Someone posted a question on Facebook recently: “What question about the bible would you really like have answered?” When I first seriously read the new testament the summer I turned eighteen, I was surprised by the Jesus that I met through the Gospels. He said a lot of challenging things that made me uncomfortable or plain-and-simply scared me to death.
Sometimes we treat the Bible like comfort food for the soul. We prefer the nice, loving Jesus to the scary challenging Jesus. We would rather hear, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Matthew 11:28 (ESV) instead of “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 (ESV).
Spiritual comfort food has its place, but we need to face the challenging stuff if we want to grow in faith. (I’d love to hear what Bible verse challenges you the most, and how you came to terms with it.)
Here is the challenging verse that has bothered me since my conversion in 1974: Why did Jesus said about John the Baptist, “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 (ESV).
I keep imagining the stairway to heaven that ends at the threshold of the Pearly Gates. The poor soul who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is standing just inside the gate. He barely squeaked in past St. Peter and his big book. Then there’s John the Baptist, standing on the stairs, just below the gates. He wants to get in, but can’t because he is less than the least, less than that guy over there, just inside the gate.
John the Baptist must have made a pretty imposing figure, in his camel-hair suit, leather belt and fiery sermons. Aside from Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, John was among the first to recognize Jesus as the anointed one. He was the first to publicly testify that Jesus was the Lamb of God,
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 (ESV) “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” John 1:34 (ESV)
Most Christians would love to have been there in John the Baptist’s sandals, giving that testimony. You’d think that would earn you a seat pretty near the top tier of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So how did John the Baptist, the greatest born of woman, end up less than the least, outside the gates of heaven?
In Matthew 5:19, Jesus defines who is least in the kingdom of heaven.
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s pretty serious stuff. So what did John the Baptist do that made him less than the least?
Maybe John’s mistake was that he knew Jesus was the messiah, but turned his back on Jesus and went his own way, somehow thinking his path was more important. John’s disciples were reportedly at odds with Jesus’s disciples. Only two of John’s followers (Andrew and one other) joined up with Jesus. John had ample opportunity to testify to Herod about Jesus, but Herod knew nothing about Jesus, thinking that John had resurrected. It seems to me that John the Baptist missed the salvation boat and led all of his own followers away from Jesus at the crucial moment. Instead of leading his people to salvation, he led them astray. Could I be right?