In Luke 7:28, Jesus summarized his description of John the Baptist and his ministry saying, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
What was so special about John? And how can the least in the kingdom of God be greater than John?
The greatness of John the Baptist
Jesus declared John greater than all the heroes of the Old Testament. Consider:
- Abraham was the first man of whom the Bible says that he believed God (which is much different from believing in God). John the Baptist was greater
- The Bible testifies that Noah and Job were perfect and blameless. It records no rebuke or stain on the characters of Joseph (neither the Old Testament patriarch nor the earthly father of Jesus), Caleb, Ruth, Jonathan, or Daniel, either. John the Baptist was greater.
- God declared Moses his friend and spoke with him face to face, as any man would. John the Baptist was greater.
- Elisha worked many miracles. John the Baptist was greater.
- Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets believed God when most of society didn’t. They believed God in dire circumstances. Some risked their lives to proclaim the message God delivered to them. They saw far into the future. John the Baptist was greater.
- Jesus was born of woman, but he didn’t even make exception for himself.
John was the culmination of Old Testament prophecy. Other prophets testified of his ministry, but not about any other prophet’s. He was baptized in the Holy Spirit at conception. No one before him was ever baptized in the Holy Spirit at all.
Before Jesus began his ministry John knew that he was the Christ by revelation knowledge. He personally introduced the people of Israel to their promised Messiah. And unlike any earlier prophet, John did not go to the people to preach. He stayed in the wilderness and people came to him.
John 3:22-30 describes Jesus’ baptism and John’s great humility. They were cousins, and John was the older. That relationship carried with it some powerful invitations to pride. There must have been things he learned first, more quickly, or perhaps even better.
He was the son of a priest, not just a carpenter. And his parents were married when he was born. People in Nazareth seem not to have bought the story of the virgin birth. John had to have known of the gossip.
Many of them journeyed to Jerusalem on the occasion when Joseph and Mary recognized he wasn’t with him on the way home. When they found him, Jesus’ remark that he had to be about his Father’s business must have hurt John’s Uncle Joe. If any of them heard about that conversation, imagine what the gossips would have to say about it!
Once Jesus began his ministry, his own brothers thought he was crazy. John shared whatever reasons the people of Nazareth had to reject Jesus. John didn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah by knowing him in the flesh, but despite knowing him in the flesh. He listened to God, not the neighbors.
So not only did John have greater opportunity than earlier prophets, he overcame greater temptation. When Jesus proclaimed that John the Baptist was the greatest man born of woman, people had reason to be shocked and amazed. But greatness in God’s eyes has nothing to do with attainments that look good to people.
The least in the kingdom greater than John the Baptist
If you are in the kingdom, you are greater than John the Baptist. Not only that, but if the person in your church that you don’t especially respect is in the kingdom, he is greater than John the Baptist. How can that be?
The only way anyone can get a kingdom is either by inheritance or conquest. Since no one can conquer God, that leaves inheritance. Before anyone can inherit anything, someone else has to die. In John’s time, Jesus (God the Son) had not yet died. No one had inherited the kingdom.
According to Hebrews 8:1-6, when Jesus returned to the Father and began his ministry as high priest, he gave us a greater covenant than John knew. John knew only the covenant that was based on Abraham’s faith, which was accounted to him as righteousness. The new covenant is based on the work of Jesus who became sin so that we might become righteousness.
According to Hebrews 10:11-14, we have the right, which John didn’t, to be purged of sin consciousness. Because John could only have his sins covered, but not purged, he was, in an important sense, a spiritually dead man. After all, no one could be born again until after the resurrection of Jesus ushered in the new covenant.
Inheriting the kingdom is not the same as being saved. All who inherit the kingdom are saved, but unless we want to consider damned everyone who died before Jesus, not all who are saved inherit the kingdom. In fact, Galatians 6:19-21 lists behaviors that Christians who practice them will not inherit the kingdom of God.
John’s greatness was not based on anything that could have impressed people. Neither is anyone else’s. Neither is yours or mine. We inherit the kingdom, if at all, by rising to our privileges, which are greater than John’s.
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