THE ACCENT OF ADMIRATION
When they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” he said. “Was it a reed shaken by the wind? If it was not that, what did you go out to see? Was it to see a man clothed in luxurious clothes? Look you, the people who wear luxurious clothes are in kings’ houses. If it was not that, what did you go out to see? Was it to see a prophet? Indeed it was, I tell you, and something beyond a prophet. This is he of whom it stands written: `Look you, I am sending before you my messenger, who will prepare your way before you.’ This is the truth I tell you–amongst those born of women no greater figure than John the Baptizer has ever emerged in history. But the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is.”
There are few men to whom Jesus paid so tremendous a tribute as he did to John the Baptizer. He begins by asking the people what they went into the desert to see when they streamed out to John.
(i) Did they go out to see a reed shaken by the wind? That can mean one of two things: (a) Down by the banks of the Jordan the long cane grass grew; and the phrase a shaken reed was a kind of proverb for the commonest of sights. When the people flocked to see John, were they going out to see something as ordinary as the reeds swaying in the wind on Jordan’s banks? (b) A shaken reed can mean a weak vacillator, one who could no more stand foursquare to the winds of danger than a reed by the river’s bank could stand straight when the wind blew.
Whatever else the people flocked out to the desert to see, they certainly did not go to see an ordinary person. The very fact that they did go out in their crowds showed how extraordinary John was, for no one would cross the street, let alone tramp into the desert, to see a commonplace kind of person. Whatever else they went out to see, they did not go to see a weak vacillator. Mr. Pliables do not end in prison as martyrs for the truth. John was neither as ordinary as a shaken reed, nor as spineless as the reed which sways with every breeze.
(ii) Did they go out to see a man clothed in soft and luxurious garments? Such a man would be a courtier; and, whatever else John was, he was not a courtier. He knew nothing of the courtier’s art of the flattery of kings; he followed the dangerous occupation of telling the truth to kings. John was the ambassador of God, not the courtier of Herod.
(iii) Did they go out to see a prophet? The prophet is the forthteller of the truth of God. The prophet is the man in the confidence of God. “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Am.3:7). The prophet is two things–he is the man with a message from God, and he is the man with the courage to deliver that message. The prophet is the man with God’s wisdom in his mind, God’s truth on his lips, and God’s courage in his heart. That most certainly John was.
(iv) But John was something more than a prophet. The Jews had, and still have, one settled belief. They believed that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. To this day, when the Jews celebrate the Passover Feast, a vacant chair is left for Elijah. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal.4:5). Jesus declared that John was nothing less than the divine herald whose duty and privilege it was to announce the coming of the Messiah. John was nothing less than the herald of God, and no man could have a greater task than that.
(v) Such was the tremendous tribute of Jesus to John, spoken with the accent of admiration. There had never been a greater figure in all history; and then comes the startling sentence: “But he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
Here there is one quite general truth. With Jesus there came into the world something absolutely new. The prophets were great; their message was precious; but with Jesus there emerged something still greater, and a message still more wonderful. C. G. Montefiore, himself a Jew and not a Christian, writes: “Christianity does mark a new era in religious history and in human civilization. What the world owes to Jesus and to Paul is immense; things can never be, and men can never think, the same as things were, and as men thought, before these two great men lived.” Even a non-Christian freely admits that things could never be the same now that Jesus had come.
But what was it that John lacked? What is it that the Christian has that John could never have? The answer is simple and fundamental. John had never seen the Cross. Therefore one thing John could never know–the full revelation of the love of God. The holiness of God he might know; the justice of God he might declare; but the love of God in all its fulness he could never know. We have only to listen to the message of John and the message of Jesus. No one could call John’s message a gospel, good news; it was basically a threat of destruction. It took Jesus and his Cross to show to men the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of God. It is a most amazing thing that it is possible for the humblest Christian to know more about God than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. The man who has seen the Cross has seen the heart of God in a way that no man who lived before the Cross could ever see it. Indeed the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than any man who went before.
So John had the destiny which sometimes falls to men; he had the task of pointing men to a greatness into which he himself did not enter. It is given to some men to be the signposts of God. They point to a new ideal and a new greatness which others will enter into, but into which they will not come. It is very seldom that any great reformer is the first man to toil for the reform with which his name is connected. Many who went before him glimpsed the glory, often laboured for it, and sometimes died for it.
Someone tells how from the windows of his house every evening he used to watch the lamp-lighter go along the streets lighting the lamps–and the lamp-lighter was himself a blind man. He was bringing to others the light which he himself would never see. Let a man never be discouraged in the Church or in any other walk of life, if the dream he has dreamed and for which he has toiled is never worked out before the end of the day. God needed John; God needs his signposts who can point men on the way, although they themselves cannot ever reach the goal.
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