The greatest & the least in the Kingdom of Heaven

Yet another good sermon from our Pastor Douthwaite, preaching from Matthew 11:

So hear what Jesus has to say to you, in answer to your questions: “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.”

What does this mean?

There is no question that John was great. He was the last and greatest Old Testament prophet. He was the one who prepared the way of the Lord. Yet there is one greater than John. Who is it? Who is it who is least in the kingdom of heaven? . . .

Well, don’t feel bad – the disciple didn’t understand all this either, and so a little later they are arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest, and they ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Do you remember how He answered them? He called a little child over and put him in the middle of them and said, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:1-4). Now, that doesn’t mean those who are cute and innocent. Rather, children then were seen as those who couldn’t offer anything, who needed care, and were a burden because they couldn’t contribute to the support of the family. This, Jesus says, is a picture of greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

So putting two and two together here . . . who are those who are greater than the great John? It is those who are the least in this world. Those who have nothing to offer, those who need care, those who are a burden; those we heard of earlier: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead – can’t get much more helpless than that! – and the poor. Not the materially poor, but the spiritually poor, for they have the good news preached to them. They are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, for they receive the service and gifts and greatness of the king.

And we could add one more to that list today: you. You in the dundgeon of despair and sadness; you in confusion and pain; you who are lonely; you who are heavy laden by the cares and concerns of the world; you who are a poor, miserable sinner. Yes, Jesus is the coming one, for He has come for you. For in you and for you He is doing His kingly work, serving you with His forgiveness and life, washing away your sins, and making you His child. You who have nothing to offer Him but your burdens and sins. But these are the very things He wants! To set you free. And that is exactly what He has done in His death and resurrection. He is never more King for you than He is for you there – on the cross, and on that morning three days later.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Advent 3 Sermon.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Paul

    The sermon I heard preached pointed out that by the world’s standards, John in fact did not appear great at all–think of his diet, his clothing, his abruptness (e.g., “Who warned you?…”). Then he had his disciples leave him to follow Jesus, he was imprisoned, and then beheaded. When John was in prison, he, despite having once made such bold statements in his ministry such as “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, even questioned whether Jesus was the Messiah.

    So what makes John great? In fact, there is one born of woman who is greater, and that is Jesus Christ. We, like John, are great, but not of ourselves, but rather because we are in Christ.

    And this greatness may not look like much to the world. Jesus did not come in power or perform a miracle to release John from prison. Neither are we released from our earthly struggles. In fact, neither did Christ’s greatness look like much to the world. But in becoming the servant of all, Christ overcame sin and death for us…

    I can’t recall all the pastor went into. The way he approached the text, though, I really appreciated.

  • Paul

    The sermon I heard preached pointed out that by the world’s standards, John in fact did not appear great at all–think of his diet, his clothing, his abruptness (e.g., “Who warned you?…”). Then he had his disciples leave him to follow Jesus, he was imprisoned, and then beheaded. When John was in prison, he, despite having once made such bold statements in his ministry such as “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, even questioned whether Jesus was the Messiah.

    So what makes John great? In fact, there is one born of woman who is greater, and that is Jesus Christ. We, like John, are great, but not of ourselves, but rather because we are in Christ.

    And this greatness may not look like much to the world. Jesus did not come in power or perform a miracle to release John from prison. Neither are we released from our earthly struggles. In fact, neither did Christ’s greatness look like much to the world. But in becoming the servant of all, Christ overcame sin and death for us…

    I can’t recall all the pastor went into. The way he approached the text, though, I really appreciated.

  • RC

    Mr Veith, thank you for your proclamation of the gospel. I am becoming more aware of my sinful state, and let me tell you that is so burdensome. Just when I think maybe I can’t be forgiven, I read a sermon such as this reminding me it was all paid for on the cross. Thank you for giving your readers the gospel when our sin is crushing us! Have a Merry Christmas

  • RC

    Mr Veith, thank you for your proclamation of the gospel. I am becoming more aware of my sinful state, and let me tell you that is so burdensome. Just when I think maybe I can’t be forgiven, I read a sermon such as this reminding me it was all paid for on the cross. Thank you for giving your readers the gospel when our sin is crushing us! Have a Merry Christmas

  • Abby

    I second RC @2. Thank you so much.

  • Abby

    I second RC @2. Thank you so much.

  • George A. Marquart

    Sadly, we Lutherans do not really understand the Kingdom of God. Fortunately this does not prevent our merciful Father from allowing us to inherit it. So great is His mercy that while we do not understand the chief doctrine of our faith (Luke 4:43 But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”), but instead squabble about who is allowed to receive His gifts, He nevertheless forgives us, and tells us so, “Every blasphemy against the Son shall be forgiven …”

    One of the problems in this sermon is that our Lord does not compare John the Baptist with the greatest in the Kingdom of God, but with the least. Who are the least? He has told us in the Sermon on the Mount: (Matthew 5: 19) “Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The inevitable conclusion is that if the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John, then John is not in the Kingdom of God, while those who break God’s law and teach others to do so are, though they are “least”.

