Let’s open our Bibles this morning to Matthew chapter 11, Matthew chapter 11. And I want to speak to you on the theme True Greatness, True Greatness. We’re going to be looking at verses 7 through 15, particularly, in our thoughts this morning, and focusing on a very, very special man by the name of John the Baptist. There’s a somewhat famous boxer who constantly announces around the world that he is “the greatest.” I’m not really sure what exactly his criteria is, but I think he might get an argument out of God.
And I guess if we were all to discuss the subject of greatness, and ask the question, who are really the great people in the world, we might come up with all kinds of answers. Some would say the geniuses of the world. Others would say the educators. Some might think the politicians and the statement – statesmen are the greatest, or the wealthy or the famous or the entertainers, or the athletes, or the kings, or the princes, or the heroes, or whatever.
But when it comes to greatness as God defines it, it’s very different than it is for the world. In fact, today we’re going to meet a man who is from a common humble family, no wealth, no worldly education, no success, no particular physical beauty, no earthly possession or position, and yet our Lord says he’s the greatest human being who ever lived.
Look at verse 11 of Matthew 11. “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” Now that is an amazing statement. And that is not somebody’s opinion. That is a statement of fact from the lips of our Lord Himself who is speaking in this text. And just to emphasize it, He says at the beginning of verse 11, “Verily,” which means truly, a fact beyond dispute. And then He says “Among them that are born of women.” Now what is that? Well, basically, that is a sort of a Jewish reference, or a sort of an ancient reference to the human race.
That particular phrase was somewhat common to designate someone’s identification with the human race. We find it as far back, even prior to the establishing of the Jewish nation, as the book of Job. In chapter 14 verse 1, “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.” In chapter 15 in verse 14 it says: “What is man that he should be clean, and he who is born of a woman that he should be righteous?” It became then, a designation of humanness. And that’s very important for us.
Now listen carefully. The Lord said when it comes to humanness there has never been a greater than John the Baptist. He is the greatest human being ever to live up until his time. Now, that does not mean that he is necessarily being defined on supernatural terms or on spiritual terms even, but on strictly human terms, from the earthly human perspective, the character of the man and the calling of the man and the impact of the man from an earthly perspective make him the greatest man that ever lived.
And you’ll notice the statement, “There hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” And the word “risen” is interesting because it is commonly used to speak of the appearance of a prophet. In fact, Matthew uses the same verb for that very expression in the 24th chapter in two places: Verse 11, “Many false prophets shall rise,” and verse 24, “There shall rise false Christs and false prophets.” The term “rise” then frequently is used in reference to a prophet.
So let me sum up what I’m saying. When it comes to humanness, when it comes to the uniqueness of a human being, and when it comes to his special ability to speak, and speak powerfully, there never was anybody like John. As men just stood back and perceived him, there was never anybody like him. He was the most powerful personality and the most powerful voice that ever spoke. He had dynamic ability to communicate. There never was a prophet with more human talent and a more significant role to play in human history than John the Baptist. He was unparalleled.
In this sense, he was greater than Adam. He was greater than Abel. He was greater than Enoch. He was greater than Melchizedek! He was greater than Abraham. He was greater than Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. He was greater than Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel. He was the greatest human being that ever lived, based upon his human abilities and his unique calling in human history. A man of tremendous greatness. Now our Lord reinforces the greatness in this passage over and over again.
He is confronting a multitude here, as we learn from the beginning of the chapter. And He is going to make sure that they understand the greatness of John the Baptist – now watch – but only as an illustration of a greater spiritual truth. That’s why at the end of verse 11 He says, “Notwithstanding, or in spite of his greatness, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now, what He’s saying is this – and I’ll give you the thesis at the beginning and then we’ll build to it – when it comes to human talent and playing a role in human history, there has never been anybody as great as John the Baptist.
But when it comes to the spiritual dimension, the least person in the spiritual dimension is greater than the greatest person in the human dimension. That’s what He’s saying. Now, our Lord reinforces John’s greatness and He does it by discussing three major truths about John that mark his greatness, three major truths. The first one is his personal character. He was great among men, among them that are born of women, just because of his personal character. He had the marks that it takes to be great, to be a cut above, to be set apart, to be unique. Let me suggest what these personal characteristics were.
First of all, he was a man who could overcome his weakness. He could overcome his weakness. It is always – now, mark this – it is always a mark of greatness that a man can overcome his weakness. I mean, there are basically only two kinds of people. They are the victims and the victors. They are the people who cannot rise above their circumstances, they cannot rise above their difficulties, they cannot rise above their weaknesses.
And there are the people who can, and the people who can are the ones that make a mark. Because everybody has weaknesses, everybody has failings and infirmities and problems. The question is whether or not you can overcome them and that is the mark of greatness. The great ones fight through, the great ones are competitive. They can compete against their own ignorance, they can compete against their own laziness, they can compete against their own indifference. They can compete against their own weaknesses and they will overcome. That’s the difference. And John had that ability.
