Winnowing the Heart
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 7:29–7:30
Winnowing the Heart
March 4, 2018
We are in Luke’s Gospel, and we are in an expositional study, as you know. It started some time ago in Luke 1:1, and we have been moving through verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter in Luke’s Gospel. It’s been a rewarding study for our church to rediscover together for ourselves the real story of Christianity. Every now and again it’s good for us to return to the source documents and learn from the Lord Jesus Christ himself—how he defines Christianity, to learn what Christianity really is, what it really teaches. And so we’re learning from the mouth of the Lord himself, from the source documents about his life and ministry to see what this is that we call Christianity.
Currently in our study, we’re in Chapter 7, as I said. We’re in a section of Chapter 7 that focuses on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. We’ve been moving, taking pretty good chunks, and today, I want to slow down just a little bit and fix our attention to just two verses: Luke 7:29 and 30. Those two verses are Luke’s commentary, which helps us, the readers, to see something very significant in this section of Scripture. In each part of the section on John the Baptist—you have verses 18 to 23, you have verses 24 to 28 and then verses 29 to 35—three sections— began with a bit of narrative introduction from Luke. You can see three verses of narrative in the first part—verses 18 to 21. And that comes before we hear Jesus say anything, just because Luke needs to set the context of John’s question for us. And when you look at the next section, just one verse introduces the second part because we’re already in a flow of what Jesus is teaching and saying. Then he introduces this last part—verses 29 to 35—you need to see two verses of introduction from Luke, and they’re unique. Commentators see something unique about this narrative introduction because Luke has really interrupted Jesus’ discourse on John the Baptist, and he’s inserting some commentary there. That’s why we see in some of the modern English translations—like the ESV translation, which many of us use and which I read out of— the translators have set those verses apart for us by the use of parentheses. Those parentheses aren’t available in the Greek text, but they are quite useful sometimes for us in English. Luke’s commentary, set apart, framed in those parentheses—that commentary helps us to see the point of the next part, when Jesus provides a simile about the behavior of children in the marketplace. We’re going to see that next week. But whenever we see something unique like this—Luke interrupting the Lord in the middle of his discourse—when we see something that really writing rightly by the translators here, set apart in brackets and parentheses, it’s a good idea for us to slow down and to pay attention, to really focus and reflect. And that’s what we’re going to do this morning. I trust you’ll find this, hopefully, both rewarding and challenging.
Perhaps you’ve wondered over the years, as I have, why the Gospel writers put so much attention on John the Baptist. It’s probably true to say we’ve all tended to see John as something as a warm-up act for Jesus. You know—once Jesus steps up on the stage of history, John exits stage left, and we kind of forget about him. But that is not the view that God has about John the Baptist. Jesus, obviously, thought much of John, which we see here in his teaching. The Holy Spirit making use of Luke, the Gospel writer, the human author—he’s producing inspired Scripture, which does not allow us to forget about John. What we’ve learned from the Spirit’s inspired text, which records Jesus’ teaching on John, is that God the Father prophesied the necessity of John the Baptist. When you go back, you see the majority of Chapter 1 is about John. The majority of Chapter 3—also about John. A huge section in Chapter 7, a spotlight all through these chapters is shining on John the Baptist so that we’re careful not to forget him, but to reflect on the meaning of his ministry. You see that the brighter the light shines on John, the more we see it actually reflects on Jesus Christ and the more it directs our attention to the glory of Christ. That’s what Jesus said about John the Baptist in John 5 when he was questioned. Jesus said he was a “burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” Then he said this, “The testimony that I have is greater than that of John.” You’ve seen that played out in this text as John’s testimony to Christ, his verbal testimony, his preaching, his prophetic ministry passes off the scene. John is in prison right now. So his voice is effectively silenced, and his voice will forever be silenced when his head’s cut off by Herod.
