It’s a phrase Jesus uses twice in Scripture, as nearly as I can tell – and it fascinates me.
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:19
He’s talking about the Law and the Prophets (see context, v.17-20), I think. It may be a limited blessing, as some think, that’s in effect only “until everything is accomplished” (v.18). But was everything accomplished when He uttered “It is finished!” on the cross? Or was there still work to be done, through the Holy Spirit, through believers – leaving that comment about being “least in the kingdom” still in effect?
And is He also talking about commands that are implicit in His beatitudes, His commission to be light and salt – and the ones that follow: treating others with respect, seeking reconciliation, resisting lustful urges, marrying for life, speaking with your own integrity, sharing and serving rather than seeking retribution, etc. etc. etc.?
Can someone disobey the least of commands, and teach others to do the same, yet still be a part of the kingdom of heaven – even if he or she is the “least” therein?
Could Peter still serve in the kingdom even though he was a bigot?
Could Paul and Barnabas still serve in the kingdom even though they had a sharp disagreement about John Mark?
Could preachers who preached Christ out of egotism and for profit still serve in the kingdom?
And is being “least in the kingdom” the worst thing that could happen to you?
The other instance when Jesus uses the phrase is in His description of John the Baptist:
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:11 (and Luke 7:28)
Somebody like me who messes up all the time and sometimes inadvertently misleads others can be least in the kingdom yet still be greater than John the Baptist? Can I concatenate those two separate descriptions of “least in the kingdom” to ask that question?
If so, how could that be true? In what way could you or I be greater than a prophet who gave up a normal lifestyle, diet and wardrobe to live off the wilderness? Is it because the message I have is greater, more complete? Not just “The kingdom of God is near!” but “Here it is; and here are the details about how it got started … and how Jesus accomplished it … and how it involves you!”
Is it really possible that the message so far transcends the messenger?