Who’s the greatest is often debated. Who’s the greatest President? Who’s the greatest of any given sport? The disciples of Jesus Christ seemingly could never let go of which one of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-37, and Luke 9:46-48). Peter, James, and John must have believed they were in line for the title since they were the only three invited up on the Mount of Transfiguration.
But who did Jesus say was the greatest among men? It’s the Elijah of the New Testament and the answer is found in Matthew 11:11:
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Here Jesus makes a paradoxical statement about him. He names John as the greatest, yet immediately states that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater. So where is Jesus going with this?
Let’s first note that the greatness that Jesus is referring to is John’s unique position in preparing the way for the Messiah. It wasn’t because of John’s talent, special merit, or personal holiness. It was because he was chosen to fulfill the prophecies from Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1.
Next, let’s remember John’s special birth. The angel in Luke 1:14-17 tells Zechariah (John’s father):
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Later on John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when she meets Mary who is pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41).
Now to understand Jesus’s statement we also have to back up and understand the full context of Matthew 11. John the Baptist was in prison when Jesus proclaimed him the greatest. The man predestined to prepare the way for the Messiah is no longer sure he was right about Jesus as he sits in a dark dungeon wondering if he got it wrong.
Can you imagine what was running through John’s mind? Isn’t it just like us to question God in our lowest moments? John had previously declared he was unworthy to baptize Jesus and that he couldn’t even carry His sandals (See Matthew 3). Now John was sending messengers to question Jesus to confirm if He really was the Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3).
The greatest was at his lowest and Vance Havner sums it up nicely for us: “What (John) had preached like a living exclamation point had become a question mark to the Preacher Himself. But our Lord did not reprimand the troubled prophet. Instead He made His best statement about John the Baptist on the same day the prophet made his worst statement about the Lord.”
And Jesus answered them (those that John sent), “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me (Matthew 11:4-6).”
Havner goes on to state: In other words, “Blessed is he who does not get upset by the way I run my business!…God doesn’t operate by our timetable and sometimes it does not add up on our computers.”
The answer Jesus gave was an amazing confirmation that He truly was the Messiah, and his last sentence is an indictment of many offended Christ followers. The greatest prophet was prophetic indeed when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).” John never made it out of prison and then lost his head to a wicked, foolish promise made by King Herod (See Mark 6). John didn’t live to witness the horrors of Christ on the cross and didn’t get to see His victorious resurrection, yet he accomplished all that God called him to do.
When we find ourselves at our lowest, let’s remember John the Baptist and know that during our hardest trials and difficulties God may be doing His greatest work in us, through us, and around us (without us). Yet He is still good and great and worthy of all praise.
And here one other passage comes to mind…I wonder if John the Baptist remembered Habakkuk’s prayer while he was in prison (See Habakkuk 3). It fittingly begins with:
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds…(NIV)
And later Habakkuk rejoices in song (3:17-19) and gives us a glimpse of what he’s learned as a model for how we should trust and praise God in the midst of suffering (in this case famine):
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (ESV)
Though…Yet…Though I’m in prison…Yet will I praise you. We can trust Him because He is good and He is great. He must increase, but I must decrease for He is the Greatest!