“I do not have a clear understanding of this text and was curious of your understanding of it. I was asked by a young believer and have read many comments on this but nothing I read set right with me. I pray all is well. Love and God bless”
11 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. Matthew 11:11
When rightly understood, this puzzling passage, elusive and so little agreed upon by commentators, literally explodes with unimaginable, incomprehensible glory. It is, as they say, “too good to be true!” To grasp its implications is to weep and rejoice at the magnitude of the promise of the kingdom, a promise and reality that doesn’t wait till a future day of the Lord, but stands presently accessible and available to all who enter the kingdom of heaven, as much at the time Jesus spoke these words as it does today.
Utterly outside the conceptual universe of His contemporaries, Jesus gives hint here of what will be much more fully unveiled and expounded by the rabbi from Tarsus. I am speaking of the revelation of the righteousness of God that is unveiled in one place only, i.e., the gospel.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Romans 1:16-17
If Jesus is the Messiah, this means He is the curse reversing seed of the woman that was promised from the beginning. As part of His mission to reveal the “mystery of the kingdom”, (a much broader concept than conceived by His contemporaries) Jesus is making allusion here to the imputation of the fullness of His own personal righteousness to each and every believer, not only as to justification but as to the hope of glory.
Jesus brings this out in an enigmatic, but nonetheless ultimately revealing way that would only be fully understood for the full glory of its implications in retrospect. In short, Jesus is laying the groundwork for Paul and the fuller revelation of the “mystery of the gospel” that would not come to fullest light until after the Spirit’s mighty descent at Pentecost. (Ro 16:25-26; Eph 6:18; 1Pet 1:12)
To fully grasp the unexpected magnitude of glory implicit in Jesus’ words, it is important to establish what He surely did not mean. He did NOT mean that John was not yet in the kingdom. He also did not mean that the kingdom was something that remained to be established in the future that John was not yet a part of. No, the kingdom was here ‘already’, present, active, and available for entrance, as many were already entering, as others were being hindered in their efforts to enter.
20 But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. Luke 11:20
12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11:12
16 The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. Luke 16:16
52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. Luke 11:52
Clearly then, we are not to suppose that John somehow stood outside the kingdom while others were entering, and others opposing entrance. Nor are we to suppose that the kingdom, as Jesus understood it, lay only up ahead in the future. The kingdom is present and powerful in its working, albeit in a presently hidden form, recognized only by revelation, thus the ‘revelation’ of the “mystery of the kingdom.”
It is not completely correct to say that kingdom had only now arrived, although the King had arrived. It is better to understand that the kingdom has always been present (Ps 145:13; Dan 4:3, 34, et al) but is now ‘on the move’ in a decisive and ultimately determinative way that was not in keeping with the contemporary expectation, since the mystery of Messiah’s two comings being not yet known nor even conceived of before Pentecost. (Mt 11:3; 16:22; Acts 1:6; 1Pet 1:11-12)
No, Jesus was not saying that John had not entered the kingdom while others clearly were entering it at that very time. Rather, He is hinting at, and laying the conceptual groundwork for the most glorious revelation that lay completely outside any human ability to conceive or comprehend. He does this by taking their high regard for John as prophet and forerunner of the King and His kingdom, and pushing the popular conception of him beyond any conceivable limit.
Jesus does this to stress the inconceivable point that is calculated to burst into unimaginable glory. Something far beyond the highest spiritual example will be the common inheritance of even the very least who prevail to enter the then present and active kingdom of heaven. The very least citizen of that kingdom will possess the very righteousness of the King, the divine Son of God, as no lesser righteousness than His can be accepted in that place. (Mt 22:11-13)
Precisely because his greatness as a prophet was undoubted by the people, Jesus raises the bar far beyond their highest notions of John or of anything they could have identified or associated with John in terms of spiritual stature and status in the long expected kingdom. It must have shocked even John’s greatest admirers to hear Jesus say that of all born to woman, a greater than John has never existed. Now take that in. What is Jesus doing here?
He is preparing His hearers (and us) for the most astounding revelation that will eclipse anything ever conceived by even the most spiritual of His saints in ages past. And what is that? It is as we’ve said, the incomprehensible revelation of glory that the very righteousness wrought out in the spotless obedience of the Servant Messiah, the curse reversing seed of the woman, has been transferred (imputed credited accounted), not in the part but in the whole, to the least born again believer in Jesus.
They do not stand in their own righteousness, as neither did John, but in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne. This is seismic! It is beyond our grasp apart from the quickening illumination of the Holy Spirit, but to grasp it is to know a joy unspeakable that is full of glory.
Jesus is taking the highest contemporary standard of holiness and righteousness and raising that conception to an inconceivable new height precisely in order to make the greatest possible impression of what would be the common experience and possession of every believer entering this ever present kingdom by new birth.
We just don’t get it! Because if we did, I submit that the very earth would shake before us. Do we even begin to see what this means?! We have a righteousness that far exceeds our highest association, not only with a John Baptist, but an Abraham, a Moses, an Elijah! Why? Because a greater is here, and the very least of us are invested with His righteousness (there is no other acceptable), and are made perfectly complete in Him, as He alone is complete in Himself.
Woe to those poor theologians of Trent who called this glorious Jesus, Pauline, Reformed doctrine a “legal fiction”. If it is not a “legal fiction” that the spotless Lamb of God could be counted as sin for my sake, how is it a “legal fiction” if I, a poor sinner without strength, should be made (both counted and indwelt) righteous by His righteousness for His sake?
And let us be clear, as Paul was clear, as the Holy Spirit was clear when Jesus says to John, “permit it to be so now, for it is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness”. This means that it is not simply God’s righteousness in His heaven above, but that particular righteousness that was perfected in our Lord’s spotless humanity over approximately 33 ½ years of testing, fulfilling all that was commanded in the law, both as to its letter and the spirit of its intention (Gal 4:4). It is THAT righteousness (“the LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”; Isa 45:25; 54:17; Jer 23:5-6) that was performed and fulfilled in the representative humanity of Jesus.
It is His righteousness that is imputed, not in the part but in the whole, to the least justified believer, even now translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son (Col 1:13). That’s where we are, seated far above all principality and power, robed right now and forever in the righteousness of another that Satan cannot touch (1Jn 3:6; 5:4, 18). THAT, my beloved friend, is the gospe!l, and woe to those who add to it or take from it, since to add even the least smattering of leaven is to pollute and spoil the whole, sterilizing it of its saving power. To grasp this in all its glorious implication is truest freedom and power for every good work.
Oh Lord, let us not come short or be diverted from this quickening, invariably transforming, fruit bearing revelation of the Spirit. Break in upon us, as you broke into them and show us that the Accuser has no rights against our conscience so far as we stand in nothing of our own righteousness but in His alone.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Romans 8:1
27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Colossians 1:27