Before we delve into Matthew 11:11, let’s briefly go over the Watchtower’s two-class theology. They teach that all Jehovah’s Witnesses will be eternally separated into two metaphysically distinct locations: heaven or earth. The anointed 144,000 of Revelation 7 will rule and reign with Christ in heaven while the remaining “great crowd” live on paradise earth. As it relates to those who lived before Christ, like Abraham or John the Baptist, they will be resurrected to live on paradise earth.
Matthew 11:11 is one of the primary texts by which Jehovah’s Witnesses exclude the Old Covenant Jews from a location in heaven:
Truly I say to you, among those born of a woman there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The Watchtower interprets this verse as follows:
Jesus is here showing that John will not be in the heavenly Kingdom, since a lesser one there is greater than John. John prepared the way for Jesus but dies before Christ seals the covenant, or agreement, with his disciples, for them to be corulers with him in his Kingdom. That is why Jesus says that John will not be in the heavenly Kingdom. John will instead be an earthly subject of God’s Kingdom.
Much can be said about the basis for which the “anointed class” spends eternity in heaven. I’ve analyzed some of the Watchtower arguments HERE. But there’s one thing I need to make clear: I do not believe that any Christian will spend eternity in heaven as a metaphysically distinct location from earth. Space will not allow me to elaborate, but my debate with Fred Torres goes over these issues in a lot of detail in addition to my appearance on Chris Date’s Theopologetics podcast HERE and HERE.
With that said, i’ll provide a counter explanation of Matthew 11:11. John the Baptist is a transitional figure between two orders, as Matthew 11:13-14 point out, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” From a human perspective, no one greater than John has ever been born (i.e. born of a woman). That is, no one in the Old Covenant has surpassed John in order of importance. However, the intended greatness is the incomparable greatness of the kingdom to this present age rather than one individual verses another. So the contrast then is not between individuals, but eras or ages.
Keep in mind another point: no one is of yet in the fullness of the kingdom. Christ has not yet returned (Acts 3:21) and the resurrection has not taken place. Jesus is saying that even the greatest person in the present age (which includes anyone from John to those alive today) will be lesser than “the least” in the age to come; that is, the age in which the kingdom has come in it’s fullness (Daniel 2:35).
This contrast is clearly expressed in Mark 10:30-31,
“He will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brother and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.“
Notice that Jesus doesn’t exclude anyone from the “age to come.” But what’s even more noteworthy is that individuals aren’t being contrasted. Instead, Jesus presents a condition by which someone in this age will be positionally different in this age verses the age to come. This works quite well as an interpretive means of understanding Matthew 11:11. That is, the “last” in this present age will be “first” in the age to come. But in no way does this mean that the “last” won’t be in the age to come, which is seemingly what the Watchtower is arguing.
But is John being excluded from the kingdom in the age to come? Certainly not. Notice that Jesus doesn’t make any distinction between a kingdom on earth and a kingdom in heaven. It is simply the “kingdom of heaven.” If the Watchtower is prepared to interpret “kingdom of heaven” as “kingdom in heaven”, then there will be some difficulty in explaining the following passage:
“I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11)
Notice that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (surely, this would include John the Baptist) will be in the kingdom of heaven. While I have every reason to believe this will be a location on earth, it doesn’t fit with the Watchtower explanation that, “John will not be in the heavenly Kingdom.” For a full discussion of the Watchtower explanation on this verse, go HERE.
To summarize, Jesus is talking about this age (i.e. where John the Baptist is the greatest) and the age to come (i.e. where everyone will be greater than those in the previous age). The Watchtower explanation is wrong because it fails to contrast the ages.