But even though his voice will be silenced, the testimony that takes the place of John’s voice is Jesus’ works. His works bear witness about him as we see here in the text. “In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.” When Jesus answered John’s question, “Are you the one who is supposed to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus sent John’s disciples back to him saying, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.” The testimony of Jesus Christ is in his works. The Father himself bears witness to those works, having written all these things in Scripture, decreeing these things, declaring all these things. It is vital, then, that we grasp the meaning of John’s ministry. His ministry was to preach a baptism of repentance to prepare the people to receive Jesus’ preaching of the Gospel, to gain the promise of forgiven sin. This message of repentance—it’s essential. It’s really a prerequisite to understanding the Gospel. No one understands the forgiveness of sins who does not first come in an attitude of humble repentance. Take on the forgiveness of God in an attitude of pride and you will not find the forgiveness of God at all. This message of repentance is really a prerequisite then to understand the Gospel and that’s why God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—God directs our attention to a right understanding of John the Baptist. The message of John, the command of this last and greatest of Old Testament prophets—you need to see—and Jesus helps us to see it—was not to be neglected. It was not to be set aside. It wasn’t to be disobeyed or disrespected. With that in mind, take a look at these verses again, verses 29 to 30. We’ll see the consequences of how people responded to John’s ministry. It says this:
When all the people heard this.
Heard what? Going back to verse 26:
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women, none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
So, when the people heard this:
And the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
Two reactions there to John’s baptism ministry. We want to start first and really in the majority of the time this morning—we need to understand the significance of this historical reaction, two reactions, to John and then we’re going to reflect at the end of our time this morning on the implications for all of this for ourselves. And I want to tell you the implications for us are that we must humble ourselves. We must approach all that we’re learning, all that we’re seeing, all that is revealed in Scripture with an attitude of humility, willing to see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness, willing to be repentant, to be teachable and humble in heart. The angel Gabriel told John’s father Zechariah the priest in Luke 1:17 that John would “go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared.” According to Luke 3:5, that preparation work would involve really what we might call excavation deep within the heart. In Luke 3:5 it says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” That’s excavation imagery. That imagery helps us to see that John’s preparation work meant that the humble—those in the valleys—would be lifted up. They would be exalted. And those who are exalted in man’s eyes—the mountains and hills—they would be humbled. And again, that is what I pray the Spirit produces in all of us—a leveling out before God, a leveling out before the Cross, that he produces in us a deep profound sense of humility. God opposes the proud. He gives grace to the humble.
We’re going to see that those two thoughts are outline points for what we’re seeing in these two verses. It should be in your bulletin. The first point to help us understand the significance here is: The Humble Are Exalted. In verses 29 to 30, you can see that Luke has paralleled there three sets of contrast. We see in the first part a contrast between two kinds of people—the humble in verse 29 and the proud in verse 30. We see a contrast between two attitudes of the heart. Justifying God in verse 29, rejecting God in verse 30. We see, thirdly, a contrast between the two opposite responses—obedience in verse 29, disobedience in verse 30. So we’re going to start in verse 29 and notice how Luke portrays the humble in the attitude of their hearts, but then in their response—the manifestation of that attitude of the heart in the response to John’s message of baptism of repentance. It says in verse 29, “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John.”
Let’s start with that first group of people—the humble. “All the people”—Luke describes them as “all the people,” and that draws our attention to really the common people. These are not the educated elite. These are not the politically ambitious. These are not the proud. These are just the regular folks. This is the crowd that followed after Jesus throughout Luke 7. They’re mentioned in verse 9, verse 11 and verse 24—just the common people. They’re drawn out to see the spectacle of a true prophet of God. They’re excited by the prospect of divine ability to come into their life, to intervene, to change their lives. In other words, they’re just common people like you and me—blue collar Galileans. They’re just making a simple, but honest living. They’re tradesmen. They’re artisans, farmers, shepherds, fishermen and the like. And like everybody else on this planet who struggles under the curse of the earth, striving to make a living, they’re groaning under the curse. These are people like you and me. They have marriage conflicts. They have parenting problems. They have old-age issues, struggles with sins. They have seasons of weariness and sorrow. All of that punctuated by moments of joy. Oh, but the weariness! Oh, but the tiredness! It’s a relatively unpretentious people. They’re not in and of themselves conceited, lifted up by their status, by their prominence. Unlike the religious elites, they’re humble enough to acknowledge by their hearty participation and by inconveniencing themselves to go out and see it, they’re acknowledging that what they’re witnessing is something extraordinary. They don’t sit back in critical judgment. They’re not critical-spirited. They’re leaning forward in exited expectation. They are eager to see what John’s ministry means, what Jesus’ ministry means for their lives.
