Greater is the Least in the Kingdom of God

Introduction

“The command of Christ is impossible, but it is not insane; it is rather sanity preached to a planet of lunatics.” – G. K. Chesterton

In our series walking through Matthew, there a consistent theme of the upside down kingdom. Our ways are not God’s ways. In our sinful nature, what we think is sane and right is actually the other way around.

The first will be last. I work at a school. The majority of my students, who are lovely children, don’t by nature want to go to the back of the treat line! This is something ingrained in us. We just don’t see the world rightly.

Even worse, when God does speak and contradicts our notions of up and down, left and right, we think it is God who is off his rocker.

Matthew 10:39 (ESV) — 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you know that… but do you know it. Just like my students hear that Jesus says the last will be first, do they really believe it is how the world ought to work?

In his discourse on John, Jesus is going to challenge us this morning. My job is to do my best to be faithful to this text. I’m not preaching it for your approval, but for the approval of God. I will be judged on the last day for what I say up here.

Background:

Our text: Matthew 11:1-19

Jesus has previously finished a discourse on nature of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. This flows right out of his commissioning of the disciplines to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

First, Jesus warns his disciples that the preaching of the gospel will bring persecution. (16-24).

Second, that his disciples should have no fear when that persecution comes.

Thirdly, Jesus reminds his disciples that his gospel will be divisive. It will set father against son and mother against daughter. And those who are not willing to preach his gospel in such a way… are not worthy of him.

Lastly, Jesus promises a reward for those who faithfully receive him and follow him. Not even a cup of cold water given in his name will be overlooked at the end of all things.

Jesus then himself goes out after the disciples and preaches in the cities that they had already visited.

It is here that two disciples of John the Baptist come and meet him.

1. What is the Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 11:2–3 (ESV): 2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

On the face of it, this can seem like an odd question from John the Baptist. As the forerunner of Jesus, as the man who called him out as, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” it seems odd that John would need to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah.

Backstory

As we have read, John is in prison. Matthew gives us the backstory in Chapter 14:

Matthew 14:1–5 (ESV): 14 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet.

Herod the tetrarch, not to be confused with his father Herod of the Christmas story, was committing adultery with his brother’s wife. John had called Herod out on his sin and so the tetrarch threw him in prison. It is from prison that John sends his disciples to question Jesus.

Why is John Questioning?

At first read through, we might want to think that John had begun to doubt in Jesus as the actual Messiah. Languishing in prison can cause a person to lose faith and begin to question whether or not what they are suffering for is worth it. Yet, I don’t think that this is John’s position, namely for the way in which Jesus praises him later on. John is not a “reed shaken in the wind” but a rock. He was accustomed to hardships and persecution and finding himself in prison would not be something that would cause him to fall into unbelief now. It was more likely that he expected to, at some point, find himself in a jail cell.

The real reason why John is questioning is because of misunderstanding on the Messiah’s role. John hears reports of Jesus’ ministry and it just doesn’t line up. He begins to wonder if Jesus is the Messiah, because in John’s eyes he doesn’t fit his expectations.

Like many Jews, they had too low of an expectation of role of the Messiah. They believe that the Messiah was to rid them of the occupation of Rome. This was why the zealots were fighting a guerrilla war against Rome’s occupation. At some point, the Messiah would come on his white charger and run the gentiles out of town. This of course, was not what Jesus came to do. It was something much greater.

John, is not having a pity party in prison, rather he is wonder when the revolution going to begin! “Jesus, you’re just not radical enough! I’m here in prison and that wicked ruler Herod who is a grievous sinner is still walking around scot-free!” John expected to see the “kingdom of heaven” come to pass in the destruction of these wicked rulers. He, like Jesus’ disciples, had the wrong view of who he was.

Jesus’ Response

Jesus’ message to give to John is a bulk summary of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, much of which comes from Isaiah:

Matthew 11:4–6 (ESV): 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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 good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

John would have recognized this summary and Jesus’ point is that he is the Messiah because he is doing the very things the Messiah would do.

His encouragement to John is that his definition of the Messiah and his kingdom is radical and is making war with the source of evil: sin and death. It just isn’t in the way the Baptist thinks it should be.

Redefining Jesus

The reason why we must depend on the word of God is because it is so easy to have a wrong view of Jesus.

How true is such a thing for us today? How true is that we have even a lower view of Jesus than even the Baptist did.

It is a great temptation for us to define Jesus than to constantly let God’s word define him. How quick we are to have our own spin on who Jesus is and what he came to do!