And we saw that last week, and I’m only going to remind you of it. Verse 2 tells us he was in prison. And I told you last time that that was a difficult circumstance for a man who’d known freedom, who had known freedom, who had known freedom all his life. He was not only in prison but he had been victimized some – somehow by the current thinking about the Messiah. And so, he was questioning whether Jesus was really the Messiah or not, because Jesus was not living up to the current expectations. He was also somewhat hard pressed to know whether Christ was really the Messiah because he had incomplete revelation. He didn’t really have all of the information he needed. And, also, because he had been in prison for about a year his unfulfilled expectation of the Messianic kingdom made him question and doubt and become perplexed.
So at this point, he is at a low in his life. He is at a weak place. Circumstances, outside influences, lack of information, unfulfilled anticipations have all brought doubt and confusion and perplexity into his mind. How does he deal with it? Does he sulk? Does he just sort of drop his head and shuffle off? Does he despair? Does he start to tell all his problems to everybody else? No. He goes immediately to the Lord.
He sends two disciples, it says in verse 2, and said to them, you ask if He is the One that should come or are we looking for somebody else. And they went and they asked and Jesus demonstrated, you’ll remember, with miracles and they went back, of course, and they told him. And that settled the issue. And he had to go to some extremity to pull that off. He was quite a long ways away from where Jesus was. He was way down in the eastern part of the Dead Sea and the Lord was clear up in Galilee. He had absolutely no access because he couldn’t leave the prison. He had to dispatch two of his disciples.
It was not an easy task but the man who is great is always the man who deals with his weakness and overcomes it. And I don’t care what dimension of life you’re talking about, and we’re just talking on a human level. I don’t care whether you’re talking about the ministry or your job or your school work or your athletic career or whatever it is, greatness comes from an ability to get past your weakness. That marked John. The whole section, as I said, began with John’s doubt.
And you remember what I told you last week, that chapters 11 and 12 deal with all the different kinds of responses that people can have to Christ. And the first response the Lord talks about is the response of doubt and John is His illustration, and we see that John doubted. But that only gave an opportunity for him to manifest his greatness, to overcome that. So, we learn then that the first mark of a truly great person is to – is to overcome your weakness. But let’s see how he did it, and I’m going to give this to you fast ‘cause I want to get on to the text we’re supposed to look at today.
The first thing he did was admit that he had a weakness. I mean, he recognized that. And listen to this. He was also willing to admit it to subordinates, people beneath him. He wasn’t trying to play the God game, to make everybody think that he was absolutely infallible, flawless and without any weakness. He did not want to play to that illusion, because anybody who plays to that illusion remains in doubt and confusion. Anybody who will not admit weakness is not going to get any help. So he admitted his weakness and then he sought to remove it. And so, he acted upon that admission.
By the way, I would just point out as a footnote at this point that one of the great marks of this kind of man, one of the truest tests of greatness is humility. Nobody ever really becomes great, even on a human level, unless they do recognize they have weaknesses that must be overcome. It is the person who lives under the illusion of perfection that is the true fool. And Jesus said, the key to greatness – and He said this in many different passages – is humility. “Whoever would be great among you, let him be your” – What? “your servant.” And John had at least enough humility to say I don’t know. I don’t know. And he said it to his subordinates and let them act in his behalf.
But we know he was humble from chapter 3, don’t we? When he was preaching earlier in Matthew, He said, “There comes one after me who is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry.” And then he said, in verse 14, when Jesus came to baptize him, “I have need to be baptized by you.” And, “Do You come to be baptized by me?” And in John 3:30 he said, “I must decrease and He must” – What? “increase.” He was a man of humility. He was a man who would recognize weakness; he would see it for what it was. And once you do that you can deal with it. Pride curses greatness. It is an illusion. The great are the ones who see their weakness and work to overcome, not the ones who fancy themselves to be without weakness. And as long as you admit no weakness, you will never grow to your full strength.
By the way, John Wesley points out that neither the Romans nor the Greeks had a word in their vocabulary for humility, because man does not want to admit his weakness. And so true greatness eludes him. General Douglas MacArthur, who is about my fifth cousin, believe it or not, or was, said this. And this was a particularly personal prayer on behalf of his son Arthur. “Build me a son, 0 Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid. One who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat and humble and gentle in victory.
“Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds, a son who will know thee and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge. Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high. A son who will master himself when he seeks to master other men. One who will reach into the future yet never forget the past. And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor so that he may always be serious yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper I have not lived in vain.”
Give me a son who knows humility because that is the path to true greatness. So, the first element of John’s personal character to mark his greatness was the ability to recognize a weakness and overcome it. Let me show you a second one and that’s in verse 7. He not only was a man who was able to overcome weakness but he was a man who was strong in his conviction. And this is a second mark of the personal character of greatness.
