Greatness and Humility

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” — Matthew 18:1-5.

The discourse begins with the disciple’s question about who was the greatest in the kingdom. If we piece the Gospel accounts together, Luke tells us that Jesus detected their rivalry (9:46-48), Mark says he then challenged and silenced them (Mark 9:33-37), and Matthew reports how they blurted out this question.

At that time (v. 1). — Jesus had been talking about his suffering and death; but the disciples were thinking of themselves. They are concerned with who would be the greatest. We don’t know what might have set off the rivalry. [It would continue in 20:20-23 with the request of the mother of James and John.] These kinds of questions came from a group of men who had a limited understanding of the kingdom. If they were thinking of a purely human kingdom like David had, the questions might not have seemed to them out of order. But later when they realized this was the King of Glory who would be seated on the right hand of the Majesty on High, then questions of where they would sit in the kingdom would prove embarrassing by their ignorance.

Assuredly I say to you (v.3). — Jesus responded to their question with an illustration–a child. Jesus solemnly warns them — “Assuredly, I say to you” — that they must change and become like little children, for unless they do they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The point of the child as an illustration is humility (not innocence or faith, for the child would not yet know enough to come to faith). The child is not concerned with social status. The point is that Jesus advocates humility of mind (v. 4) and not childishness of thought (see 10:16). Then, out of such humility will come the childlike trust.

The kingdom of heaven cannot be gained by merit or force. The disciples have to change (be converted), they have to become like little children in their attitudes. The person who truly humbles himself will be the greatest in the kingdom. The disciples have begun their journey to kingdom greatness by trusting the Lord; but they have to set aside this rivalry and humble themselves.

A good illustration of this is King Solomon. He humbled himself and prayed for wisdom to govern the people of Israel, saying, “I am a little child” (1 Kings 3:7). And God made him great in every way.

Whoever receives (v.5). — Since Jesus’ followers must become “as little children,” the “little child” represents any disciple. Response to Jesus’ disciples is a response to Jesus Himself, and causing a disciple to sin is a grave offense (v. 6).

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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