Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 11:11a (Holman) “I assure you: Among those born of women no one
greater than John the Baptist has appeared,. . .”
But for Jesus, John was the greatest individual ever. The Baptist constantly called himself inferior to Christ. Jesus responded by saying John was superior to all others. Be encouraged, striving saint. The best of our tribe was not a prince, a king, wealthy, or powerful. He was young, unmarried, simple, unselfish, one who believed in living right for God, and who totally committed his life to that belief.
Jesus made this startling statement about John’s ultimate greatness in order to arrest attention, to wake the crowd from slumber. Jesus was saying John was greater than their Old Testament prophets, and undercutting any objection people might make about prophets of old holding priority over John. The crowd must no longer cling to the former prophets as if ultimate. The latter have been eclipsed.
This astounding pronouncement shocked folks who venerated ancient giants including Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Elijah. Like us, the people of Jesus’ day glamorized the past, finding it hard to believe the present era could be a climactic watershed moment in history. They failed to see the full significance of John. Unbeknownst to them, due to him, the whole world was shifting beneath their feet.
C. G. Montefiore, a non-Christian, observed, “Christianity does mark a new era in religious history and in human civilization. What the world owes to Jesus. . .is immense; things can never be, and men can never think, the same as things were, and as men thought before.” Even an unbeliever admits nothing could be the same after Jesus. The blank page in our Bibles between the Old Testament and the New Testament is a mountain range dividing time. John stands atop this mountain range as its highest peak ever, greater than all who had gone before.
Old Testament prophets foresaw Jesus. John saw Him. They viewed Jesus’ day distantly. John lived in it and baptized Jesus. They pointed to Jesus with their pens. John pointed to Him with His finger. They touted Him. John touched Him.
What had been foretold future became in John fulfilled past. Prediction turned into history. The Baptist truly was John the Great. Detractors claim he was merely fulfilling a vital role, anyone else in the same position would have been as great. I disagree. The job did not make him. He made the job. He was perfect for the part, the right person for the right position. He fulfilled the role of forerunner not only adequately, but marvelously, way above and beyond the call of duty.
I have, through these many recent weeks of studying John, often wondered what was the ultimate virtue that won him this accolade from Jesus, a praise we all envy and would love to hear said of us. What was his greatest trait? He may have had the most self-denying heart ever, a trait only Jesus could have known for sure.
In heroic self-denial, John stands alone. At the height of his ministry career John stepped aside, giving place to a Newcomer. John was great in holiness, kings couldn’t seduce him, but maybe greatest in humility, a throne couldn’t entice him.
This utter disregard for advancement, the total burial of self, may rank as John’s greatest accomplishment. Regardless of the cost to himself, John always did his duty, from the very first. Long before his fame, John renounced a career in Israel’s lucrative priesthood to become a poor lonely ascetic. At the height of his fame, John renounced the pinnacle of success, casting self-regard into oblivion.
John had no ambition for eminence. He resisted the temptation to promote himself, claiming, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (JN 3:30). Nothing derailed John from his one God-given directive, to point others to Messiah.
This study of John has forced me to take a long, deep look into my own self, into how I will define and try to achieve spiritual greatness. If asked point blank to name the top five things I want to accomplish in life, I don’t know if there has ever been a time in my life when I could have honestly put humility on the list.
I was surprised to see how often Jesus, when discussing greatness, linked it with humility (e.g. Matthew 18:1-5; 23:11; 29:26-27). Our Lord will not tolerate pride among His servants. In His kingdom, the greatest humble themselves most.
Matt. 11:11b “. . .but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus deftly used paradox. John was greatest in contributing to the kingdom by fulfilling a given role, but subsequent Christ-followers have greater privilege than John. The least after Jesus enjoy more teaching than the greatest did before.
Truths that were foggy mists in a future twilight to John shine as noonday to us. John saw Christ outlined. We see the picture filled up, painted in technicolor.
Our Sunday School children know more of God’s ultimate plan for salvation than did all the prophets of old. Our church’s smallest, youngest child embraces what prophets and angels longed to see, hear, and grasp (MT 13:17; I P 1:12).
No one is more blessed than those who know the story of Jesus and believe in Him. Christ-followers ponder God, thinking, “My Father.” We contemplate Heaven as “My home.” Considering angels, we smile, “My servants.” Pondering death, we say, “My coronation day.” Judgment Day is no dread, for “My Savior is on the throne.” Thoughts most troubling to unbelievers are no hassle to believers.
No one on Earth should be more envied than a Christ-follower. We enjoy wonderful unsurpassed privilege, but must not grow proud due to this. With great privilege comes great responsibility. Privileged to see redemption’s plan fully unfurled, to know and appropriate benefits of the cross and resurrection, we have responsibility to publish the story. We know more. Therefore, we must tell more.
All who come after John stand on his shoulders and see farther into God’s plan than he did. We enjoy what John never saw. Barclay tells of a street lamp-lighter who was blind, nightly bringing to others light he would never see. John was a similar signpost for God, pointing to an era he himself would never enter.
John knew not of the cross or empty tomb, never heard the whole story. He saw God as holy and just, but barely touched a hem of the garment of God’s love.
Imagine how powerful a preacher John would have been if he could have had at the core of his sermons the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was nailed to a cross, I’m sure one preacher in Heaven fell to his knees and groaned, “Oh, I did not know. I wish I could go back and preach about this.”
Let me, his feeble namesake, do it for him. What a privilege it is to preach about the cross. It is God’s most effective means of calling people unto Himself.
An illustration helps. In an effort to woo back home her wayward daughter, a mother once nailed her own picture on walls all over the seamier side of town and wrote on them, “Come home. Mother.” The cross is God’s way of doing the same for us. He nailed not merely His picture, but Himself, on the seamier side of the cosmos, in the only corner of the Universe that failed Him. By this He pleads for rebels to come home. The cross is the highest expression of divine love. To live after it, to experience it, to know and tell about it, is life’s highest privilege.
John, Jesus’ forerunner, was the greatest of all. The best honor and highest responsibility is still to be one who prepares God’s way into someone’s heart, one who disregards their own self enough to bring God and others together.