Jesus said that there was never a greater man than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). I’ve always wondered why he said that. Solomon was wiser. Elijah performed greater signs. Moses was a deliverer. But John came almost like a crazy man, wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey. He didn’t minister in the cities, but instead he ministered out in the countryside, baptizing the people who came to him, declaring boldly that the kingdom of God was near. No recorded miracles. No crowds rushing to crown him king. Just a mad man in the wilderness, baptizing and declaring the nearness of God’s kingdom.
He was the greatest. Jesus said so.
Why was he so great? Two small things, one big thing come to mind. First, his ministry was foretold by the prophets of old. Isaiah and Malachi both prophesied that his ministry would precede the ministry of the Messiah. Second, there’s an issue of privilege. No other prophet was privileged to see the coming of Messiah. The other prophets predicted it, pointed forward to it, but died waiting for it. John the Baptist not only predicted his coming, but witnessed his arrival. In fact, John was a second cousin to Jesus since his mother, Elizabeth, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, were cousins.
But third, and most important, John’s greatness was founded in his character. Though John’s ministry may have been marked by thunderous sermons, bold declarations, and scathing evaluations of the religious leaders, he was perhaps a more humble man than anyone who preceded him. I know that Numbers 12:3 speaks of Moses as the most humble man on earth, but that was in his day. John may have eclipsed Moses in humility – and that is my opinion based on Jesus’ evaluation of him being the greatest.
Look at John 3:22-36.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is the classic statement of John’s humility. John was in a position as a prophet to become something big. He had a following, his following was growing. It was growing so much that it was starting to grab the attention of the religious leaders. But when Jesus began his public ministry, John knew that his role was coming to an end. He didn’t try to cling to his popularity. He didn’t manipulate his followers into remaining with him. He didn’t even latch on to Jesus’ ministry and become one of his disciples. He stayed faithful to his calling: to point people to Jesus. In fact he said, now that Jesus was here, and his own ministry was being eclipsed by Jesus’ ministry, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.“
The final words of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel say, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” John 3:36. His own words to his followers was essentially, “You must leave me, and follow him because if you remain with me, God’s wrath will remain on you!”
Listen to John. You can watch Jesus from afar. You can admire Jesus and think highly of his ministry. You can even follow people who love Jesus, but unless you, yourself follow him, God’s wrath remains upon you. This is why John was great. John knew his role. John poured out his own popularity, his own fame, his own followers for the sake of increasing the fame, the following of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.