In the text of Matthew 11:1-19 (New King James Version), as Jesus was giving instructions to his twelve disciples, his cousin John the Baptist, was imprisoned, shortly before his public execution. John’s disciples reported to him the works (i.e. – teachings & miracles) of Christ, but not until Jesus came to the city of Nain and raised from the dead a young man during his funeral, did his cousin in bonds dispatch some of his follower, inquiring of Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another (i.e. – Messiah), or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
When they arrived and asked Jesus, the Lord answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
Though not evident in Matthew’s gospel, in Luke’s gospel account (Luke 7:17-35), is recorded this same event, but adds that at the very moment John’s disciples asked Jesus this question, the Lord immediately began healing the people in the sight of John’s disciples, with the intention that his words that would be reported back to John have credibility and living proof as genuine.
L Luke 7:21 At that very time (Literally, at the very hour) He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He granted sight to many who were blind. New American Standard Bible
Afterwards, while teaching the multitudes about John’s role as Yahweh’s messenger, prophesied about in Malachi, he said, “This is the one about whom it is written, “For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 11:10-15; New King James Version)
Following this, Jesus compares the, “least,” the kingdom of heaven to the religious hypocrites of the day, whose unloving, judgmental, bitter, jealous resentment is demonstrated in their false accusations toward John first, then toward Jesus. The Lord describes them in Matthew 11:16-19 saying, “But to what shall I compare this generation? For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (New American Standard Bible)
There are certain keys to understanding Jesus’ words, “And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.” They are as follows:
1. Matthew 11:11 - “among those born of women” = human beings in general, Israelites in particular.
2. Matthew 11:11- “none is greater than John the Baptist” = no human is greater (Greek = meizon) greater in degree of position, spiritual influence & godly character than John the Baptist.
3. Matthew 11:11 – “yet he who is ‘least’ in the kingdom of heaven is ‘greater’ than he” = The Greek text omits the English words at the end of this phrase, “than he.” Thus, it simply reads literally, “yet he who is ‘least’ in the kingdom of heaven, he is ‘greatest in degree of influence.’
In Matthew 11:11, the Greek word for, “least,” is mikróteros, which means literally, “small in size, quantity, number or figuratively, stature and dignity.” An example of the many places Jesus uses the terms meizon and mikróteros Matthew 18:3-5 is one of the simplest to visualize, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
The first and most relevant meaning of, “he that is least… is greater,” applies to the man Jesus, who indisputably ranks as the ‘greatest in the kingdom of heaven,’ whether by greater in degree of spiritual influence, his position at the Father’s right hand, or his godly character as a man of faith.”
The second and equally as valid application meaning of, “he that is least… is greater,” is to individual believers in the church who pattern their lives after Jesus.”
The ‘greatest” in God’s evaluation is different than the way men evaluate; He looks upon the heart and motive, which are expressed thru one’s words and deeds. Earlier in Matthew 10:40-42 Jesus taught, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward.” New American Standard Bible
The Greek word for, “little ones,” is also mikróteros, and the Amplified Bible renders Matthew 10:42, “And whoever gives to one of these little ones in rank or influence even a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, surely I declare to you, he shall not lose his reward.”
4. Matthew 11:13 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” = From the time John came on the scene until the moment Jesus taught these words, the Jewish religious leaders used the, “Law and prophets,” as a means to an end, applying force and severity (i.e. – “violence”) in their public teaching and persona, in order to subjugate the people, and keep them under their tight control.
The Old Testament Law & prophets prophesied of Messiah UNTIL John; once John became eyewitness to the chosen Christ of Israel, when he visibly experienced Jesus’ anointing by the spirit of Yahweh at his water baptism, a new era of prophetic significance began, and this era usurps forever that previous period of the law and prophets of old, including Elijah.
In Matthew 17:9-13 (NASB), following his encounter with Peter, James, & John on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus taught about Elijah and John, saying to them, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” And his disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things, but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
The idea that Elijah already came via John the Baptist in no way invalidates the fact that Elijah is coming and will restore all things. Many Christians misinterpret ‘Elijah’ as applicable only to John, or only to Jesus, but the simple fact remains that Jesus’ use of this Hebrew/Aramaic word ‘Elijah’ has applicability to both, and has other future implications as well.
Jesus said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things.” This event(s) was promised by Christ, who assured his disciples it was to happen following the resurrection, which is why he instructed them not to discuss it till then. What did he mean though? If or how does this apply to us as believers today?
All who follow in Jesus’ footsteps, abiding in him, thru his teachings and empowered by his Father’s spirit, are partakers of the ‘spirit of Elijah,’ who is coming. The words, in Matthew 11:14 need to be broken into individual components to comprehend what Jesus says here:
1. “willing to receive it” = the two Greek words are, “thélete déxastha,” which are constructed in the Greek middle voice (for one’s own self). Thélete means literally, “to desire” and implies active decision and purpose. Déxastha means literally, “to embrace and make one's own.”
2. “he is Elijah” = the three Greek words are, “autós estin Eelías,” which mean literally, “his mighty strength is.”
3. “who is to come” = the Greek words are, “ho mélloon érchesthai,” and signify "whose intention is about to come.”
If you read the story a certain priest named Zacharias in Luke 1:5-80; as he was ministering in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to him, announcing he would become the father of John the Baptist. Gabriel’s words to named Zacharias reinforce the meaning and intention for usinmg Elijah’s name in various gospel accounts:
L Luke 1:13-17 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother's womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." And Zacharias said to the angel, "How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news.”
The name Gabriel means, “Man of God,” or more literally, “mighty man of strength.” The angel Gabriel acknowledged that his mighty strength came from him only as he stood, “in the presence of God.” So too with us, as new covenant believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we only have the capacity and ability to fulfill God’s calling in our lives, as we come to Him for grace in time of need, thru the blood sprinkled path prepared by Jesus.
Gabriel was sent by Yahweh to Zacharias to answer his petitions and supplications for a child, and the name he was to give the child was, “John.” John means, “loving,” and this represents the ONLY way we as Christians can effectively turn the hearts of other toward a merciful, forgiving Father and God. To love as Jesus means humbly, and with the faith of a child, innocent and pure, without the motive of ‘getting’ but that of one who has made himself the “least.”