Look at verse 7. “As they departed,” and that is as the multitude that were – were there were still remaining, but the two disciples left. And the multitude had heard this whole conversation, and they were now aware of John’s doubt. And they already perceived that he was a prophet. Acording to Matthew 21:26, everybody knew he was a prophet. They must have been a little bit quizzical at this point and saying, “Well, now wait a minute. John the Baptist is a prophet and we know he’s a great prophet, he’s got doubts. Maybe he’s a weaker man than we think he is. Maybe he’s a more vacillating person than we have imagined. Maybe he isn’t as great as we think.”
And so, the Lord begins in verse 7 to reaffirm in their minds his true greatness, because people are so often prone to assume that to admit weakness is not to be great when just the opposite is true. Verse 7. “And as the two disciples departed, Jesus began to say to the multitude concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” And we’ll stop right there.
And He asks them a very simple question. You went out to see John – He knows what they’re thinking. They’re thinking, well, John, I mean, he’s doubting. He’s not as hot as we thought he was. I mean, can we believe him? I mean, he’s the one who said, Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, he is the one who announced the Messiah but now he’s doubting. Can we believe him? Is he a vacillating person? And so, the Lord says, well, when you went out into the wilderness, did you go out there to see a reed shaken with the wind? What does He mean by this? Well, what is this saying? What are they asking or what is the Lord asking?
Well, He wants to – to remind them of the greatness of John, and He does it by pointing to their own attitude and their own experience with John. He doesn’t want them to think of John as a vacillating kind of weak person with no ability to make up his mind. He wants them to know how great John really is. So look what He says, the first statement. “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” Why did you leave Galilee and go all the way out to the desert around the Dead Sea? Why would you make such a long, hard journey? What was it that attracted you to that man? Why were you so curious? Why was he so magnetic? What was it about him that drew you out? “Was it because he was a reed shaken in the wind?” Was it simply because he was a vacillating, weak character, blowing back and forth with every new wave that came along?
What is the obvious answer? No. Because if they wanted people like that they could have found them in the temple. They were all over the place. If they wanted weak, vacillating, ordinary reeds that blew around with every wind, they could have found them all over their religious system. They certainly didn’t need to go all the way out to the desert to find one. I might point out that those reeds that are spoken of here were very common reeds. They would grow along the bank of the Jordan River and they were frequently growing in other places around water. They were by the thousands everywhere along the Jordan. And so, they were common ordinary things.
And the Lord is saying did you go out there because he was just a common ordinary garden variety guy, blown around like everybody else with no strength and no conviction? The reed blowing back and forth symbolizes a man who yields to popular opinion, a man who is blown about by ideas and pressures, a man who can be bought, a man who vacillates on what he believes, a man who plays to the audience, a man who says what he thinks people want to hear, a man who veers from side to side, a man who does not have the courage or the boldness to be a man of conviction.
It refers to the spineless. And what He’s saying is, if you wanted to find some spineless people there are plenty of them right where you were. You didn’t come out here because he was spineless. You didn’t come out here because he was weak. The whole land was filled with people like that. As John Bunyan points out in Pilgrim’s Progress, “Mr. Pliable does not go to prison to be martyred for the truth.”
John was not common and John was not compromising. And they knew that. And he did not hold back his message for anybody. In Matthew 3, when all of the religious leaders came out, if he wanted to play to the crowd that was his moment. But you might be interested in what he said to them. When all the leaders came out, “He saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now, that’s both parties of leaders. And he said unto them, “Greetings, fellas.”
No, he didn’t say that. “You generation of snakes, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits befitting repentance, and don’t say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I say unto you, God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham and now the ax is laid at the root of the trees.” That’s pretty strong stuff.
Then he goes on to talk about judgment of fire and purging and burning them with unquenchable fire, a devastating diatribe against the religious leaders. In fact, the whole leadership of Israel had let Herod’s sin pass, Herod’s horrible adultery and Herod’s illicit marriage. But John faced him nose to nose and told him it was a sin and that’s why John was in prison and soon to have his head chopped off and brought in on a plate.
No, it wasn’t because he was a reed shaking in the wind that they went to see him. If they wanted to see that they could see that everywhere. It was because he was a man of great conviction. He was a man who knew what William Penn said, William Penn said “Right is right even if everyone is against it and wrong is wrong even if everyone is for it.” That’s simple but true. He was a man of great conviction. He was so great because he faced his weakness and overcame it and because he was strong in his conviction and nobody could intimidate him. He knew what was right and he would do it.
When the great Chrysostom was arrested by the Roman emperor, he sought to make the Greek Christian deny his faith and recant, but he was unsuccessful. So the emperor discussed with his advisers what they could do to this prisoner. “Shall I put him in a dungeon?” the emperor asked. “No,” one of his counselors replied, “for he’ll be glad to go. He longs for the quietness where he can delight in the mercies of his God.” “Then he shall be executed,” said the emperor. “No,” came the answer, “for he’ll be glad to die. He declares that in the event of death he will be in the presence of the Lord. “Well, what shall we do then?” the ruler asked. “There’s only one thing that will cause him pain. Make him sin. He’s afraid of nothing but sin.”