    Lest you think that I am consigning John the Baptist to hell, our Lord places Him in the Kingdom in Luke 13: 28, when He says, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” He clearly called John a prophet when He said in Matthew 11:9, “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

    Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” This clearly shows that the Kingdom of God is not just the continuation of the Old Testament period with “forgiveness”, but that it is radically different from those times.

    When our Lord rose from the dead, He thereby “opened the Kingdom to all believers.” The Holy Spirit chose to initiate this Kingdom on Pentecost, or on the Day of the Giving of the Law. Therefore, John the Baptist was not in the Kingdom when our Lord spoke the words about Him, but He is now, and in all likelihood not the “least”.

    There is a great deal more to say about this Kingdom of God and the Lord, the Holy Spirit, and why so little is known about them in our church, but time and space do not permit. But it certainly is a Kingdom of unimaginable mercy and grace – not only for the “poor in spirit” (oh how we love to pretend that we really understand how much worse it is to be “poor in spirit” than to be so poor that we do not know where our next meal will come from) but also for the “materially poor”. Because in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, is says, (Luke 6:20) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” No, no, poverty is not a means of salvation, but let us never underestimate how our heavenly Father lavishes His mercy on His children.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    Sadly, we Lutherans do not really understand the Kingdom of God. Fortunately this does not prevent our merciful Father from allowing us to inherit it. So great is His mercy that while we do not understand the chief doctrine of our faith (Luke 4:43 But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”), but instead squabble about who is allowed to receive His gifts, He nevertheless forgives us, and tells us so, “Every blasphemy against the Son shall be forgiven …”

    One of the problems in this sermon is that our Lord does not compare John the Baptist with the greatest in the Kingdom of God, but with the least. Who are the least? He has told us in the Sermon on the Mount: (Matthew 5: 19) “Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The inevitable conclusion is that if the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John, then John is not in the Kingdom of God, while those who break God’s law and teach others to do so are, though they are “least”.

    Lest you think that I am consigning John the Baptist to hell, our Lord places Him in the Kingdom in Luke 13: 28, when He says, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” He clearly called John a prophet when He said in Matthew 11:9, “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

    Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” This clearly shows that the Kingdom of God is not just the continuation of the Old Testament period with “forgiveness”, but that it is radically different from those times.

    When our Lord rose from the dead, He thereby “opened the Kingdom to all believers.” The Holy Spirit chose to initiate this Kingdom on Pentecost, or on the Day of the Giving of the Law. Therefore, John the Baptist was not in the Kingdom when our Lord spoke the words about Him, but He is now, and in all likelihood not the “least”.

    There is a great deal more to say about this Kingdom of God and the Lord, the Holy Spirit, and why so little is known about them in our church, but time and space do not permit. But it certainly is a Kingdom of unimaginable mercy and grace – not only for the “poor in spirit” (oh how we love to pretend that we really understand how much worse it is to be “poor in spirit” than to be so poor that we do not know where our next meal will come from) but also for the “materially poor”. Because in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, is says, (Luke 6:20) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” No, no, poverty is not a means of salvation, but let us never underestimate how our heavenly Father lavishes His mercy on His children.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • Stephen

    George@4

    I’m not sure I properly grasped half of what you offered, but it is meaty stuff. Is this coming from your own experience and study? Weren’t you a missionary? Though I’m not sure what you are driving at, I do like where you end up.

    I’m a little put off when we over “spiritualize” or make exclusively spiritual our hearing of such things as the Beatitudes for instance. I think it is worth asking why Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ sermon differently. I think this sermon had me until that moment when he said “Not the materially poor . . .” I want to say “Why the heck not!!!” I mean, what happened there? He just listed all these distressing things and then skipped right over the people that are, well, the opposite of everything our culture seems to be about. I’m sorry, but I smell a rat.

    Why do we have to exclude the poor and put them at a safe distance? We do it every time we blame them for their problem, their poverty. Hey look how abundant this country is we say. If anyone is poor, it must be something they’ve brought upon themselves. that is unmerciful. To me, this reading of “the poor” and the least as truly being those who are spiritually rather than materially poor just smacks of middle-class appetites for the petty concerns of one’s own little universe of problems.

    I confess to indulging in this kind of interpretation too, don’t get me wrong. But I think it is a sin we need to examine in our Christian “culture” if it can be called that – this westernized, comfortable, we don’t really have any idea what it is like to be on the bottom and likely never will Christianity that much of our perspective is built upon. I think this preacher could have said what he said and had just as much if not more of an impact by speaking about the actual poor among us. There is power to be seen in a God who would serve the very least of these, those who are truly dejected in this world just as Jesus was – not just internally and spiritually, but socially and materially, politically and economically. This seems to me at least part of what we are to hear in the Christmas story, isn’t it?