One of the most egregious ways Christian culture does this is to define Jesus as nice.

Jesus is the polite, normal Messiah. He exists as a snuggly bear on our beds to go and cuddle when we are feeling down. He is a dispenser of grace but never of truth. He is always affirming and never rebuking. He is completely for our hopes and dreams and never wants us to suffer. He exists to fix our problems, not to redeem sinners for his glory.

This idol of Jesus is rampant in American Christianity today. There is a billion dollar industry based on this Jesus. Do you listen to the lyrics on Christian radio? What Jesus are they talking about? Here is an excerpt of the number one Christian song on iTunes:

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing. You say I am strong when I think I am weak. And you say I am held when I am falling short. When I don’t belong, oh, You say I am yours. And I believe. Oh I believe. What you say of me. I believe.

On first read, you might say, “Nathan, I don’t see anything wrong with that.” My question back to you is not if you find anything wrong, but does this line up with God’s word?

Is this how God describes us or himself? The song doesn’t even mention his name! Is this how does God’s word describe my ultimate problem, sin and death and His ultimate remedy, salvation through the cross? Romans 1? Ephesians 2?

A God About Me

Who is this song about? It is about me. It’s about what God can do for me. How can God make me feel better. It’s what God says about me.

Let me be clear, the source of our regeneration, our faith, our repentance, our justification, our sanctification, and our glorification… has nothing to do with us and it has everything to do with Him. God does not exist for us, but we exist for him:

“What is our only hope in life and death?”
“That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”

We don’t focus on what God says about me. We worship God by saying who he is:

Psalm 73:25–26 (ESV): 25  Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

God is to be the object of our worship and praise, not because of what he can do for me, but because of who he is.

John Piper most famously puts it this way:

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

This only happens when our eyes are fixed on him, not ourselves.

Jesus ends his summary of the Messiah’s description:

Matthew 11:6 (ESV) — 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

It’s not about us. It is about him. And this is a hard truth, because Jesus is offensive! He isn’t normal. You can’t normalize him! As Lewis said, he is either a lier, a lunatic, or Lord.

2. The Greatness of John the Baptist

But John was not a man ashamed of the Messiah. Yes, the Messiah had not fit his idea of what such a person would be, but John was not ashamed to proclaim him. He was not ashamed to stand for God’s truth. After all, he was in prison for doing so.

After John’s disciples leave, Jesus then begins a discourse with the crowd on the greatness of John.

Matthew 11:7–11 (ESV) — 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, “ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Jesus Isn’t Nice

As I have already established, Jesus isn’t nice. In Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Beaver is quick to make Susan very aware of this fact:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jesus isn’t safe and what is about to say is not safe, but it is good.

Jesus begins his praise by asking three pairs rhetorical questions:

Matthew 11:7 (ESV) — 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?

First, he asks the people, what did they expect to see in John? John’s question from his disciples may have begun from a perception of doubt in John’s character, Jesus quickly dispels such an idea. Was John a weakling? Was he like a reed that shakes in the wind when things get hard?

John was a man on mission. He knew what he had been called to do and he made no compromises for it. He lived radically different from the world around him, as like one of the Old Testament prophets. He ate locusts with honey and wore camel skin. His whole life was “hard” as he denied himself any luxuries whatsoever. He was focused on getting the way ready for the Messiah.

Jesus continues:

Matthew 11:8 (ESV) — 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.

The word in Greek for “soft clothing” is malakoi which is only used one other place in the New Testament:

1 Corinthians 6:9 (ESV) — 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,

Malakoi is a word that describes a soft man. An effeminate man. A man who plays the woman. A homosexual. A catamite.

In essence Jesus says, “What did you expect to find in John? A soft man dressed in soft clothing like the kind you find in palaces?”

Notice the rhetoric of Jesus? How uncomfortable are we? What might we as disciples come up afterward to him and say?

“Jesus, did you have to make that comparison? Don’t you think there is a nicer way to say that?”

The hard reality for us is that we are not comfortable calling sin – sin. We don’t like it because it isn’t nice. John the Baptist was not an effeminate man. Jesus isn’t interested in soft-pedaling sin. In fact, it is evil to make sin sound nice.

Isaiah 5:20 (ESV) — 20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

The great evil by which we do this is with our words. We take what is evil and make it bad, what is bad and make it misunderstood, what is misunderstood and make it acceptable, and what is acceptable and make it praiseworthy. We take God’s clear word and twist it just like we were taught in the garden.

