Jesus said that John the Baptist was as great as or greater than anyone who had ever lived. His hearers might have thought the greatest was Abraham, the father of the nation, or Moses, the one who made it a nation, bringing freedom from slavery and giving them the commandments from God. How could they not be greater than John?
It certainly wasn’t a matter of fame or wealth or power. Though John was famous, he was probably nowhere near as famous as some people in history. He might have been a powerful preacher, but he had no political power and could not enforce his message. John’s greatness lay in his role as the forerunner of the Messiah from God. The Messiah himself was probably reckoned by Jews to be the most important person who would ever live; it was believed that he would lead them out of their current slavery to Rome and into a glorious, perfect world, the kingdom of God. Having the task of preparing the way for the Messiah, and the privilege of clapping eyes on him, were what make John great. All the other prophets spoke of the distant future; John spoke of what would happen next.
Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he. The implication was that John was not yet in the kingdom of heaven. However great he was, however important the work he was doing for God, that was not a qualification for the kingdom of heaven. John’s problem was his lack of faith in Jesus. John had great faith in his message that the Messiah was coming; yet despite identifying Jesus as the Messiah, he still had doubts – Jesus was not behaving as he expected.
Notice that Jesus did not go out of his way to convince John. He simply pointed to the way he was fulfilling prophecy, though not the prophecies of judgement and a new world that John had in mind. Jesus wanted John to work it out for himself – to take a step of faith, a step into the dark, as everyone who enters the kingdom has to do. Jesus does not dot the ‘i’s or cross the ‘t’s for us, to make faith compelling.
Note the other side to this: anyone in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the greatest person this world can produce. True greatness is a matter of relationship with God – whatever the tabloids might have us believe. Faith in Jesus is the one thing we need for greatness. Having that, we are great!
Our greatness is not what we rejoice in, however. We rejoice in the kingdom of God: it will definitely come, and it will be perfect. We rejoice in the greatness of God, especially as we see it in Jesus. And we rejoice in his amazing love, which has invited us to share his joy for ever.
1) How does this passage help us get ready for Jesus’ coming?
2) How does this passage challenge or uphold your ideas of greatness?