The Least will be Greater than John

Yeshua said that John the Immerser was the greatest of the prophets but that the least in the kingdom is greater than him. Does this mean that the worst Christian is better than the best Jew?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "John in Machaerus". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

While discussing the role of John the Immerser, Yeshua said to His disciples, “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” (Matthew 11:11). What is that supposed to men? Many readers assume it means that the era of the Old Testament and the Law ended with John and that a believer in the New Testament dispensation of grace is greater than John, because while John belonged to the old and obsolete covenant, the Christian belongs to the new covenant. The short way of saying this is simply, “Even the worst Christian is better than the best Jew.”

This interpretation raises several difficulties. It requires us to accept a form of replacement theology, in which believers in Yeshua (those in the kingdom) replace the Jews of the Old Testament era. That's what replacement theology is. It's the idea that Christians replace Jews as the people of God. The interpretation also implies that John will not be in the Messianic Era (i.e., the kingdom). Why would John be so specifically excluded? Wasn’t he also a believer in Yeshua, just like the Twelve and so many others? Also puzzling, the saying would also seem to indicate that John is greater than Yeshua, since both of them can be described as being “among those born of women.”

A better interpretation understands the cryptic saying as a contrast between this current age and the Messianic Age. In the Messianic Era, all mankind will know God on a level even higher than that of Moses (the greatest of the prophets). In the kingdom of heaven, the LORD will pour out his Spirit on all mankind so that everyone will prophesy, dream dreams, and see visions. Even the lowly servants—the least in the kingdom—will receive a generous portion of the prophetic spirit (Joel 3:1-2 [2:28-29]). When Yeshua said that the “least in the kingdom of heaven” will surpass even John the Immerser (the greatest prophet born of women), he alluded directly to “the least of them” in Jeremiah’s prophecy about the Messianic Age:

“For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:34)

According to this interpretation, it's not about replacement theology at all. Instead, Yeshua says that the least and most insignificant person in the Messianic Era will attain a level of prophecy and apprehension of God that surpasses even the greatest prophet of His current era: John the Immerser. The following paraphrase helps clarify the intended meaning:

Among those born of women in this era there has not arisen any prophet greater than John the Immerser. Yet he who is least among the prophets in the Messianic Era will be greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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