Just to help us see the nature of all the people, Luke adds an “also”—he adds some other people. He lets us know there is a presence of these unsavory types, these unsavory characters called tax collectors. They’re there among the common people. Tax collectors, the telones. We learned about them when we studied Jesus’ call of a tax collector named Levi, who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. We find his calling in Chapter 5. Tax collectors were essentially—in the eyes of everyone in that society—betrayers of their own people. They were willing to look at their own countrymen in the eye and extract money from them, take their hard-earned money, hand it over to the publicans, who were the owners of the tax franchises. And they got those franchises at a high price from Rome. So the tax collectors—they represented the bottom feeders, the seedy underbelly of the Roman oppression. They are the lowest of the low. They kept company with a low-life set of friends. They had to employ a group of bullies, strong-man enforcers who would help them extract the money from those who might have been reluctant to give it up. They partied with others who were of ill repute, those without scruples, those who were eager to help them enjoy the dirty money they earned—those unsavory characters like prostitutes, drunkards—they feasted with the tax collectors at the banquets that they threw. Among the crowds that followed Jesus, it says here the tax collectors came along too.
We saw that in Chapter 3 of Luke, where the tax collectors showed up seeking baptism, along with soldiers, along with the people. They came under conviction when John preached. They found it actually relatively easy to see themselves as the sinners that they were. It didn’t take a whole lot of introspection to make the case that they are guilty and they are vile and they are traitors. They were in much need of John’s baptism, much need of forgiveness. The real issue for them—finding someone willing to forgive them. It was a real challenge. And now, at long last, in the ministry of John the Baptist, in the ministry of Jesus the Christ, they’re hearing something they did not expect to hear—good news. They’re hearing Gospel. They’re hearing the euangelion. By the time Jesus came, they had already acknowledged their sin. They had already entered the waters of baptism to admit that they were unworthy sinners. And now, seeing Jesus’ ministry, hearing him teach, watching him show mercy, watching him heal people, watching him forgive people—they’re prepared to receive him. They’re even eager to receive him. Look, that’s the common sense you find among common people, right? Really? Based on who I am, you’ll forgive me? Done deal! I’ll take that. Common sense. The common sense of guilty sinners who are under conviction—when they see a ministry that they have never seen before, when they hear teaching they have never heard before, they’re not too proud to be excited by it, to go after it, to follow it, to rejoice in it. They are eager to receive. That’s the humble people. There’s all the people, and the tax collectors, too.
Look again at verse 29 and notice what that verse reveals about their heart attitude. Luke tells us, “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too,” then it says, “They declared God just.” Those two indications of an internal attitude of humility. The first indication of their humble attitude is the fact that they heard what Jesus had said. They heard what John had said. That is to say, they were actually listening to him. The common people, the tax collectors, too—they heard Jesus. Ears open to listen indicate a heart open to receiving. They’re teachable people. They have an eagerness to hear, to listen and to receive. That’s the first indication. The second indication of their internal humble attitude is in that next verb that they declared God just. The verb dikaioo—that’s one that’s typically in Scripture freighted with profound theological significance especially when we get into Paul’s epistles and particularly in the epistle to the Romans. The uses of the verb dikaioo in the epistles and especially in Romans is generally salvific—they’re speaking of the divine declaration that the sinner is no longer guilty, but rather because of Christ’s work on the cross, because of the imputation of sinner’s sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness then to the sinner, because of the sinner’s faith in Jesus Christ, God the judge drops the gavel in that courtroom of divine justice and declares that guilty sinner righteous. Not just no longer guilty, but righteous. That’s generally the profound theological weight that term dikaioo carries. But in this context, when it’s all the people and the tax collectors, too—when they are the subjects of the verb dikaioo, and especially here when God is the object of that verb, the word doesn’t have the same meaning. Rather, we’re talking about these people acknowledging the justice of God. We’re talking about their recognizing the righteousness of God.
The way the ESV translates it makes it sound as if when declaring God’s righteousness, they were verbalizing this, they were speaking it out loud, and that’s not exactly what’s going on. We get a better sense from the King James translation, which says, “They justified God,” which can be an internal or an external thing. But then in the NAS, it says, “They acknowledged God’s justice.” That has to do with the judgment of the heart. So the humble people, the common people, the tax collectors, too—they have humble hearts, they have teachable hearts, they’re open to listening and learning, and they hear. Based on what they hear, they are quick to justify God. They are quick to acknowledge his ways as righteous. That’s their internal attitude.