What a testimonial, huh? That’s much like John. Scripture confirms the value of a person with conviction. James says, “Don’t be a double minded person, going whatever way is easy.” Paul says in Ephesians 4:14, “Don’t be blown about by every wind of doctrine.” Be a person of conviction. Now that is a mark of greatness. You go back in history, and just from the human perspective now, you mark out the great people of human history and you will find they were people who had convictions about something, and they pursued those convictions to the end. That’s a mark of their greatness. There are lots of people who can go in short spurts and then be intimidated out of that conviction or can’t sustain it for a lifetime. But the great ones, against all opposition, carry through.
Third thing, his life was also marked – and this is another mark of his personal character – by self-denial. And this is another element of greatness, self-denial. The truly great people are the people who can deny themselves. That’s really true.
You know, when I look back in history sometimes and I read about great generals who put their life on the line, who went through incredible hardship to win a victory; or when I read about scientists who were locked up in some kind of a situation for days and weeks and months and years trying to discover something which we now take for granted; or when I read about some person who stayed with a problem, hour upon hour upon hour until, ultimately, it was solved; or a missionary who burned his life out by the time he was 30 years of age trying to get the gospel to some people someplace, then I remind myself that that’s the mark of greatness. I mean, if you are always being diverted by the desire for comfort, if you can’t take pain and you’ve always got to find the easy way, then you’ll never know what greatness is. Because greatness understands self-denial.
Verse 8, “What went ye out to see?” Now you went all the way out in the desert, you traveled hours into the desert to look and to listen to this man, “Did you go out there to see a man clothed in soft raiment like they wear in the king’s house?” Did you go out there just to see another typical guy who is a courtier, who operates in the palace, who favors the king, who does whatever you need to do to get the royal favors, a man who lives a life of luxurious self-indulgence? Did you go out there to see a guy who plays to the court, who seeks the favors because he wants to pad his seat? Hardly! Hardly.
And by the way, you might be interested in knowing, I did a little reading on the background of that statement. Found that in the early days of Herod the Great, many of the scribes who were attracted to Herod and wanted to seek favor from Herod took off their usual plain dress, which was the mark of a scribe, and they donned the ornate, luxurious robes of Herod’s court. They sold out. But John the Baptist was no self-seeker. He was no part of the system at all. He lived in the wilderness. His cause was not comfort. I’m sure there were many times when he wished he had it.
His cause was not self-indulgence. His cause was not to see how easy it could be on him, and if he could just hang around long enough to fall into the gravy like so many people who are hoping that every day their ship will come in. He was not interested in the ease of the world. He was not interested in gaining favor from people above him who could pad his seat. He stood apart, unstained by the system. He was above it. He was a man so consumed by a greater cause in his own mind that he couldn’t be attracted to the system.
Now, if you want to know what kind of life style he had it’s very simple. He had a raiment of camel’s hair, a rough garment of camel’s hair, a leather belt – this is Matthew 3:4 – around his waist. That’s a rough leather belt, and a rough camel-hair coat, not the kind of camel-hair you think of. And his food was locusts and wild honey. Frankly, folks, I don’t imagine the wild honey could do much for the locusts, to be honest with you. But in those days, they use to de-wing, bake and salt those things and eat them like peanuts, with a little honey. Not exactly affluence. He lived in the wilderness. His life style was a living visual protest against self-indulgence. His life style was a statement against self-centeredness.
He was so utterly abandoned to the cause and that is the mark of greatness. That is the soldier, the general, who does all that he needs to do, even giving his life if need be, to win the victory. That is the man of education who will spend all the time that is necessary to come to the right conclusion. That is the scientist who exposes himself to all the dangers of radio activity to discover what needs to be discovered for the future of man. That is the athlete who beats his body, as it were, because he has a goal. And even though we may not understand that those goals are the right goals, we do understand what it means when they deny themselves. The great people are concerned with a goal. They are concerned with a mission that supersedes any personal comfort or self-indulgence.
And you know, we’re all tempted along that line, to just go to the – the way of ease. I was coming in this morning and I turned on the radio and the announcer made the statement “This is for your easy listening. We hope you have a day of ease.” You know, and you just, “Yeah,” see. “I think I’ll turn around and go fishing.” That’s the way our life is, more leisure. That’s why we have fewer and fewer great people.
To John it was all the way. I mean, John’s commitment was a consuming commitment. In fact, according to Luke 1:15, it said “He would drink neither wine nor strong drink.” And that meant he took a Nazarite vow. And the Nazarite vow meant you’d drink neither wine nor strong drink, which immediately eliminates you from all the fancy banquets and all the nice little things that you might attend. It also was part of the Nazarite vow to allow your hair to grow without cutting your hair, never putting a razor to your head which didn’t exactly keep you up with the current society trend and hairdos.
