Do we, as the congregation, occupy a much higher position
than John the Baptist? / Book W. J. Ouweneel 00, p 453
John the Baptist lived and died before the first Whitsunday on which the
congregation came into being. To that extent, then, John belonged to the old dispensation. The
Lord Jesus says (in Mt 11,11) that John is the greatest ‘among those born of women’. This
means that he is the greatest of all in terms of the old dispensation, but by comparison with
the new dispensation, in which he has no part, he is less than the least in the Kingdom of God.
This is an evident proof that the congregation occupies a much higher position than any of the
faithful of the Old Testament. The least in the new dispensation is greater than the greatest
under the old dispensation.
(This extract is taken from the book "Das Buch der Offenbarung" ["The Book of Revelation"] by W. J. Ouweneel, Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung e. V. [Society for the Propagation of Christian Literature, Reg. Soc.].)
(W. J. Ouweneel, Das Buch der Offenbarung [The Book of Revelation], published by CLV)
The view of the author of the above passage - that John the Baptist belongs to the
"old dispensation" - has something to be said for it. This, however, is not the criterion on the
basis of which the Lord refers to him as "the greatest". We are expressly told, in Mt 11,11,
that "among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist". The
ground of the comparison, then, is not any kind of "dispensation", but rather the totality of
all those who are born of women so that is to say all human beings.
And seeing that we are all, after all, born of women, this can hardly be taken as a proof of the fact that "the congregation occupies a much higher position" than John does. Quite the reverse. The passage states quite unambiguously that there has been and will not be anyone greater than John the Baptist - from Cain right through to the last human being to be born of a woman!
And here it seems appropriate to reflect on the fundamental question what features distinguish us as the congregation which one such as John the Baptist would not have been in a position to show.
- We believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. John did too! What
is more, he saw him coming, and baptized him (Jn 1,34).
- We bear witness to Our Lord. He did as well, and proclaimed, for all the
world to hear: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1,29).
- We proclaim the Gospel. He did this too, and testified: "Repent, for
the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt 3,2).
- We convert people to faith in God. He did this as well - indeed, even
before his birth the prophecy was pronounced: "And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to
the Lord their God" (Lk 1,16).
- Over the centuries we, as the congregation, have had to bear much
suffering and bitterness. So did he! He spent his life in the wilderness, and had only locusts to
- In the original congregation we had some few prophets. He too was a
prophet, when he announced: "… but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not
fit to remove His sandals: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Mt 3,11).
- Over the course of almost two millennia, there have been many members of
the congregation who have given their lives for their faith. He was a martyr too - he was beheaded
- And finally we may refer to the fact that the congregation, from the
first Whitsunday on, has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. But of John the Baptist it is actually
stated that "he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb" (Lk
So what are we to say? That we are better, greater, holier than he is? Hardly. And
this is what likewise finds expression in the Lord’s assessment, when he says that "among those
born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist". Seeing that we are all
born of women, we can take it as a fact - John the Baptist is greater than any of us, he is greater
than the congregation of all time.
And now we are further told that "he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he". So seeing that John is less than one who is the least in the kingdom of heaven, how much less than this "least" must we be, we who are even less than John?
The claim that we are greater than John the Baptist is clearly based on the idea that we, as the congregation, have a "reserved seat" in the kingdom of heaven. But can we really stand by this assumption with a clear conscience? Who is this "least" in the kingdom of heaven, who is greater than John - the greatest among those born of women?
Is it a believer? But John believed too. Is it a valiant confessor of the faith? John may well be accounted a valiant confessor. Is it a martyr? John was also a martyr.
Let us just take a closer look at the relevant scriptural passages.
Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.
Mt 11,7 As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the
crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
11,8 "But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft
clothing are in kings’ palaces! 11,9 "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell
you, and one who is more than a prophet.11,10 "This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold,
I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’ 11,11 "Truly I
say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet
the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he..
11,12 "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 11,13 "For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.11,14 "And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. Mt 11, 7-14;
Let us now come back to the first part of the verse Mt 11,11: "... among those
born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist". As has already been
pointed out, there has been no human being in the past, and most probably there will not be any in
future either, who has not been born of a woman. All human beings then, by contrast with John, are
And even Our Lord Jesus Christ, though he may have been conceived of the Holy Spirit, was nonetheless born of a woman - his mother. And it is very plain that he was not excepting himself from this statement - otherwise he would not have spoken of those born of women, but of those begotten by men, in which case he himself would have been exempt. So does this make John greater than the Lord himself?
