Jesus does not call attention only to his deeds, but he also helps the crowd and John understand who John is. Jesus reminds the crowds that they did not go into the wilderness to hear someone who would comfort them by saying what they wanted to hear. John was clearly not someone who would change his message according to prevailing opinion.
Nor, Jesus observes, did they go into the wilderness to see someone dressed in soft robes appropriate to living in palaces. Rather, they went to see a prophet, and prophets are not known for their softness or for being well dressed. John is a prophet, he stands in the line of prophets before him; it is no surprise, therefore, that he is in prison.
Jesus claims, moreover—and it is a claim that only he can make—that John is more than a prophet. Jesus’s argument is subtle. John is more than a prophet because he is the one whom the prophet Malachi (3:1) said would come as the messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah.
John, therefore, is greater than the prophets because he has the unique office to herald Israel’s Messiah. He is Elijah. In Mal. 4:5 we are told that Elijah, the prophet who was received into heaven without dying, will be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” John is Elijah because Jesus is the Messiah.
Yet as great as John is, he remains the least in the kingdom of heaven because John, like Moses, stands on the edge of the new age. Herod will try to defeat the kingdom heralded by
John with violence, but it cannot be so overwhelmed. John the Baptist can be arrested and killed, Jesus will be crucified, but the kingdom that John proclaims comes through the peace brought by Jesus.
This kingdom is not some ideal of peace that requires the use of violence for its realization. Rather, the kingdom is Jesus, the one who has the power to overcome violence through love.