Even The Least Person In The Kingdom Of Heaven
1. Christmas time has come. Christmas is a celebration time when we remember that with the birth of the person Jesus of Nazareth the Christ or the Messiah has come. But, we don't really know for sure the exact month or day upon which the Lord Jesus was actually born. So, it seems sometimes in history it had even been celebrated in April or August and in other times as well. December twenty-fifth was originally a festival for the winter solstice in Rome. For that reason there used to be churches that did not celebrate Christmas as a tradition. It was not really what we call [his] "birthday." Nevertheless, I think appointing this day like this and remembering that Christ has come into this world should be meaningful [for us]. [It is meaningful] because the very truth itself that Christ has come is significant. The important thing is that we clearly define this significance. So, as we think about the meaning of the nativity of Christ I would like us to incline our ears to the scriptural message we are given for today on the third Lord's day in Advent.
The Doubtings Of John The Baptizer
2. First of all, please look at verses two and three. "While in prison John heard what Christ did. Thereupon, he sent his own disciples and had them ask, 'Are you really the one who we expected to come? Or, should we wait for someone else?,'" (verses two and three).
3. Here he is a man whose faith is shaken up. He is a man who has begun to have suspicions about what he had come to believe. What in the world was going on with a man like John the Baptizer?
4. Last week we read chapter three of The Gospel According To Matthew. The mission of John the Baptizer is written about there. He was the forerunner of the expected coming messiah and prepared the way laying the groundwork. The groundwork was nothing other than his proclamation of repentance. "Repent: The kingdom of heaven is near," (3:2). This was his message. For this reason he preached without cowardice on the wrath and judgment of God. He announced the wrath and judgment of God to the Jews who were proud of their posterity in Abraham and also to the religious leaders. In addition, he required that they bear fruit appropriate to repentance. He was a person who looked hard at the sins of humankind, the sins of society, and the reality of evil. John could not help but think that this world wouldn't hold up before the justice of God and so by [his] proclaiming repentance he couldn't avoid contending in battle against the sin and evil of this world. He stood alone in the wilderness for this battle. He was surely that very voice of the one crying out in the wilderness. Along with God he grieved over the sins of this world, he was sad, angry and hurt because of this world's sin.
5. Coming to chapter eleven, now, he is in prison. Why is he there? It was because of his battle with sin. The details of the situation are recorded in chapter fourteen. John boldly identified the sin of Herod the tetrarch. He accused him of an obscene act. But, he was nothing before a ruling authority. He was imprisoned and Herod kept living with Herodia the wife of his own brother as if he had never done anything [wrong]. The one who wasn't righteous lived like that in peace and the one who was righteous was suffering in prison. But, for John an ending like this must not have been something that was unexpected or strange; for, he knew that such irrationalities as this was truly part of the reality of a sinful world. Therefore, his hope was in the righteous judgment of God appearing in the world; for, if God were a righteous God, he would not have made this world the way it is and because a righteous God himself would bring about an end [settling all accounts] in the events of the world that they would not reach a baffling extreme.
6. For John, the time of the end when the messiah would come was nothing other than the time when the rule of God would surely come to perfection and when he would settle accounts. Therefore, for John the coming messiah was the only one to fulfill the judgment of God. Please recall the messianic image which he outlined. He was the one who would work a winnow in his hand. He would be the one to divide the wheat and the chaff. He would be the one to judge evil as evil and to recognize righteousness as righteousness. The wheat and the chaff would not be kept together.
7. He was imprisoned and his anticipation for the final judgment of God must have risen more and more, especially when the one named Jesus appeared. John believed [Jesus] truly was "the coming one" or the messiah and he followed his work closely. But, nothing came to fruition as he expected. Rumor had it that this one called Jesus healed people suffering from leprosy, got crowds together and taught them, and got sinners and tax collectors together and ate meals with them. John was still in prison and Herod kept living without being judged. Whatever happened to the wind that would blow apart the wheat and the chaff? Where was the fire which should have burned away the chaff? John's confidence was shaken. John couldn't help but sense [something] doubtful about the behaviors of Jesus. Therefore, he sent his own disciples and had them inquire. "Are you the one who we expected to come? Or, should we wait for someone else?"
8. This question is a question that has been thrown at the church since antiquity. If the one called Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah or the Christ, the question is whatever happened to the judgment of God? To phrase it more simply, the question is does the one named Jesus of Nazareth have significance in this world? As of yet, it is a world where the power of sin dictates, a world of irrationality and a world which seems to be ending as if God were absent. Even if he had come, this world looks as if it hadn't changed one bit. We are shaken by this then too.
9. But the Lord himself answered this question. The important thing for us as well is to listen to the Lord's answer. Look at verses five and following. "Jesus answered. 'Go, tell John what you see and hear. Those whose eyes cannot see see, those with disabled feet walk, those suffering from leprosy are cleansed, those whose ears cannot hear can hear, the dead come back to life and the poor have the gospel announced to them. He who does not stumble over me is blessed," (verses four through six).
10. This was the Lord's answer. He did not just say, "Am I not working miracles? So, I must be the messiah." But that is hardly any different from modern emerging religions [which emphasize the miraculous]. The truth is the message of the Lord has a background in the Old Testament scriptures. We couldn't understand it if it weren't in [the Old Testament].
