I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?... A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
So far as we know, John the Baptist never left the land of his birth. He preached in the wilderness of Judea. He baptised people in the River Jordan. They came to him. He didn’t go on tour. His ministry was localised. And yet, his influence was still evident decades after his death.
When Luke introduces us to Apollos, we’re told he was originally from Alexandria (in Egypt) and ‘knew only the baptism of John’ (Acts 18:25). On arriving in Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), Paul encountered about twelve men who also had only received John’s baptism. Paul explained it was ‘a baptism of repentance’, and that John had ‘told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus’ (Acts 19:4). Still, their presence in Ephesus is a testimony to the lasting significance of John the Baptist, so many years later, so far away.
Perhaps we should expect that of one about whom Jesus said that ‘among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater’: not just a prophet, but the chosen herald of the Messiah. And yet, Jesus went on, ‘whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’.
The ‘greatness’ seems to do with John’s unique position in salvation history, standing on the cusp of a new era, with the law and the prophets giving way to the coming of the kingdom they – and John – prophesied. As great as John was – the greatest in fact – his ministry was preparatory to what has now arrived in Jesus. In this new era, even Jesus’ ‘little ones’ (Matthew 10:42), ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40, 45), are greater than John.
John’s greatness was bound up with his role in preparing others for Jesus. But the privilege we have in belonging to the new epoch in God’s dealings with humanity means we are able to bear witness to Jesus more clearly even than John could.
That’s encouraging for me as I head into this week – as pathetic as I sometimes feel when it comes to pointing others to Jesus, as hesitant as my witness can sometimes be. Here, if we need it, is another example of how God measures ‘greatness’ in categories different from the ones we tend to use. In this case, it’s our capacity, however weak, to point others to Jesus, the greatest of all.