At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 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. "Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4
This passage opens with a contemporary question: “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The question is contemporary to what was happening among the disciples. On the mount of transfiguration Peter, James and John had beheld the partly unveiled glory of Christ the Son of God. This manifestation not only demonstrated that Jesus was the eternal Son of God, but it also demonstrated that all power was at His disposal and that the long-promised kingdom of God had come. This latter point led the disciples to debate who was the greatest among them. Who among them would receive the greatest reward in Christ’s kingdom that they saw, in accordance with the Judaism of their day, as a soon-to-be established earthly kingdom?
This question is contemporary today, but in a somewhat different form. Today men still strive to be important, to be successful, to be great in some sense. The disciples were wrong in their quest for self-greatness but they were right as to the arena in which they chose to seek greatness. They desired to be great in Christ’s kingdom. So too all Judaism focused on greatness in God’s kingdom. This was the goal of teaching one’s children. They longed to see their sons become leaders in Israel and especially to become religious leaders. Child education was especially aimed toward their sons becoming Pharisees. Their lives from beginning to end were focused on being faithful to God, on being great in His kingdom (as defined by the Pharisees). The disciples probably still had a false (Pharisaical) idea of the kingdom, but it was a religious kingdom. Indeed, it was Christ’s kingdom. Today our focus may be education, sports, music, etc. We desire and seek to teach our children to desire greatness, but is it greatness in God’s kingdom? As believers do we desire kingdom greatness for our children and ourselves?
The next verse (2) sets before us a ready illustration. Jesus called a young child to Him, sat the child in His lap and used this to illustrate true greatness in His kingdom.
The Pharisees, Israel’s teachers, taught that it was inappropriate for a great teacher to teach women and children. Jesus did not bow to their leadership. It was not below Him to teach women and children. He taught women publicly and privately. In John 4 He taught the Samaritan woman privately. This surprised His disciples because He broke three Jewish taboos: He taught a hated Samaritan, He taught one who was a public sinner, and He taught a woman. In Matthew 14:21 we are told again that Jesus healed and taught a woman publicly. In Luke 8:1-2 we read that women followed Him and supported Him financially. Obviously, He taught them publicly and outside a worship service. In Acts 16:13 we are told that Paul addressed a group of women on the Sabbath day in Philippi. Those who would view Sunday School, youth programs and women’s meetings as a violation of Scripture are not doing what Jesus and Paul did. They are not doing what the Bible teaches us to do. They are not teaching us to be great in Christ’s kingdom. Christians are sent to the whole world to teach everyone in every way God allows (Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus taught us not only method but content when in verse 3 He spoke an important command that instructs us about what He meant by our becoming His disciples, what it means to believe in Jesus as one’s Savior. He said that all who would be great, indeed greatest, in His sight must be converted and become as little children. If they do not do these two things they “will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Elsewhere in the Bible we are taught that being right with God (to enter the kingdom of heaven) is both a legal (forensic) matter and an experiential (personal). Justification, being justified in God’s sight so as to have our sinfulness and sin forgiven in His sight, is a legal matter that takes place in God’s eternal courts. On the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness, our total unrighteousness is forgiven and His perfect righteousness is substituted for our unrighteousness – it is imputed, legally applied to us, by God.
We also learn elsewhere that being right with God requires personal renewal. We are unable to accomplish the beginning of this renewal in our own strength, Acts 28:27. Only God can make us born again, regenerated. As Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3, the Holy Spirit accomplishes this and no man can direct or control Him. Only God brings regeneration. Only God opens our heart ”to heed the things spoken” by God so we know that we must seek Him and are prompted to seek Him (John 6:36-37, 44-45). Yet, many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 20:16). No one can come unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44). Still, Jesus calls all to come to Him (Matthew 11:28).
Once regenerated, we come to Him as this little child did (verse 4). So Jesus teaches that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit must be accompanied by our coming to Him and doing all that He commands (Matthew 7:21-25). This does not happen without our effort. We must come. We must be building our lives on the commands of God. We are to be as children in our attitudes and obedience toward Jesus, but we must be mature in our understanding and practices (I Corinthians 14:20). Thus, Jesus concludes this instruction in verse 4, “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
So, it not that we will be greatest above all others, but that we will all be great in Christi’s kingdom if we are converted and humbly submit ourselves to our Savior and King.
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