11. For instance, look beginning at Isaiah 35:3. This is what is written there: "You strengthen the hands that are weak. Make healthy the knees that stagger. Speak to the persons whose hearts tremble, and say 'Be strong, don't be afraid. Look, your God will appear with retribution and is coming with his reward. God is coming and will save you.' At that time the eyes of the person who cannot see will be opened and the ears of the person who cannot hear will come to hear. At that time the person with a lame foot will leap for joy like a deer and the tongue of the person whose mouth cannot work will sing for joy; for he will make water in the wilderness and rivers will flow in the desert. The burned up sand will become a lake and the dried up land will become a source of water, the dwelling place where wild dogs lay low will become a place where reeds will grow luxuriantly," (Isaiah 35:3-7).
12. These particular miracles are recorded all over the Bible. These miracles are depicted as the things which will point to the work of God's ultimate deliverance and to the perfect rule of God. What might this mean that the salvation by God is expressed through the picture of miracles? It means that ultimate salvation does not come from humans but comes as a divine work from God alone. In other words, it is completely different from the fulfillment of ideals that are dependent on human hands. Salvation is dependent on God.
13. Furthermore, the Lord had explained who he was through these particular Old Testament words. "Go, tell John what you see and hear. Those whose eyes can't see see, those with disabled feet walk, those suffering from leprosy are cleansed, those whose ears cannot hear hear, the dead come back to life and the poor have the good news announced to them." In other words, it is about the fact that the work of salvation by God which was prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures had already started. It means that the rule of God has already begun. It says that the miraculous deeds of the Lord point to this fact of reality.
14. The Gospels have recorded a lot of the miraculous deeds of the Lord Jesus, especially [his] miracles of healing sickness. This type of miracle is not rare at all in church history and even today they are still evident. However, the Lord had never given people healing and it alone as their ultimate salvation. The taking place of a miracle in and of itself was not salvation. If healings and miracles by themselves indeed were salvation, the Lord would have given his undivided attention to the job of healing [people] physically and would have tried to heal as many people as possible. But, this is not what the Lord did. Why not? Because the miracle of healing was no more than "a sign." It was a sign pointing to the kingdom of God. It was a sign that [things were] heading for the end and the work of salvation had already begun.
15. It means that the salvation of God will not first be brought about by the final judgment of God. Salvation will not first come after the sin and evil of this world are destroyed. In those places where it looks like reality has not changed at all, salvation has already begun. The important thing is the fact that the rule of God is already here. The kingdom of God has already arrived in this world where Herod is still a dictator. It is not that the light comes only after the dawning of the dark night; the Lord has said the light is already shining in the midst of the darkness of night. The Lord Jesus tried to get John to turn his eyes on this sign. By doing this, the Lord Jesus was looking for him to still believe that he was the messiah. Because when one believes in the Lord Jesus, a person, in a world where it seems like God is only absent, is able to still live in the kingdom of God. While missing God and being in the midst of a world of pitch black darkness, a person can begin living inside the light.
Even The Least Person
16. Finally, let's read from verse seven to verse eleven. "When the disciples of John returned, Jesus began to speak on John to the multitude. 'What did you go to the wilderness to see? Was it a reed rustling in the wind? Well, what did you go to see? A person dressed in fine clothing? If a person dresses in fine clothing, he is in the royal palace. Well, what did you go to see? A prophet? That's what you came to see. I tell you this. He is more than a prophet. It is written about him that, 'Look, I send a messenger ahead of you and he will prepare the way before you." I clearly tell you this. Among those born of women, no greater person has appeared than John the Baptizer. But even the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is," (verses seven through eleven).
17. The greatness of John was not based on the nobility of his character, nor was it based on the size of the work which he had accomplished. What the Lord Jesus was speaking about here was in regard to the mission and message of John, that is, his mission as the forerunner of the messiah. This is what he meant by his saying that John was more than a prophet. We recall that he had found the wrong in the sins of society and announced the judgment of God in order to lay the groundwork for the messiah. But, even though the Lord was saying about John that "among those born of women, no greater person has appeared than John the Baptizer," he went on to say more in the following words. "But even the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is." Well, what might this mean?
18. Even though John was such a great figure and was more than a prophet, he was no more than a man preparing the way. His mission was to announce the end with the arrival of the messiah. This point means that the message of his mission could not be the last word. There was more to come. [That] message when he informed them of the judgment of God was not an ultimatum given to humanity.
19. The Lord Jesus the messiah showed through his words and works that the salvation of God had already begun. The Lord Jesus the messiah invited people through his words and works to the rule of God. The Lord Jesus the messiah himself was crucified for the redemption of the sins of people everywhere. The Lord Jesus the messiah himself made the glory of the kingdom of God manifest with his resurrected body. The Lord Jesus the messiah even now announces the salvation of God through the church his body and invites people to the kingdom of God.
20. The Lord said "The person who does not stumble over me is blessed." The blessed person who does not stumble over Jesus is one who believes in the Lord Jesus and who begins to live in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. The Lord Jesus has said that such a person as that, even though he or she may be the least person, is greater than John. [He or she is greater than John] because the person living in the kingdom of heaven, no matter how small he or she is, can proclaim a message greater than John the Baptizer's. The person who believes that the messiah has already arrived can preach of the light of the rule of God in a world of darkness which has lost God. If a person believes in Jesus and celebrates Christmas, he or she can say that the light is not coming after the night of darkness passes away, but rather that in the midst of the pitch black darkness the light is already shinning. Because he or she is already in the light. Therefore, the Lord says, "Even the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]."