Become Like Little Children
At that time he disciples came to Jesus' and asked. "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
What was it Shakespeare wrote?
Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great,
some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon them.
(Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5)
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 to be great so much.
They were thinking of an earthly kingdom to be established by Jesus who 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 that they were arguing about it and that Jesus knew what they were thinking (Luke 9:46-47). Mark adds that they had been on their way to Capernaum; when they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked what they had been arguing about and they were silent, probably because they were embarrassed by their worldly thoughts (Mark 9:33-34). Matthew says that they then asked Jesus directly, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1).
This question became the catalyst for a new direction in Jesus’ private teaching of these men which has been taking place in Matthew 13-20. It has to do with what the citizens of the kingdom should be like, the fourth of six collections of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel. Earlier collections have been: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the commissioning of the disciples (Matt. 10), and the seven parables of the kingdom (Matt. 13). The others are in Matthew 23 and Matthew 24, 25. Matthew 18 is a collection of teachings gathered from talks given over the course of Jesus’ ministry, as the earlier collections also probably were.
The question was amazing in some ways. 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 (Matt. 5:3, 5, 7). Even more amazing is the fact that almost immediately before this Jesus had explained that he would be betrayed and killed (Matt. 17:23). Matthew says that they “were filled with grief.” But their pain didn’t last long. They were convinced Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah was going to establish a glorious earthly kingdom. Therefore they began to anticipate who would be greatest in that kingdom when it came and to jockey for position.
The kind of kingdom they were thinking about becomes clear in Acts 1 where they asked Jesus, even after the resurrection, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). John Stott notes, “The verb restore shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment.
They were wrong on all counts. The kingdom was going to be a spiritual kingdom of those who were being 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 all concepts they would need to learn later. In this chapter Jesus is concerned to teach what the citizens of the kingdom must be like since at this point the minds of the disciples were still miles distant from genuine Christianity.
- What caused the disciples’ silence? What did they eventually ask?
- On what matters were the disciples wrong?
- Why did Jesus not correct the disciples on these matters at this point?