Greatness is something to which most people aspire and dream. Very few people want to be unimportant. Most want to accomplish something that they consider to be great. And if it is great in the eyes of the world, so much the better. We want to do something or say something that affects the lives of those around us in a better way. We want to have a sense that we have accomplished something noteworthy and admirable.
The problem is that this desire to be great often causes us to get our priorities completely wrong. Although it could be argued that ambition for greatness has led to many good things, it is also undeniable that it has led to very bad things. Ambition for greatness produces men like Alexander the Great – a man who, in order to quench his thirst for greatness had his father’s wife and child murdered in cold blood. He achieved greatness, but at what cost? A desire for greatness can cause even good men to go wrong and to forget the law of love. Jesus at one point had to rebuke his disciples for disputing who among them would be the greatest (Mk. 9:33-37). He taught them that the way to be truly first was not in the way that the world seeks greatness, for the one who would be first must “be last of all, and servant of all” (ver. 35).
Worst of all, however, ambition to be great leads people down a path that is essentially godless. The desire to be great as the world counts greatness is antithetical to faith in Christ. We see this in the apostle John’s assessment of the religious people in his day who rejected Christ: “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn. 12:42- 43). Our Lord himself put it this way in a question: “How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that comes from God only?” (Jn. 5:44).
And yet our Lord’s words about John the Baptist in Matthew 11 show that the desire for greatness is not necessarily sinful – it becomes sinful when we seek it in the wrong places. We ought not to seek greatness by seeking it in the honor received by other men and women. Rather, we ought to seek greatness by seeking it in the honor which God alone can give.
And you know what? At the end of the day, this is what matters. In the Judgment Day when we all appear to give an account of our lives, what we have accomplished in this life will only matter if God says it does. No one is going to feel good about their accomplishments when hell is yawning beneath them to take them in. On the other hand, to hear from our Father in heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” will more than repay all the indignities you have had to endure in this life. To hear Christ speak up for you on that Great Day will be the sweetest music in the universe to a sinner’s ears.
Now what does this have to do with our text? In our text, our Lord is addressing the crowds after the disciples of John had gone away. These people had heard the question these men had put to our Lord, and his response. Now, in these verses, our Lord turns to the crowd and tells them about John the Baptist and gives his estimate of the man. And this is beautiful. For, as D. A. Carson puts it, “John had often borne witness to Jesus; now Jesus bears witness to John.”1 Despite the fact that John was vexed with doubts about the person of Jesus, our Lord does not cast him off or even criticize him to the crowd. Rather, he commends John the Baptist to them. He speaks up for him, a sort of foretaste of our Lord’s advocacy for his people.
What did he say about him? The Lord Jesus says that he was a great man: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (ver. 11). Coming from this lips of Jesus, this is praise indeed. Though the greatness of some men has to be reappraised after their shortcoming and faults are revealed, we need not fear this about John. He was a great man.
What is even more striking about this is that John himself never sought fame or greatness. He had no ambition or stomach for the praises of men. Once, when some tried to stoke the embers of envy in John’s heart on account of the increasingly popular ministry of Jesus, John simply responded, “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:27-30). John had no problem with decreasing, becoming small, as long as Jesus increased and became great.
That is what made him a great man. He was great not because he was more intelligent than others, or because he was a better artist or speaker than others, or because he was a man’s man. His greatness lay in his witness to the Christ. But more than this, our text not only speaks to John the Baptist, it also speaks to you and me. The greatness of any disciple in the kingdom of God lies in their witness to Jesus. We are great insofar as we give a clear and unmistakable witness to Jesus Christ. That is the lesson of our text. Let’s see how this thought is worked out in these verses.
John a Prophet (verses 7-9a)
The first thing that our Lord does is to acknowledge the prophetic character of John’s ministry. There was a lot of excitement especially during the early days of John’s ministry, because it was generally recognized that (1) a true prophet had not arisen during that past few centuries (some were evidently given the status of “the daughter of a voice,”2 but this was not considered the same as that of a true prophet in the same vein as Moses and Elijah), and (2) many, if not most, recognized John as a true prophet. Our Lord confirms this opinion.
