John Heading, Aberystwyth
To contemplate the greatness of the Lord is to recognize the exalted status of the Son of God, and to understand the lowly position that man occupies here on earth. Gabriel had announced to Mary that "He shall be great", Luke 1. 32, pertaining to His Sonship, and to the eternal nature of His kingdom. In poetical form, the bride announced that her beloved was "the chiefest among ten thousand". Song 5. 10. Truly God has exalted Him, and given Him a name above every name.
In the New Testament, the greatness of the Lord is demonstrated in many ways. In particular, there are five occasions in which the Lord is described as "greater than". On three occasions in the Synoptic Gospels, the Lord used this description of Himself, the contrast being between Himself and two Old Testament men, as well as a great object of Old and New Testament ceremony. The other two occasions occur in the form of questions posed in unbelief to the Lord; these appear in John's Gospel. In summary, these five contrasts are: "I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple", Matt. 12. 6.
"Behold, a greater than Jonas is here", Matt. 12. 41 ; Luke 11. 32. "Behold, a greater than Solomon is here", Matt. 12. 42; Luke 11. 31. "Art thou greater than our father Jacob?" asked the woman at the well before she knew the Messiah, John 4. 12.
"Art thou greater than our father Abraham?" asked the critical Pharisees, John 8. 53. Four of these are men, while one is a great building of ceremony. Three of the men were prominent in the Messianic genealogy, Abraham, Jacob and Solomon. The fourth man was one of the so-called minor prophets, one who had a very blemished record.
Greater than the Temple, Matt 12. 6. The Lord's activity on the sabbath day. particularly in healing, often caused criticism on the part of the Pharisees. On each occasion, He always provided an explanation, except on the last recorded occasion, as if He were then showing that explanations were useless to those who refused to abide by them. John 9. 14. 16. But in Matthew 12. 1, the disciples were plucking ears of corn on the sabbath and eating them because of hunger; this simple act was contrary to the Pharisaical view of the sabbath, so they complained to the Lord, knowing that He would not take sides with their complaint. They were unprepared for the Lord's answer; He was always ready to use the Old Testament Scriptures to prove His point showing that the Pharisees were far from understanding the spirit of their own Scriptures that were read every sabbath day. The Lord showed that even the Old Testament transcended ceremony.
(i) The incident of David is quoted, where David entered "the house of God" (namely, the tabernacle at Nob), and ate of the showbread that only the priests were legally entitled to eat Matt. 12. 3-4; 1 Sam. 21. 1-6. No doubt the Pharisees would have blamed David for such activity, but the Lord did not. And why ? Because the tabernacle was no longer owned by God as a ceremonial structure pointing typically to the Lord Jesus; the ark had been taken from it and had never been returned, so the divine presence and recognition were taken away, 1 Sam. 4-7; Psa. 78. 59-61. The priests who ministered (Ahimelech and Abiathar, Mark 2. 26) were false high priests, not being in the chosen priestly line from Eleazar, 1 Chron. 6. 4-1 5. Taken all in all. if the Centre Piece had been taken away, and if men maintained their own false policies in the tabernacle, then the system had broken down, and the rest of the ceremony was no longer operative as assessed by God. Hence David was not wrong to partake of the showbread.
(ii) The sabbath days were "profaned" by the priests in the temple, Matt. 12. 5. Indeed the commandment had stated that no work was to be done on the sabbath, Exod.20.7-11, yet the priests had to offer the statutory offerings and special offerings on the sabbath, Num. 28. 9-10. This was work indeed on the sabbath, but done according to the divine command.
Thus, the deeds of David in the house, and of the Old Testament priests in the temple were justified— God's assessment and decisions were behind their actions. And so it was with the Lord in permitting His disciples to pluck corn on the sabbath. He was Lord of the sabbath, and could order events as He willed. He would have mercy and not sacrifice— in other words, His compassion for the hungry disciples outweighed infinitely what the law might say about the sabbath.
