Does Matt. 11: 11 mean that John the Baptist will not be in the Kingdom?
The verse in question reads “Verily I say to you, that there is not arisen among [the] born of women a greater than John the baptist. But he who is a little one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he” (Matt. 11: 11). To understand the meaning of the verse, we must first take careful note of the background. It is placed in a critical section (vs 7–30) of Matthew’s record in which there is a definite change in the ways of God. Three distinct periods are spoken of by the Lord. In chronological order we have firstly “For all the prophets and the law have prophesied unto John” (v13)—that is the OT; secondly, “But from the days of John the baptist until now” (v12); and, thirdly, a further period beyond even that, indicated by the words until now. In the time of the OT the Kingdom was prophesied. In the second period of John’s ministry the Kingdom was preached as imminent to Israel, firstly, by the Baptist (see Matt. 3: 2), then by the Lord (see Matt. 4: 17), and finally, by the Twelve (see Matt. 10: 7)—all using identical words “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh”. This was the Kingdom marked by power on the earth, satisfying the maxim “that the heavens do rule” (Dan. 4: 26).
When the Lord uttered the words recorded in Matt. 11: 11, John was in prison and would soon be beheaded. The national repentance (see vs 16–19) that the testimony of the imminent Kingdom demanded had not occurred, and accordingly, judgment was pronounced on the cities in which the Lord’s works of power (demonstrative of that Kingdom) had taken place (see vs 20–24). The Kingdom would now assume a different character, no longer clear but in mystery form. In fulfilment of Is. 6: 9–10 (see Matt. 13: 14–15), its secrets would be known only by some (see v11)—which is why the Lord’s teaching concerning it from chapter 13 onwards is parabolic. In Matt. 13: 24 the Lord also makes the significant statement that “The kingdom of the heavens has become …” (my emphasis). Later Peter would be given the keys of the Kingdom (see Matt. 16: 19), the first of which he used on the day of Pentecost to let in those of Israel, reiterating the Baptist’s demands of repentance and baptism. This is the background. Now let’s look at the verse in question.
Although his ministry is recorded in the NT, in reality John was the last and greatest of the OT prophets. He was “filled with [the] Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1: 15)—something said of no other in the Scriptures. But his greatness was not only spiritual but positional. He was “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11: 9, my emphasis) where the word perissoteroς (perissoteros) translated more than embraces the thought of greatness. He had a distinctive place that no other would occupy. He was Jehovah’s messenger aggeloς (aggelos) so that the Lord said “this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee” (v10). If Israel had heeded John’s ministry and repented, he would have fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy concerning Jehovah’s messenger (see Mal. 4: 5), for the Lord said, “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, who is to come” (v14). It is this positional, not spiritual, greatness that forms the comparison in v11. John never saw the establishment of the Kingdom that he preached.
How then is the least in the Kingdom greater than John? When John looked on the Lord, he declared “behold the Lamb of God” (John 1: 36) but he knew nothing of the sacrificial fulfilment of that declaration. By contrast, anyone who bowed to the authority of the rejected King at Pentecost entered the Kingdom and was blessed with all the blessings that are identified with Christ at the right hand of God in heaven—blessings founded on Christ’s sacrificial work. Hence even the least person in the Kingdom now is greater than John.
Will John miss the Kingdom in its public form? No! Along with others he will have part in the first resurrection (see Rev. 20: 5, 6). What people call the rapture, is not just for the Church as some think. We read “for the Lord himself, with an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God, shall descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thess. 4: 16). There will be three clarion calls answered by three distinct companies of “the dead in Christ”. The “assembling shout” of the Lord is for the Church, the “archangel’s voice” is for the dead of Israel, including the Baptist, and “the trump of God” is for the Gentile OT believers such as Abel, Noah and Job. No saint, irrespective of the day in which his lot is cast, will miss the public Kingdom when the Lord will reign for 1000 years (see Rev. 20: 6).