The Greatest is the Littlest

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 18:1-5, “The Greatest is the Littlest”

Humility can be elusive.  It’s one of those qualities in which the moment you think you’ve achieved it, you’re automatically wrong.  The old country song said, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”  Just a touch of irony there. 🙂

Humility is a quality that is rarely valued in our own culture today.  On the surface, people might claim to be humble in order to be polite, but in reality we engage in a non-strop cycle of self-promotion.  “What can I do to get ahead? … How can I get people to know my name? … How can I ensure I’ve got more followers on Twitter than the next guy?”  This isn’t humility; this is self-importance.

Yet humility is a trait that is valued in the pages of Scripture.  Humility is something that every Christian ought to strive for, as we follow in Jesus’ instructions of discipleship to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Him.  Denial of self IS humility.  In Matthew 18, Jesus shows that humility is fare more than a desired trait of a disciple; it’s something that is absolutely essential to even BE one of His disciples.

How does this teaching from Jesus on humility begin?  In a most-ironic way: with a fight over who’s the greatest. 

Matthew 18:1–5
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

  1. At which time?  At the time that Jesus and the disciples had come to Capernaum.  Matthew had recorded an event by which Jesus supernaturally provided for His & Peter’s temple tax (even though as the Son of God & the One to be worshipped in the temple, He didn’t need to pay the tax).  The other synoptics don’t record that event, but they do pick up with this disagreement among the disciples.  It seems that while the men were en-route to Capernaum, they had this little discussion and brought it up to Jesus.
  2. There’s actually a bit of different perspectives among Matthew, Mark, and Luke as to what exactly happened.  Matthew says that “disciples came to Jesus” with the question.  Mark says that Jesus had confronted them on this issue because He knew the disciples had been arguing among themselves about it, but when asked the disciples remained silent (Mk 9:34).  Luke also mentions a dispute among the disciples, but doesn’t show the disciples approaching Jesus with the issue – rather in his account, Jesus supernaturally knowing their thoughts, picks up a child and addresses the disciples about it (Lk 9:46-47).  So which is it?  Are these contradictory accounts?  No – they are just different perspectives.  Just like any three people who see the same event might give a different version of the story, Matthew, Mark, & Luke all give an accurate account, even though they differ in the details.  It’s easy to see how Mark & Luke agree.  As Luke said, Jesus knew what was in the heart of the disciples, and so He asked the disciples directly, just as Mark points out.  Matthew’s account would seem to be the odd-man-out, but it’s easy to see 18:1 not so much as a narrative, but as a general summary of the events.  The fact is the disciples DID have this question circulating around them, and Jesus is the one who addressed it.  In addition, what Matthew says could easily fit with the other two descriptions just in terms of narration.  (DA Carson) “It is not difficult or unnatural to suppose that Jesus detected their rivalry (Luke), challenged them, and thereby silenced them (Mark), and that they then blurted out their question (Matthew).”  Thus there’s no contradiction or untruth; just different perspectives.
    1. When there’s a question, give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.  There are loads of skeptical websites that specialize in casting aspersions on to the truth and reliability of the Scripture.  None ought to be taken seriously.  There’s no skeptical question or atheistic argument that is raised today that has not already been addressed in 2000+ years of Christian history.  Most skeptics simply aren’t truthful in their skepticism.  If they really wanted to know the truth, they would do a bit of research to find out what theologians and scholars have said through the ages.  After all, untold hours of study have been poured into the Bible!  It’s not like Christians haven’t had questions of their own.  Yet most “skeptics” today already have their mind made-up; they just want some tangible excuse to justify their preconceived decision to reject Christ. …  Don’t let them shake your faith.  Give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, and then do the research yourself.  Go look at the evidence with your own eyes, asking God to continually reveal Himself to you.  No doubt, He will.