Back to the Garden

Men, there is a connection point for us here because Jesus is praising John’s masculinity. He wasn’t a weak or soft man. Jesus is holding John up as a portrait of Biblical masculinity.

Fundamental to the first sin was the exchanging of roles. Adam became like a woman and Eve became like a man. Eve took the lead and Adam became passive. It is here that Adam acted like a reed shaken in the wind and like a soft man wearing soft clothing.

Eve eats the fruit, what should have Adam done? What would a biblical man do? Berate her? Call her stupid? Praise the progressive nature of their egalitarian marriage and take a bite of the fruit she handed to him?

No, he should have gotten between Eve and the serpent, grabbed the snake, and crushed his head with his heel. Then he should have led his wife to God and confessed their sin. No blame shifting but taking full responsibility for what happened. Then, knowing the wages of sin is death, he ought to have pleaded with God for him die in her place that she might be saved.

The Importance of Femininity

Since we live in such an upside down and crazy world, I don’t think I can go on to a definition of Biblical masculinity without first touching on femininity. One of the core responsibilities of man is protect and lead the woman so that she and the family flourishes.

Why? Because the most important job in all the world is motherhood. We see in the first mention of the gospel:

Genesis 3:15 (ESV) — 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Paul makes this creation connection in 1st Timothy 2:

1 Timothy 2:13–15 (ESV) — 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

What Paul isn’t saying is that women can be saved apart from faith in Christ. That is heretical. What he is saying is that motherhood is a vital means that God has chosen for the overthrow of Satan. It is mothers who raise faithful snake crushers. It was from a women that Christ came. It is the institution of the family where which the faith is handed down from one generation to the next. (Augustine)

Is no wonder that the family is being attacked from every side today? Do you see? The serpent hates moms.

Definition

A Biblical man is one who takes complete responsibility of his God given calling. The calling to crush snakes and to lay down his life for others, namely his wife, his kids, and the church. He is to spend his life doing this. It should be his singular focus. And there will be distractions. He will be shot at. He will be tempted. He will be hated by the world. But he is to spend his life doing so.

This was the kind of man John was. The greatest display of this in John was that he was in prison for calling out the sin of Herod. John did not back down on the things that mattered to God. He called out the sin the pharisees. He had great compassion on the people of God streaming to him for repentance. He spent his life pointing at Jesus and say,”Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus praises him that he was more than a prophet in this way, he was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament.

Matthew 11:9–11 (ESV) — 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, “ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist…

Fake Masculinity

Far too many of us desire to either look like a masculine man or repudiate it all together. Both are examples of effeminate masculinity.

(Ladies, please don’t take me calling unbiblical men effeminate as a slight on femininity. Femininity is absolutely essential to building of the kingdom of God. So essential is it that Biblical men spend their lives to protect and uphold it. No, effeminate masculinity is a perversion, a corruption of the goodness of femininity because it is being practiced by a man.)

One kind of effeminate masculinity seeks to fake true masculinity. He is the man who projects masculinity but is actually a faker. He hides behind his guns, his lifted Chevy, and his sports team. He willing to punch the man who slanders him in the bar, but is completely absent when his son disrespects his mother. He is willing to proudly tell the gross sexual joke, yet is a reed shaken in the wind when his coworker asks him why he goes to church. He is ultimately ashamed of the gospel and is unwilling to take the real blows of the enemy when they come. While he claims he would die for his wife and kids, he actually leaves them completely unprotected by being absorbed in his toys. He yells, swears, and blusters, but there is no meaningful leadership in his home. He wants to be thought a man, but really it is an act.

The other kind of masculinity has become particularly popular in our current culture. This man has completely capitulated to being effeminate. He is the man who praises his wife by letting her lead. He is the feminist and egalitarian. There is no such thing as co-leadership. Even if you have co-leaders, there is going to be one who is more of a leader than every one else. So he lets his wife lead. He is the man who is okay with women preaching in the name of equality even though it twists the word of God. (The pulpit is a war zone. The man who steps into it is like a man standing up out of the trenches in WWI. He will be shot at, but he must stand up.) The results are the same as the example above. Instead of spending his life for the kingdom of God and thus his family, kids, and church, he lets them take the shots. He lets them talk to snakes while he sits back and applauds them on.

This was not who John was, and men it should not be who we are. We have a calling. Love God. Love your wife. Love you kids. Love truth. Build the kingdom of God. These are things that we ought to spend our lives on.

