What was the Lord saying about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14?
The Lord pointed to the past and present when He said, “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” From the past, He combined two prophecies, both in Malachi. In verse 10, He quotes His promise that He will send His messenger to prepare the way before Him (Mal 3:1). Now in verse 14, He informs us that the prophet Elijah whom the Lord of Hosts would send “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (4:5) is His messenger mentioned in the previous prophecy. As to the present, the Lord states the one condition which determines if John fulfills these two prophecies: literally, “if ye will receive.” The context indicates what they were to receive. The Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah reached their terminus in John (Mat 11:13). If they recognized who John was, they would receive His message. That is why the Lord immediately refers to their responsibility to heed what they heard (“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” v 15). Yet they were like the children who heard the mourning, but didn’t lament (v 16). By not recognizing John’s authority, they wouldn’t and couldn’t recognize Christ’s (21:24-27).
Gabriel had told Zecharias that John would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elias”; he then referred to Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah (Mal 4:5, 6). John was not a reappearance of Elijah, but was a prophet whose might and mission was the same as Elijah’s. In Matthew 17, the disciples understood that the Lord was speaking about John (v 13) when He said two seemingly contradictory things about Elijah. The Lord said, “Elias indeed comes first and will restore all things” (v 11); that is the prescribed order of Malachi’s prophecy, but John is now dead and the restoration must await a future “Elias.” “The crooked” had not been “made straight” (Luke 3:5; Isa 40:4), nor had John’s ministry restored “all things.” Why? “Elias is come already, and they knew him not” (v 12). On God’s part – and John’s – John had fulfilled the prophecies. On the nation’s part, they had rejected him and his message of repentance. In the future, God will yet fulfill the prophecy of sending “My messenger,” the Elijah to come. Then, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power” (Psa 110:3), and the future prophet (“in the spirit and power of Elijah,” see Rev 11:3-7) will present a people restored to Him “before that . . . day of the Lord.”
In what way were there none greater than John the Baptist (Mat 11:11)?
Gabriel had told Zecharias before John’s birth that “he shall be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). That greatness is in the context of remarks about John’s person or character. This assessment in Matthew, however, follows the Lord’s statement about John’s exalted service: he “shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” Among all men, what a great privilege and honor it is to be entrusted by the Lord with a work to do for Him. Among all to whom the Lord has entrusted a work, no one’s responsibility involved a higher privilege and honor than John’s; he prepared the way before the Lord, personally introducing to God’s chosen people the long-promised Messiah, Deliverer, and Lamb of God. In a unique sense, John was “My messenger”; four of the five times that expression occurs it refers to John. This is quite an honor bestowed on John!
What did the Lord mean by, “He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist]”?
Some take this to refer to the Lord Jesus. In the same chapter, He describes Himself as lowly (v 29). To consider that the most lowly of all is the greatest of all bows our hearts in worship! How wonderful and how wonderfully true! One difficulty with this interpretation is that we would normally think of the Lord Jesus as being the King over the kingdom, rather than in it. A stronger objection is the context. This is a contrast introduced by “nevertheless.” The first part of the contrast deals with John’s official privilege and honor. In this interpretation, the Lord would be speaking about His person, not His office. To paraphrase, the Lord would be saying “no human has been given a higher privilege in service that John, but I am a greater person than others.” That doesn’t seem balanced.
The first “sampling” is from the human family, “them that are born of women”; the second is from the kingdom of heaven. Could the Lord be contrasting greatness in terms of privilege? In the human family, no one has been more privileged than John in the work entrusted to him. In the kingdom of heaven, even one considered to be the least (in his service?) is more privileged through the grace bestowed on him than John was through the honored work he did. Greater than all we are privileged to do for God is the grace we have been privileged to receive from God.
How long was John the Baptist’s ministry?
The divine historian tells us John’s ministry began “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1). Secular historians date that around 29 A.D. John mentions four Passover feasts (2:23; 5:1; 6:4; 13:1). The Lord’s ministry began before the first and He was crucified on the fourth Passover. That suggests His public ministry was slightly more than three years. If we accept that the Lord’s crucifixion was in 33 A.D., His public ministry began in the latter part of 29 A.D. when He “began to be about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23), perhaps as much as 6 months after John began to preach. Matthew places the death of John the Baptist before the feeding of the 5000 (Mat 14:1-13, 21). John tells us the feeding of the 5000 took place shortly before the third Passover(John 6:4-13), about two and a half years into the Lord’s ministry. John had been in prison for a time before that, so his ministry – before imprisonment – may have been as short as two and a half years. Such a valuable man! Yet he fulfilled his course (Acts 13:25) within three years. Apparently, the Lord gave neither John nor his disciples an explanation of the divine plan, for “His ways are past finding out” (Rom 11:33).