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‘Never man spake like this man!’

Michael Hardt

How the Lord Jesus responded to unhelpful comments

Christ as man demonstrated every moral beauty. All that God ever wanted to see in man was exhibited in Him. As the bride exclaims in The Song of Songs: ‘Yea, he is altogether lovely’ (5:16). In this article we focus on one aspect of His moral glory, namely the way it was reflected in the words He spoke. With His help, we will see the truth of another verse in the same chapter: ‘his lips like lilies’ (5:13).

Speaking the right word at the right time is like rare art: ‘As apples of gold in pictures of silver, is a word spoken in season’ (Prov. 25:11). The tongues of sinful men, on the other hand, can be sharp instruments wreaking havoc: ‘They sharpen their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips’ (Ps. 140:3). The ‘strife of tongues’ (Ps. 31:20) is a terrible thing. Even as believers we need to be warned because the tongue, if used in the wrong way, can cause great damage, just as a small fire can set ablaze a great forest (Jas. 3:2–12).

The words spoken by the Lord Jesus stand in stark contrast to all this. His speech was always appropriate and full of beauty and yet powerful. From the outset of His ministry His word was ‘with authority’ (Luke 4:32), and yet it was attractive. Even the officers sent to take Him came back empty-handed and, when challenged, had to confess, Never man spake like this man’ (John 7:46).

It is particularly difficult to speak the right words when other people make comments that are ‘unhelpful’. How easy it is to be dragged down by unhelpful comments and to respond in a similarly unhelpful way. Not so with the Lord. His word was ‘always with grace’ and yet ‘seasoned with salt’ (Col. 4:6).

Example 1: ‘Art thou the coming one?’

In Luke 7 we find a delicate situation. The disciples of John the Baptist come to the Lord Jesus and convey to Him John’s question: ‘Art thou he that is coming, or are we to wait for another?’ (vs. 19, 20). The doubts underlying this question must have been painful for the Lord. He was Messiah, Son of God, become Son of man. He had performed the most wonderful miracles ever. What made the question even more painful was that it was asked by the one who was sent to be His herald!

It is remarkable how the Lord responds. With perfect calm and gentleness He says ‘Go, bring back word to John of what ye have seen and heard’ (v. 22). He had no desire to expose the momentary weakness and lapse of confidence of His servant John. But nor can He deny who He is. His beautiful answer has two elements:

  • First, the Lord pointed out the signs He had wrought: ‘how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached’. The allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy must have been plain to John’s disciples — only that the miracles witnessed went beyond those that, according to Isaiah 35, would accompany the coming of Messiah: He includes: ‘the dead are raised’. The implication was clear: Messiah was there. But the way the fact is pointed out is so remarkable: it is full of grace, pointing to the miracles of grace accomplished.
  • Then He added a brief but weighty comment for John’s benefit: ‘and blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in me’ (v. 23). To be offended, in biblical language, means to fall or stumble. The Lord’s words amount to a very tactful and delicate warning to John. He should not stumble in the sense of failing to recognise the Lord’s glory and His claims as the coming one. But the very warning is couched in a benediction. Instead of saying ‘I am worried about you; make sure you don’t fall’, He says ‘blessed are those …’. It was a graciously veiled message designed to warn and at the same time encourage John but without blaming him or deprecating him in the eyes of the messengers.

The messengers had left — but the Lord had not yet finished with the question they had asked. He now adds a few more words, this time addressed to the bystanders who had witnessed this exchange. The Lord was no doubt mindful of the danger that these people might now look down on John the Baptist. Again, the Lord’s answer has two elements:

