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Matthew 11:11 (KJV):

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Since the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, logically he is not part of the kingdom. From other passages, it seems that Jesus thought highly of John, so it seems strange that He would say that John isn't found in the kingdom. How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?

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One should better say: John was not yet partaking of the kingdom. Because even today the kingdom of God is still to come. Neither the least nor the greatest has become apparent to this day. What He was saying about John referred to the past. The kingdom, however, is the future. –  hannes May 30 '13 at 4:51

9 Answers 9

I don't think Reformed theology or any other tradition really bears on this issue so much as simple hermeneutics. Jesus spoke using many traits of ordinary language , and forcing an interpretation on the passage that does not take into account the ordinary ways that language is used and people communicate ideas only leaves people with twisted conclusions.

Here Jesus is not making a point about John so much as he is making a point about the significance of being included in the Kingdom of heaven. There is a comparison being made about relative significance, but this has nothing to do with passing judgement on John as being in or out of the kingdom. In fact we have every reason to believe that he was himself included in it.

Basically, your asking the wrong question. It's not a matter of what John the Baptist lacked or that made the other disciples great. In fact the point of the passage is exactly the opposite of that: the success or failure, greatness or smallness of our lives from an earthly view has exactly no bearing on our status in the Kingdom.

The point about John the Baptist was simply that although he played a very special role history -- a role itself foretold as one who would prepare the way at the coming of the Messiah -- this did not make him special in the Kingdom because that placement is dependent on the work of the Son of Man, not that of John. What greater honor could a man have than to be the immediate herald of the greatest event in all of history? And yet that honor and distinction is shown as insignificant compared to the honor that we are all given as believers grafted into God's family being made co-inheritors with Christ in His kingdom.

All this verse shows us is that any earthly rankings in honor are utterly irrelevant when it comes to our membership in the Kingdom.

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John is not part of the Kingdom of Heaven because his role is to point to and prepare the way for it. Jesus is speaking in the language of eschatology and not in the framework of modern Christian theology.

The context of the passage is that John has been imprisoned by Herod:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”—Matthew 11:2-6 (ESV)

I think it would be natural for John to be worried about his legacy—he was about to be a martyr to an earthly authority and Jesus had not organized any resistance to that authority. In his distress, John sent his disciples for reassurance that Jesus is the Messiah the Israel was waiting for. Jesus' answer was to point to his work, which fulfilled prophecies such as Isaiah 29:17-24, which promised a restoration of the Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.

Jesus then addresses the crowd about John's legacy. He contrasts John's poor attire and diet to that of someone living in a king's palace. People came to see John for the same reason they listened to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and the rest of the great Biblical prophets: because he claimed to speak with God's voice against oppression and tyranny. John wasn't a draw because he brought God's blessing to the people, but because he was a messenger preparing the way.

With that in mind, we get to the passage in question:

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. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.—Matthew 11:11-15 (ESV)

There's a lot going on here and I can't address it all. However, the key analogy Jesus is drawing is between Herod/Herodias and Ahab/Jezebel (the violent who take the kingdom by force) and between John and Elijah (the ones who suffer violence, but are eventually vindicated). In other words, we should not be surprised John suffered under the thumb of a false king, since all the prophets suffered the same fate.

This analogy is immediately followed by Jesus comparing the people to fickle children. They complained because:

  • John was too much of an ascetic, and
  • Jesus was too worldly.

But this misses the broad sweep of Israel's history. Jesus saw himself as the master of the messianic banquet, which was anticipated in Jewish eschatology at the time. Those who are downtrodden in the oppressive kingdoms of earthly rulers will rejoice in a reversal of fortunes in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus illustrates the sea change (into something rich and strange) by contrasting the greatest outside of the kingdom to the least in it. At that moment, John certainly was not in the kingdom since he was a forerunner to it and was a prisoner of the violent powers.

Later in the same address, Jesus says:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.—Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

This invitation is open to all people, including John the Baptist. Remember in the beginning of the passage, John expressed doubt that Jesus was who he said he was. Jesus' answer boils down to, "Trust me. It's all going to turn out ok." John the Baptist did die, but the message of Matthew (and the other gospels) is that Jesus overcame the power of death in his own death and resurrection.

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I've always interpreted this as that Jesus was referring to the Baptism of the Spirit. John never received the Baptism that Jesus was offering (John even asked Jesus at the time of Christ Baptism that he would baptize him). I think John didn't necessarily want 'water' baptism, but the 'spirit' baptism that Christ only could offer. I think that when Christ said "notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" he is referring to those that receive the baptism of the spirit.

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Welcome to Hermeneutics.SE. Could you expand this to show on what basis you have interpreted this verse this way? –  Caleb Sep 22 '12 at 5:50
@Caleb sure. This obviously would take a lot of space so I'll try to write something on it and post it on my site. I'll comment the link to the article. –  ironman99 Sep 22 '12 at 23:11

It must be kept in mind that when Jesus uses the phrase "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven," He is not referring generically to what moderns call "heaven." He is referring to the reign of God in His Messiah. This is why Jesus tells His hearers that the kingdom is "among" them in Luke 17:21. (Not "in"; the Greek is en and can mean either; here Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and surely is not saying that the kingdom is within them, which would make them greater than John!)