Finally, notice how the internal attitude of the humble is not so much in words here, but in action. Do you want to know what someone really believes? Do you want to know how they really think? Don’t just listen to what they say; watch what they do. See how they live. Notice verse 29 again: “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they acknowledged God as just.” And here is the outward demonstration of that internal judgment—that is to say, “having been baptized with the baptism of John.” You know what they think by what they did. They were obedient to the prophetic command: “Repent and be baptized.” They obeyed John. That’s how we know they justified God. That’s how we know their internal attitude. Don’t just tell me you believe; show me you believe. Don’t just tell me you’re a Christian; show you are a Christian. They obeyed John. That’s how we know they justified God—they acknowledged his ways to be righteous. They did what John instructed them to do. Humble, they recognized God’s call to repentance. It is totally warranted. After all, the common people and the tax collectors, too—they had no problem whatsoever admitting they were guilty, vile sinners, wretched before a holy God. They considered God’s righteous demands through John to be just.
So they were baptized. They entered into the waters of a baptism—it was not a baptism like our baptism, a baptism that represents what has happened to us in salvation—that we are buried—waters represent the ground and we are buried into baptism into death. We’re raised to life in Christ. That’s what the waters of baptism signify. That’s why we believe in believer’s baptism because only a believer can make that profession. John’s baptism, though, was a baptism that was like a Gentile proselyte baptism. It was basically when Gentiles wanted to join themselves to Israel’s God and be followers of Israel’s God and acknowledge that, they had to do some things, and one of them was to enter into proselyte baptism. And that baptism said, “You need to die to your vile, Gentile mess and be brought out of the water as a Jew. You need to go into the waters admitting you’re vile and filthy, and you need to be cleansed and then come back out of the water and join the people of God.” John came preaching that baptism, not just to the Gentiles, but to the Jews. The Jews needed to repent of their pride. They needed to enter the waters that Gentiles also, like soldiers, were entering—and to say, “You know what? I’m no better than this Gentile soldier.” They needed to enter the same waters—oh, get this!—as tax collectors entered. They needed to enter the same waters that prostitutes entered and say, “I am no better than any of them.” These people were willing to do that. They humbled themselves before John, before the watching crowds, before all their friends and family members, even before scrutinizing, criticizing religious leaders—they submitted themselves to John’s baptism. That’s the humble one. The composition of the crowd with the tax collectors, too—the attitude of their hearts is an eagerness to listen as a humble, teachable spirit, and then they responded manifestly, demonstratively in the baptism responding to John’s message of repentance. So the humble here are exalted. They declared God’s ways are righteous. They recognized his ways are righteous. And they aligned themselves with him. That is the essence of being exalted—to be aligned with God himself.
But the crowd—that’s our second point for this morning: The Exalted are Humbled. The exalted, the proud—they’re humbled, they’re brought low. Again, just a reminder of the three sets of contrasts in verses 29 to 30: number one, we’ve got a contrast between the humble and the proud; number two, we have a contrast between heart-attitudes; and number three, we have a contrast between obedience and disobedience. The humble are in verse 29, and now in verse 30 here are the proud: “But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” Luke identifies the proud of heart, and he does so not with an abstract term like “the proud,” like I am using, but with concrete terms, with specific terms of identity that everybody could see—the Pharisees, the lawyers. Everybody knew who they were. Pharisees and lawyers represented the upper crust of Jewish society and culture. The Pharisees represented the religious elite in Israel. The lawyers represented the intellectual elite. The Pharisees are recognized as the most moral, the most ethical. The lawyers are considered the most studied, the most scholarly, the most educated. And together the most moral aligned with the most educated—they aligned to make a formidable team. And they are in opposition to John and Jesus.
The Pharisees are one of four main sects of Jewish religion during the first century. Along with the Pharisees, there were the Essenes. The Essenes were peaceful separatists. They lived in isolation from the cities, the villages. They lived in the wilderness communities, kind of in a commune setting. The zealots were also separatists, but quite a bit less peaceful. They were more radical, more aggressive, more prone to violence, more ready to revolt. Finally, the Sadducees—that’s a sect of theological liberals. The Sadducees in Jewish culture and society—they played an outsized role, a dominant role of influence in Jewish religion because they held positions of power and influence at the temple. They mixed in and took positions in the corrupt priesthood that ran all the temple sacrifices and made lots and lots of money. They constructed a theology that would allow them to make money off of the people. But in contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were not liberals; they were theological conservatives. They were Bible-believers, they were Bible-teachers. In contrast to the zealots, the Pharisees—they didn’t live in revolt, but they lived in submission to the social structures and they worked within the social structures to effect change. In contrast to the Essenes, the Pharisees did not live in isolation, but they were engaged in society. They lived in the towns and villages and cites, and they were intent on changing the culture from within the culture. The Pharisees were the purists, the moralists, the ethicists—those who lived more righteously in Jewish society than other people. They’re wealthy, they’re accomplished, they’re zealous in law-keeping and thus, they’re respected by all, especially the common people.