  • First, He defends His servant (yes, the one who had just failed, and asked, ‘Art thou he that is coming?’). He points out that John was ‘more excellent than a prophet’ (v. 26) and indeed the very herald announced by Malachi (v. 27; Mal. 3:1). John had just failed to confess who Christ was, but Christ does not fail to confess who John was! John had just failed to be a good herald, and Christ answers by stating John’s credentials as herald. The sons of Korah put it well: ‘Thou art fairer than the sons of men; grace is poured into thy lips …’ (Ps. 45:2).
  • Second, having defended His servant, He also wanted to reach the consciences of His hearers. ‘To whom therefore shall I liken the men of this generation, and to whom are they like?’ (v. 31). In answering this question He uses the picture of children playing in the market but not reacting to any tune: ‘We have piped to you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept’ (v. 32). They had rejected John’s melancholic tune (he had ‘come neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and ye say, He has a demon’) but they equally rejected the Lord’s joyful ‘tune’ (‘The Son of man has come eating and drinking, and ye say, Behold an eater and wine-drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners’). Would they continue to behave like unresponsive children or would they start listening to the voice of wisdom? Only the children of wisdom would do this, and, in this way, wisdom would be justified by them (vs. 33–35). This is beautifully exemplified in the next incident where a child of wisdom enters the house of a Pharisee (from v. 36).

Example 2: ‘Send them away’

A little later in Luke’s gospel we come to the incident of the 5,000 being fed (from 9:10). The disciples’ advice was: ‘send the multitude away’ (v. 12). It seems that this was not just a spontaneous comment but the outcome of deliberation — no particular disciple is singled out. Instead, it says ‘then came the twelve, and said unto him’. They had considered the facts and reached their conclusion. On the face of it, their advice was pragmatic. And yet it would have resulted in the crowds being sent away hungry and emptyhanded. This was not the Saviour’s way. How does He respond to the disciples’ cold pragmatism? His words are, again, full of beauty: ‘give ye them to eat’ (v. 13). Not only did He want the crowds to be fed but also He wanted to use the disciples — cold-hearted though they might have seemed — in the very work of providing for the multitude. May we learn of our Master. The words from His lips are ‘as lilies’.

Example 3: ‘Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’

In Luke 10, a lawyer comes to the Lord (v. 25). The question he asks appears to be an excellent one. But the Lord looks through the facade. This man had come to tempt Him.

As a matter of fact his question spoiled the atmosphere of the chapter. The Lord had sent out the 70 disciples on a special mission of grace. He was occupied with names written in heaven, with the Father being revealed, with the wonderful fruits of grace. He ‘rejoiced in spirit’ (v. 21) and pronounced a special blessing on the eyes that saw these wonderful things (v. 23) — things that had never been told before. But the lawyer appears completely insensitive to the lofty atmosphere of the moment. His question is an entirely legalistic one: ‘What shall I do …?’ or, ‘having done what …?’

However, the Lord does not send this man away with a harsh answer. His response aims at two things: to convict the self-righteous lawyer of his ruin and failure to keep the law, and to present the mercy of God. How does He do this? First, He points out that the requirement of the law is to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (something no honest person would claim to fulfil). Second, when the lawyer seeks to evade the issue by asking ‘who is my neighbour?’ the Lord tells the parable of the Samaritan. In doing so He makes it clear that true mercy is only found with God. It is only the despised Samaritan who loves his neighbour as himself. Where all men had failed the Lord goes back to divine love, to the touching tale of one who, after priest and Levite had walked past, came to the place of need (‘where he was’: v. 33). This is what it meant to love one’s neighbour as oneself — and if the lawyer, as all others, had failed in this then he, as all others, needed to recognise himself as fallen amongst thieves and in need of (not ‘doing something’ but) the grace and mercy of the Samaritan.

In all this the Lord’s approach was exceedingly tactful and disarming. Instead of exposing the lawyer straight away He gives him opportunity to show his knowledge of the law and use his ability to quote from it verbatim. Then, instead of telling him that he had failed the Lord guides him, with the help of questions, to admit this himself (if he was not sure who his neighbour was then surely he had not loved him as himself). And when the lawyer seeks to evade the issue the Lord opens up the tale of grace.

Example 4: A two-pronged challenge

Next we come to an occasion in Luke 11 where the Lord was both attacked and challenged. The attack was: ‘But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils’ (v. 15). The challenge was that others, ‘tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven’ (v.16).

