“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” (v. 11:11).
What does that mean?
Not only was John the Baptist God’s prophet, he was also Jesus’ relative—perhaps even his first cousin, once removed. Or maybe not so close… who knows? In any case, there’s no need to get too worked up about it… it’s really not that important. What’s important is that John was Jesus’ relative (so, arguably, a “cousin” in our southern vernacular) and John was in jail… locked up in Herod’s dungeon awaiting the king’s judgment. Jesus was no doubt worried for his cousin and yet, rather than focusing exclusively on the here-and-now, he took the opportunity to remind his disciples of a greater truth, a more glorious vision of the future than could be found in any earthly kingdom: Jesus pointed his followers towards the kingdom of heaven. In Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses a variety of similes to describe the coming kingdom for those with ears to hear: “The kingdom of heaven is like “a mustard seed” (v. 31) . . . and “leaven” for bread (v. 33) . . . “a treasure hidden in a field” (v. 44) . . . “a pearl of great price” (v. 45) . . . and “a fisherman’s net” (v. 47). Y’all have heard these parables, and I urge you to go back and reread Matthew Chapter 13 when you get the chance. These similes offer a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come in a kingdom, the least of whose citizens is greater than John the Baptist. It’s not that John, or any of God’s faithful, will be excluded or treated as second-class citizens in God’s kingdom (cf. Isa 11:9)—we will be changed into creatures worthy of that kingdom. The Apostle Paul describes this in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: he writes, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, [will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 3:18).
God’s kingdom has been much on my mind and heart of late. It’s a tough time of year. I expect… I know… there are those here today grieving the absence of loved ones. So many names come to mind: Carolyn Abbey, Tyson Perkins, Anna Thompson, Margaret Kidd, Tom McCoy, Wayne Whitton, Adrian Lawler, Matt Kusmick and others… some known to us, others not, but all known to God. Maybe the loss is fresh… or perhaps it’s a more lingering sorrow. I lost my own Dad six years ago this month, and I think of him often. Others of us may suffering in mind, body and spirit, wondering, where is God in our time of trouble? …questioning God’s faithfulness or maybe even God’s very existence. Lord, take me now! But you may have heard me say before that, whether or not we believe in or are estranged from God, God believes in us… and is with us, always. And that, if you’re still here, God’s not done with you yet. Death and sadness… injury, disease and disability are not from God, they’re just part of being human. And God never wastes anything. Sometimes, we may have an inkling about God’s movement and purpose in our lives. But in other cases, we may never know how God uses our pain and sickness, or even our deep sadness, to bring help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless and justice to the marginalized in this lost and broken world. All we can do is trust… and believe in the one who came to save us and lead us on the path to at-one-ment with our Creator.
It makes me smile to think that even John the Baptist had questions about who Jesus was… and what he should do about it. And if John had questions, I guess it’s OK for us to have them too. But you know what really makes me smile? It’s the thought of all of those who’ve gone before us crossing the threshold from this life to the next, some who were believers and others who may have been more stubborn, having all of their questions resolved in an eye blink—when they were transformed from one degree of glory to another—as they entered God’s kingdom. What precisely does that look like? I can only imagine. I believe that Jesus, through the parables, has painted us a picture of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, though we can only see it “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). But while we have life and breath within us, we must seek first the kingdom of God, and undertake the hard work of helping to bring it about here on earth… and in so doing, ready ourselves for entry into the heavenly kingdom that has been prepared for us by our Savior.
Here’s a video of a song entitled “I Can Only Imagine” written by Bart Millard of the band “Mercy Me” on the occasion of his father’s death. The song helps me visualize—albeit through a glass darkly—what it must be like to cross the threshold from this life to the next, and be changed from glory into glory, in order to be made worthy for the Kingdom. Perhaps it will do the same for you.