Who before Christ was the greatest person in the world?

In secular history we read about powerful rulers who are called ‘great’. Darius the Great of Persia had an empire of 7.5 million km². By way of comparison, the continent of Europe is about 10 million km². Alexander the Great had an empire of only 5.4 million km². There were rich kings such as Croesus of Lydia. There were great philosophers such as Confucius and Socrates. But Jesus said: “What is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

In the holy Scriptures certain men are called great, such as Abraham (Genesis 24:35) and Moses (Exodus 11:3).

Speaking about John the Baptist Jesus said: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:7-11).

Maybe some were just as great, but no one was greater than John the Baptist. Why was John great? Jesus says he was “more than a prophet,” he was God’s messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah.

Let us examine the life of John to find qualities that made him great.

John had an exceptional birth announcement. The angel Gabriel appeared to his father, Zacharias, and said: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also 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. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17).

John would “be great in the sight of the Lord.” We should not strive to be great in the sight of men but great in the sight of the Lord.

John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” John was great because God empowered him. He was chosen by God to fulfill a special task in the history of the world. “John performed no sign” (John 10:41). Thus being filled with the Holy Spirit does not mean that one can perform signs.

Our God-given task in life is less spectacular. Yet we all have a task. And we can have the gift of the Holy Spirit as Peter promised on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38, 39). Jesus said also: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13).

John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” What accomplishment could be greater than to bring souls to repentance that they might be saved from sin and spend eternity with God in heaven?

John was great because he was humble. He said: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11). When Jesus came to him requesting baptism, John replied: “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Once John was told: “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified -- behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” He replied: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ ... He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:26-30).

John was great because he had the courage to call even powerful people to repentance. “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:5-8).

John even dared to call the king to repentance, which resulted in his death. “For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.’ Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’ So she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’ Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:17-29).

Thus we see something of the greatness of John the Baptist.

After telling of John’s greatness, Jesus goes on to say something that is truly amazing. “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

By saying this, Jesus did not mean to detract from the greatness of John in any way. He merely emphasizes how great it is to be in the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom that John foretold, but would not have a part in. John had preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). But he was imprisoned and murdered before Christ, after His ascension, began to reign at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33).

That John’s understanding of the kingdom was limited is indicated by the question he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

The least in the kingdom of heaven has an insight into God’s plan for the salvation of world that Old Covenant prophets did not have. Jesus told His followers: “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16, 17).

Peter also mentions that Christians have a better understanding of God’s salvation than the Old Covenant prophets had: “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven --- things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Let us follow the example of John in the things that made him great. Let us define our concept of what is great by the word of God and seek His approval. Let us ask the Father for the Holy Spirit. Let us do what we can to bring others to repentance. Let us be humble and give the glory to God. Let us not be afraid to call the powerful to repentance. And most of all, let us be thankful for the great privileges we have in the kingdom of God. Amen.

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

Published in The Old Paths Archive