In other words, you were saying, “I do not care about what I look like. I do not care about indulging myself in those delicacies of life. I am given to a cause.” There were many people who took a Nazarite vow for a few weeks or a few months. There were only less than a handful who took that vow for life; Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist. He restricted himself even above the priests. The priests could only have to restrict himself from wine and strong drink while he was functioning as a priest, according to Leviticus chapter 10. But John did it for life. I mean, he just took the highest level, that’s all. He was committed to self-denial. And it wasn’t that he was denying himself to gain some kind of penance, that’s foolish.
Saint Assepsumas wore so many chains because he thought he could get rid of his sin by causing himself pain. He wore so many chains that he had to crawl around on his hands and knees. Bessarion, a monk, would not even give in to his body’s desire for restful sleep. For forty years he wouldn’t lie down. He slept sitting in a chair. Macarius the Younger sat naked in a swamp for six months until mosquito bites made him look like a victim of leprosy. Saint Maron spent eleven years in a hollowed-out tree. Great contribution to society.
Among ascetics, the most celebrated was Simeon the stylite of Syria and Danielle the stylite of Constantinople. Simeon spent 37 years on different pillars, each one higher and narrower than the last, and his last pillar was 66 feet high. And he died in A.D. 460 at the age of 72. Just kept sitting on top of higher and higher pillars. Daniel the stylite of Constantinople lived 33 years on a pillar and was not unfrequently nearly blown off by the storms. It’s too bad he wasn’t blown off. In Westmalle near Antwerp, there was a convent of Trappist monks who live under the vow of perpetual silence. They dress in rough sackcloth, their heads shaven, their beards unkempt, they sleep on hard boards, eat bread, sour milk and vegetables. Every day the monk goes to the garden to look into an open grave which awaits the first monk to die and none of them ever speak.
Agnes de Roucher was the only daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in Paris and admired by all the neighborhood for her beauty and virtue. Her father died leaving her the sole possessor of his wealth. Rumor immediately disposed of her hand to all the young gallants of the quarter. In other words, all the men came after her fortune. She determined to become what was then called a recluse and as such, to pass the remainder of her days in a narrow cell built within the wall of a church. On the fifth of October when the cell, only a few feet square, was finished and the wall of the church of Saint Opportune, Agnes entered her final abode.
The bishop of Paris, attended by his chaplains and the canons of Notre Dame, entered the cell and celebrated a pontifical mass. Then he approached the opening of the cell, sprinkled it with holy water, and after the poor thing had bidden adieu to her friends and relations, ordered the masons to fill up the opening. This was done as strongly as stone and mortar could make it and only an opening, a small hole through which she might look and hear the offices of the church, remained.
She was 18 years when she went in. She was 80 years old when she died, never having come out. God help such mistaken piety. Now when I talk about self-denial, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the one who denies himself to accomplish a goal that is obtainable and that is not totally self-consuming.
John was great. He was great because of his personal character. He was remarkable. In fact, do you know something? The guy was so remarkable that people thought he was the Messiah. Did you know that? They thought he was the Messiah. That’s what an incredible person John the Baptist was. In Luke 3:15, “And as the people were in expectation and all men mused in their hearts, all men mused in their hearts concerning John whether he were the Messiah.” See? Tremendous, tremendous man. All right, his greatness, then, was built in his personal character.
Secondly, in his privileged calling, verse 9. His greatness was also marked by his privileged calling. When it comes to tasks on earth, he was given the greatest task that any human being ever had. I mean, what could be a greater task then announcing the arrival of God in human flesh? And so, not only his personal character, but his privileged calling. He was the greatest.
The only person in the human race that even comes close to John in that regard is Mary. Mary was chosen to bear the Messiah. But in many ways John was greater than Mary. Mary gave birth to a baby. John heralded a King. Mary brought Jesus into 30 years of obscurity. John ushered Him into three years of effective ministry. He was a remarkable man.
Look at verse 9, and the Lord’s third question: “And went ye out to see?” And here’s the first one that deserves a yes answer. They didn’t go out to see a reed shaken with the wind. And they didn’t go out to see a man dressed in soft clothing like people in a king’s court. What did you go out to see? “A prophet?” And what’s the next word? “Yes, and I say unto you even more than a prophet.” How could you be more than a prophet? “For this is he of whom it is written, Behold I send My messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way before thee.”
Yes, they went out to see a prophet. But far more than a prophet, the very herald of the Messiah. He was a prophet and they saw him that way. Matthew 21:26: “All men perceived that John the Baptist was a prophet,” a forth teller, a speaker. And when it came to his ability to speak he was without equal. And there were some great prophets. Starting with Moses who was the first prophet, all the way to John who was the last prophet, he is the – he’s the summum bonum. He is it. He’s the valedictorian of the prophets.
I don’t know just exactly what it would be like to have listened to him, but he was the most dynamic, articulate, confrontive, powerful spokesman God ever had to do the supreme prophetic task, the last prophet who would announce that the Messiah not was coming, but was here. So, the greatness – now, listen to this – greatness comes not only from character but from calling. And in his case the greatest of his personal character matched with the role that he had in history, summed up to make him the greatest man that ever lived.