It was the Lord's presence that justified the disciples: "in this place is one greater than the temple". In His life on earth, the temple of His body would never be forsaken as was the tabernacle of old, John 16. 32. Herod's temple, with its illegal high priests appointed by the Romans, had no standing before God. Only the holy "temple of his body", John 2. 21, had any relevance in His day. It is so today. The temples of men have no status before God. He has pleasure only in the church as a "holy temple in the Lord", Eph. 2. 21 -22.
Thus the Pharisees and their religion were put in the proper place; the authority of the exalted Lord was made plain, and the disciples' activity was justified in the face of traditional criticism. If we view the Lord as greater than the temple today, then we should own His authority as pertaining to all matters relating to the service of the local assembly.
Greater than Jonah, Matt. 12 41. The Pharisees wanted a sign greater than the miracles that the Lord so often performed. These men were dissatisfied, no doubt because of the regularity of these miracles. A spectacular event in the heavens, unique and without precedent, would enable them to recognize His divine authority, they thought. Such blatant unbelief would, however, never be satisfied, so the Lord recalled to them that a sign already existed in their own Scriptures—"the sign of the prophet Jonas". The similarity between Jonah being in the whale's belly" and His forthcoming death was something that the Lord would not pass over. Moreover, the Pharisees were worse than the Ninevites: they might be higher in outward moral tone, but the lack of repentance showed up their true character.
As far as Jonah was concerned, he had no desire to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, so he fled from the presence of God. And when the city finally repented, the prophet showed no sympathy with this transformation, but merely complained. How different was the Lord Jesus! He delighted to preach the forgiveness of sins to a repentant soul; He took such a loving divine interest afterwards in those who had repented, seeking to care and provide for those who were now His disciples. Moreover, whereas Jonah was not really dead in the fish's belly, yet the Lord entered into death itself, even the death of the cross. Hence in every respect, the Lord was different from, and greater than Jonah. If the Pharisees admired one of their bygone prophets (in spite of his failures), how much more should the Lord (in all His work and perfection) be accepted through repentance by faith. If Jonah was a sign, then the reality to which the sign pointed was certainly greater. The responsibility of the Pharisees was plain, once the nature of the sign had been pointed out; but a failure to respond would be dealt with in the judgment of the coming day.
It is interesting to note that Jonah, in the fish's belly, said at the end of his prayer, "my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple ... I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving", Jon. 2. 7, 9. No doubt the "holy temple" went beyond the house in Jerusalem, and the typical sacrifices offered there. He thought of the infinite abode of God throughout the universe of the heavens, yet with God willing to accept praise from the heart and lips of a man who had been delivered by grace and divine mercy.
Greater than Solomon, Matt 12. 42. Solomon was great indeed; God "magnified him exceedingly", 2 Chron. 1.1 : he "passed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom", 9. 22. David had said before his death, "Solomon my son ... is yet young and tender, and the work is great", 1 Chron. 29. 1. Yet in the same chapter we read that "the Lord magnified Solomon exceedingly . . . and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel", v. 25. He was moreover a type of the Lord Jesus, compare 2 Samuel 7. 14 with Hebrews 1. 5, "I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son".
Such greatness proved to be no rivalry to the greatness of the Son of God. There was another side to Solomon's character that was quite different. As soon as he came to the throne, he led the people "to the high place that was at Gibeon; for there was the tabernacle . . . But the ark of God had David brought up ... to the place which David had prepared" on mount Zion, 2 Chron. 1. 3-4. This tabernacle was no longer the dwelling place of God, yet Solomon went there rather than to mount Zion. Later he brought the ark "out of the city of David, which is Zion", 1 Kings 8. 1, in spite of Gods claim that Zion was His chosen place of rest for ever, Psa 1 32. 13-14; 9. 11. After that, Solomon had an uneasy conscience about his wife the daughter of Pharaoh; he said, "My wife shall not dwell in the house of David king of Israel, because the places are holy, whereunto the ark of the Lord hath come", 2 Chron. 8. 11. Here was a subtle inconsistency between faith and practical life, an example of the unequal yoke that would ultimately destroy Solomon's testimony. At the end of his life, we read, "But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh", 1 Kings 11. 1 ; these led his heart away, causing him to build high places for the heathen gods on the mount of Olives, v. 7. (Only centuries later did Josiah sweep these all away, 2 Kings 23. 13.) In all these sad events, Solomon's wisdom did not overcome. Neither did his glowing testimony before the queen of Sheba. To her, "his ascent by which he went up into the house of the Lord", 1 Kings 10. 5, (a bridge across a chasm, linking his palace with the temple hill), spoke of home life and temple life responsibly and consistently linked. She would not know of the skeleton in the cupboard—the daughter of Pharaoh far away from the city and from the ark.
