Disciples Contend for Greatness: Part 1 of 2

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:2)

And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:2)

Matthew 18:1-10


At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? (Matthew 18:1)

There never was a greater pattern for humility than Jesus, and there was never a greater preacher of it, than Jesus. On several occasions, He had talked to his disciples and followers about it. I wonder, is there a bit of worldly ambition present in these men that He had called to be His disciples? I believe they may have been doing a bit of bragging among themselves, and now they come to Jesus to see who He thinks is the greatest disciple. Their question reveals that at this time, they didn’t have a clear understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven; their thinking is of an earthly kingdom, with external pomp and where they would rule alongside Christ. They asked the Lord, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Jesus had recently predicted His death and resurrection, and they expected that the kingdom would begin then, at His death. And they believed that now was the time for them to put in for their place in the kingdom. Each one of the disciples had some reason to believe that they would be great in the kingdom. Peter had always been the spokesman for the group, and so he thought that things should continue as always, and he would be the greatest. Judas carried the bag, and therefore he expected to be the heavenly Treasurer. Simon and Jude were almost related to Jesus, so they anticipated that a high office would be given to them. John is the beloved disciple, the favorite of the Lord, and therefore he hopes that Jesus will say he is the greatest. Andrew was the first one called, so why shouldn’t he also be first in heaven. This is a good time for Jesus to do some more teaching about humility.

And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:2)

He set the child in the midst of them, not so they could play with him, but so they might learn from him. When Jesus was a child, He was found one day in the midst of a group of teachers. When Luke recorded what happened he wrote, “And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Jesus may have set the little child on His knee, and then He looked at His disciples―

And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

What Jesus is talking about here is conversion, not reversion. He is not saying that a person must revert back to his childhood in some unusual fashion, or that you have to become juvenile, to be saved. To begin with, He is diverting His disciple's attention from the matter of holding an exalted place in the kingdom, to what is more important, being able to secure entrance into the kingdom. This is as radical as John 3:3, where “Jesus answered and said unto him (that is, Nicodemus), Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The important thing emphasized in this verse is the new birth. You must become a little child in the sense that you must be born again. When you are born again, you start out spiritually as a child.

I don’t believe that new Christians should get involved with teaching or holding church office; they need to be disciplined first. Paul wrote this about new converts, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim 3:6). We see here that there are two things, which Jesus requires. First, you must be converted; your way of thinking must be changed, before you are fit for heaven. There are certain attitudes which must be reformed: they are pride, ambition and the need to dominate others.

Second, you must become as little children. As little children, we must desire the sincere milk of the word. We must desire to read it and to listen to it preached. As children, you must not worry, but instead, depend upon your Heavenly Father to take care for you. Didn’t Jesus tell His followers: “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” (Matt. 6:31). You must, like children, be harmless, and without a mean spirit. Paul said, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (1 Co. 14:20).

And we must be able to be governed, for as Paul said, “But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father” (Gal. 4:2). And we must be humble like little children. That’s why Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits” (Rom 12:6). Now, look at the emphasis that Jesus places on this, because He says, “Without this, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

His disciples argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, but Jesus explained that unless they get rid of pride and ambition, and unless they guard against sin, they will be rejected from heaven. They must become as little children, they must be born again, and they must put on the new man.

Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4)

Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? This is the answer that Jesus gave. The one who is the greatest will have the least idea that he is great. A child totally depends on others and must live by faith. An unspoiled child accepts his position in life, enjoys it, and does not try to act like someone older. Psalm 131 is a song of David, and it talks about having a simple trust in the Lord. “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and forever.

It is humility that brings honor and growth to God’s people. A person, who humbles himself like a little child, even though that may cause others to ignore or dislike him, will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The humblest Christians are the best Christians, and they are the most like Christ, and in the best position to serve Christ. Jesus takes care of those who are humble; He takes up their cause, protects them, is concerned for them, and if they are ever wronged, He will see that it is made right.

And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6)

The word offend means “to cause to stumble”; that is to say, to lead into sin. Jesus warns against it in strong language. Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” In other words, He is saying, when you are kind to a child or to one in need, that Jesus takes it as if it was done to Him. If you do an act of kindness out of your love for God, you will be rewarded for it, if not in this life, then in the life to come. These little children are part of the body of Christ, because He doesn’t yet hold them accountable for their sins. The tender regard that Jesus shows for these little children is the same that He shows for His church, and for every believer. The warning that Jesus gives is for everyone. You will answer for it if you injure one of Christ’s little ones, because when you touch them, you are touching the apple of His eye.

But Jesus speaks of an even greater crime, when He talks about, offending one of these little ones which believe in Him. It is their belief in Jesus, even though they are children that unite them to Him. There are those who have hurt these little ones, by causing them to sin, and by discouraging them. They will face the wrath of God, at the judgment. There is a punishment for these crimes against the lambs of Christ. It will be better if they were drowned in the depth of the sea, than to face that punishment.

Their punishment will be worse than drowning in the sea, because hell is worse than the sea; it is a bottomless pit, and a burning lake.

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