How about the lawyers? What are they like? Scribes, lawyers, experts in the law. Those are all kind of synonyms of lawyers. The lawyers were the close friends of the Pharisees because of their expertise in interpreting the law. The word for lawyer is nomikos. It’s a word that’s rooted in the word for law, which is nomos. I really like Darrell Bock’s description of the lawyers. He says this, “The lawyer scribes were a specialized group of upper-class Jews who gave themselves the interpretation of the law. They were usually Pharisees, though some had a priestly background or served the temple. Most came from outside the official priesthood from occupations such as merchant or artisan. The key to their authority was their knowledge of the law. To be a scribe, one had to become ordained after years of study at the feet of a rabbi. Three stages were part of a scribe’s schooling. At the beginning, he was simply a pupil who would watch even the gestures of his teacher. But later he took on the position of an un-ordained scholar, which meant that he had mastered the traditional material and the Halakhah methods and could make personal decisions on given questions. And then upon reaching the age of ordination, he became a full scholar. In this position, he could be called “Rabbi,” make religious decisions, act as judge in civil matters and criminal proceedings, and become a recognized teacher of Torah. Thus in religion, government, justice and education, these men had a key role. In their hands was the right to interpret and control the religious tradition.”
That’s a really good description, and you can hear in these nomikos, these nomikoi how they ascend levels of education and expertise. And eventually everyone starts to recognize their education and expertise, and they convey upon them and confer upon them authority and power and control. So the Pharisees, who were laymen, were keen to keep a few of these lawyers close by. Experts who could help them rightly interpret the law, keep up with the opinions and judgments of the scholars and the rabbis. They want to make sure they’re following all the prescriptions of the law just so. Because law-keeping is their avenue to acceptance before God. The group that corresponds best to the Pharisees and lawyers in our own day is the Evangelicals—Evangelical Christians. That is why it’s very important that we listen carefully to this indictment in verse 30 of their attitudes and their obedience—or lack of it. The tendency of Evangelicals is to harbor this pharisaical spirit, a sense of moral superiority over others, an attitude of even sometimes intellectual arrogance. Like the Pharisees and the scribes, we are also theologically conservative. We take pride in that. We desire to live within society and to work within the social structure to effect change. We want to engage the culture. We pat ourselves on the back for being in the mix and engaging the culture, confronting it, changing it from the inside. Look, it’s all okay as far as it goes, but we need to do all that on God’s terms, not the world’s. We need to walk humbly before our God and not in pride, and that starts right here in the attitudes of the heart. It’s all practiced here in the fellowship of the church with fellow-believers, with fellow brothers and sisters uniting together, submitting to one another, serving one another here in the local church. That’s where it happens first. Take it to the outside.
So the composition of this group we’re labeling as the proud is in verse 30. Take a look at the heart attitude revealed in verse 30. We see a heart of pride in this fact: that they “rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” Ultimately, actions reveal the heart attitude, don’t they? And we see it first in that verb “rejected.” They rejected the will of God, the purpose of God for themselves. Atheteo—it’s a very, very strong word, and it means to regard as nothing, to set aside, almost in a spurning or a despising sense. It means to turn one’s back on, to refuse. And that’s what is really noticeable here—how clearly Luke places this verb of atheteo in direct contrast and antithesis to the verb dikaioo—to acknowledge the justice of God, to recognize the righteousness of God. And rather than acknowledge it, rather than recognize it, they spurned it, they rejected it, they turned their backs on it—and that’s an attitude of the heart. Or another way to put it—they treated God’s will with utter contempt. The ESV translates the phrase about the will of God to the “purpose of God.” And that’s fine, but it’s really more direct and personal than the overarching purpose of God. This is much more specific—it’s the boulen of God, the will of God, his revealed will in sending John the Baptist to tell them about it as Pharisees, as scribes, as lawyers—and they rejected it.