Thus the simplest saint, faithful to the Lord in home and assembly life, is greater than Solomon. How much more the Lord Jesus !—always abiding in the Father's bosom. John 1. 18; always holy, harmless and undefiled, Heb. 7. 26. Would that we too knew more of this character of abiding in Him, and of keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. The world may not count this as greatness, but greatness in the saint is not something appreciated by unbelieving men, whose standards are not those of the saints; God's estimation of standards reverses that of men. As one wrote in the last century, "This is true greatness, to serve unnoticed, to work unseen". This does not describe Solomon, but it does describe the Lord's life and service, and it should also describe ours as well.
Greater than Jacob, John 4. 12 As soon as the Lord mentioned "living" water, the woman at the well asked whether the Speaker were "greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well". Evidently she did not believe it; unrelieved sin blinded her heart, until the Lord revealed Himself, "I that speak unto thee am he", v.26. What had Jacob got to boast about, apart from leaving a well for posterity? His faith on his deathbed was all that could be recorded of him in Hebrews 11. 21. His work of the flesh, his intrigue, his lack of trust in God, are all found in Genesis 25-43. His appreciation of the house of God was equal to a miserable little stone, sufficiently small to be raised up, and to be used as a pillow. Gen. 28 17-22. How all this contrasts with the Lord; the church He would build upon a rock, and ii would be a spiritual house suitable for His service. Truly His greatness is witnessed in all His conduct and works, and we as living stones participate in that work that led to His exaltation. May we have a large vision of Him, as Isaiah did when he saw the glory of the One lifted upon a throne, extending heavenwards far beyond the confines of the temple, Isa. 6. 1.
Greater than Abraham, John 8. 53. The Pharisees thought that Abraham was dead, yet the Lord had said, concerning any one who kept His word, "he shall never see death". Who was He to make such claims? they asked, expressing themselves by the unbelieving question "Art thou greater than our father Abraham ?" Of course the Lord was, though they could never understand this. In fact, He said, "Before Abraham was, I am", v. 58. Indeed Abraham was great—the promises of the covenant had been made known to him; he was the beginning of a great nation that would bring in the Seed, that is, Christ. Hebrews 11. 8-19 spans his life of faith. Yet even Abraham had his failures, the first being recorded in Genesis 12. 8-10, where he built an altar near Bethel (the house of God), but afterwards failed to trust the name of the Lord on which he had called, going down instead into Egypt during a time of grievous famine. This could never characterize the Lord. In the wilderness conditions around Him,
He pursued the pathway of the altar and the cross without deviation, the house of the Lord having engaged the zeal of His heart, John 2 17. Not only in this, but in His eternal nature was the Lord greater than Abraham.
May we have the eyes of faith to appreciate the greatness of the Lord, even when we perceive greatness in His servants. He excels above all, and this ensures His authority over us and over the service of the house of the Lord which has entered into all the five examples just considered. We work to remain humble, but if He gives greatness on occasions, then that is His will and for His glory, but we may not seek greatness according to the flesh, for this may then be a rival in our hearts in opposition to the Lord. "I am the least of the apostles", wrote Paul. 1 Cor. 15. 9; I am "less than the least of all saints", he claimed, Eph. 3. 8. These were the heartfelt words of one whom God raised to the highest position in spiritual status and service.
When we see the Lord greater than the temple, we see His Lordship over the uselessness of ceremony that many men love to perpetuate; when we see Him greater than Jonah, we see His Lordship over our service; when we see Him greater than Solomon, we see His Lordship over all our status and failures; when we see Him greater than Jacob, we see His Lordship in His guidance in every step of our way : and when we see Him greater than Abraham, we see His Lordship over our faith that trusts His promises.