  3. Of course, the question is what’s really important here. “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  What kind of question is that?  Teachers often tell their students that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but surely this one qualifies. J  The disciples are asking Jesus who might be considered the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  As if anyone at all is going to care about any ranking whatsoever other than when we look to Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of David King of Israel reigning Messiah.  Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  JESUS.  In the kingdom of heaven, it’s not going to matter which human is the greatest because although we will certainly recognize one another and have wonderful relationships with one another, our focus won’t be on each other; it’ll be upon Jesus.  Right now (this very moment) in heaven, angels are proclaiming the glories and holiness of God.  They’ve done this throughout all history, and will continue to do it throughout the eons to come.  When we enter into the fullness of the kingdom of heaven in eternity, we’ll engage in exactly the same thing.  We’ll be proclaiming the wonder and glories of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is what the apostle John saw in the revelation given him: Revelation 5:11–12, "(11) Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, (12) saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!”" []  We’ll be singing of the worthiness of Jesus because He truly IS worthy!  He is glorious!  He is the greatest of all!
  4. Right from the get-go, we see where the disciples are getting it wrong.  Their focus is all upon themselves & not Jesus.  By asking “who is the greatest in the kingdom,” they are admitting that they’re not even counting Jesus in all of this.  They would have agreed, “Sure, Jesus is the best – but what about us?  Which of us will be the greatest?”  Their whole focus is self-centered & completely the opposite of what Jesus would have for them as mature, godly believers.  When looking at what God produces in our lives via the fruit of the Spirit, we find things like love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).  None of this sounds like what the disciples were experiencing at the time.  Actually, there’s one fruit of the Spirit & the nine categories are how it’s described (various aspects of it).  To take just one aspect – love – and look at that, the disciples fail the test again.  1 Corinthians 13:4–5, "(4) Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; (5) does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;" []  These are the things that God desires for us to develop in Christian maturity & the disciples didn’t have it.  Instead they were bickering in their pride.
    1. Beware pride!  Pride is seemingly what took down the devil, and that pride is (partly) what took down Adam and Eve (the fruit of the tree was “desirable to make one wise,” Gen 3:6).  When our minds become consumed with ourselves and we start bowing to the altar of ME, we’re engaging in pride & when we do so we’re engaging in truly Satanic behavior.
    2. Keep in mind that pride is something that is not limited solely to non-believers.  No one can doubt that the disciples had faith in Jesus at this point, but they still struggled with pride.  Christians hear of the glorious inheritance we receive as co-heirs with Jesus & sometimes start strutting around in pride, as if we somehow think we deserve that inheritance.  Or we remember what Jesus saved us from, but instead of remaining humble, contrite, and broken before Jesus, we start bragging about all the bad things we used to do (because we’re so much a “better” person now).  There are all kinds of examples.  Beware pride!  It’s anti-Christian behavior.
  5. One of the saddest aspects of this account is that the disciples hear Jesus, but they don’t seem to listen to Him at all.  Two more chapters will barely pass before the James and John (the sons of Zebedee) have their mother start attempted negotiations with Jesus to give her boys the premier thrones in the coming kingdom.  They’re so consumed with their own pride, it’s as if they ignored Jesus’ teaching here altogether. … Beware pride!

2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them,

  1. Before we get to what Jesus actually said, look at what Jesus does here.  This would have been shocking.  Children were kept in the background, yet Jesus defies expectations and calls a child to Himself.  When the text says “little child” here, that’s exactly what it means.  The word translated here could refer to children ranging from infants to toddlers, but nothing much beyond that.  There was another word used for older children & pre-teens; Jesus specifically called a little child – a babe – to Himself for this special illustration.
  2. Jesus notices babies.  Jesus takes note of children.  The other disciples may have been generally aware that there were children around them (some scholars think this may have even taken place in Peter’s own household), but Jesus took specific notice of one and called this child to come to Him.  Imagine having the Lord of all Creation look your child into the eye & bid him/her come.  Amazing!  That Jesus would look at us at all is such a privilege – that Jesus goes beyond the so-called “important” people in the room and looks at the children is beyond comprehension.  How many times do we relegate children away to be seen & not heard?  They’ve got their own table at Thanksgiving dinner celebrations, etc.  (Not without reason…)  Yet those we sometimes set aside are the ones that Jesus specifically takes note of. 
    1. If Jesus knew the toddlers of His time, you can be sure that Jesus knows the toddlers & all the children of our time.  Jesus knows the children of this church – He knows the children of your neighborhood & your household.  If we didn’t have enough reasons to treat children with love and care, certainly this is a good enough reason in itself!