The Pharisees and lawyers are spurning not just a general call that goes out to all the people, even though that’s there. They’re spurning here and rejecting here a specific call to them, one that is personal, one that is particular to them and their role in Israel. Do you see that little prepositional phrase “for themselves”—they rejected the will of God, which is specifically for themselves as Pharisees, as lawyers. This will of God had to do with the very special role they fulfilled in Israel. The idea that Luke is conveying here is that the Pharisees and the lawyers, those who are elevated into leadership in Israel, God had a special will for them. They turned their backs on him. What is that special will of God that pertains specifically to the Pharisees, the lawyers, the scribes? Jesus told the people later on, recorded in Matthew 23:2 to 3, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, and do not practice.” In other words, the Pharisees, the lawyers—they sit on Moses’ seat as interpreters and teachers of Moses’ law and that’s why Jesus says, “Do and observe whatever they tell you,” because those are the things that are coming from Scripture. Inasmuch as they could see them connected with Scripture, they need to obey it because it carries the weight of the authority of God himself. Just be careful you don’t do what they do because you need to be on guard against the leaven that’s mixed in with their teaching and that’s this leaven: They don’t follow God in their behavior. That’s hypocrisy, so don’t follow their hypocrisy. As teachers of the law sitting in the seat of Moses, the Pharisees and the lawyers should have been quicker than the common people—and especially the tax collectors—to know the purpose of God, the will of God for themselves as leaders. They are keen observers and interpreters of the Old Testament. After all, they’re educated in the Old Testament—large sections, if not most or all of it, memorized.
I just want to show you a couple of passages that should have stood out to them as leaders. Turn back in your Bibles to Jeremiah Chapter 23. A couple passages in the Old Testament, and there are more, I just want to read a couple. But a couple passages in the Old Testament that really stand as an indictment to the shepherds of Israel. Jeremiah Chapter 23, take a look at this starting in verse 1:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”
Listen, the shepherding situation in Israel—it’s just like today in Evangelicalism in so many churches. The shepherding situation is dire. And the sheep are confused and scattered. They’re dismayed. They don’t know which end is up. They don’t know whom to believe. There are voices everywhere. There are resources everywhere—all conflicting, all telling them to go this direction, that direction. The shepherds of Israel in the days of John the Baptist—it’s these Pharisees, it’s these lawyers, the experts in the law and the prophets. Surely they would have been familiar with texts like this. Let’s keep reading. Verses 5 and 6:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch [Who’s that? Jesus Christ!], and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord [that is, “Yahweh”] is our righteousness.”
The days of the righteous Branch—picture the Messiah. In those days, God will raise up a son of David, a king whose reign is characterized by wisdom, by justice, by righteousness. And by the word of Isaiah and by the word of Malachi, that king would be preceded by a forerunner who was sent ahead of him to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.
With that in mind, turn ahead to Ezekiel to your right, Chapter 34. One more passage here in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 34—this indictment of Israel’s shepherds is even more special, more concrete. And if you’re a shepherd in Israel, if you’re a shepherd at all, this will really grip your heart. As those with a fastidious commitment to righteousness, as biblical scholars, the Pharisees and lawyers had to have been familiar with this text. Look at what is says in Ezekiel 34:1 to 10:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.”’”
