Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. (Mt 11:11)
So far in the Gospel of Matthew we have seen but a few hints of hostility directed toward Jesus (9:34). This will change now in chapters 11 and 12, as the increase in opposition becomes more explicit. In the same manner that John the Baptist was introduced in chapter 3 as the forerunner of the coming Messiah, so now John is the forerunner of the hostility and antagonism that would soon come upon Jesus.
Our text begins with John as a prisoner of Herod, held in the fortress at Machaerus near the Dead Sea (Josephus Ant. 18.116-119). The details of John’s arrest and martyrdom are recorded in Matthew 14:3-12. This John in prison appears different from the one we met earlier, fearlessly heralding the coming One (3:11-12). From prison, John appears more tentative, as he sends two disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (11:3). How did this man who so confidently preached Jesus as the Messiah and trusted so fully in His character (3:14), now come to question his identity? Most likely it was John’s lengthy languishing in prison that had broken him down. How could the One who promised to ‘set the prisoners free,’ not free him from Herod’s jail? We can say that John was a ‘bruised reed’ and his faith was like a ‘smoldering wick.’ As we might expect, the Messiah’s answer to John, and by extension to all people whose faith might waver in the midst of suffering, does not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. Instead in beatitude form (11:6), Jesus encourages John, and us, to remain faithful no matter what the circumstances.
In verses 7-15 of chapter 11 Jesus bears testimony of the character and work of John. John was not just any prophet, he was the final prophet who prepared the way, bringing the old covenant to its grand finale; he was the climax of pre-Christian revelation. Of all those who lived prior to the advent of the new covenant, John was the greatest. Yet, he who is least in this new kingdom that was soon to be inaugurated with a New Covenant, surpasses the greatest of the old. John was a great prophet, but once Christ’s blood was shed, the benefits that the least of us enjoys, in partaking of the kingdom of heaven, are greater yet.