“What is the meaning of the phrase, ‘justified God,’ in Luke 7:29? Isn’t God just already? How could man possibly ‘justify’ God?”
First, let us take a look at the full text in which the phrase is found.
“I say unto you, among them that are born of women there is none greater than John: yet he that is but little in the kingdom of God is greater than he. And all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him” (Lk. 7:28-30).
Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets foretold the ministry of John the Baptizer. John would be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, making ready the way for the Messiah, who was to appear presently (Isa. 40:3-5).
The Old Testament concludes with a reference to John’s mission of conditioning the hearts of Israel with a view to the ministry of Jesus, the promised Redeemer (Mal. 4:5-6).
John came on the Palestinian terrain declaring that the promised Messiah was coming, and that the Jews must believe the glad tidings regarding him (Mk. 1:14-15). In addition he demanded repentance and confession of sin on the part of his people (Mt. 3:5-9). He also instructed his audiences that they must be immersed in water “for remission of sins” (Mk. 1:4).
Many of those who heard John preach were genuinely impressed with his message. Multitudes sought him out in the valley of the Jordan river and submitted to his baptism (Mt. 3:5).
Others (e.g., some of the Pharisees and Sadducees) were insincere. They requested his baptism out of base motives. God’s prophet rebuked these “offspring of vipers,” and he demanded that they bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.
It was out of this background that Luke’s comments were issued.
Who Responded to John’s Message?
The inspired writer notes that John’s message found some of its most fertile soil in the despised elements of antique society.
A significant representation of the publicans, for example — who were hated because of their collaboration with Rome in the collection of taxes — were drawn to John, just as they were to Christ later on (cf. Mt. 9:11; 10:3; 21:31; Lk. 5:29-30; 7:34).
Luke, therefore, declares that “all the people” [i.e., vast numbers] and the publicans “justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John” (Lk. 7:29).
The participle, “being baptized,” explains how the “justification” took place.
Certainly God was not justified in the same sense that sinners are justified. Rather, these obedient folks, by their acceptance of John’s message, acknowledged that God was just in giving the ordinance of baptism.
Conversely, those who rejected John’s preaching (e.g., certain Pharisees and lawyers), “rejected for themselves the counsel of God” (Lk. 7:30).
To obey God is to honor him as being just. When one rejects the Lord’s commands, he, in effect, condemns the Creator! He implies that Heaven was unjust in issuing the requirement.
J. H. Thayer’s comment upon this passage is right to the point. He says that in accepting John’s requirement, the people and publicans “declared God to be righteous, i.e. by receiving the baptism [they] declared that it had been prescribed by God rightly” (150).
The latest edition of the Danker, Arndt & Gingrich lexicon notes that the tax-collectors who were immersed by John “affirmed God’s uprightness,” or, to say the same thing in another way, they “ruled in God’s favor” (Bauer, 249).
What About Today?
If this censure could be pronounced against those who rejected the immersion administered by John, what could be said regarding those who resist the baptism commissioned by Him who possessed far more authority than John?
And what does this imply regarding those who insist that one need not submit to the baptism commanded by Jesus, in order to obtain pardon from their sins? In fact, they adamantly deny the connection. What are they saying about God?
For further study of John’s work, see Who Was John the Baptist?