Do you want to be great? I don’t think many of us would answer yes to that question. It sounds far too prideful to answer yes!
But there is a greatness that we can have without being prideful. Jesus hints at it in Luke 7:28, “…he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John the Baptist].” How is this greatness achieved? John provides for us an example of this humble greatness that every Christian can have.
From John’s example, we learn first, that…
GREATNESS HAS TO DO WITH ONE’S COMMITMENT TO GOD (7:24)
In the previous passage, John the Baptist had sent messengers to Jesus to ask if Jesus was the Messiah that they had all been waiting for. John was languishing in the dreadful Machaerus (mack-cure-us) dungeon and, in a moment of doubt, needed to know the answer to the question: “Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” (7:20).
Jesus answered John’s messengers with an affirmative response and sent them back to John.
Luke 7:24a And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak unto the people concerning John,
Why does he speak to the crowd about John? Perhaps the crowd had overheard John’s question. Perhaps some of them even started to wonder about John’s faithfulness. To make sure there was no misunderstanding about John’s faith, Jesus praised the greatness of John:
Luke 7:24b What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
Reeds were fragile, and more so when they were blown around. It is a perfect image of someone who is blown around and swayed by public opinion; someone who is not a strong person, but is doubtful and wishy-washy.
John was no coward. He was a strong and faithful man of God, not a reed blowing in the wind.
A mark of greatness in a person is that they do not waver from the truth, from doing the right things. This does not mean that they are legalistic hard-noses like the Pharisees. Yet they do stand up for what’s right (in God’s eyes) despite what others are saying.
In the human realm, a good example of this was Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s greatest heroes. In the years leading up to World War II, Britain’s leaders were going out of their way to appease Adolf Hitler and to convince themselves that he wasn’t so bad.
Churchill was a lone voice in Parliament who tried to get Britain to see the danger and to rearm themselves. Some have even described Churchill in John the Baptist terms, “…a lone voice in the wilderness.” Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time, complained, “The real danger to this country is Winston. He is the warmonger, not Hitler.”
In 1938, Hitler began to take over nations like Austria and Czechoslovakia. Many in Britain felt like Germany should have those territories because they were “Germany’s backyard” anyway. Churchill sounded yet another clear warning:
This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time. (www.raabcollection.com/winston-churchill-autograph/winston-churchill-signed-original-notes-winston-churchills-speech [accessed December 28, 2018])
Churchill spoke, not out of hatred, but out of a love for people and for their freedom.
In the same way, John the Baptist was not afraid to speak a tough warning to people, like “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8), not because he hated them, but because he wanted to see the danger they were in and to repent and be saved.
John the Baptist was a man totally committed to God and God’s mission for him. He didn’t worry much about what other men said about him or what they did to him. Here are a couple examples:
7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke 3:7)
I can imagine someone coming home after hearing John and being met by his wife. “How did you like John the Baptist, was he a great speaker?” “Well, no, I don’t think he’s so great—he called us a bunch of snakes!”
John didn’t just pick on the lowly people who could do him no harm. He spoke God’s word to those in power, and he paid for it.
3 For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. (Matthew 14:3–4)
I can imagine a guard roughly throwing John into a cell and saying, “You think you are so great, well, how about now? How do those chains feel? Kind of tight? Well, too bad.”
John’s commitment to God, not to pleasing people, is what made him great. Later, the apostle Paul would have to agree:
10 For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
We have to be careful here. We are to contend for the faith, but not be contentious. Some people remember the “speak the truth” part and leave off the “in love” part (Ephesians 4:15).
Of course, other Christians are too soft. They never speak about their faith. They hide it under a bushel. They claim to love people, but they don’t love them enough to speak God’s truth to them.
You’ll have to judge yourself. Which side do you fall on? Are you too soft or too hard?
But above all, are you committed to God?
GREATNESS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ONE’S WEALTH (7:25)
To further reinforce that John the Baptist was a strong man and not a perennial doubter, Jesus says,
Luke 7:25 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ courts.
Did they go out to see a man that was dressed in fine clothing? Not hardly! John was well-known for his camel-skin clothing and wild locusts and honey diet (Matthew 3:4).