    “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

  • Stephen

    George@4

    I’m not sure I properly grasped half of what you offered, but it is meaty stuff. Is this coming from your own experience and study? Weren’t you a missionary? Though I’m not sure what you are driving at, I do like where you end up.

    I’m a little put off when we over “spiritualize” or make exclusively spiritual our hearing of such things as the Beatitudes for instance. I think it is worth asking why Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ sermon differently. I think this sermon had me until that moment when he said “Not the materially poor . . .” I want to say “Why the heck not!!!” I mean, what happened there? He just listed all these distressing things and then skipped right over the people that are, well, the opposite of everything our culture seems to be about. I’m sorry, but I smell a rat.

    Why do we have to exclude the poor and put them at a safe distance? We do it every time we blame them for their problem, their poverty. Hey look how abundant this country is we say. If anyone is poor, it must be something they’ve brought upon themselves. that is unmerciful. To me, this reading of “the poor” and the least as truly being those who are spiritually rather than materially poor just smacks of middle-class appetites for the petty concerns of one’s own little universe of problems.

    I confess to indulging in this kind of interpretation too, don’t get me wrong. But I think it is a sin we need to examine in our Christian “culture” if it can be called that – this westernized, comfortable, we don’t really have any idea what it is like to be on the bottom and likely never will Christianity that much of our perspective is built upon. I think this preacher could have said what he said and had just as much if not more of an impact by speaking about the actual poor among us. There is power to be seen in a God who would serve the very least of these, those who are truly dejected in this world just as Jesus was – not just internally and spiritually, but socially and materially, politically and economically. This seems to me at least part of what we are to hear in the Christmas story, isn’t it?

    “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

  • Stephen

    Make that “wrapped in strips of rags and lying in a cow trough”

  • Stephen

    Make that “wrapped in strips of rags and lying in a cow trough”

  • George A. Marquart

    Stephen @5 and 6. The part about the “spiritually poor” and materially poor was not a major item for me. It was a minor irritant, just as when people say, “Of course, the physical pain was not the main thing in our Lord’s suffering.” As the Bard wrote, “He scoffs at scars, that never felt a wound.”

    No, I am not now nor was I ever a member of the missionary establishment. I am a layperson who has lived a rich life in a variety of environments – by the mercy of God always under His grace.

    My main concern is that we Lutherans tend not to be aware of the radical difference between the Kingdom of the Old Testament and the Kingdom of God, the New Testament in His blood. Our Lord was not running John the Baptist down when He said that John was “less than the least in the Kingdom of God.” He was trying to tell us how vastly better, unique, and new the “new wine” is compared to the “old”. Not enough people realize that in baptism, (Colossians 1: 13) “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Our life in Christ takes place in a Kingdom. To proclaim this Kingdom; that is to speak about what it is and how it works, was our Lord’s mission on this earth, and then to pay the awful entrance fee so that we could enter it.

    As to the differences between Matthew and Luke, both texts are equally true. We know that our Lord was poor Himself and that He felt pity for everyone who suffered – be it physically or spiritually. He preached for about three years. It is likely that one day He may have spoken of the “poor in spirit” and on another simply of “the poor.” The thing to remember is that neither kind of poverty can earn salvation for us, but both bring unearned pity from God. Among Lutherans, because we want to make sure we are not thought of as social gospel promoters, or even worse, regard our faith in terms of class struggle, we tend to downplay physical suffering in favor of the more esoteric spiritual one.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    Stephen @5 and 6. The part about the “spiritually poor” and materially poor was not a major item for me. It was a minor irritant, just as when people say, “Of course, the physical pain was not the main thing in our Lord’s suffering.” As the Bard wrote, “He scoffs at scars, that never felt a wound.”

    No, I am not now nor was I ever a member of the missionary establishment. I am a layperson who has lived a rich life in a variety of environments – by the mercy of God always under His grace.

    My main concern is that we Lutherans tend not to be aware of the radical difference between the Kingdom of the Old Testament and the Kingdom of God, the New Testament in His blood. Our Lord was not running John the Baptist down when He said that John was “less than the least in the Kingdom of God.” He was trying to tell us how vastly better, unique, and new the “new wine” is compared to the “old”. Not enough people realize that in baptism, (Colossians 1: 13) “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Our life in Christ takes place in a Kingdom. To proclaim this Kingdom; that is to speak about what it is and how it works, was our Lord’s mission on this earth, and then to pay the awful entrance fee so that we could enter it.