The insinuation of casting out demons through the power of Beelzebub was grave blasphemy because it was by the power of the Spirit that the Lord had cast out the demon. It was also highly provocative but the Lord’s answer is calm and clear. He uses the picture of a divided kingdom that, fighting against or within itself, has no power and will not stand. He explains that Satan is not so foolish as to combat his own servants. But the Lord does not just correct a misconception. His answer goes far deeper than a merely intellectual rebuttal.

In verse 19, He makes the point that His attackers knew better. They had first-hand experience through their sons. They accused the Lord against better knowledge. Therefore, their sons would be their judges. Second, He points out that there was only one plausible explanation: if the strong man (Satan) had been overcome by a stronger one, the latter must be God. Hence, their opposition against Christ was opposition against God: ‘if by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God is come upon you’ (v. 20).

The Lord had not yet responded to the second challenge (‘give us a sign’) when He was interrupted by a woman who came and ‘lifting up her voice out of the crowd, said to him, Blessed is the womb that has borne thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked’ (v. 27). You might have classified her exclamation as rather emotional (as no doubt it was), and misguided (which, to some extent, it was as well). How would the Lord respond to this? Again we find a beautiful answer: ‘Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it’ (v. 28). In the first instance, the Lord picks up on the point this lady is seeking to make. She had realised that Christ was not like others, that He stood out from the crowd, and that there was blessing in being associated with Him. What she had not understood was how this could be brought about. The best she could think of were natural bonds and, therefore, His mother would be uniquely blessed. She was indeed blessed among women but there were blessings for others, and these were even higher than Mary’s: ‘blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it’. The key to being linked with Christ was not a natural relationship but a spiritual one. All hinged on receiving God’s word, ‘hearing’ and ‘keeping’ it.

Having graciously dealt with the interruption, the Lord turns to the challenge: ‘a sign from heaven’. They wanted to see a miracle, and it had to be an astounding one — something so outstanding that there would be no option but to recognise it as ‘from heaven’. The Lord knew that they said this ‘tempting him’ (v. 16). Again, how could one possibly respond ‘with grace’ and yet ‘seasoned with salt’? The Lord did: ‘This generation is a wicked generation: it seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it’, said He, offering the right amount of salt. But then He continued, ‘but the sign of Jonas’ (v. 29). The sign of Jonas was not a sign from heaven but a sign from the deep, from the depth of the sea! Jonah in the fish’s belly pointed to Christ gone into death (Matt. 12:40). The sign they needed was not some sort of jaw-dropping miracle but a sign from the deep, the Son of man enduring death for the sins of others. Even in the face of such hardening and opposition the Lord presents Himself graciously as the one who had come to suffer for, and save, sinners.

Example 5: ‘Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me’

In the next chapter, a man comes to the Lord and says: ‘Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me’ (12:13). Again, we wonder what the right response might be. Very calmly, the Lord replied: ‘Man, who established me as a judge or a divider over you?’ (v. 14). The concept of inheritance was anchored in the law (Num. 27:11; 36; Deut. 21:17). Was there anything wrong with receiving an inheritance, or with dividing the inheritance righteously? Surely not. But getting involved would have given the wrong impression. The Lord had come to ‘seek and to save that which is lost’, not to make people richer materially. He makes this point with the help of a question. He had not come as judge in temporal matters, nor as divider of inheritances. The man had mistaken His mission. Again, His word was with grace, but seasoned with salt.

Example 6: ‘Are there few that be saved?’