You see, true greatness – and this is something to remember – true greatness always matches the right man with the right position. True greatness always matches the right man with the right position. A man could have potential greatness but if he never got into the right field he’d never know that. That’s why it’s so marvelous when a person is a Christian because God knows what your strengths are and God, through His expressed will and the Spirit of God, can lead you into that which is the greatest fulfillment of that ability, see. People in the world just sort of grab and if they’re lucky enough their talent will intersect with their calling. But as Christians, we have God to give us that direction.
And so, the man and the mission come together. John was God’s chosen voice. In Amos 3:7, it says “The prophets are the ones to whom God reveals His secrets.” And John was one of those, the man with the message from God. And, by the way, it had been 400 years since there had been a prophet, 400 years’ silence. And when John came they knew he was a prophet. They all knew that. He spoke with power and conviction and people were changed. And there was a tremendous amount of excitement. They didn’t all believe his message but they all saw he was a prophet. And then this statement by our Lord in verse 9. “Yes, I say unto you and even more” – or literally – “even more than a prophet.”
How could you be more than a prophet? Well, first of all, he not only prophesied but he was, himself, the fulfillment of prophecy. Verse 10. “For it is he of whom it is written, Behold I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” He is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. He is not only one who prophesies, he is the fulfillment of prophecy. So he’s more than a prophet. He is a fulfillment of prophecy. And listen to this. He not only predicted the Messiah, he actually baptized the Messiah. So he is not just one who tells, he is one who does. He touched the living Christ.
He not only said, by the way, “He will come, He will come, He will come,” but one day he said, “Here He is.” He is more than a prophet, because he was not only the last prophet, but the forerunner of Christ, the baptizer of Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy. And in verse 10, there’s a quote of Malachi 3:1. It’s an interpretive quote and the Lord by the way He quotes, interprets the verse to refer to John the Baptist, of course. Actually, if you wanted an expanded translation of verse 10, it would read like this. Behold, I Jehovah, send My messenger John the Baptist to be the forerunner of Thee the Messiah.
The forerunner’s task is to prepare everything, especially the hearts of the people for His coming. And so, God says, I send him, My messenger, before You the Messiah and he’ll prepare the hearts of the people for you. So you have a marvelous conversation between the Father and the Son, from Malachi 3:1, here given in reference to John the Baptist. “He will come” – watch the phrase – “before Thy face.” That means in front of Thee, before Christ. He is the personal messenger of the Messiah. He is calling apostate Israel to repent.
Listen, talk about status. I mean, it’s a great thing to be the pastor of Grace Community Church. It is something more than I could ever dream. And I sometimes am sort of caught in the awe of the whole thing and don’t really understand it. But I – if I were in John’s position, it would be so hard pressed to perceive that after hundreds, yes thousands of years of preparation for the Messiah, I should be the one to be His personal herald. Incredible calling, status, no greater privilege is ever given to any human being in history than to John the Baptist, not even Mary. He was great because of his personal character. And then because of his privileged calling.
Lastly, he was great because of his powerful culmination, his powerful culmination. Now, listen to this. These are the three ingredients of greatness, people. This is a very practical lesson. You see, greatness starts with personal character but it has to be matched with the right calling. You’ve got to have the right man and the mission. But thirdly, you’ve got to have the right impact. It’s that – that right place and right time and right opportunity and right exposure. It’s all of that that makes it happen. And there was 400 years without a prophet, tremendous anticipation had built and built and built. It was the right moment. There was electricity in the air when John came on the scene. And so, he brought everything to a powerful culmination.
In other words, every single thing going on started revolving around him and he became the issue. You know, the greater ones are the focus of attention, aren’t they? Another element of John’s greatness, then, was that he became the focal point. He became pivotal at that juncture of redemptive history. He became the issue. The action took place all around him. He was the culmination of all of Old Testament history.
He made waves. He upset the status-quo. He had high impact. He created conflict. You’ll notice in verse 12 that the word “violence” is used. He created violence. He stirred up a hornet’s nest. When he confronted the Jews, things became explosive. He brought everything to a head. Everywhere he moved there was a violent reaction. He was a man of destiny. His influence was at the crisis moment of redemptive history. And everything was happening all around him, just like a hurricane.
Something exciting about that, isn’t there? The great ones, it’s they have a way of being followed by a cloud of dust. Have you ever noticed that? Just a flurry of things going on because they move through history generating that. Verse 12, his preaching led to violence. That’s kind of exciting to think about. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” That’s what the Authorized says. Now hang in there, I love this first phrase. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, there’s violence.” You know what that says? Since this guy arrived there is violence, direct correlation.
