The Greatness of John

7As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15He who has ears, let him hear."

In the first part of this chapter, the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (vs. 3). Lest this question diminish the greatness of John in the eyes of the people (since it reflects a certain amount of weakness in his faith), Jesus in this passage begins by telling of the greatness of John the Baptist: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (vss. 7-11).

Through a series of rhetorical questions, Jesus describes some attributes of John’s character. He reminds the people of what they saw in John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?" They did not go into the wilderness to see a man who was fickle like a reed, or uncertain of himself. Nor did they go and see a man who was living comfortably as he preached: "If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces." The man they went out to see was a man who gave his life, his entire being, to the service of God.

And John was more than just a faithful servant of God: "Then what did you go out to see? A prophet?" (vs. 9). John was a true prophet of God. He spoke the very words of God to the people. He was the first prophet of God for hundreds of years. God was silent in this respect from the time of Malachi to the time of John the Baptist. Beyond this, John was more than a prophet of God: "Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’" (vss. 9-10). He himself was the fulfillment of prophecy, in addition to being a prophet. He fulfilled the prophecy in Malachi 3:1, as Jesus cited. John was the one sent as a forerunner for the Messiah, sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. This role made John the Baptist greater than any of the prophets who preceded him, as Jesus affirms: "I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…" But then, Jesus goes on to say something surprising: "…yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]" (vs. 11). How can we be "greater than [John the Baptist]"?

We who are "least in the kingdom of heaven" are "greater than [John]" in our knowledge about the totality of Jesus’ ministry. This discourse of Jesus’ concerning John was prompted by the questions that John asked through his disciples: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt. 11:3). Apparently, because of the nature of Jesus’ ministry, John was having some doubts at this point in his life about whether Jesus was the total fulfillment of the Messianic promises. We have the privilege of looking back in history at the life and ministry of Jesus. John, as a prophet of God, was looking forward through the foggy eyes of prophecy. John’s view of Jesus was colored by his incomplete understanding of Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah. In his preaching, John emphasized the judgment role of the Messiah, at the expense of overlooking the prophecies about the grace and forgiveness that the Messiah would bring as He made a new covenant with the people of God. John preached: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:11-12). We have nowhere evidence that John preached of the Messiah’s humility, nor do we have evidence that John spoke of the Messiah suffering for our sins. We who look back at Jesus’ life and ministry now understand that there were to be two visitations of the Messiah to earth. During the first, Jesus came in humility, and died for our sins. In doing so, He brought salvation to all who would believe in Him. In the next visitation, the Messiah will come in judgment. "John’s question arose not from personal weakness or failure but from misunderstanding about the nature of the Messiah, owing to John’s place in salvation history" [Carson, 263].

During Jesus’ life on earth, a clearer understanding of the role of the Messiah was unfolding minute by minute. As Jesus explained: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it" (vs. 12). Yet Jesus does not hold John’s incomplete knowledge against him. On the contrary, Jesus reaffirms the importance of John. John was the last, and greatest, in the long line of Old Testament prophets: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John" (vs. 13).

Moreover, if the children of Israel were "willing to accept" him as such, John was the fulfillment of the prophecies that said that Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah: "And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear" (vs. 14). The statement of Jesus in verse 14 was very carefully worded. In Malachi, the coming of Elijah is prophesied to occur before the Messiah comes in judgment: "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Mal. 4:5). Jesus here does not say unconditionally that John was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He says that John would have been the fulfillment, if the children of Israel were "willing to accept" him as such. Of course, in accepting John as Elijah, they would have had to accept Jesus as the Messiah. This, by and large, they did not do. God, in His perfect plan, arranged things so that the children of Israel would have no excuse not to accept Jesus as their Messiah. He even went to the trouble of sending an Elijah-like forerunner to the Messiah in order to encourage them to see Jesus as the Messiah. But the children of Israel rejected Christ. And so, it turns out, since the children of Israel were not "willing to accept" John as the forerunner to the Messiah, John was not the complete fulfillment of that prophecy. The Messiah will come again. And a prophet in the spirit of Elijah will also come at that time, as the forerunner for the Messiah. Oh Lord, come soon!

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