1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. – Matthew 18:1-6 ESV
This exchange between Jesus and His disciples provides a stark contrast between their two diametrically opposing visions concerning the kingdom. While Jesus has gone out of His way to inform them about His coming death in Jerusalem, they are obviously having a difficult time comprehending and accepting this radical alteration to their kingdom narrative.
At first glance, it appears that the disciples are asking a question about the hierarchical structure of heaven. It is doubtful that they were questioning the prominence of God in the celestial realm. Their question seems to be focused on the status of those who had already died and were now living as residents of heaven, such as Moses, Elijah, and David? Their obsession with status and recognition within the kingdom is well documented. And a quick look at the other gospel accounts of this very same scene sheds some light on what was actually going on. Both Mark and Luke reveal that, prior to this question being asked, the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest.
…on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. – Mark 9:36 ESV
An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. – Luke 9:46 ESV
Matthew’s version of the account presents the disciples a bit more favorably as if they were the ones who brought the matter to Jesus to settle. But Mark indicates that Jesus was the one who exposed the content of their squabble by asking them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:34 ESV). But they refused to answer His question. So Luke tells us that, “Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side” (Luke 9:47 ESV).
So, why the discrepancy? What would have caused Matthew to portray the scene differently? It is most likely a case of perspective. Matthew was revealing things as he had seen them. Perhaps he had not been part of the group that had been having the argument. He could have walked in on the scene as Jesus was addressing the issue and simply assumed one of the other disciples had asked Jesus the question. We are not told why his recollection of the event is different, but it is important to remember that each of the gospel authors was writing from their own particular viewpoint. It is not a case of contradiction as much as it is a matter of context.
But the fact that the disciples had been arguing over this point is revealing. We are not told what prompted their discussion, but it could have been the fact that Peter, James, and John had been selected by Jesus to view His transfiguration. While they had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus, that doesn’t mean they didn’t gloat in front of the other disciples, bragging over their membership in Jesus’ inner circle. Remember, it was James and John who had asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and left when He established His kingdom (Mark 10:37). Position and prominence were important to the disciples. These blue-collar members of the lower rung of Jewish society were constantly thinking about rank and privilege. They even argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest.
While they had originally thought that Jesus was going to establish His kingdom on earth, they were slowly realizing that there was going to be something radically different about the Messiah’s rule and reign. It seems that they were now moving their focus from earth to heaven. If Jesus was not going to set up an earthly kingdom, then they wanted to know what roles they would play in His heavenly one. Yet, Jesus was about to burst their bubble and expose a feature of His kingdom that would contradict their expectations.
Jesus did something unusual. He placed a small child in their midst and then used this unnamed and seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important lesson on leadership in the kingdom of God. In that day and age, children were considered as inferior to adults. They had little or no rights. And for Jesus to use a child as an example for adults to follow would have been shocking. It should have been the other way around. And yet, He placed the child in front of His disciples and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV).
But children had no power. They were helpless and in constant need of someone else’s care. Children could be ignored or abused. They had no authority. They could not demand their rights because they had none. So, while the disciples were asking questions about greatness, Jesus was emphasizing those who represent “the least of these.”
Notice what Jesus says. He tells His disciples that they must “turn.” The Greek word He used in strephō, and it means to change your course of conduct or to change your mind. At that point, the disciples were arguing and obsessing over the issue of greatness in the kingdom. But Jesus demands that they rethink their position and become like children. What did He mean? It seems clear from the context that Jesus is stressing the need for humility. He placed this young child in the midst of 12 adult men and told them to follow the child’s example. Mark indicates that Jesus took the child in His arms. This child’s innocence and trust of Jesus is clearly on display. There is no pride exhibited. The child does not demand his own way or fight to escape the arms of Jesus. And Jesus, carefully cradling the child in His arms, drives home a powerful message to His status-obsessed disciples:
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:4 ESV
And to the shock and surprise of His disciples, Jesus then reveals that anyone who does not become humble like a child will never enter the kingdom of heaven. These men would have believed that their hand-picked status as followers of Jesus and their unique position as descendants of Abraham would have been more than enough to secure their place in the kingdom. The thought of not entering the kingdom of heaven had never crossed their minds. To them, it was all about status within that kingdom, not a question of whether they would be there. But Jesus wanted them to know that entrance into the kingdom would be based on humility and trust.
Jesus was not telling His disciples that heaven was off-limits to them. He was driving home their need for humility. There was no place for pride in the lives of His followers. They had brought nothing to the table. There had been nothing about them that had caused Jesus to choose them. The only reason they were HIs followers was that He had called them and they had humbly obeyed that call. And there would be other followers of Christ – those who humbled themselves and willingly placed their trust in Jesus as their Savior. And Jesus warned the disciples not to look down on those kinds of people.
“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” – Matthew 18:6 NLT
The very fact that the disciples had been debating over which of them was the greatest is an indication that they believed in a hierarchy within the kingdom. They were convinced that there were degrees of superiority and inferiority associated with Jesus’ kingdom, just like any other royal administration. But Jesus pointed out that His kingdom was to come and when it did come, it would be marked by humility, not pride. And if the disciples, through their pride, kept anyone from entering the kingdom, their fate would be marked by judgment, not greatness.
Mark added the following words from Jesus: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). Luke puts it this way: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48 ESV). That day, the child Jesus held in His arms would have been considered “least” by the disciples. He had done nothing to earn favor with God or man. He had performed no miracles, healed no one, and had not even reached adulthood. He had no rights. He had no privileges. But Jesus said he was greater than any of the disciples.
These men were going to learn that greatness in Christ’s kingdom was based on an attitude of humility and servanthood, not pride and position. And Jesus was going to be their greatest example of what it meant to be great.
“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:26-28 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.