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Jesus is quoted as speaking of those who are "least in the Kingdom" in two situations: the Sermon on the Mount (or the Plain as in Luke) and in reference to John the Baptist, after John asks if Jesus is "he who is to come."

  • Matthew 5:19 -- Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

  • Matthew 11:11 (cf. Lk. 7:28) -- Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

The first use of "least in the kingdom" seems clear. It refers to someone who relaxes the commandments. The context is that Jesus has urged his followers not only to follow the basic commandments (against murder, adultery, false swearing, etc.) but to go beyond them by not harboring hatred, lust, untruthfulness etc. in one's heart. But the second use raises the question as to whether Jesus believed that John had acted in a similar way to those Jesus spoke of earlier. In other words, did John teach people to relax the basic commandments that Jesus himself endorsed and expanded? And if so, which ones? If not, what did he do to deserve this designation? Or perhaps the two uses of the term simply don't mean the same thing. If so, why would Matthew use the same terminology in 11:11 that he did in 5:19?

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  • There is on this site a question "What does it mean that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist?" In the answers Jon Ericson puts -"John certainly was not in the kingdom since he was a forerunner to it."
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:51
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    Yes, but this is a different question... seeking clarification on the relationship between Mt 5 and Mt 11. Jan 25, 2023 at 12:22

3 Answers 3

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Actually, the two statements of Jesus are not quite the same. Let me translate them overly literally to show the differences:

Matt 5:19

If whoever shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach others thus, he will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whoever shall keep and teach [them] this [one] will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.

Matt 11:11

Truly I say to you, there has not arisen among [those] born of women a greater than John the Baptist. Yet, the lesser in the kingdom of heavens is greater than he.

Note the important difference: Matt 5:19 uses the superlative ("least") while Matt 11:11 uses the comparative ("lesser" and "greater")

Thus, both statements are using common rhetorical hyperbole and thus should not be taken literally. In any case, they are making different statements. Ellicott offers these remarks on Matt 11:11 -

[Jesus] does speak of His disciples as the “little ones” who believe on Him (Matthew 10:42), and as applied to them the words have a meaning at once natural and adequate. The least of His disciples, rejoicing in His presence, in communion with Him, in His revelation of the Father, though less than John in fame, work, the rigour of ascetic holiness, was yet above him in the knowledge of the truth, and therefore in blessedness and joy.

Meyer's commentary offers further insight:

ὁ δὲ μικρότερος, κ.τ.λ. he, however, who is less in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. It is to be observed, (1) that neither here nor elsewhere does the comparative stand for the superlative; (2) that, according to the context, the reference of the comparative (see μείζων Ἰωάννου, and afterwards μείζων αὐτοῦ) need not be looked for elsewhere but in Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ;

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  • Very useful to know that the Greek terms are not the same after all. Jan 25, 2023 at 18:24
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John the Baptist claimed that Jesus was greater and that he was not worthy to untie his shoes in John 1:27. Jesus in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 recalls this condition, however, remaining the least by serving the disciples and strictly fulfilling the two greatest commandments.

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As it goes further in the text John the Baptist was killed and did not partake in the New Covenant to become a brother of Jesus Christ and the child of God Almighty by christian baptism of the Holy Spirit.

So by this logic he could not inherit in the kingdom of heaven and even if he would be taken there after his death the lesser heirs are bigger than him there.

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