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Those who received Jesus' prophets received him (10:41); most of Israel had accepted neither John the prophet nor Jesus (11:16-19) and hence invited greater judgment than wicked cities that had heard less of God's message (11:20-24). After encouraging John's faith, Jesus praises John's mission (vv. 7-15). Perhaps he does so only after the messengers' departure (v. 7; Lk 7:24) because it is not for us to know the magnitude of our service until the final day (10:26; 25:21), but in any case Jesus uses the event that has just transpired as an opportunity to provide the crowds with an object lesson about the kingdom (11:11-12).
John's Sacrificial Life Proves He Is God's Servant (11:7-8)
In parallel questions, Jesus begins by affirming what John was not. First, he was not a moral weakling, easily blown about by public opinion or human authority (contrast his persecutor in 14:5; compare 21:46; 22:46). People who proved too weak for the test that awaited them were compared to papyrus reeds, easily moved by the wind (1 Kings 14:15; 2 Kings 18:21; 3 Macc 2:22; compare Is 42:3; Mt 12:20). (On the banks of the Jordan, the site of John's baptism, reeds grew as high as five meters.) John was no easily bent reed.
Second, John was no pampered prince or court prophet who might be tempted to prophesy for hire. Some prophets had found a home in royal courts, but only in those few generations when kings were godly enough to welcome their counsel (or when rare kings themselves met the ideal of being prophetically empowered themselves: compare 1 Sam 10:1, 5-6; 2 Sam 23:2-3). In most generations false prophets outnumbered true prophets; even when they claimed to prophesy for Yahweh, they were really the king's prophets (1 Kings 22:22-23). In times when true prophets were severely persecuted, some of them lived in the wilderness, as in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17:3; 18:13; compare 2 Kings 4:38-44; 6:1-3). John was a prophet in that mold, with nothing to gain from his prophesying except the approval of his God.
The Servant's Message Is What Makes Him Great (11:9-11)
Unlike Elijah and unlike the disciples, John had no signs (compare Jn 10:41), but what made him the greatest prophet until that point, even a new Elijah (see comment on Mt 3:4), was that he had the honor of introducing Jesus himself (11:9-10, 13-14). The greatness of John thus implies something about the greatness of Jesus. Because the text Jesus cites to prove his case refers to preparing God's way (Mal 3:1), and Jewish tradition usually viewed Elijah as preparing God's rather than the Messiah's way (compare Edgar 1958:48; Manson 1979:69), Jesus dramatically implies his own divine status here (Gundry 1975:214), although his disciples probably would not have dared assume he meant that.
Jewish people usually viewed the era of the prophets as ending with Malachi (see Keener 1991b:77-91); Jesus continues it until John, who becomes the pivotal first voice of the new order when those greater than the prophets (Mt 5:12; 10:41; 13:17; 23:34) will speak. But Jesus' concern here is hardly neat historical divisions to aid students memorizing time lines; instead he may allude to the Jewish recognition that the Law and the Prophets pointed to the coming messianic era (b. Berakot 34b; Sanhedrin 99a; compare Acts 3:24), which had now confronted them in his own ministry (12:28).
John's role was great because of the greatness of the One he introduced. If disciples of the kingdom have a greater role than John, it is not because we are more devout than he was; it is because we proclaim a fuller message of the kingdom than John could, for we can look back and understand what John did not (see above on 11:2-3): the kingdom is not only future but was present in Jesus (v. 12). Because such greatness is not dependent on us but on the roles God has assigned us, we must do his will humbly, seeking his honor alone. The least in the kingdom is greater than John in the sense that anyone in the kingdom has a fuller message than those who spoke beforehand. In another sense of the phrase, the least in the kingdom may also be the greatest in the kingdom, because God will evaluate us according to our faithfulness in deferring all honor to him rather than to ourselves (18:1-4).
The Kingdom Belongs to Those Who Contend for It (11:12-15)
Compare Luke 16:16. Our roles may be determined by grace, but grace does not erase human responsibility. Many people thought that God's kingdom would come by violent revolution against the Gentile nations, a view that Jesus clearly rejected (Mt 5:5, 9, 41); some think Jesus is rejecting such a program here, censuring revolutionaries or social bandits (for example, Cullmann 1956b:20-21). Others take the more likely approach that Jesus censures those who oppose Jesus, John and the kingdom (for example, Catchpole 1978).
But especially in Luke's form, the text does not read like censure, and it is not clear that Matthew intends the saying in this sense either. This saying may be a wisdom teacher's riddle (Stein 1978:18). Jesus regularly borrowed images from his society and applied them in shocking ways, and thus may speak favorably here of spiritual warriors who were storming their way into God's kingdom now (10:34-35; compare Vermes 1993:140). One second-century Jewish tradition praises those who passionately pursue the law; God counts it as if they had ascended to heaven and taken the law forcibly, which the tradition regards as greater than having taken it peaceably (Sipre Deut. 49.2.1).
These were the people actively following Jesus, not simply waiting for the kingdom to come their way. (Scholars frequently object that such language of violence is always used negatively, but Jesus' parables show that he did not hesitate to employ shocking images for the advance of God's reign, such as brutal tyrants, an unexpected thief, unjust judges and perhaps a naively benevolent landowner: Mt 18:25, 34; 24:42-43; Lk 18:2; Mk 12:6.) If John is Elijah (Mt 11:14-15; see comment on vv. 9-11), then he introduced the kingdom (Mal 4:5), a time of greater blessing and greater responsibility.