As we walk through these studies in Luke, we need to understand the difference between the attitudes of John the Baptist, Simon the Pharisee and the sect of the Pharisees and the Jewish authorities. Jesus warned of the blessings that were meant to go to the Jews but would ultimately go to the gentiles, if the Jews wouldn’t repent and receive the Gospel Jesus preached (cf. Luke 4:24-27). History reveals that the Jews, as a whole, didn’t believe Jesus, so the Gospel eventually went out to the gentiles, and they were granted the privilege of preaching the word of God to the world throughout this age, something up to the 1st century AD had been granted only to the Jews. Yet, one has to wonder about at least some believers. John the Baptist (Luke 7:18-23) and Simon the apostle of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) show they doubted Jesus was the Messiah. Why were they excused, but the Pharisees and the Jewish lawyers punished?
First of all, we need to understand what the Pharisees and the rabbis understood and did. Luke first makes mention of them in Luke 5:17. They were present when Jesus healed the man stricken with palsy (Luke 5:24). At first they took issue with Jesus’ forgiving the man his sins (Luke 5:20-21). The Jews understood physical ailments were caused by sins, so Jesus asked what difference his choice of words made. If healing a man also forgave his sins, why wouldn’t forgiving a man’s sins heal him? When Jesus told the one stricken with palsy to take up his bedding and go home, and the man did so, the Pharisees and lawyers were astonished, saying these were strange things they had never considered up to that point (Luke 5:26; Mark 2:12).
On another occasion these same authorities took issue with Jesus’ disciples, who plucked the tops of the wheat in a certain field. Then, after rubbing them together between their hands, they ate the seeds on the Sabbath day (Luke 6:1-2). The Pharisees, however, concluded Jesus’ disciples were breaking the Sabbath. Nevertheless, their understanding was clearly wrong, in that the Sabbath was not a fast day or a day of mourning. Rather it was a day of joy, celebrating God’s work of creation. Jesus pointed out that, if the work of the priests profane the Sabbath, yet they are blameless (Matthew 12:5), and David showed himself to be lord over the things in the Temple, which takes precedence over the Sabbath (cf. Luke 6:3-4), then the Messiah (David’s greater Son) is Lord of the Sabbath.
In other words, Jesus showed everything he did was not only in agreement with the Scriptures, but it didn’t deny the basic claims of the Pharisees’ doctrines. Afterward, these very men laid a trap for Jesus in order to accuse him of wrongdoing (Luke 6:6-7), and when the trap failed, they became furious and tried to negotiate with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Luke 6:11; cf. Mark 3:6). So, the Pharisees and rabbis (lawyers) made a specific choice to disbelieve Jesus. They couldn’t find fault with him, yet they worked against him anyway. They decided that what they were doing was good enough, and they didn’t need to investigate Jesus’ claims (cf. Luke 5:39).
On the other hand, both John the Baptist and Simon, the apostle (also called Simon the Pharisee), were confused over what they had come to believe about the Messiah, and what they saw or heard of Jesus doing. Jesus didn’t fit into their doctrines very well. John sent two disciples to inquire of Jesus and thereby confronted his doubt. Jesus offered him a logical reply that addressed his doubt, and Luke implies John understood and was at peace with both his fate and what Jesus was doing.
When Simon made a supper in Jesus honor and began doubting Jesus could be the Messiah, Jesus confronted him in a private conversation. Simon understood what Jesus meant by forgiving sin and healing (Luke 7:40-43; cf. Luke 5:20-26), but, apparently he didn’t keep this in mind, as he considered that the woman (a “sinner”) touched Jesus, which violated his pharisaical understanding of clean and unclean (Luke 7:36-39). How could Jesus permit her to do this, if he were a prophet of God? Nevertheless, once Jesus corrected the thoughts of his heart, Simon seems to have repented, because he made no objection when Jesus told the woman, whom we know to be Mary Magdalene (cf. Luke 8:2), that her sins were forgiven (Luke 7:48), but the other guests at the table, whom we can presume to be other Pharisees and rabbis, objected to Jesus’ words (Luke 7:49).
Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a choice, but doubt is a legitimate lack of understanding, which seeks to correct itself through either finding out new information (Luke 7:22-23) or receiving and accepting a logical explanation (Luke 7:40-48). Unbelief isn’t satisfied with additional information (cf. Luke 7:31-35) or any logical explanation, no matter what form that might take (Luke 5:20-26; 6:1-5).