I love that. Ever since he’s been around we’ve had problems. It’s been two and a-half years of this guy. One – the last – nearly the last year has been in prison but still the violence goes on. Eighteen months of wilderness preaching and this man creates all kinds of activity. It’s all happening there. The great ones are always at the middle of the action. His life had become the issue. His ministry had become the focus. And the Kingdom of heaven, verse 12, refers to God’s rule. That’s a general term here, simply referring to God’s rule, simply referring to God’s will, God’s message, God’s principles, God’s dimension, God’s Kingdom, God’s purposes. And they’ve been violently dealt with since John came along.
Now, what is the nature of this violence? Now, I’m going to give you a little, sort of an interpretive lesson. There are two possible ways to translate this verse. There’s a verb in the middle, the verb biazō, and it can be translated passive or reflexive. And that means it can be translated passive as if something is doing the action to it, or reflexive as if it is doing it itself. Now, some commentators take it passively. Look at verse 12, it would read this way. The Kingdom of heaven is suffering violence and violent men are seizing it. And that’s pretty much the way the Authorized or the King James translates it.
The passive, if we take it that way, it is saying the Kingdom of heaven is suffering violence. In other words, here comes God and here comes God’s messenger and here comes God’s Messiah and that represents God’s rule and God’s Kingdom, and it is suffering violence. It is being persecuted. It is being attacked. Persecution had broken out against the advance of the Kingdom. Persecution had broken out against John the Baptist. He was already in prison. The Pharisees and the scribes had vigorously attacked the Kingdom. They had vigorously rejected Jesus Christ. They had vigorously denied the disciples a place of proper perspective.
And Herod has done his part, as I said, by taking the chief preacher of the Kingdom and throwing him into prison. The Kingdom was being violently denied. Its spiritual reality was being rejected. Its earthly reality, also, was being rejected by the Jews. They were not accepting the Kingdom in its spiritual dimension by receiving the Messiah, so they couldn’t accept the Kingdom in its earthly dimension and receive the millennial Kingdom either. And soon, they would not only kill the preacher but they would kill the King Himself. And John’s message was so decisive that it created a violent reaction and all of that is true.
And then it would also – at the end of the verse – it would mean violent men are seizing it. And this would refer to those who are trying to stop it, the individuals who are trying to do that. And many of them, by the way, were trying to bring in a false kingdom by political means, such as the Zealots who were trying to seize the kingdom of God, politically, and establish it. So, the kingdom of heaven which is the rule of God and the implementation of His standards was being attacked and they were trying to stop it. And they disallowed its earthly reality, which had to be postponed to the future.
But secondly, let’s assume we translate it reflexively, it would read this way, and – and by the way, the verb form can be either way so we just have to take our choice here. Both are true, which is kind of interesting, so if you want to believe both, that’s probably the safest place. But you’ll notice if we translate it reflexively, it would read like this. The Kingdom of heaven is vigorously pressing itself forward and forceful people are eagerly taking it. It means the very opposite. It’s interesting. What it says then, is that the kingdom is moving ahead and forceful people are entering it. This becomes positive then. And it’s saying that John the Baptist is effective. Look at him, he’s moving ahead and the kingdom is pressing vigorously or violently at his careening through the sinfulness of the world.
And you know if you look at the history, that is what happened. John the Baptist had a marvelous impact, didn’t he? People were turning to God, they were repenting of their sins, he was leading many to Christ. In Luke 1, it tells us – this is a marvelous statement. Verse 16, “Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God,” – speaking of John the Baptist – “he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
In other words, he’s going to go with a great effect and turn many hearts to God. So if you take it reflexively, then the kingdom is moving ahead vigorously. And our Lord was continuing then, to mark out the greatness of John. Through him, the kingdom was vigorously moving ahead. He was God’s tool to purify the people. He was God’s tool to get them ready. And when Christ came, the kingdom could be seen. The sick were healed, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, the sinners were forgiven and the kingdom was moving. Yes, many refused.
But look. The end of the verse would read this way. Violent men are taking possession of it. There were the vigorous, violent, forceful who dared to step out, who dared to break with tradition, who dared at all costs to separate themselves from the system, who came and took possession of the reign of God, who enthroned Jesus Christ as Lord. And that, by the way, beloved, is the meaning of a parallel statement in Luke 16:16, where it says “The law and the prophets were until John, since that time the Kingdom of God is preached and every man presses into it.” And because of that parallel passage, I think we’re safer to say that this is a reflexive use of biazō. That it is saying that the Kingdom is moving ahead under the power of this marvelous man, John, and vigorous, aggressive, forceful people are taking that kingdom.
You say, “Well, does that express the proper perspective on salvation?” Yes. In Matthew chapter 7 it says that if you’re going to enter into the narrow gate, you’re going to have to realize that it’s hard to enter, that there must be a striving. Listen to what it says. “Because the gate is narrow and the way is hard which leads unto life and few there be that” – What? – “find it.” No. You don’t just easily take Jesus Christ, you don’t just easily enter the kingdom. There is a striving. Jesus said “If you’re going to come unto Me then you must deny yourself, take up your” – What? – “your cross and follow Me.