Now say what we like in John’s favor, he obviously was not the Son of God. The Son of God was Jesus Christ, so it cannot be that John is "greater" than the Lord himself. So this saying of the Lord in Mt 11,11 turns out to be incorrect?! But that too is impossible. The Lord would never have said something that was untrue.
We have a solution of this dilemma - as is always the case with Scripture - in the text itself. In the second half-sentence of Mt 11,11, the kingdom of heaven is referred to. Some commentators interpret this kingdom of heaven as the Millennium. But if we examine the use of this term in Matthew’s Gospel, we find that it signifies something quite different.
Let us take the first passage of this kind - Mt 5,1-4:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 5,1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after
He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 5,2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, 5,3
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5,4 "Blessed
are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5,5 "Blessed are the gentle, for they shall
inherit the earth. Mt 5, 1- 4;
If in Mt 5,3 the "kingdom of heaven" is to be taken as referring to the
millennial kingdom of peace of the Lord Jesus on earth, then why are we told in Mt 5,5 that they
shall "inherit the earth"? What does it mean to "inherit the earth"? But if, on the other
hand, the "kingdom of heaven" means eternity, and the kingdom of the earth that the faithful
shall inherit is the millennial kingdom, then the statements can be harmonized.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.
Mt 5,10 "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake
of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5,11 "Blessed are you when people insult
you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 5,12 "Rejoice
and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the
prophets who were before you. Mt 5,10-12;
The promises of Mt 5,10-12 are to be seen in the same context. In Mt 5,10 we are
told of those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness. To them the kingdom of heaven
is promised. Verses Mt 5,11-12 are addressed to those who are insulted and persecuted for their
faith in the Lord Jesus. And to these the Lord says that their reward in heaven will be great.
Now this last promise, with its reference to "heaven", cannot possibly be referred to the Millennium. And the second sentence of Mt 5,12, which compares those who are persecuted with the prophets of the Old Testament - who of course could not have been persecuted for faith in Jesus - confirms that we are here talking of those who are persecuted for their faith in general. So the "kingdom of heaven" in Mt 5,10 is not to be understood as the Millennium, but as the new, the second creation - as eternity.
Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 5,18 "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
5,19 "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 5,20 "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Mt 5,18-20;
We will consider Mt 5,19 in a moment. Objectively speaking, however, the statement
made in Mt 5,20 cannot be referred to the Millennium - on the contrary, it rather fits in with the
promise made to the righteous that they will inherit eternal life.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 7,12 "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you
want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. 7,13 "Enter through the narrow
gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many
who enter through it. 7,14 "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life,
and there are few who find it.
7,15 "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 7,16 "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 7,17 "So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 7,18 "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 7,19 "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 7,20 "So then, you will know them by their fruits.
7,21 "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 7,22 "Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 7,23 "And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ Mt 7,12-23;
In Mt 7,13-14 we are told of the narrow gate that leads to life, and the broad way that leads to destruction. There can be no doubt that these are references to the Last Judgment and its consequences - namely, eternal life or eternal damnation. In the following passage (Mt 7,22-23) the Lord goes on to speak of those who have performed miracles in his name, but clearly have not had the power to do so on the Lord’s authority. On this day of the Last Judgment he will say to them, "Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness." These people are the ones who - even if they say "Lord, Lord" - do not do the will of the Father. And these are likewise told that they will not enter the "kingdom of heaven".
Many will come, and recline at the table in the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 8,11 "I say to you that many will come from east and west,
and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; 8,12 but the
sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping
and gnashing of teeth." 8,13 And Jesus said to the centurion, "Go; it shall be done for
you as you have believed." And the servant was healed that very moment. Mt 8,11-13;
And finally in Mt 8,11-13 we have now an absolute confirmation that the "kingdom
of heaven" does not mean the Millennium, but eternity. While these many "from east and west"
will recline at the table with Abraham and his descendants, the "sons of the kingdom" - that is,
the sons of the kingdom of heaven in eternity - will be "cast out into the outer darkness; in that
place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This is without a shadow of doubt a reference to the fiery pool or lake of fire to which the unjust, after the Last Judgment, will be consigned. This means that here too, in both cases, we are dealing with the Last Judgment, where the sheep are promised eternal life in the kingdom of heaven, while the portion of the goats is eternal damnation in darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. All the other mentions of the "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew yield a similar impression.