    As to the differences between Matthew and Luke, both texts are equally true. We know that our Lord was poor Himself and that He felt pity for everyone who suffered – be it physically or spiritually. He preached for about three years. It is likely that one day He may have spoken of the “poor in spirit” and on another simply of “the poor.” The thing to remember is that neither kind of poverty can earn salvation for us, but both bring unearned pity from God. Among Lutherans, because we want to make sure we are not thought of as social gospel promoters, or even worse, regard our faith in terms of class struggle, we tend to downplay physical suffering in favor of the more esoteric spiritual one.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • Stephen

    Thanks for you comments George. My point was that I think this preacher could have said both points, and it would have been that much more powerful. In fact, I thought he was going to for a second. He would not have had to choose and negate the one at the expense of the other. Believe me, as the son of an LCMS pastor, I had it drilled into me that Lutheranism is not the “social gospel” as such. We’re not Methodists! (No slam intended)

    Having said that, Lutherans tend to shy away from making claims beyond the personal or individual when it comes to talk of salvation. And, if you look at his list of infirmities, I thought in this case it was particularly interesting that he chose this one characteristic – poverty- to single out and “adjust” while leaving the others pretty much in tact – even death! I think that is striking and says something, not only about Lutheranism perhaps, but about the cultural soil within which this preacher finds himself. Like I said, I think something is up, and, for my money (money, ha!), this kind of exegesis isn’t merely a concern over right doctrine, though it may very well be in his mind, but reveals a tendency to protect something, to hold a little bit back perhaps. I don’t know, call me suspicious in this case. There is certainly a time and a place to preach Matthew’s version and a time and a place for Luke’s. But again, here we have one version completely obscuring the other, and I have to wonder why.

  • Stephen

    Thanks for you comments George. My point was that I think this preacher could have said both points, and it would have been that much more powerful. In fact, I thought he was going to for a second. He would not have had to choose and negate the one at the expense of the other. Believe me, as the son of an LCMS pastor, I had it drilled into me that Lutheranism is not the “social gospel” as such. We’re not Methodists! (No slam intended)

    Having said that, Lutherans tend to shy away from making claims beyond the personal or individual when it comes to talk of salvation. And, if you look at his list of infirmities, I thought in this case it was particularly interesting that he chose this one characteristic – poverty- to single out and “adjust” while leaving the others pretty much in tact – even death! I think that is striking and says something, not only about Lutheranism perhaps, but about the cultural soil within which this preacher finds himself. Like I said, I think something is up, and, for my money (money, ha!), this kind of exegesis isn’t merely a concern over right doctrine, though it may very well be in his mind, but reveals a tendency to protect something, to hold a little bit back perhaps. I don’t know, call me suspicious in this case. There is certainly a time and a place to preach Matthew’s version and a time and a place for Luke’s. But again, here we have one version completely obscuring the other, and I have to wonder why.

  • Stephen

    George@7

    And on you point about the Kingdom of Heaven – right on! I have been plugging away at book by a former teacher in NT, Roy A. Harrisville called “Fracture.” The title pretty much says it all. Basically the thesis is that there is a radical break between the testaments and that ideas of a continuation a “fractured” on the cross. This is real theogia crucis stuff, but a real slog to read. He knows everything unfortunately (ha!). If you want extensive NT work on the thesis you are describing, this is the book.

    And as for spiritualizing the poor, that was not my intent at all. Marginalizing them concerns me. I would not more spiritualize poverty than I would the significance of suffering. On there own terms, they are meaningless. It is the presence of God in them that gives them meaning. That we are saved by a God who, in every way a deity emptied himself so completely, even to death on a cross, something we likely do not have a contemporary parallel for in our current understanding and experience, something so base and utterly shame-filled, willing to fall beneath everything for our sakes – that is what is meaningful, and He gives whatever He touches significance. And so how can we then leave the least thing out if God himself is willing to become the least thing Himself?

  • Stephen

    George@7

    And on you point about the Kingdom of Heaven – right on! I have been plugging away at book by a former teacher in NT, Roy A. Harrisville called “Fracture.” The title pretty much says it all. Basically the thesis is that there is a radical break between the testaments and that ideas of a continuation a “fractured” on the cross. This is real theogia crucis stuff, but a real slog to read. He knows everything unfortunately (ha!). If you want extensive NT work on the thesis you are describing, this is the book.

    And as for spiritualizing the poor, that was not my intent at all. Marginalizing them concerns me. I would not more spiritualize poverty than I would the significance of suffering. On there own terms, they are meaningless. It is the presence of God in them that gives them meaning. That we are saved by a God who, in every way a deity emptied himself so completely, even to death on a cross, something we likely do not have a contemporary parallel for in our current understanding and experience, something so base and utterly shame-filled, willing to fall beneath everything for our sakes – that is what is meaningful, and He gives whatever He touches significance. And so how can we then leave the least thing out if God himself is willing to become the least thing Himself?

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  • Lynn

    Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:19.

  • Lynn

    Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:19.


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