Episode 11: Jesus tells his disciples that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Immerser. Does that mean that the worst Christian is better than John? Episode eleven will clear up the confusion over this passage by putting terms back into their proper Hebraic context. It will be shown that Jesus meant that the most insignificant prophets of the Messianic Era will be superior to the greatest prophets of our era. One day soon we will all be like prophets, all mankind will have revelation, and through the gospel we can take ahold of this now.
The Lesson: The Mystery of Least in the Kingdom
This episode departs from the discussion of atonement and restoration of national Israel and the world, which we viewed in the previous series of five or six episodes including repentance and the Messianic Kingdom is now, and explores something very specific about John the Baptist.
Amen, I say to you, none among those born of a woman has arisen greater than Yochanan the Immerser; yet the smallest in the kingdom of Heaven will be greater than he.
–Matthew 11:11 (DHE Gospels)
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki tells the audience that traditionally in Christianity, this verse has been used to say that even the worst New Testament Christian is better than the best Old Testament Jew. He also describes a form of dispensationalism, the Old Testament dispensation of the Law, in which John was the greatest prophet of his time, and the New Testament dispensation of grace, where believers in Jesus are even greater than John.
This belief has fueled a long history of replacement theology in the church as well as a great deal of blatant anti-Semitism. Strangely enough, some Christians have even interpreted this verse to mean that John the Baptist will not be in the Messianic Kingdom, even though Jesus already said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be in the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11). How can this be? Well, it can’t be. There’s no logic in excluding John from the Kingdom, particularly if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be there, and here we see the danger in taking a single verse from the Bible and developing an entire theological position on it. As this television program has repeatedly stated, you must engage the original Jewish context of scripture and try to comprehend how the audience of Matthew’s gospel would have understood his words.
You also have to link the various relevant portions of the Bible together to add context and meaning to what you are studying, such as the following:
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!
–Matthew 11:11 (NASB)
Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
–Deuteronomy 34:10-12 (NASB)
Even among modern observant Jews, Moses is revered as the greatest prophet who ever lived. He was greater than any prophet who came before or since and certainly, he could be considered the greatest prophet of his generation. But in comparing the passages we read in Deuteronomy to Matthew, Toby tells us that what Jesus was actually saying is that John the Baptist was the greatest prophet of his generation, just as Moses was the greatest prophet of his generation.
Compare: “no prophet has arisen” to “there has not arisen anyone,” and you’ll see the linkage Jesus was using to paint a picture to his listeners of who John was in their day.
How was John great? He was the greatest prophet in his generation. Here we arrive at Toby’s first clue in our attempt to solve the Mystery of the Least in the Kingdom:
Clue 1: John was the greatest prophet alive in his generation, just as Moses was the greatest prophet alive in his generation.
But we won’t get very far if we don’t understand the Hebrew words and meanings behind the words “least” and “greatest” in our English Bibles. To take the next step, we visit FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby in Israel.
Aaron tells us that in Hebrew, the words Great and Least or Big and Little are “Gadol” and “Katan” or to say “little one,” “Katone.” Gadol isn’t just “big,” it can mean “great,” “older,” “more significant,” “mighty,” worthy,” and so forth. Katan can mean “little,” “younger,” “less significant,” “weak,” “unworthy,” and so forth. For instance, in Jeremiah 10:6, God is referred to as “great” (gadol) and His Name is “great” (gadol).
To describe katan or katone, Aaron cites the following scripture:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
–Matthew 18:1-6 (ESV)
Here, Jesus is using children as an example of significance or worthiness of people in the Kingdom of Heaven or the Messianic Era. He’s also, according to Aaron, talking about how disciples of ancient Jewish Rabbis were considered. An experienced and learned disciple was called “great” or “gadol,” but an inexperienced and unlearned disciple was called “least” or “little one,” which in Hebrew are katan and katone. So the “little ones” being referred to in the above verse aren’t literally children, but disciples of Jesus who were inexperienced, vulnerable, and uneducated. If you caused one of these inexperienced disciples, these “little ones,” to sin, it would be very, very bad for you.
Back in the studio, Toby pulls together Aaron’s language lesson to give us our second clue:
Clue 2: Great meant high-ranking, experienced, prestigious, while Least meant low-ranking, inexperienced, insignificant.
But we still don’t understand how Jesus could say that even the least or most inexperienced believer (who could be Jewish or Gentile) in the Messianic Age could be greater than the prophet John the Baptist. One more clue is needed to unravel the rest of the mystery.
To do that, Toby takes us back to the prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament):
They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
–Jeremiah 31:34 (NASB)
“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
“Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
–Joel 2:28-29 (NASB)
Both prophets are talking about the Messianic Age, and Toby interprets their words to mean that everyone in the Kingdom, from the least to the greatest, will receive an overwhelming outpouring of prophesy, so much so, that by comparison, they all will have greater command of prophesy in that age than the degree of prophesy John possessed nearly two-thousand years ago at the close of the Second Temple period. This is the third and final clue.
Clue 3: In the Messianic Era, everyone will be a prophet.
The idea is that from the least of the prophets in the Kingdom to the greatest, the level of prophesy and apprehension of God they experience will still be greater than what John the Baptist experienced in his generation. This isn’t excluding John from the Kingdom and it isn’t saying that New Testament Christians are better than Old Testament Jews (or any Jewish person today), it’s saying that in the Messianic Era, God’s Spirit will be poured out to such a degree that an unprecedented surge of prophetic power will be possessed by literally everyone in the Kingdom.
What Did I Learn?
A lot. First of all, I didn’t even consider how Matthew 11:11 could be interpreted in isolation to support anti-Semitic thought and replacement theology in Christian history (and probably in some churches even today). I also didn’t fully capture the picture of the Messianic Era as being full of prophets, nor did I see the linkage between the different passages in the Bible that both Toby and Aaron referenced. I also had no idea that Matthew 18:1-6 referred not specifically to children but to the status of inexperienced and experienced disciples of a Rabbi, and specifically disciples of Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus).
When Toby mentioned Joel 2:28-29, I remembered a teaching he presented at the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin last spring. He gave me my final “clue” to solve my own mystery of how Gentiles are connected to God in a covenant relationship while retaining our status as people from the nations who are called by His Name. I wrote about that experience nearly four months ago, and I invite you to read it as an extension of the material I’m presenting here today, as well as providing additional details to the television teaching of Toby’s and Aaron’s.
For me, this was a fascinating and eye-opening episode. I tend to think of myself as experienced enough in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish realms to be beyond the “Messianic Judaism 101” stage, but I guess I’m not, at least in this area. I do wonder about Toby’s source material though, especially in connecting Matthew 11:11 back to Deuteronomy 34:10-12. I don’t doubt Toby’s word and I have no reason not to believe he isn’t correct, but information doesn’t come out of thin air. One of the things I wish for this television series is a set of “digging deeper” links or even just a Bibliography of the sources used to construct the lessons provided in each episode.
I’ll review another episode next week.