However, he goes beyond this. He not only positively claims that John was a prophet, but he also defends his character to the crowds. It was possible to be prophet like Balaam who was wicked. John was not like that. He was a prophet like Elijah (see verse 14). So our Lord begins by defending his character to the crowd. He does this by a series of rhetorical questions. In the first, he asks, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” (ver. 7). Of course, the answer is no. But our Lord is being more than just sarcastic here. A reed was a metaphor for a person who was indecisive, weak, and faithless, one who bent with the wind of popular opinion or who always took the path of least resistance. Jesus is saying that John is not like that. Despite the fact that he was wrestling with these doubts, our Lord assures the people that these doubts have not arisen because John is spiritually unstable. His doubts did not come from a fault in his character, but rather through a misunderstanding of the nature of the mission and ministry of the Christ.
Second, our Lord asks and answers his next question, “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings houses” (ver. 8). Obviously, John did not match such a description. John didn’t wear soft and luxuriant clothing – he wore “raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins” (Mt. 3:4). You don’t go into the wilderness to find a man in love with ease and luxury. Again, in saying this, our Lord is answering any doubts people might have had about the character of John the Baptist. His doubts didn’t arise in prison from a love of ease. He wasn’t having second thoughts because he was in love with this world. His whole life, from what he wore to where he ministered, gave witness to the fact that his heart was with the coming King and his kingdom.
Instead, John is a prophet (ver. 9); our Lord gives his authoritative yes to this popular opinion of the preacher. A prophet was someone who spoke in the name of the Lord. Of course, there were false prophets and true prophets. A true prophet was someone who not only spoke in the name of the Lord but who was authorized by the Lord himself to do so. They got their words from the Lord himself, so that when they spoke it was as if God himself spoke. The difference between a true and false prophet is admirably stated in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah: “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the LORD. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh in pieces?” (Jer. 23:28-29). John’s words were like wheat not chaff. They were like a fire and like a hammer that broke the hard of heart in pieces.
There were two roles that the OT prophet occupied: they were forth-telling and fore-telling. A prophet was a forth-teller in the sense that they gave people God’s commands and directives for their lives. But they were also fore-tellers in the sense that they foretold the future. However, as fore-tellers their main role was to tell about the coming Messiah. The apostle Peter describes this function of the OT prophet: “Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Pet. 1:10- 11). All of the OT – the Law and the prophets – pointed to Christ, and this is exactly what John did. He pointed people to Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
John More than a Prophet (verses 9b-11a)
But there was more to John the Baptist than just this. Our Lord says that he was not just a prophet, but that he was “more than a prophet” (ver. 9). How was he more than a prophet? Jesus gives us the answer in verse 10, loosely quoting from Malachi 3:1, “For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” He was more than a prophet in the sense that he not only bore witness to the coming Messiah, but also was the immediate predecessor to the Messiah and because of this gave a clearer witness to him than all the prophets who came before him. It is this observation that is the key, I think, to this whole passage. John’s greatness rested in his clear testimony to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
Our Lord goes on to say, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (ver. 11). He is not only more than a prophet, he is greater than all who are born of women: the greatest of men. But again, we must not measure his greatness by the standards of man. His greatness lay in his witness and testimony to Christ.
By the way, this shows the magnanimity of our Lord. In one sense, his greatness was currently eclipsed by his doubts. But our Lord does not on this score take away his commendation of this great man. Though we should not miss the warning inherent in John’s slipping into doubt, neither should we miss the encouragement inherent in our Lord’s gracious testimony to John and his obvious acceptance of him despite his faltering.
The Least in the Kingdom More than John (verse 11b-15)
Then our Lord utters these seemingly paradoxical words: “notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (ver. 11). How can someone be greater than the greatest man? To understand this, we need to remind ourselves what defined John’s greatness: it was his witness to Christ. However, despite the fact that John bore the clearest witness to Jesus of all the prophets and all who came before him, John still had some holes in his understanding of the mission of the Messiah. It was precisely this misunderstanding that led to his doubts as he lay in prison. He thought that the Messiah would usher in the kingdom in its fullness immediately. John, for all his clarity, did not see the cross. All he could see was the crown.