You see, entrance into the kingdom requires earnest endeavor, untiring energy, utmost exertion because Satan is mighty and his demons are powerful and sin holds us. God can break that and our hearts respond. The kingdom is not for weaklings, the kingdom is not for waverers or compromisers. It is not for Balaams, it is not for rich young rulers. It is not for would-be disciples who want to go home and collect their inheritance. It is not for those who want to go say goodbye to their mother, it is not for Demases. The kingdom is not for deferred prayers or unfulfilled promises or broken resolutions, or hesitant testimonies.
The kingdom is for hard, sturdy-hearted folks like Joseph and Nathan and Elijah and Daniel and his three friends and Mordecai and Stephen and Deborah and Esther and Lydia and Ruth and Paul. It’s for men and women who are willing to enter it and affirm the Lordship of Christ. And I like that second view because it expresses the flow of context which is a commendation of John. The kingdom is moving under John and vigorous people are taking it. They’re stepping out. Becoming a Christian means you step out against the flow, you go against the grain. It’s a sense of violently pressing in, breaking the bands of your own sin and self.
Then verse 13. John is the culmination of everything, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” He is the culmination. Everything from Genesis to John is moving along to the moment that he pointed to Christ. And it was all one message. From Genesis to John was one message. The Messiah’s coming, the Messiah’s coming, the Messiah is coming. And he was the culmination. He was it. What a commendation. He is the focus. Everything is swirling around him. The kingdom is moving violently through the godless, human system. And eager, vigorous people are pressing into it. Why? Because this is the climax, everything has built up to John.
And verse 14 then, this marvelous verse, “If you will receive, this is Elijah who was to come.” Now what does that mean? Simply this. In Malachi 4:5 it said that before the Messiah came to set up His kingdom on earth, Elijah would come as a forerunner. Now, would this be a real Elijah? No. No, Elijah’s not going to be reincarnated. But one like Elijah. You say, “How do you know that?” Because that’s what it says in the New Testament. In Luke 1, it says “He shall go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah.” And in John 1:21, he says “I am not Elijah.”
Now, if he says I am not Elijah, personally, and Jesus here says, “If you receive, he is Elijah,” then we know what we mean by Elijah will come. One in his power and in his person and with his kind of character. A powerful, rugged individual who will come and announce the Kingdom. And what does it say in 14? If you receive the Kingdom, if you receive the message, if you open your hearts to the Messiah, then God will establish the earthly kingdom and John will have fulfilled that prophecy. He will have been that Elijah. But if you refuse the kingdom, then John is not going to fulfill that Elijah prophecy and there will yet be an Elijah-type person to come in the future.
Well, they didn’t receive the kingdom, did they? So John was not that Elijah. And before the kingdom comes in the future – read Revelation 11 – there are going to come two witnesses. And I believe they will be that Elijah who comes to announce the Kingdom. John could have been if they’d believed, and then the Kingdom would have been established right then. But they didn’t believe, and so he was not that Elijah.
Now, listen to me. I’m going to wrap this up right now. Even with John’s powerful culmination of Old Testament history, even with this marvelous privileged calling and with his personal character, not everybody believed and not everybody appreciated him. Not everybody understood the significance of this man, so the Lord adds a warning and He adds that warning to you: “He that ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus is saying, if John is the forerunner, then I am the King. And if I am the King, the Kingdom is being offered. And that puts you in the place of making a choice. Don’t refuse it. There’s a two-fold offer of the Kingdom. Receive the Messiah into your heart, and if you as a nation receive Me, I’ll bring the Kingdom to earth, the millennial kingdom. They were offered both. The nation did not receive the Messiah. A few received into their hearts the King, and so there was a kingdom in the heart. There yet waits to be a Kingdom in the earth. The greatest man that ever lived.
Now, there’s one more statement and this message is finished. Back to verse 11, and here’s where we end. “Notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now listen carefully. Don’t tune out now. I got this far, I’ve got to finish. The point is this, people. In all of the human greatness of John, personal character, privileged calling, powerful culmination in human history, you take all of that human greatness and human status and historical value, all that he is born of women, all that he is in physical perception and he doesn’t come up to the least person who is in God’s spiritual Kingdom.
Do you see? Great truth. You know what true greatness is? When I’ve said it all, true greatness isn’t being like John the Baptist, that’s beneath true greatness. That’s earthly greatness. True greatness is being in God’s Kingdom. Did you get that? That’s true greatness. Bow your heads with me.
Our Father, we hear the echo of the words of our Lord in Matthew 18. “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” Father, may we know that all of these marks of human greatness are fine, and may we know that they’re especially wonderful when they are doubly endowed by the presence of the Holy Spirit as in the case of John. But that the greatest greatness is not which – that which is ours humanly, but that which is ours divinely as we become citizens of your eternal Kingdom.
And may we know that to be a little child, to be the very least in Your Kingdom is to be the greatest. The John of Your Kingdom was greater than the John born of women, as great as he was. May we be those who are truly great because we know You. Amen.
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