It is possible that Jesus had in mind the kind of rich person who was a wimp, who would complain about a broken fingernail or a hair being out of place. Again, the idea is that John the Baptist wasn’t like that—he was strong and stable.
There’s a hint of what true greatness is here. Greatness, in human eyes, has to do with riches and clothes and seats of power.
I was looking at a poll taken a few years ago of the greatest Britains who have ever lived. Churchill was on top. Others included William Shakespeare, Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth. Those in the top ten at least, were all rich or powerful or famous. They all lived in nice homes or in mansions and dressed in fine clothes.
In contrast, John the Baptist preached in the wilderness dressed in camel skins. In the wilderness, not in the busy Temple courtyard in Jerusalem. In camel skins, not in fine clothes. And yet, Jesus rated him the greatest of all the prophets (7:28).
Greatness in God’s eyes has little to do with what humans consider great, whether it is wealth, fame, or success in business or in the battlefield. No, instead…
GREATNESS HAS TO DO WITH BEING HUMBLE (7:26-27)
Luke 7:26 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.
John the Baptist was a prophet. He was a prophet in that he declared God’s word to the people. He was a forth-teller, not a fore-teller. Therefore he would speak words like, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). John was a prophet in that those were the very words that God wanted those people to hear. He wasn’t a preacher gone off on a rant.
But Jesus says something else surprising. He says that John was “much more than a prophet.” What does he mean? In what way was John more, much more even, than a prophet? Jesus explains in the next verse:
Luke 7:27 This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
In order to show how John is more than a prophet, Jesus refers to a prophecy found in Malachi 3:1. Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, so this saying is among one of the last things that God said before a four hundred year silence descended on Israel.
John the Baptist was God’s messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah. That was the call of God on John’s life, and one that he held ever so humbly. He knew his position. When asked if he was the Messiah, he resisted the urge to claim more fame for himself. Instead, he said:
7 …There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. (Mark 1:7)
Does being humble mean being wishy-washy and down on ourselves? No, it’s as C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Being humble is not about being wishy-washy and down on yourself. John certainly wasn’t! He was strong and bold, yet humble. His humility came from the fact that he knew who he was and did not try to claim any more than that for himself.
When we get all down on ourselves, what are we actually doing? We are actually thinking a lot about ourselves! Self-pity and arrogance are cut from the same cloth—the cloth of pride.
If you want to make an impact for God, you will be humble and bold. You will be firm in the truth, and loving towards those who disagree.
Jesus’s conclusion was that John was the greatest of prophets:
Luke 7:28a For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist:
Just think about what this means. Moses? Samuel? Isaiah? None of those great prophets were greater than John the Baptist. But then Jesus gives us a surprise ending:
Luke 7:28b he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
How can this be? What would make a person greater than John the Baptist, who is himself greater than Moses and Abraham?
It is because, despite John’s greatness (and the greatness of Moses and David and all the great Old Testament people), they still all missed living in the time of forgiveness that Jesus bought for us with his blood on the cross. The Bible says of the Old Testament heroes:
39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: (Hebrews 11:39)
Christians are not greater than John because of something we did or something we are—we are greater than John because we have been saved by Jesus’s death and resurrection!
Now, of course John was saved (and saved by his faith), but he never had the opportunity experience the full Gospel of Christ like we do.
Have you experienced the salvation that Jesus has bought for all who will believe in him? Have you recognized your great need for forgiveness and humbled yourself at the cross of Christ? If you haven’t, then I urge you to respond to the Gospel call—repent of your sin and turn to Jesus.
When you do, you will be given great things that belong only to Christians.
(1) Christians have a great peace with God (Romans 5:1). We are no more at war with God, but we have peace with him.
(2) Christians have a great comfort in trials. It’s not that we will not have trials, but that God will make good things come of every trial we encounter (Romans 8:28).
(3) Christians have a great destiny. Eternal life. Not eternal boredom, but an exciting life that we get to live forever in the presence of God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
(4) Christians have a great mission. To tell the world—every nation, tribe, tongue and race—of the Good News that Jesus has bought for them a so great a salvation.
Do you want to be great? I hope you do, and you can find true greatness by being involved with what our great God is doing in this world.