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.

  1. Why did Jesus present the child?  As an example/illustration.  The disciples wanted to talk about who was going to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus wanted them to be sure they would even enter the kingdom of heaven!  Supposed levels of greatness or importance means nothing if you never make it through the gates.
  2. What did they need to do? “Become as little children.” Remember that we’re talking about an infant/toddler here.  These big, self-important disciples needed to be like a 2-3 year old.  Did they want to prove themselves to be important?  Then they needed to be like a toddler.  Question: what can an infant or toddler do for himself?  Practically nothing.  It’s difficult to be great in the sight of others when you need someone to feed you, change your diaper, clothe you, put you to bed, etc.  Little children can do nothing to exalt themselves in the sight of others.  All they can do is receive the love that is extended from their parents.  Likewise, the Christian needs to be as a toddler, understanding that we’ve been able to do nothing for ourselves except receive the love and grace that our Heavenly Father is able to give.  The person who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven (the realm of the care and love of God Almighty) cannot earn his/her way in.  There’s no amount of good deeds that we can do in order to attract the attention of God.  After all, when we are covered in as much sin as we are (as ALL humans are), there’s nothing our deeds can do to make things better.  Like the child who’s sitting in a soiled diaper, no amount of niceties is going to make him/her smell any better…the filth needs to be addressed before anything else really matters.  Jesus addresses our filth.  Jesus takes away what we have soiled, deals with it Himself, and then clothes us in the pure, clean righteousness that only He can give.  THAT’s the way we come into the kingdom of heaven!  We can’t bring ourselves through the gate, but we can humble ourselves before Jesus & receive the love and care that He alone can give…and HE is the one that brings us in. 
  3. How was this going to take place?  They needed to be “converted.”  This is an interesting word, in that it can be taken to mean “twisted/turned around.”  For a person to be converted, he/she would have to be twisted around – turned back upon him/herself from the way he/she was previously going.  Instead of seeking our own greatness, we’d have to turn back upon ourselves and go the opposite direction.  That’s conversion.  Question: what other Biblical concept does this sound like?  Repentance!  Repentance (when looked at in the whole Biblical context) describes a change of mind and change of direction.  When we truly change the way we think about something, we end up changing the way we act towards it.  To be sure, the actions may be slow to change, but change WILL happen when our minds are thinking differently about it.  The disciples needed to change the way they thought about themselves.  It wasn’t about jockeying for position with Jesus.  (Can’t you imagine it?  “Jesus called Peter the rock…can you believe that?”  “Peter’s not as important as me…Jesus called me to follow Him first!”  etc…)  If they were looking for a way to elevate themselves to greatness, then they hadn’t been listening to much of what Jesus had to say at all.  All of that way of thinking needed to be changed – turned back upon itself.
    1. We may have our own issues of pride that need to be changed; from which we need to convert.  People tend to think that we’re such good people if we’re an upstanding citizen in our community – loving parent for our children – faithful to our spouse – kind to strangers.  All these things are very fine!  These are wonderful attributes.  But if that’s what we’re placing our hope in for our eternity, we’re going to be very disappointed.  In the end, even that comes down to pride.  “Sure, God will let me into heaven because I’m such a good person!”  Really?  How good is good?  Jesus said that there was none good but God alone (Mt 19:17), because God’s standard of “good” is perfection.  If we’re claiming to be perfect, there’s no doubt we have an issue with pride!  Change your thinking – convert!
