Who’s the greatest is often debated. Who’s the greatest President? Who’s the greatest of any given sport? The disciples of Jesus Christ seemingly could never let go of which one of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5,Mark 9:33-37, and Luke 9:46-48). Peter, James, and John must have believed they were in line for the title since they were the only three invited up on the Mount of Transfiguration.
But who did Jesus say was the greatest among men? It’s the Elijah of the New Testament and the answer is found in Matthew 11:11:
“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 he.”
Here Jesus makes a paradoxical statement about him. He names John as the greatest, yet immediately states that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater. So where is Jesus going with this?
Let’s first note that the greatness that Jesus is referring to is John’s unique position in preparing the way for the Messiah. It wasn’t because of John’s talent, special merit, or personal holiness. It was because he was chosen to fulfill the prophecies from Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1.
Next, let’s remember John’s special birth. The angel in Luke 1:14-17 tells Zechariah (John’s father):
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Later on John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when she meets Mary who is pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41).
Now to understand Jesus’s statement we also have to back up and understand the full context of Matthew 11. John the Baptist was in prison when Jesus proclaimed him the greatest. The man predestined to prepare the way for the Messiah is no longer sure he was right about Jesus as he sits in a dark dungeon wondering if he got it wrong.
Can you imagine what was running through John’s mind? Isn’t it just like us to question God in our lowest moments? John had previously declared he was unworthy to baptize Jesus and that he couldn’t even carry His sandals (See Matthew 3). Now John was sending messengers to question Jesus to confirm if He really was the Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3).
The greatest was at his lowest and Vance Havner sums it up nicely for us: “What (John) had preached like a living exclamation point had become a question mark to the Preacher Himself. But our Lord did not reprimand the troubled prophet. Instead He made His best statement about John the Baptist on the same day the prophet made his worst statement about the Lord.”
And Jesus answered them (those that John sent), “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me (Matthew 11:4-6).”
Havner goes on to state: In other words, “Blessed is he who does not get upset by the way I run my business!…God doesn’t operate by our timetable and sometimes it does not add up on our computers.”
The answer Jesus gave was an amazing confirmation that He truly was the Messiah, and his last sentence is an indictment of many offended Christ followers. The greatest prophet was prophetic indeed when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).” John never made it out of prison and then lost his head to a wicked, foolish promise made by King Herod (See Mark 6). John didn’t live to witness the horrors of Christ on the cross and didn’t get to see His victorious resurrection, yet he accomplished all that God called him to do.
When we find ourselves at our lowest, let’s remember John the Baptist and know that during our hardest trials and difficulties God may be doing His greatest work in us, through us, and around us (without us). Yet He is still good and great and worthy of all praise.
And here one other passage comes to mind…I wonder if John the Baptist remembered Habakkuk’s prayer while he was in prison (See Habakkuk 3). It fittingly begins with:
Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds…(NIV)
And later Habakkuk rejoices in song (3:17-19) and gives us a glimpse of what he’s learned as a model for how we should trust and praise God in the midst of suffering (in this case famine):
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (ESV)
Though…Yet…Though I’m in prison…Yet will I praise you. We can trust Him because He is good and He is great. He must increase, but I must decrease for He is the Greatest!
Elisabeth Elliot is well known for her missionary work and has written many books. Her first husband, Jim, was killed on the mission field. (Her second husband died of cancer). Havner was a beloved Southern Baptist preacher and author, and his book chronicles his experience during the loss of his wife of 33 years (Sara) to Cushing’s Disease.
What I found interesting is that they both turned to poetry and hymns to help their audience relate. Poetry seems to be the preferred language of suffering. It is God’s gift of grace written by kindred sufferers to point us to the sacrifice of the Man of Sorrows. Poetry helps us to process suffering without directly comparing levels or degrees of it.