In Luke 13 a man asks, Are there few that be saved?’ (v. 23). On other occasions the Lord had spoken about the abundance of fruit (for example, 30, 60, 100-fold: see Mark 4:20; ‘much fruit’: John 12:24) but here the number of those who would be saved was not the issue. This question may have tickled the inquirer’s curiosity but the real question was whether he himself was saved. In admirable wisdom the Lord sees through the question, apprehends the need of the questioner and gives a response designed to meet his need (not his curiosity): ‘Strive with earnestness to enter in through the narrow door, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter in and will not be able’ (v. 24). He urges him to make sure that he himself would enter in, and to do so quickly before it is too late (v. 25)

This person had addressed Him as ‘Lord’ (v. 23) — another detail the Lord took account of and dealt with in His reply: a time would come when some would say, ‘Lord, open to us’ only to receive the response, ‘I know you not whence ye are …’ (v. 25). A profession of the lips without inward reality would bring no benefit at all. What is also striking here is that the Lord’s answer was not designed to demonstrate His own knowledge but to help the inquirer.

Example 7: ‘Depart hence; for Herod will kill thee’

Just a little later we read of some Pharisees coming up to the Lord, saying boldly, ‘Depart hence: for Herod will kill thee’ (v. 31). Whether they said this in open opposition or under the pretence of wanting to protect the Lord, it was an offensive thing to say to the true Messiah, who was the Son, the heir (20:14). The Lord’s answer, again, is very instructive. First, He exposes Herod’s character by calling him a fox — foxes spoil the vineyard (Sgs. 2:15). Second, He points out His own work in casting out demons and in healing the sick. He had a positive work to do, a work of grace, and it was not up to Herod to end or even constrain the Lord’s labours of love. Then, after three days, the moment would come when He would actually die (not before and not afterwards, irrespective of Herod’s schemes and intentions). The Lord uses two expressions for this event: to be ‘perfected’ and to ‘perish’ (‘it must not be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem’ (v.33):

  • ‘Perfected’ is the divine side. The Lord’s ministry and life on earth would not be cut short, nor interrupted, but completed — right through to the end. The Lord Himself would be ‘completed’ or ‘made perfect’ in the sense that His work of atonement was part of His pathway and He was to become the Saviour (compare Heb. 2:10 and 5:9 where the same word is used).
  • ‘Perish’ is the side of responsibility — of Herod, the Pharisees, and the whole nation. Many prophets had been slain; Jerusalem was renowned as ‘the city that kills the prophets’ (Matt. 23:37) and their guilt would be brought to a climax by killing (as far as their responsibility was concerned) the greatest of the prophets, even the Saviour.

But He adds another point, using a touching simile. If Herod was a fox then He presents Himself under the figure of a hen: ‘how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings’ (v. 34). The hen cares and protects; the fox attacks and spoils. They had rejected the hen and had become the prey of the fox. The Lord, like a hen, would have gathered and protected them but He solemnly adds, ‘and ye would not!’

Can any believer contemplate these words without admiring their beauty and feeling compelled to bow before the Lord who was calm in the face of insult and whose love was not chilled by opposition? We have only been able to consider briefly a small sample of the words He spoke, and we feel how our words are pale and shallow compared to His which are of such profound depth and yet simplicity. 

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We can only encourage one another to seek these out and to ‘eat’ them (Jer. 15:16). Think of the grace and beauty of even His briefest utterances: ‘Give me to drink’ (John 4:7), ‘Go in peace’ (Luke 7:50), ‘fear not’ (Luke 8:50) and ‘Child, arise’ (Luke 8:54). Or who would dare to express an open invitation like ‘come unto me …’ — not to people who were entertaining or popular but to all those who were ‘heavy laden’? And, for that matter, who would have been able to add the promise, ‘and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28)? Consider His words and you will soon begin to wonder with those in the synagogue in Nazareth ‘at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth’ (Luke 4:22). Then consider His challenges — ‘Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’ (Matt. 8:26), ‘Follow me’ (8:22), ‘Will ye also go away?’ (John 6:67) and ‘but where are the nine?’ (Luke 17:17) — and you will feel the power and depth of His words. Whether speaking to men or women, to individuals or crowds, in relative comfort or under pressure, His words were always ‘spoken in season’ (Prov. 25:11) and full of beauty. ‘How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ (Ps. 119:103).