As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 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.” Matthew 11.7-11.
The “they” in the first few words of this morning’s reading are some disciples of John the Baptist who have been sent by John (incarcerated by Herod in the fortress of Machaerus by the Dead Sea) to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11.3). John had pointed to Jesus as the Messiah but all the accounts of Jesus’ activity that are reaching him are making him wonder if he had got it wrong. Where is the fire, where is the judgment? Jesus responds by telling John’s disciples, in effect, “No, John didn’t get it wrong”; and then he describes to them his ministry in terms of the messianic promises of Isaiah 35 and 61.
Carrying that message back with them, John’s disciples leave, but Jesus takes the opportunity to talk to the crowds about John; and what captures my attention this morning is that final saying about John — “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.” What did he mean? Was John really greater than Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah? And is Jesus saying that John the Baptist won’t be in the kingdom of God — even though earlier Jesus has said that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will be in that kingdom (Matthew 8.11)?
The key to understanding the first question is the quotation by Jesus of Malachi 3.1. The “messenger” in that verse (who is identified with Elijah in Malachi 4.5-6) prepares the way for the great and terrible Day of the Lord — the Day of Yahweh; and by applying that prophesy to himself and John in the way that he does, Jesus was saying: “I am the Lord — Yahweh in the flesh — whose Day has now come and John is my ‘Elijah'”. It was an astounding claim and one which, if true, made John greater than any other human being before him in that he and he alone had the privilege of preparing the way for Jesus and pointing to him and proclaiming the amazing news: “This is the Christ. This is Yahweh in the flesh. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
There had been many signposts along the road of human history, all pointing forward to Jesus and his kingdom, but John was the “Welcome to …” sign on the border of that kingdom. That is what made him greater than the greatest prophet, but it is also what made him less than the least member of the kingdom that had now arrived in Christ. Until his death, John’s role would remain that of the “Welcome to …” sign on the border of the kingdom, whereas anyone who went past John and entered the kingdom by putting their faith in Jesus could point to Jesus from within the kingdom itself in a way that John never could.
And that is where I stand this morning. I am like a city guide who lives within the city and, as an insider, can show people round it. I can point to the cross and explain its significance and I can take people to the empty tomb and proclaim the glories of the Lord who walked out of it — things that John the Baptist, the “Welcome to …” sign on the city border, could never do — even though John is now in the kingdom and both of us belong to the King. I am a witness too, just as John was, but the difference between John and me and all others like me is this …
We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for men in all the earth;
the gospel of a saviour’s name: we sing His glory, tell His worth.
Tell of His birth at Bethlehem, not in a royal house or hall
but in a stable dark and dim: the Word made flesh, a light for all.
Tell of His death at Calvary, hated by those He came to save;
in lonely suffering on the cross for all He loved, His life He gave.
Tell of that glorious Easter morn: empty the tomb, for He was free;
He broke the power of death and hell that we might share His victory.
Tell of His reign at God’s right hand, by all creation glorified;
He sends His Spirit on His church to live for Him, the Lamb who died.
Edward J Burns