What was it that Shakespeare wrote? “Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Pity the disciples! They were with true greatness in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was great as only God is great. They were not. They had not been born great. They had not achieved greatness. They had not had greatness thrust upon them. Yet they wanted so much to be great.
As we now consider the first paragraph of Matthew 18, we find the disciples, thinking of an earthly kingdom that would be established by Jesus, whom they now believed to be the Messiah, and they were wondering which of them would be the greatest when Christ’s kingdom came. Luke says they were arguing about it and that Jesus knew what they were thinking. Mark adds that they had been on their way to Capernaum, and when they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked what they had been arguing about. They were silent, probably because they were embarrassed by their worldly thoughts. Matthew says they then asked Jesus directly, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
In some ways, the disciples’ question was amazing. For one thing, Jesus had already taught about the type of people who would be citizens of His kingdom: “the poor in spirit,” “the meek,” “the merciful,” and so on. Even more amazing is the fact that almost immediately before this Jesus had explained that He would be betrayed and killed. Matthew says they “were filled with grief,” but their grief did not last long. They were convinced Jesus was the Messiah, and the Messiah was going to establish a glorious earthly kingdom. Therefore, they began to anticipate who would be greatest in that kingdom and to jockey for position.
The kind of kingdom they were thinking about becomes clear in Acts 1, where they ask Jesus, even after the resurrection, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were expecting a national, political, and territorial kingdom to be immediately established. They were wrong on all counts. The kingdom was going to be a spiritual kingdom of those who were saved from sin through faith in Jesus. It was for all people, not just the people of Israel, and it was to develop over time as God, through the preaching of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, brought individuals to faith.
But those were concepts the disciples would need to learn later. Here, Jesus is concerned about teaching what the citizens of the kingdom must be like, since at this point the minds of the disciples are still miles away from genuine Christianity.
What will the citizens of the kingdom be like? “They will be something like children,” Jesus explains, as he calls a little child to him and sets the child in the center of the group.
Children have some characteristics that the people of God are not to copy. Children do not know very much; they lack the ability to focus on one thing for long periods of time; and they are foolish and easily deceived. We are not to be childlike in those ways. Children have positive characteristics too, such as open-mindedness and trust, though Jesus was not thinking of those here either. Jesus was thinking about humility, which He makes clear in verse 4: Therefore, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He stresses humility because humility is the exact opposite of the disciples’ greedy pride.
D. A. Carson says, “The child is a model, in this context, not of innocence, faith, or purity, but of humility and unconcern for social status. Jesus assumed that people are not naturally like that; they must change to become like little children.”
The words Jesus uses are important – more than the illustration, and the words are more than striking. They are shocking, for two reasons.
First, Jesus changed the nature of the question. The disciples had been asking about greatness in the kingdom they believed Jesus would establish. They assumed that greatness was all they had to worry about. They assumed they would be in the kingdom. But instead of answering them only on that level, Jesus explains that unless they possessed a nature that was entirely different from what they were betraying by their question, they would not even enter the kingdom. Forget about who was going to be most important, Jesus said. What they needed to worry about was being there at all!
This response is similar to the way Jesus answered people who asked Him why God allowed some apparently innocent people to be killed by Herod’s soldiers or others to be killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Jesus said they were asking the wrong question. They should not ask why others had suffered but why they themselves had not, since they were sinners. The question should have been, “Why am I not in hell at this moment?” (Luke 13.1–5).
Obviously, we have much to learn if we are to learn the ways of God.
Additionally, Jesus insisted on the disciple’s conversion. To enter the kingdom people must possess the humility of children, but to do so they need to be radically changed. People are not humble by nature. We are self-seeking, selfish, and driven by pride. What do we need if we are to become humble, trusting what God has done for our salvation and not what we can accomplish for ourselves? The answer is clear: We need to “turn” or “be converted,” which is God’s work.
How do we know if we are converted? It is when we humble ourselves and trust Jesus alone to save us that we can be sure we are converted.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org