(If this Sunday is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, read this devotion in the morning, and the devotion entitled, “The Sunday Before the Season of Lent” in the evening, under this same tab.)
Matthew 11:1-19; Luke 7:18-35
The Advantage in Being the Least – in the Kingdom, That Is
Today’s lesson centers around John the Baptist. By this time, he had been thrown into prison by Herod Antipas for rebuking him for his adulterous marriage, and that at the instigation of his adulterous wife. John had once called Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). But now, in prison, he doubts. We don’t know why. Perhaps John thought that Jesus’ ministry would execute judgment on the wicked right away (Matthew 3:12), or maybe prison was simply breaking the poor man down. At any rate, John sends two disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” What is remarkable to me is Jesus’ patience in receiving John’s question; after all, this is John the Baptist who doubts, the one who prepared the way! Jesus might have thought that he could at least depend on him. But instead Jesus shows and then tells John’s disciples what they 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 the good news preached to them.” Again, Jesus’ deeds confirm his Messianic office as the One sent from God (John 5:36; 10:25, 38). Only remember, in Jesus’ unique case, it is the man and his message which prove the deeds, not the deeds that prove the man.
Jesus then extols John before the people and assures them that John was the “Elijah who [was] to come,” as prophesied by Malachi and expected before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). Indeed, Jesus even says of him, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” But then Jesus adds something truly amazing: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now this is important. What does this statement from Jesus mean? Jesus is the dividing line between the old and new covenants. The first covenant was made with God’s people and recorded in the Old Testament. The promise of coming redemption was made to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15) and Abraham (Genesis 12:3), filled out in the Law given to Moses, and reaffirmed through the prophets time and again. But through Christ, the promise reaches fulfillment. John’s ministry marks the end of old covenant expectations while Jesus’ very person and work marks the beginning of the new covenant age of blessing (1 Corinthians 10:11). So Jesus can refer to that one who is “least in the kingdom of heaven” as being greater than John, not because that person is better than John (far be it), but because that one who is least is a present member of the kingdom that Christ instituted through his life, death, and resurrection. Isn’t it wonderful to live on this side of the cross!