied by Daniel: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44).

Jesus cannot mean that John had somehow diminished himself by asking Jesus a question. By sending his disciples to Jesus, John had shown the superiority of Jesus and his own confidence in Jesus.

Jesus cannot mean that John’s faith—if weak (which we have already rebated)—is less than any faith of any believing Christian. Jesus never presents John as having a weak faith.

So, what does Jesus mean? I think this is a reference to John’s place in history. He was imprisoned early in Jesus’ ministry. John’s whole ministry was to be the preparation ahead of Christ, and then he was arrested. Now, in prison, John heard reports, but was never present in person for any of Jesus’ miracles. He was not able to hear Jesus preach. And soon, very soon, he would be dead. John would not know as a living man that Jesus was crucified and then rose again. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that John was lesser or inferior; he says that the least Christian is greater than John. Why? Because the people listening to Jesus at this time were seeing his miracles and hearing him preach the gospel, and we who come after have the record in the Bible. John’s faith was not less than ours, but we have received a more vivid picture of Jesus. The message of John, like the Law of Moses, was “only a shadow of the good things that [were] coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). John had the shadow of Christ, “but we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

So you who are greater than John should not be proud of being greater in this sense, but you should be humbled by it. For there was no person in all of fallen mankind who was greater than John. Yet you are greater in this sense: Your sins are forgiven. And although John’s sins were forgiven, too, you know it because you’ve read the record. You know the certainty, and this is the whole point of Luke’s Gospel: “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Be certain, and be glad.

Note: “No one” or “No prophet”?

The EHV, the King James Version, and some other translations have “there is no prophet greater than John.” But the NIV, the Christian Standard Bible and some other translations have “there is no one greater than John.” What’s the difference?

The shorter phrase, “no one,” is supported by several ancient Egyptian manuscripts (א, B, W, and Papyrus 75), a translation tradition from Palestine (the Georgian), a translation tradition from Syria (the Armenian), and a church father from Italy, St., Ambrose. The longer phrase, “no prophet,” is also supported an ancient Egyptian manuscript (A), translation traditions from Egypt and Syria, a large group of later Greek copies from Syria and Byzantium, and a Greek witness from Italy (D) as well as a translation tradition from Italy (the Latin Vulgate).

This evidence is not conclusive, but shows that there was almost always a question about whether the phrase belongs or not. Because it is so ancient and so widespread (the question, that it, reflected by both readings), it is probably wiser to show one reading in the text and the other in a footnote (as the EHV does) than to show one reading in the text and make no mention at all of the other (as the NIV and CSB do). Our understanding of the passage is not based on this phrase, but I think it’s more above-board to at least mention the difference.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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