Is it any wonder that God gave us the Psalms to comfort our weary souls? There are times in our lives where we find ourselves like David:
I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me. Psalm 38:8-10
Havner wrote: “One thing I have learned in my journey through the Valley – I am not the only one who has traveled this trail. Every day I meet some fellow pilgrim. Almost every other person I talk with has been scarred by tragedy, bereavement, suffering.”
Elliot wrote: “I’ve come to see that it’s through the deepest suffering that God has taught me the deepest lesson.” And, “Suffering is a mystery that none of us is really capable of plumbing. And it’s a mystery about which I’m sure everyone at some time of other has asked why”
She defines suffering this way: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have. She explains, “I think that covers everything.”
She goes on to say:
“The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.”
“And let’s never forget that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be careful never to love anything or anybody. The gifts of love have been the gifts of suffering. Those two things are inseparable.”
Later Elliot puts it all in perspective: “It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize this seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.” She describes the cross of Christ this way: “It is the best thing that ever happened in human history as well as the worst thing.”
Likewise, Havner writes: “Nobody ever walked through so dark a Valley and He walked it by Himself. We can never suffer as He suffered, die as He died. He has been through the Valley and we need fear no evil for He walks it with us.” He continues, “So…my fellow traveler, wending your way through dangers, toils, and snares you will meet a host of kindred souls. You have joined the brotherhood at the price of heartache and tears.”
Elliot goes on to quote several poets and hymn writers:
Measure your life by loss and not by gain, Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth. For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice, And he that suffereth most hath most to give. ~Ugo Bassi
She references a line from a hymn by Richard Baxter, “Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.”
She then provides a short poem from the perspective of a young girl who at six-weeks old had an inflammation of the eyes and the doctor tried a procedure which burned both her corneas so that she was blind for life. Here’s the 9 year old words of Fanny Crosby:
O what a happy soul am I although I cannot see. I’m resolved that in this world contented I shall be. So many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t. To weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot nor I won’t.
Elliot closes her thoughts with a poem by Grant Colfax Tuller:
My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me; I do not choose the colors, He worketh steadily, Oft times He weaveth sorrow and I, in foolish pride, Forget He sees the upper, and I the under side. Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly, Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why. The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand, As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern he has planned.
As Havener travels through his own valley after his wife died, he states: “I have not lost her for I know where she is!” Then he shares the following anonymous poem:
Death can hide but not divide; Thou art but on Christ’s other side; Thou are with Christ and Christ with me, United still in Christ are we.
He goes on to quote lines from John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem “The Eternal Goodness.”
I know not what the future hath Of marvel or surprise, Assured alone that life and death, His mercy underlies, And if my heart and flesh are weak To bear an untried pain, The bruised reed He will not break, But strengthen and sustain.
And in another chapter he writes of the joyous expectation of Christ’s return and the longing to go home, but if Christ delays, then:
One sweet solemn thought Comes to me o’er and o’er; I’m nearer home today Than I’ve ever been before. ~ Phoebe Cary
A few days after Sara’s passing Havner wrote: “There is not much that I dread from here on out. When one has drained the bitterest cup he is better prepared for any other potion that life may serve. Indeed he can sing:”
Let sorrow do its work, Send grief or pain; Sweet are Thy messengers, Sweet their refrain, When they can sing with me: More love, O Christ, to Thee, More love to Thee! More love to Thee! ~ Elizabeth P. Prentiss
He ends his book referencing Paul’s suffering and how he “had to find it is far better to learn that God’s grace is sufficient and His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” Then he quotes Fanny Crosby:
All the way my Saviour leads me; What have I to ask beside? Can I doubt His tender mercy, Who thro’ life has been my Guide?
Fanny’s words of hope remind me of my dad who often quoted her hymns. He passed away from cancer in October of 2018. With tumors growing out of his body through weakened scars of surgeon incisions, no longer able to walk, our conversation turned to heaven’s joy and no more suffering, and he profoundly and joyfully said in his last days, whisper-voice, “Praise God!”
There is Hope in the midst of suffering…
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10