Thus, those who belong to the kingdom of heaven are greater than John the Baptist precisely because they have a clearer understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish and therefore can bear a clearer witness to Jesus than John did. In the next verse (12), our Lord tells us that the kingdom of heaven dates from the “days of John the Baptist until now.” The era of the Law and the Prophets ends and the era of the kingdom of heaven begins (ver. 13). Therefore, to belong to the kingdom of heaven is to belong to an age in which the great redemptive events of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ take place. It is in light of these events that the purpose of our Lord’s coming became clearer. Even our Lord’s own apostles didn’t really understand their meaning until after they had taken place and our Lord himself had explained them to them. And it was only then that they really began to bear clear witness to Christ. The Day of Pentecost is a testimony to the results of such clarity of witness when accompanied by the power of the Spirit of God. Comparatively, the apostle Peter doesn’t hold a candle to John the Baptist. But John’s preaching did not bring about the kind of radical change that a single sermon from Peter accomplished after the resurrection of Christ. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist.
How does verse 12 function in this argument? “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” In the previous verse, he mentioned those who are least in the kingdom of heaven; now he says that this kingdom has come. It is possible to enter into the kingdom. But in so saying, he is also correcting this misperception that John and others had about the kingdom of God. They thought that when it came, it would come in its fullness. It had come – but it had not come in its fullness yet, which is witnessed to by the fact that it suffered violence from violent men. John was in prison because of such violence. The fact that he did not see this coming led to his doubts. The increasing hostility that Jesus and his disciples faced and the lengthening shadow of the cross all testified to this reality. What Jesus means by this saying is that despite the fact that the kingdom has come, it is not currently immune from the violent pushback from violent and wicked men who oppose the coming of the kingdom.
I realize that this verse has had many different interpretations, and that often it is interpreted in the sense that the violent men are those who with all their might strive to enter into the kingdom of heaven. In this light, the “violent” are not those who oppose the kingdom but those who are seeking to enter in. This is possible, especially since the verb “suffereth violence” can be translated “is forcefully advancing.” The “violent” thus are those who force their way into the kingdom. However, the word for “violent” (biastes) does not support this interpretation. Though this word occurs only here in the Greek NT, wherever it occurs elsewhere in Greek literature, “it always has the negative connotations of violence and rapacity.”3 Certainly the readers of Matthew’s gospel would have probably taken this word in its negative connotations. So I think it’s safest to take it in its usual meaning. Yes, the kingdom of God has come; the era of the Law and Prophets is over, but the fullness of God’s kingdom is yet to come.
I think this is one reason why our Lord spent so much time preparing the disciples for suffering. They needed our Lord’s warnings because their understanding of the kingdom didn’t allow for such suffering. The Messiah would come and conquer his enemies, end of story. Not so, says our Lord. The kingdom suffers violence from violent men. These violent men try to put a stop to the kingdom – to “take it by force.” Those addressed by our Lord needed to understand that. And by the way, if we don’t allow for suffering in our theology of the Christian life, we need to hear our Lord’s words here. The kingdom has come, but not yet. Its fullness is still future. As followers of Christ we recognize that this world and this age is not our home. Our citizenship is in heaven. This world will hate us because it first hated him. We are to lay hold of eternal life, not this present one.
It’s no wonder then, that our Lord compares John to Elijah in verse 14. Of course, on one level, he was the Elijah that came by prophesy (cf. Mal. 4:5). But there are more comparisons between the two. Elijah thought that he would be able to completely put an end to Baal worship in Israel and restore the true worship to the Upper Kingdom. Like John the Baptist, he thought God’s rule would immediately prevail over all the forces of evil. And when he was able to demonstrate the power of God before all Israel, have the prophets of Baal put to death, and pray for the end to the three years’ drought, for a short time he thought that this was happening. When it did not, like John, he began to doubt.
What did the Lord say to him? He reminds Elijah that such setbacks are no proof that God’s rule is not advancing. “I have reserved for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.” In the same way, our Lord is reminding us that though God’s kingdom has come, it has not yet brought an end to all opposition. This day will one day come, but in the mean time we have to take our cross. Like our Lord, the cross comes before the crown.
This also demonstrates that the measure of greatness and success is not how little opposition you face as you witness to Jesus. Often, God’s kingdom only advances in the face of such opposition. And it is often in the context of such suffering that the clearest witness to Jesus takes place. Paul said of his missionary work in Ephesus, “For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9).
Do you want to be great? Don’t seek it in the ways this world sees greatness. Don’t become an Alexander the Great; became a John the Baptist. Seek it in a life that bears a clear witness to the only one who deserves any attention. Let our lives lift up our Lord for all to see. Let us decrease that he may increase. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt. 11:15).
1 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-11 (EBC), p. 263.
2 Carson, p. 263.
3 Carson, p. 266.
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