May 6, 2013
He was the greatest man ever born.
If that was a grand-prize game show question – on a Christian network – you would come up with “the answer”… and you would be wrong.
“Jesus!” you say. Good guess… but, wrong. “Says who!” you ask. “Says Jesus,” I reply. If you’d like to debate him on that point, have at it.
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11).
That’s a pretty amazing commendation, considering the source: Jesus’ regard for John was extraordinary. Though family – Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins – He was objective in his assessment. What was it about John that made him stand out in such a remarkable manner?
There isn’t much written about him in the four gospels; the writers’ primary focus is the life of Jesus, and the cast of other characters come into the story only insofar as their life experience weaves into His. But, there are some key observations that probably fuel Jesus’ proclamation.
There were two amazing births noted in the New Testament: Jesus and John. Both involved angels visiting prospective parents with divine messages. Zechariah – John’s elderly, childless father – heard about Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy with this nuance: “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” (Luke 1:14-17).
John – we add “the Baptist” to distinguish him from “the Beloved” – had historic, biblical responsibility: he would be associated with the most prominent of Israel’s prophets – Elijah – in the role he would play in the introduction of the Messiah.
Three things stand out about John. First, he was filled with the Holy Spirit before birth, and from that time forward, supernatural capacity was available to him. Second, his mission – what we would know as his Calling – was articulated before he would be old enough to ponder his purpose. He was the guy who would get Israel ready for Jesus. The reason for his earthly life was, for him, crystal clear.
The “best in class” description by Jesus was triggered by a message sent from John to Jesus, through John’s dedicated followers: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Matthew 11:2-3). John was in Herod’s prison, from which he would be martyred; Jesus was in Galilee, in the midst of His prime ministry months. At that critical moment, John’s question is intriguing: “Hey, Jesus, are you the real deal?” (Shank paraphrase).
The greatest man ever born of woman – he had met Jesus, had heard about his miracles, had never known a day without the onboard affirmation of the Holy Spirit – and he still was subject to doubts when he found himself in a dark place.
John’s continuing bouts of humanity give me great comfort: I don’t have to be 100% certain, 100% of the time, to be playing in the League of Kingdom Leadership.
In fact, Jesus’ applause toward John included reference to you and me: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” (Matthew 11:11). Did you see us? “…least in the Kingdom.”
Anyone this side of heaven will have moments of doubt. Even the Great Ones do; John did.
God doesn’t expect doubtlessness from us; just faithfulness, in the face of doubt…