The "inferiority" of John is not a knock on his holiness or a comparison of his holiness to that of Jesus' followers. It is a rather a reflection of the fact that John belongs to "the prophets and the law" (see v 13) and not to the kingdom that is arriving in Himself. Paul later compares the time of the law to a period of being under a child custodian; those under it are subject to a minority (childhood) status and are thus unable and unqualified to inherit the eschatological promises (Gal 3:23–4:3). Jesus, however, comes as the mature Heir and all those in Him are full heirs of the promises and recipients of the Spirit (Gal 4:4–7).

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I think the answer lies in what Jesus told his disciples about who was greatest in the kingdom. There are children born of the law (flesh) and those born of the Spirit (Grace). In God's kingdom, children born of Grace are of higher rank. Those born of the flesh still see wealth and fame and power as being associated with greatness. Those born of the Spirit, however, are servants. John represented the LAW and the prophets while Jesus represented unmerited Grace. Note that at Jesus baptism, John said 'it is I who needs to be baptized by you'.

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Hi Alex and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Is there something in the text that makes you say that John represents the law and the prophets? (Or is that a reasonable, logical conclusion?) Could you say a little more about that? Thanks. –  Gone Quiet May 10 '13 at 0:09
@Alex, when you say John represents the law, are you referring to e.g., Acts 19:4, where Paul says that John's baptism was one of repentance? Perhaps you could strengthen your answer by bringing in that text and interacting with it. –  Ray May 10 '13 at 11:21

In this case of the speech Christ gave about the Baptizer the translation suffers (and not only the English but the Greek from Hebrew/Aramaic already). What Jesus here was contrasting was the greatness of John as shown in his time and life compared to the coming greatness of the Sons of the Kingdom.

It is not at all excluding this man whom Christ held in highest regard (as the context unsurpassably shows) but indicating and thus announcing the transcending nobility of what is to come. (In his letter to brothers and sisters in Rome Paul wrote that even all human creation is awaiting the coming of the sons of God. (Romans 8).

This misunderstanding has some share in contributing to the widespead disregard of Law and Prophets that has been seen in the church from the 2nd century on. (Papias of Hierapolis wrote that Matthew's account had been translated to Greek by some as good as they could. (The account of events after the death of Christ, chapter 27, appear quite distorted as well. There was with certainty no resurrection of holy ones. Corpses had become exposed after the earthquake. Otherwise it would again have been a contradiction: The dead of Israel regarded holy, but John, great among the prophets, not even considered least of the Kingdom)). Even in translation camels seem to be swallowed easier than mosquitos.

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Although John the Baptist was the greatest prophet among all prophets (Mt 11:11), he was spiritually dead. Up until the time of the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), all peoples of all times in the Old Covenant (Old Testament) were spiritually dead notwithstanding that only some were righteous-by-faith. Not until the inauguration of the New Covenant in the Christian New Testament are the righteous-by-faith now "born again" -- that is, they are spiritually born anew (and no longer spiritually dead). Thus the least of people (who is spiritually alive) in the New Covenant is greater than the greatest prophet (who was spiritually dead) in the Old Covenant, who in this case happens to be John the Baptist. Since he was beheaded before Pentecost, John the Baptist did not participate in the heavenly kingdom, or Kingdom of Heaven, which is the New Covenant (Acts 26:17-18 and Colossians 1:13). The exception of course were those from the Old Covenant who were resuscitated from the dead so that they would participate in New Covenant in Matthew 27:52, which correlated in partial fulfillment of Ezekiel 37:13-14, which spoke of the New Covenant.

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Do you realise that in Physics, the smaller the particle or phenomenon, the more power we ascribe to them? And we spend trillions combined to look for as small and fundamental a particle as possible?

In Democracy, the principle is that the most powerful is the lowest denominator - the voter. Even though, whether this principal principle is observed is questionable.

In engineering, we frequently look for the lowest common denominator because action at the lowest common denominator is almost always the most effective.

The elementary and fundamental members are the tiny little bits that compose the macro-structure. They are the most significant members of a macro-structure.

The smallest are often the greatest in the physical world (and frequently in medicine and biology). The lowest common denominator directly correlates to the highest common factor - how can we resolve this contradiction?

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I would like to add that Jethro(father-in-law of Moses) and Jesus advocated that representative Democracy in its purest form is the kingdom of heaven. –  Blessed Geek Oct 7 '12 at 20:54

The end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the new. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Hence Jesus Christ was mentioning him as being the least in the kingdom as in a timeline of prophets.

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Are you saying that "least" means "last"? –  Gone Quiet May 12 '13 at 18:52

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