In Matthew 11:11 Jesus made a shocking claim about John,
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
I may have guessed Abraham or Moses but Jesus picks John. It is puzzling until you read the rest of the verse,
“yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.“
So John is the greatest man ever born of a woman and yet anyone who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than the greatest man ever born in this world! That is an even more shocking statement than the first! Or is it?
This verse isn’t about John’s comparative status and ranking among all the people who have ever lived as much as it is a comparative statement about what one’s status in the kingdom is really worth. What is so great about John is that John knew that too…making him like Moses, one of the most humble men who ever lived!
John knew his mission and had something to say to any and everyone who came out to see him. John taught people to ready themselves for the Messiah and the coming kingdom by first repenting of their sins (the Pharisees actually had a similar message and purpose but went about it all wrong…not as the “least” but as the “greatest” in their own minds). That is not an easy message but John seems to have been pretty good at it. He called out the religious leaders (Pharisees – Matt 3:7f) and political leaders of his day (Herod – Mark 6). He gathered up disciples and taught them about the coming Messiah. Again, not easy and not one that will make you many friends in high places but still a message that had to be preached and he was the one who preached it.
John was a humble man. Even though he knew he was the fulfillment of prophesy by Isaiah in Isaiah 40:3 he didn’t let it get to his head.He didn’t even want to baptize Jesus when Jesus requested it (Matt 3:13-15). He spoke about the Messiah to come as “one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:27).The moment that stands out for me that you can tell John truly knew his mission and held it with esteem, integrity and humility is in John 1:35-42,
“35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.
You can tell John trained them well. He trained them so well to spot the Messiah and to follow the Messiah that when Jesus showed up John’s disciples immediately left John and became Jesus’ disciples. Let me say that again but more accurately this time…Jesus’ disciples left John and followed Jesus because they weren’t John’s disciples in a real sense to begin with. John wasn’t teaching them to follow John. John was teaching them to follow Jesus. He did such a good job that when Jesus showed up, John’s disciples knew what to do.
Notice what the text doesn’t contain. It doesn’t contain John asking them to come back. It doesn’t contain John wondering what he did wrong. It doesn’t tell us that John felt bad about losing his guys. Instead, I believe John felt great joy over seeing this as we see in John 3:22-30.
“22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”
In these verses we do see that some disciples stayed with John to carry on John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord instead of going with Jesus. In other words, John’s mission continued and he still needed help so that not all of his disciples followed Jesus. And yet John felt no territoriality in his ministry toward losing followers and people who were going to Jesus instead of to him.
The last point is one that really what should have come first. That is John’s own inner preparation for the way of the Lord “in John” and not just “out there.” John didn’t just go into the wilderness because Isaiah said so…that the voice was one calling from the wilderness. I believe his vocation required time in a location that would prepare his heart and his mind to trust God as fully as possible. When we hear “prepare the way of the Lord” our (or at least my) minds race to John reaching the masses to prepare them for Jesus. The first member of the masses is John himself and his own inner preparation. Have you ever considered John’s need to repent as much as anyone else?
It is hard to be a prophet and be humble because a prophet gets to tell everyone who wrong they are and how to make it right. Typically people who say those sorts of things on a long running basis tend to get arrogant or prideful or maybe it is the other way around…prideful people love getting to be the prophet? I am sure it goes both ways. Not for John. That speaks volumes for him.
We have a lot to learn from John the Baptist. We have a lot to learn about the necessity of inner transformation for the mission. Preparing the way of the Lord usually starts in our own hearts before it is prepared in others. I know that is not always the case, even Paul in Philippians said that those who preach the Gospel out of wrong motives can still serve to advance the kingdom despite their depravity. I still think it is generally true and a point we often miss in talking about evangelism and outreach is the necessity of the inner transformation in the lives of Christians as a part of outreach to others.
Let 2016 be a year we prepare for the way of the Lord! Watch and see how He shows up.