After John’s disciples left, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people who wear beautiful clothes and live in luxury are found in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” (Luke 7:24-28 NLT)
“Of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John!” That is a pretty amazing recommendation. Jesus was generous in his recognition of greatness, unlike some leaders who are more interested in blowing their own trumpets than blowing the trumpets of others.
Why did he say this of John? What had he done to get such praise from Jesus? At the time of this pronouncement John was in prison, waiting to be executed. Clearly the person who put him there (Herod) did not share Jesus enthusiasm for the fiery desert preacher. Neither did many of the authorities of the time. The Pharisees, who were the respected spiritual leaders of the time, had not embraced John’s teaching and held him at arm’s length with suspicion.
But the common people, the so called “man in the street,” liked John? Why? Jesus asks some rhetorical questions: Did you go out to see John because he was weak? No, because he was strong! Did you go to see him because he was rich? Obviously not, because everyone knew he had given up everything, and had nothing. Did you go out it to see him because he was a prophet? The answer then was a resounding Yes! Just as today people long to hear people who offer explanations and solutions to their problems and the world’s, people in Jesus’ day longed to hear the words of a man who reputedly spoke for God.
But Jesus implies that rather than John’s strength, his poverty, or even his prophetic gift, it was his willingness to be messenger, and preparer, for Jesus that made him great. If we aspire to greatness in the eyes of God, that is what we should give our lives to: preparing people to receive Jesus (whatever that might entail) and then presenting the message of Jesus, who he was, why he came, what he did, and why he did it. That, in a sense, is the greatest task in the world. That is what John did, and Jesus recognized him for it. Jesus gave credit where credit was due.
But is it credit that Jesus is after in us? Is he measuring our daily thoughts, actions and words, to see if we are great enough to receive his recognition, his affirmation, his accreditation. It would be easy to think so, but for what Jesus said next: “Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”
It is almost as if Jesus is saying, in the world’s way of thinking, where the highest score defines the winner, John comes first, because he gave his life to the most important task of all. But in the Kingdom way of thinking, all are winners, because the least is greater than the greatest. Jesus says that these are the things that make a person great, but the person’s greatness does not make him or her higher in the Kingdom than anyone else. For in the Kingdom all are equals under God. The only thing required for greatness really is to be in the Kingdom.
So we see two characteristics of God that make him so unique and so worth giving our lives to: recognition and grace. God recognizes greatness, and affirms the people who demonstrate it, but he has no favorites. Whether you have done everything “right” in God’s eyes or nothing, he loves you just the same. The highest achiever, and the lowest, are recognized and affirmed and loved equally, not because of what they have done, or not done, but because they have entered the Kingdom, and become God’s children, his family. He does not love us for what we have done but because we are his.
If you are looking for something ultimately worthwhile to give your life to, there can be no greater or more fulfilling task than preparing people’s’ hearts and minds to receive Jesus, and telling people who Jesus is, what he did, why he came. That task can take many different forms and can happen in every walk of life. By this definition of greatness, John was by no means the last great person to live. There have been countless thousands, perhaps millions, such men and women down through the ages, and I have known many myself. God recognises and affirms their greatness.
However, if you are looking for recognition, affirmation and unconditional love from God, you do not have to be a high achiever in the greatness stakes. The key that unlocks the door of God’s love is simply to enter the Kingdom and become one of God’s children. It is not very hard, it is a free gift, and it is available to everyone. Once you are in, God loves you as much as he loves John, no matter what you have done or not done.
As the writer of another gospel said, “to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)