God’s Word for You
Luke 7:29-30 God Is Just
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, February 23, 2018
29 When all the people (including the tax collectors) heard this, they declared that God was just, since they were baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the legal experts rejected God’s purpose for themselves by not being baptized by him.
The first thing we need to address in this passage is who the speaker is. Is Jesus still speaking, or is Luke narrating?
Most translations struggle over this so much that they often enclose it in parentheses (NIV, RSV) or set it apart in other ways. The NASB ends verse 28 with ending quotation marks, and adds them again at the beginning of verse 31, and the EHV has followed that practice, too. The King James Version added the phrase “And the Lord said” to the beginning of verse 31, although there is no Greek evidence for those words in that verse. The original text had no punctuation marks of any kind.
The Greek says (pardon the wooden translation), “All the people heard, and even the tax collectors justified God as they were baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the legal experts rejected God’s purpose for them by not being baptized by him.” Could Jesus have spoken these words? Certainly. Could Luke have spoken these words? Certainly. I think it’s a mistake to say that one or the other must be the case—and here once again is a place where a footnote would be better than a change like the one the KJV made. Of course, translations that want to be “red letter editions” and print the words of the Lord in another color will need to perform even more editorial gymnastics. But in view of the context, especially what’s coming in verses 31-35, I think it’s more likely that we should take these words as having been spoken by Jesus, because he is going to turn the “justified” verdict of the people back on themselves in condemnation, but if one or all of my brother pastors disagree with me, I won’t object or condemn anyone for thinking differently. Our faith does not turn on phantom parentheses, or ghost quotation marks, or the color of the ink in my Bible.
What does it mean, to “declare that God is just”? First, we must understand the relationship between God and any concept of justice. God is not under the law, he is outside the law. He is not subject to our concept of goodness, otherwise we have reduced God to an idol who must do our bidding and obey what we imagine he should do. Luther put it this way: “A man is pious when he acts and lives according to the Law. In God’s case you must invert the order: An act is good because God performs it… Do not dare to apply a law or a standard to God, for he is not a creature; he is immeasurable.” And, “Since God has no law, standard, or limit, he cannot transgress them” (St.L. III:811). Proverbs 16:4 says, “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.” God cannot do evil, and evil is not his creation. Everything God does is good, and it is God who sets the standard of good for us.
So when God was declared to be just (good, righteous, and guilty of nothing; not even any omission) by those who heard John and were baptized, they were proclaiming their faith in what was spoken to them—what they heard. And what they heard was the pronouncement: “For the forgiveness of your sins.” There was nothing left out of that announcement. When Luke reported John’s words, they were eis aphesin harmation (εἰς ἄϕεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν, Luke 3:3), “for the sending away of your failures.” Hamartion is a word that comes from archery. It means “to miss the mark.” It’s a reminder that our sins don’t just include the guilt we inherit from our sinful parents and our sinful grandparents, Adam and Eve, but even the things we try to do to please God and fall short or shoot wide of the target. All of our sins are sent away by our baptism. God has left none of them uncovered or susceptible to further condemnation—that is why he is righteous and just in our eyes (humble and inconsequential as we may be). He has completely rescued and restored us. Having been made holy by God, we recognize holiness for what it is, and we, in turn, can declare, even in such paucity of credentials, that God is just and righteous in all things. It is the kitchen match declaring that the burning sun is also a flame, yet the burning sun has enabled the kitchen match to say so.
Another issue in this passage is the rejection of baptism by the Pharisees, but we will save that for the verses that follow.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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