And if you are a sinner like me, we know that we need to be better. How do we do that? Let’s let Jesus show us.

3. The Least Will Be Greater Than John

Matthew 11:12–15 (ESV) — 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Jesus reveals that John is, in fact, the return of Elijah that was prophesied about in Malachi.

Malachi 4:5 (ESV) — 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.

In fact, as we have already seen, John is the greatest of all of the Old Testament prophets. He is the last of a fading covenant. Jerusalem will be destroyed in 70 A.D., which will signal the end of the Old Testament era. The temple will be destroyed and the Jews will no longer be able to offer sacrifices. Two Thousand years later, the temple is still destroyed.

John acts as this final connection piece from the covenant of law to the covenant of grace.

Unaware of the Times

But as Jesus points out, this generation is unaware of the over turning of one kingdom for another:

Matthew 11:16–19 (ESV): 16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17  “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

As Matthew has constantly been pointing out, Jesus is flipping Satan’s kingdom upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. Yet, this generation doesn’t see what is going on!

When a happy song is played, they don’t dance. When a sad song is played, they don’t morn. When John fasted they said he had a demon. When Jesus eats and drinks, they call him a glutton and a drunkard.

Because the Jews, particularly the religious leadership, were so used to the kingdom of Satan, they could not imagine what the kingdom of heaven would look like. Notice again how the passage of Isaiah applies here. Calling good evil and evil good! John the Baptist was the greatest Old Testament prophet and the Pharisees said he had a demon! Jesus comes, the Son of the Living God, and they call him a drunkard!

Even John the Baptist didn’t fully see.

There is a great temptation for us to live our lives not as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, but as citizens of the kingdom of the Prince of the Power of the Air. What looks wisdom to the world is actually folly in the kingdom of heaven. What is folly to the world is wisdom to the kingdom of heaven.

1 Corinthians 1:18–25 (ESV): For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Notice what Jesus says here:

Matthew 11:19 (ESV): Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

It is the wisdom of God that enables us to see clearly. And how do we obtain such wisdom? How do we have eyes that see clearly?

The Wisdom of the Cross

Men, how does one become that Biblical man? How does one become a Biblical woman? Can we do this on our own? How do we become the kinds of people who live radically different than the world?

It’s not living like the world! If you claim Christ yet your life looks no different than the world then there is something wrong there. If you love what the world loves. If you define things the way the world defines things. If your friends can’t discern anything Christ like about you then something is wrong.

The only way that we become like Christ is to die. Those who seek to save their lives will lose it and those who lose their life for Christ will save it. Do you see how the kingdom is upside down? To save you life, you must lose it. To have wisdom, you will look foolish. To be first, you must be last.

This is the wisdom of the cross. Living by dying.

Men, you want to be a good husband in the kingdom? You are going to have to die. You want to be a good father? You are going to have to die. You want to be a snake crusher? You’re going to have die. Die to yourself. Die to your dreams. Die to your toys. Die to the love of the world.

The Example of Christ

You might say, Nathan, that is hard. Why should I give everything up for Jesus?

Church, he has given everything for you. In a beautiful display of biblical masculinity, Jesus took responsibility for the sins of his people. We who were rebel sinners and God-haters, he died for us. He is the better Adam. For everyone of the elect, Christ took us before the throne of the Father. Us in our dirty and filthy rags of sin deserving the Father’s wrath and said, “Take me.”

Jesus isn’t asking us to do something that he hasn’t done. Being a Christian means following his pattern of carrying our cross and dying. This is the wisdom that Jesus is talking about.

You might say, “Nathan, I’m so very bad at dying. I am so proud, so selfish, and I want my way so badly.” How can I ever be someone like John the Baptist? How can ever be great in the kingdom?

Listen again to what Jesus says:

Matthew 11:11 (ESV): 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

The weakest in the new covenant is greater than the strongest of the old. Why? Because it isn’t based on works. It is based upon grace all the way down. The weakest in the kingdom is greater than John because the weakest has been imputed the perfect righteousness of Christ and has been sealed with his Holy Spirit. Thus God is working on you. You are his workmanship for his glory.

2 thoughts on “Greater is the Least in the Kingdom of God

  1. Have you ever read The Upside Down Kingdom by Don Kraybill?

    I personally prefer the Elohim as the wild desert storm than a snugly. 🙂

    Like

    1. I have not, I will have to put it on the list. Elohim in the wild dust storm reminds me of Job where God says, “Dress for action like a man!”

      Like

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