Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the 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 came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!
Matthew 11:11-14 (NRSV)
This is part of a speech Jesus is giving about how great John the Baptist is. Somewhat surprisingly, it is part of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist publicly questioning whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.
Certainly, the hyperbolic statement at the beginning shows that Jesus thinks nothing but good things of John the Baptist. Jesus says that John is the greatest person who has ever been born, and it’s hard to give a higher compliment than that. Certainly, as a prophet, John has much to commend him. He saw the upcoming judgement and was desperately trying to turn the ship of Israel around so that she might be reconciled to their God, and this after almost 500 years of prophetic silence from Israel’s God. John is also the forerunner of the promised Messiah. He has been put into a special role at a special time in history and has risen to the occasion as the great prophets before him.
But Jesus begins to turn our attention to something to the Kingdom of God – an end point to which both he and John have been pointing.
Within the Kingdom of God are “the least.” Who are they? Well, the way Matthew uses the phrase, it refers to the powerless faithful who cannot protect themselves from persecution. Apart from Matthew 10:42, there’s also the parable in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus rewards those who took care of “the least of these” and exiles those who did not. In this passage, Jesus appears to be saying that, as great and important and vital as John the Baptist was, that pales in comparison to the small, humble, and weak who remain faithful even under persecution – incidentally, a category that describes John the Baptist at the time Jesus is saying this. It is no accident that Matthew has this occurring immediately after Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to remain faithful even though persecution will be heating up.
This provides our context for understanding Jesus’ comment that the kingdom of God is seized violently by the violent. John the Baptist is in one of Herod’s cells, and this is only the beginning. Many people less capable than John are about to experience persecution from both government and religious authorities. The same Greek words are used in 1 Enoch 103-104 to describe the plight of Israel under her oppressors, and she is encouraged to wait patiently because the day of her liberation is near.
And should this surprise anyone? No, because this has largely been the experience of the prophets in Israel’s “recent” history, and when I say “recent,” I mean like the past millennium from Jesus’ standpoint. The faithful prophets warn of impending doom if Israel will not change her direction and call her to repentance, and they are persecuted, incarcerated, exiled, and killed for their troubles. In this way, everyone in the Kingdom of God is about to become a prophet. They, too, will carry this message to Judea and they, too, will suffer for it.
This leads to Jesus’ crescendo – that John the Baptist is fulfilling Malachi 4. Malachi (which simply means “My messenger”) chapter 4 is only six verses long. It is the end to a diatribe against the corruption of Israel’s priesthood whose hearts are far from God and have used their position for gain, even at the expense of the rest of Israel. In Malachi 4, God promises that the day is coming when he will destroy the arrogant evildoers, but the faithful will experience the rise of righteousness and healing. There is a reminder for them to return to the obedience of God’s Law, and then:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Malachi 4:5-6 (NRSV)
The prophet Elijah will come to bring Israel to repentance so that they might not fall in the destruction. This will happen before that terrible day comes.
This mission is not lost on John, who purposefully dresses up like Elijah and lives like Elijah in the wilderness. John, like the prophets before him, is putting on a dramatic show along with his message, and the point of his show is, “I am Elijah.” In this way, he connects himself directly with Malachi’s warning, and Jesus affirms that John the Baptist’s understanding of his role and place in history is dead on.
Even as Jesus praises John the Baptist, it’s also an occasion to remind the audience that a coming judgement is imminent, and the day is near. John the Baptist is here. Jesus is here. The things the prophets looked for as signs of the great Day of the Lord are all here. On the one hand, this is a great reason for hope: the oppressors will be put down and the faithful will be restored. On the other hand, it is a sobering call to faithfulness, even with the knowledge that violence against the faithful will increase.
- Who are the power structures that affect the lives of “the least of these” today? In what ways do the least of these suffer violence from these power structures? How would that violence increase if those structures were confronted with the message that God will one day put them down and exalt the humble faithful?
- When John the Baptist called people to repentance, he was clear that the people who repented “bore the fruits of repentance” and not just confessed their sins privately to God. What does it mean for us to bear fruits of repentance?