Having now demonstrated that when Matthew speaks of the "kingdom of heaven" he means not the Millennium but the kingdom of God in eternity - the New Creation - let us return to the words referring to John the Baptist in Mt 11,11. Here we are told, in the second half-sentence, "... yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he". And if we are now in a position to understand the "kingdom of heaven" here as eternity, the New Creation, where all the righteous will be found after the General Resurrection and Last Judgment, this verse turns out to have a quite different significance.
It becomes plain to us that the Lord here is not making a comparison between human beings - of any "dispensation" whatsoever - but is rather comparing the properties of earthly with those of heavenly life. All earthly human beings - including even John the Baptist, the greatest among them - are, for the time of their life on earth, less than the least of the righteous in heaven, in eternity, in the heavenly kingdom of God. The Lord tells us the reason for this in his conversation with Nicodemus, at Jn 3,3-8:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Jn 3,3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to
you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." 3,4 Nicodemus said to Him,
"How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb
and be born, can he?" 3,5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is
born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 3,6 "That which is
born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3,7 "Do not be
amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 3,8 "The wind blows where it wishes
and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is
everyone who is born of the Spirit." Jn 3, 3- 8;
All earthly beings that are born of water and the flesh are flesh. All heavenly
beings are born of the Spirit and are spirit. It follows of necessity that the least in heaven must
be greater than the greatest on earth. And when the time comes, if we are judged worthy of it, we
will actually meet John in the kingdom of heaven, and there he will assuredly be among the great
It is clear, however, that this question about the precise "degrees of greatness" in the kingdom of heaven was one that roused the interest of the disciples, and prompted them to ask the Lord their question who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 18,1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who
then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 18,2 And He called a child to Himself and set him
before them, 18,3 and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like
children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 18,4 Whoever then humbles himself as this
child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 18,5 "And whoever receives one such
child in My name receives Me; Mt 18, 1- 5;
As for the characteristics of the one who is the least in the kingdom of heaven, Our
Lord does not leave us in the dark about that either.
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
Mt 5,18 "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
5,19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Mt 5,18-19;
We still have to answer one remaining question - how it is that the Lord, in his
judgment of who is the greatest among all those born of a woman, did not except himself. And here we
must consider what it is that really constitutes this "greatness" of John the Baptist.
If the Lord compares the greatest on earth with the least in heaven, there must be a common basis for the comparison. And seeing that we can infer from his statement that earthly beings - however great they are - cannot succeed in being greater than the least in the kingdom of heaven, it seems fair to suppose that this difference is written into the system.
As we saw from the passage quoted above (Jn 3,3-8), it is the different type of "birth" that makes for the difference between the two. It is the birth of the spirit, and the spiritual body in the heavenly kingdom - the clothing "with our dwelling from heaven", as Paul puts it in 2Cor 5,2 - which constitutes the essential difference, and makes it impossible for us earthly beings to attain to the state of these who are the least in the kingdom of heaven. While we require great faith to achieve a state where the Holy Spirit can dwell in us, in differing degrees of power, the faithful in heaven have got beyond this phase. They do not just have the fullness of the Spirit within them - they are Spirit, in that they are born of this same Holy Spirit.
So the basis of the comparison is the Holy Spirit. And John, for the time that he lived, was the greatest among human beings, because he - as the angel promised Zacharias his father, in Lk 1,15 - was filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb.
That is why John the Baptist was the greatest among all those born of women. And we can see now that the Lord, in making this statement, did not intend to suggest a comparison in terms of status between one "dispensation" and another, or anything like that, but rather meant to show how earthly existence and heavenly existence are incomparably different from one another.
That the Lord did not need to except himself from the comparison is to be put down to the fact that he - though wholly human - was at the same time wholly the Son of God, and had been begotten by the Holy Spirit of the Father. He therefore stands, in the nature of things, outside any such comparison.
(See also Discourse 85: "True and false rebirth.")