In a discourse about John the Baptist, Jesus honored the prophet with these words: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11a). John certainly did not see himself as “great”—he did not see himself as worthy enough to baptize Jesus (Matthew 3:13–14) or even to carry His sandals (Matthew 3:11).
The “greatness” that Jesus refers to concerning John has to do with John’s unique position in history, not with any special talent, holiness, or personal merit. In fact, immediately after stating that John is the greatest “among those born of women,” Jesus says, “Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11b). More on this paradox later.
One reason that Jesus called John the Baptist the “greatest” was that John held the honor of being chosen by God as the forerunner to the Messiah. John’s mission was to personally prepare the world for Christ’s arrival. John’s ministry was predicted in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. After Jesus came, John introduced Him to the world as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:35–36). John was the herald who introduced to the world the Hero of all history. It was this introduction that accredited Jesus before the Jewish crowds and leaders, some of whom believed on Jesus, and many of whom did not.
John was also the “greatest” in that he preached with the power of Elijah (Luke 1:17; 3:7–18). John shared many qualities with Elijah, including calling a nation to repentance, rebuking the king, and persevering in the face of public misunderstanding and malicious persecution (Matthew 11:16–18; Mark 6:14–19).
John was also the “greatest” in that God had chosen him to break the 430 years of divine silence that had existed since the prophet Malachi. John was the Spirit-anointed bridge from the Old Testament to the New. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets and stood on the cusp of a new dispensation. His preaching was the end of the Law and the beginning of the Promise. He was the last in the long line of prophets who predicted Christ, yet he was the only one who could actually see Christ in the flesh. Moses, Isaiah, and the rest of the prophets had pointed to a far-distant personage they could see only faintly. John pointed at an actual human being who stood directly in front of him. No other prophet had that privilege.
Jesus’ full statement in Matthew 11:11 is paradoxical: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How can John be the greatest, if even the “least in the kingdom” is greater than John? Again, the answer has to do with the Christian’s unique position in history, not with his personal merit. John died without seeing the fullness of God’s plan in Christ (see Mark 6:17–29). John never saw the crucifixion of Christ or His glorious resurrection. Yet even the “least in the kingdom of heaven” knows of these events and understands their meaning.
The baptism of John was insufficient to save (see Acts 18:24–26; 19:1–7). The disciples of John in Ephesus needed to hear the whole gospel, not just what John had taught. They needed to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, the one John had predicted. They needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John was truly the greatest prophet of his era—the Old Testament time—yet all Christians today have a fuller perspective on the work of Christ.