What is he saying? “You are fleecing the flock.” Do you ever see that going on today in evangelicalism? Do you ever see that going on in the wider Christians of the world? You sure do. They extract from the sheep, feed themselves with fat, and then clothe themselves. They pad their bank accounts with the sheep’s resources. Verse 4, the weak—even worse than what they do in a negative way is what they don’t do in a positive way:
“The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘As I live,’ declared the Lord God, ‘surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild breasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”
That is a terrifying indictment if you’re a shepherd. God here is called El Roeh, the Shepherd of Israel. Shepherds of Israel feeling themselves? Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
I want you to turn to one more passage. It’s over in the New Testament. It sounds very familiar. Matthew 23. Things had not become better since the days of Jeremiah, since the days of Ezekiel. When John the Baptist arrived on the scene, nothing had changed. In Matthew 23, you can actually make a case that things are worse in Israel than they were in the days of Jeremiah or in the days of Ezekiel because these scribes and these Pharisees—these experts in the law—had scrolls full of these passages. They could read for themselves, interpret for themselves, study for themselves. They could see where Israel’s shepherds went wrong. They had more light, more revelation, more truth. They could avoid these errors. They could walk in humility. They could love and feed the sheep. That’s not what they did. Look at Matthew 23:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fingers long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father who is heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Look, the whole chapter goes on like that—indictment after painful, excruciating indictment. Verse 12, though, is the perfect place to stop for our purposes this morning, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” There it is. That’s the problem. Go ahead and turn back to Luke 7, verse 30. The problem is that these Pharisees, these scribes, these experts of the Law of Moses sitting in the seat of Moses—they’re not willing to crawl down off their throne, their seat of Moses, to humble themselves, to submit to John’s baptism. They will not get wet for this. “The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” What was the will of God for them? Simply this: Those who are known for righteousness, those who were known for expertise in the Law of Moses—God’s will for them was that they would act like the leaders that they were, and they would lead the people in humility and obedience. God’s will for them is that they humble themselves, that they go before the people, that they even stoop farther, that they go before the tax collectors, before the dregs of society and enter in together as brothers-in-arms to say, “I’m just like you. I need to be baptized, too.” God’s will was for them—if they were going to be leaders—to lead out by entering first into the waters of John’s baptism, to admit first that you’re a wretched sinner, admit that you’re in need of repentance, you’re eager to find forgiveness from the Messiah.
Look, humility is at a premium for those in spiritual leadership. It always has been; it always will be. In Jesus’ day, this need for humility was particularly acute because the stakes are so high. They themselves are witnessing John. They’re hearing from John. They’re seeing Jesus in his miracles. The stakes are really high for them. John came preaching a baptism of repentance. “The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God [God’s will] for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” They’re too good for that; whereas the common people, the tax collectors and all the rest were unpretentious, teachable. They were eager to receive John’s ministry. They were eager to acknowledge sin—personal sin, specific sin, not just, “Yeah, I’m a sinner in general, but you know what? Let me tell you all the ways that I sinned just this week. Let me describe to you my sins of behavior and thought and word, the things that I didn’t do that I should and the things that I did do, but I shouldn’t.” Can you people acknowledge sin of a specific level for yourselves? Or do you speak in vague generalities before your brothers and sisters before whom we ought to be humble? Do you confess sin as sin? Do you repent of your own personal sin toward other people? Not the religious leaders. They’re arrogant. You can’t teach them a thing. They’re obstinate, they’re hard-hearted, and they’re stiff-necked. There’s no sense of self-reflection whatsoever. There’s no self-examination. The common people, though, in humility, at least here, demonstrate their acknowledgement of God’s righteous will, obedience to his command. And that’s how they demonstrate it. Religious leaders, though—they’re stiff-necked and proud. They spurn God’s will not only for all the people, but for themselves in particular because leaders ought to be leading out in humility and repentance.
Can I speak to you in this church who lead in any capacity? My fellow pastors and elders, you who serve the church as deacons, you teachers in whatever capacity, you who lead in various ministries, you who aspire to those positions of influence and authority—which is a good thing—those of you who may have been Christians for a long, long time with plenty of experience, churches and ministries, you have some level of training and expertise and familiarity, some biblical knowledge—listen, beloved, these two verses provide an especially clear warning to all of us. Let’s not be like the Pharisees and the lawyers of Jesus’ day who ignored this. Let’s learn the lesson. We’ve got the written record before us. Let’s not do what they did. Let’s hear it. This is the clarion call—that we lead others in a spirit of humility, teaching others by demonstrating our repentant heart, humble teachable attitudes. Are you doing that? Are you living that way? Or, are you like the Pharisees and the teachers of law—always the critic, always censorious and smug? Never the humble penitent, but always a bit aloof, arms crossed, staring down other people, looking at the soft-hearted—those with a willing spirit—with a bit of, you know, self-righteous disdain?
