How Could Any Person be Greater than John the Baptist?

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Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:11 CSB)

How could any person possibly be greater than the man chosen to announce the imminent arrival of God’s long-expected Messiah?

We can begin to answer this question by observing that there are basically two types of greatness. Some, like Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, are “great” owing to their elevated status by birth and privilege. Others, like Mahatma Gandhi, are great or become great because of their exceptional character and service. Greatness in character or service, and greatness in status or privilege.

This distinction is relevant to the interpretation of Jesus’ enigmatic saying, “I solemnly tell you: Among those born of women no one greater than John has ever appeared; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11). In Luke’s version of this saying (7:28), “kingdom of God” replaces “kingdom of heaven.” The two expressions are identical in meaning; “heaven” was a common synonym for “God” among Jews.

After issuing John the Baptist a gentle and indirect rebuke in Matthew 11:6 (“A blessing on anyone who takes no offense at me”), Jesus immediately addresses the crowd with a series of penetrating questions, all designed to show the unique and superlative character and service of John as the Messiah’s forerunner and messenger (Matt 11:7–10). Then follows the enigmatic saying cited above. In this saying, “the person who holds the lowest place” fills out the expression “the lowest/least.” But given John’s uniqueness as the greatest human being ever, how could “the least” be greater than John?

John’s place in God’s plan of salvation was like that of Moses, who climbed up to the top of Mount Pisgah and surveyed the promised land across the Jordan River but himself never entered the land (Deut 3:27). Similarly, John the Baptist was at the turning point of two eras—he was at the end of the prophetic line (Matt 11:13) and stood on the threshold of the kingdom of heaven without actually entering it.

The most insignificant person in the kingdom that Jesus was announcing surpasses John in two regards. First, coming after the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, “the least” can witness to Jesus the Messiah more fully and clearly than John ever could. Second, “the least” in the kingdom now enjoys a status and privileges that were foreign to John’s experience. For example, we have been adopted into God’s family as redeemed individuals; we have received the gift of God’s Spirit as a permanent resident in our lives; we have eternal life as a present possession, not only as a future acquisition; and when we pray to God we can invoke the powerful name of his Son as our heavenly advocate and intercessor.

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This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris, professor emeritus and author, is well known for his commentaries on 2 Corinthians. He has written several books, including Navigating Tough Texts.

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Written by Murray J. Harris
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