The Greatest

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Third Sunday of Advent

 

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Psalm 146:4-9

From the Cotton Patch version of Matthew 11:7-15.

As they left, Jesus began talking to the crowds about John: “What did you expect to see when you went out to the backwoods? A bamboo blown this way and that by the wind? Really, what did you expect to see when you went out? A man dressed up in his Sunday best? Listen, well-dressed people live in suburbs. Honestly now, why did you go out there? To see a man of God? Of course! And brother, I’m telling you, what a man of God! He’s the one to whom this Scripture refers:

 ‘I’m sending my agent to precede you; He’ll get everything ready for your coming.’

 I tell you right now, John the Baptizer is the greatest man that’s ever been born. But, the tiniest baby in the God Movement is greater than he! For ever since John the Baptizer started preaching until right now the God Movement has been infected with violence, and men of violence are taking it over. For until John’s time all the prophets and the law spoke to this point. And if you are willing to admit it, John himself is the ‘Elijah-to-come.’ Now think that over! Jordan

I want to look first at verse 11. See it here in the Living Bible. “Truly, of all men ever born, none shines more brightly than John the Baptist. And yet, even the lesser lights in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than he is! TLB And in the English Standard Version. 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 heESV

The phrase born of women is found in many translations as it is in the Greek. Unfortunately, it has given rise to some misleading notions about what Jesus meant. The early Gnostics used it to argue that Jesus was not born of woman, that he came to earth as a complete adult body. They obviously rejected chapters one and two of Matthew. It might seem that Jesus was including himself in those born of women, and thus saying that John was greater than Jesus.

That is why it is important to keep everything in context. Jesus had just told John’s disciples, Go and tell John what you hear and seeESV The shortlist of healings were intended to tell John that Jesus has fulfilled the Scripture in ways that Jews expected. As John’s disciples leave, Jesus gives great praise to John for his role is announcing the Good News. Jesus calls him Elijah and states that he is the greatest man born.

Jesus is not saying that John is greater than Jesus. At this early stage of his ministry, Jesus is not ready to claim Messiahship. Neither is Jesus saying that John will be sitting at the table farthest away from God in Heaven.

All he is saying is that in the Kingdom of God, everyone is equal. John will be both greater and lesser than everyone else. That message will be more powerfully presented when Jesus washes the feet of his Twelve. If you want to be great, you must become a servant to all.

Verse 12 gives us some difficulty. I think the best translation is this: From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven has been taken by storm and eager men are forcing their way into itPhillips Luke 16:16 has much the same saying. The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into itNIV

Jesus seems to have Micah 2:12-13 in mind. I will surely gather all of you, Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. The One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the Lord at their headNIV

The image here is of a shepherd getting up in the morning and walking through the open gate of the sheep pen. As he walks, the sheep crowd the opening to be the first to go through to follow their shepherd. Each sheep tries to force its way out.

John’s preaching was so important that people have been pushing their way into the path John set out. Jesus praises John for that good work. Now it is time for the Good Shepherd to begin to lead the flock.

The Greek uses the word for violence in this text, but the meaning is one of eagerness to follow. That is why I chose the Phillips translation.

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here and here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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