“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11).
What does that mean?
Not only was John the Baptist God’s prophet, he was also Jesus’ relative—perhaps a cousin of some sort. And John was locked up in Herod’s dungeon awaiting the king’s judgment. Jesus was no doubt worried for John and yet, as he so often did, Jesus spoke of a greater truth, a more glorious vision of the future than could be found in the here and now. Instead of focusing on the present tribulation, Jesus pointed his followers towards the kingdom of heaven. In Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses a variety of similes to describe the coming kingdom for those with ears to hear: “The kingdom of heaven is like… “a mustard seed” (v. 31) and “leaven” (v. 33), and “a treasure hidden in a field” (v. 44) and “a pearl of great price” (v. 45) and “a fisherman’s net” (v. 47). Y’all probably remember many of these parables, and I urge you to go back and reread Matthew 13 when you get the chance. These similes offer us a tantalizing glimpse of what awaits us in a kingdom wherein the least of its citizens is greater than John the Baptist. It’s not that John or any of God’s faithful will be excluded or treated as second-class citizens on God’s holy mountain (cf. Isa 11:9)—they will be changed into creatures worthy of the kingdom. The Apostle Paul describes this in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, [will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 3:18).
The Kingdom has been much on my mind and on my heart this week. As most of you are aware, my father died in hospice this past Tuesday. He was 84. The past seven or eight months were very hard for him. His body was letting him down, in a variety of ways, and he wasn’t sure whether or not he should continue to resist the decline… or bow to the inevitable. It’s a decision many of us will have to make at one point, I suppose. Dad was a person of faith. He knew God and he loved God. And I’m confident that God loved him right back. Dad wasn’t particularly active in the church, however. He kept his pledge paid up, and he’d show up in the pews a couple of times a year, but he never felt the need to be any more involved than that. My maternal grandmother used to describe marriage as a dear and difficult business. Similarly, the church is comprised of dear and sometimes difficult people, and the strife between them was sometimes off-putting to my dad. Sometimes it’s tough to discern who Jesus really is through all of the clutter created by his followers. And that’s OK. God speaks to different people in different ways, and church is not the only place that happens. All that said, I am confident in the state of my father’s soul. And it makes me smile to think that even John the Baptist had questions about who Jesus was… and what he should do about it. If John had questions, I guess it’s OK for us to have them too. But you know what really makes me smile? It’s the thought of my father crossing the threshold from this life to the next, and having all of his questions resolved in an eye blink, as he was transformed from one degree of glory to another… when he entered God’s kingdom. What did that look like? I can only imagine. And I believe that Jesus, through the parables, has painted us a picture of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, though we can only see it, to use Paul’s turn of phrase, “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). It is up to us to do our best to live into God’s vision for his kingdom here on earth so that on the last day we may enter the heavenly kingdom that has been prepared for us by our Savior.
If you will indulge me, I’d like to share a song entitled “I Can Only Imagine,” written by Bart Millard of the band “Mercy Me” on the occasion of his own father’s death. The song helps me visualize—albeit through a glass darkly—what it must be like to cross the threshold from this life to the next, and be changed from glory into glory, in order to be made worthy of the Kingdom.
Video: I can only imagine