It might be good for all of us—whether or not we’re in any position of leadership, whether or not we’re in a more mature or less mature stage of life—it might be good for us to assess our spiritual condition just based on the contrast in these two verses. I believe that’s why these verses are set apart so clearly by Luke and I believe the Holy Spirit would have us examine ourselves according to the contrast we’ve just studied. Think prayerfully and honestly and ask yourself some questions. Are you just following with the contrasting elements of those verses there—the kind of person that you really are, the attitude of your heart, the true nature of your obedience to God? First of all, with whom do you identify in these verses? Do you willingly, eagerly count yourself among the riffraff? Are you with the common people and the tax collectors, too? Or are you breathing the exalted air of the Pharisees, the righteous ones, the lawyers, the educated ones? Be careful you don’t answer that question too quickly because as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount, we understand hypocrisy is blinding. Self-deception can be powerful enough to dull your perception about yourself. You’ve got this protruding log sticking straight out of your eye—you can’t see clearly because all your vision is blocked by a log! If you’re immediate response here to these questions is to justify yourself, to think that I’m talking to someone else and not to you, then, my friend, I may very well be talking about you. If you’re always the teacher and never the humble student, if you’re always the corrector and never the repenter, if you rarely see fault in yourself, if you rarely confess specific sins to real, individual people and ask them to forgive you for committing those specific sins, then, yes, I’m talking about you. But if you immediately identify with the tax collectors and the sinners and that self-assessment to how you present yourself and say, “Yeah, I identify with them,”—if that wouldn’t shock others who really know you, if you count the common sinners who repent and believe, who are humble and teachable—if you count them as your dear brothers and dear sisters, closer to you than flesh and blood of family, then you are identifying with the right people.
Here’s a second question: What is your attitude about God’s judgments, God’s wisdom, God’s revealed will? Are you like the people and the tax collectors who are hearing the words of Christ, reflecting on the call to repentance, and you are thoughtful in self-examination? Or, are you like the Pharisees and the lawyers—too full of your own wisdom and learning to really consider how the Scripture applies to you in personal, specific, concrete ways? Do you spurn God’s Word when it speaks directly to you, disdaining it by ignoring it? Your attitude toward God’s Word is evident and manifest and demonstrable in either obedience or disobedience. What do you see in your life?
Here’s a third question: Do you obey what God has revealed? Are you obedient from the heart to what is written? We taught our kids growing up this little saying about obedience, “Do you obey God all the way, right away, with a happy heart?” Are you concerned in your life with only external conformity to God’s Word, like the Pharisees and the lawyers, or are you attentive to the internal heart attitudes, as well? What’s revealed in your speech and in your conversation? What about your internal attitudes and your judgments? Starting with the preaching of John the Baptist, are you a repentant person, one who searches carefully for sin in your life whether it’s in your behavior or your speech patterns or your habits of thinking? And when you find anything sinful, do you cultivate a habit of putting off that sin and replacing it with the righteous counterpart? Because, beloved, that’s what the humble do. They fear the Lord, “having been baptized with the baptism of John.” Or are you an unrepentant person? Are you indifferent to holiness? Are you sluggish about spiritual growth? Are you coasting in your Christian life? Have you become sinfully content with your level of growth, rather tired about repentance, uninterested in the things of God? Do you really believe that you find nothing much in your life to repent about? Because if you do, my friend, I think you may be in grave danger of being self-deceived.
The people in verse 30 right out of the gate—they’re outside the will of God, dead in their trespasses and sins. They came to the wrong judgment. They did the wrong thing. On the other hand, the people in verse 29—they are in a ready and prime condition to receive the ministry of Jesus Christ. As I mentioned last week, historically speaking, many of the people in verse 29—not all of them, but many of them—they would end up following the people of verse 30. Those who were receiving John’s baptism at first ended up being swayed and persuaded by the people of verse 30 who rejected it. They rejected Christ. They called for his crucifixion. And that’s why Jesus’ warning in the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount is so vital. We’re to be careful who we follow as spiritual leaders. Don’t follow blind guides, who are blinded by their won pride, self-deception. Look for the fruit of humility, reachability; look for the fruit of an attitude of repentance and leading out that way; look at the actions of confessing sin, asking for forgiveness; look for the fruit of loving confrontation and insistence upon righteousness because spiritual leadership like that provides safe examples for you to follow to find Christ.
Let’s pray. Father, we ask that you would affect every heart here, that none of us would leave with a proud and unrepentant heart, that every single one of us would feel the weight of this confrontation, really, and find ourselves coming before you in humility because your Word says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Give us the humility that we need to see ourselves rightly, to repent according to your truth. And to give ourselves wholeheartedly to you in humility of repentance. We thank you for what you’ve done already in our midst, and we just pray that we would carry that work onto completion. In the name of Jesus Christ, for his glory and your honor, Amen.