  4. What would happen if the disciples did NOT convert to humble themselves as little children?  They would “by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That’s about as clear as Jesus can make it.  There’s no other way into the kingdom of heaven if a person does not humble themselves before Jesus as the Lord.  Objection: “But that sounds too narrow-minded!  How dare Jesus be so intolerant!” Response: what on earth can possibly be intolerant about God extending His love and grace to us through Jesus Christ?  If we refuse what He graciously offers, the fault is not God’s.  God has gone up and beyond any possible expectation in reaching out to us, already making provision for the filthiness of our sin when we were still in rebellion against Him, and asking nothing of us except to respond to Him in humble faith.  God does not want us to be lost.  He does not want us to be eternally condemned.  He loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son on our behalf…you can’t get more loving than that!  If we were to put our faith in what WE thought would be best for us, we would still be damned.  What good is it for a dying & delirious man in the ICU to decide that the doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about?  If he wants to live, he’ll listen to his doctor & simply receive the treatment given to him.  Likewise for us.  Of anyone in the entire universe, GOD knows what it is that will save us from death & hell.  God WANTS to save us from death & hell.  God has already made the provision to save us from death and hell.  We simply need to listen to God and receive what He’s giving to us.  He’s giving us the provision of Jesus Christ, and we need to humble ourselves before Him in faith in order to receive it.
    1. If there was another way, God would have given it.  If there was any other possible path to satisfying the righteous requirements of the law, and providing for the salvation of mankind OTHER than giving His only Son, you can be sure God would have done it.  This is what God did for you.  The very least we can do in response is to humble ourselves before Jesus in sincere faith.
  5. Very similar idea to what Jesus said in His conversation with Nicodemus. [BIBLE: John 3:1-8] To the disciples, Jesus said you had to be like a babe – a toddler.  To Nicodemus, Jesus went even further – you had to be a newborn.  And that birth is not something that you could do for yourself; you have to be born of the Holy Spirit.  Again, the picture is clear: we have nothing to offer God.  We cannot make ourselves great in the sight of God and experience His favor in the kingdom.  All we can do is humble ourselves and receive what it is He offers on our behalf.  Want to enter the kingdom of heaven?  Humble yourself & convert!  Pride can prevent you from entering the kingdom; repentant humility takes you straight through the gates.
    1. Jesus made the same point in the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).  Blessed are those who understand their spiritual poverty, humbling themselves before God.  Those are the ones who understand their need for salvation & appeal unto God for it.
    2. Have you humbled yourself?  There’s no more important question you could ask of yourself than that today.  If you’ve never humbled yourself before Jesus, asking Him for this new birth & new life that He offers, you have the opportunity to do that today.

4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

  1. God values humility – extreme humility…that of a little child.  Not only do we need to humble ourselves to enter the kingdom of heaven, but we need to humble ourselves in order to be received there.  When we are humble, THEN we are considered great in God’s eyes.  We can’t make ourselves great; we’ve got to go little if we want God to exalt us.  Think about it…who among the Hebrews in history did God truly exalt?  The top two men we generally think of are Moses & David.  (1)  Though Moses was one of the only people in history to see the revealed glory of God and live, he was still the most humble man on the face of the earth at the time. (Num 12:3)  Though most of his life, Moses would not rise up to defend himself or exalt his name; he only sought to exalt the name of the Lord.  In fact, the one time he did rise up in pride is the one thing that kept him out of the Promised Land. (2) David, on the other hand, was not accounted as the most humble of men, but he is accounted as a man after God’s own heart.  David did have an occasion when he gave into his pride & thought that he didn’t have to ride out into battle any longer – and thought that because he was king he could have any woman in the kingdom that he desired – and he got into a lot of trouble.  Yet how did David handle this when confronted by God?  In abject humility and repentance.  David was broken before the Lord in fasting and prayer, and fully trusted the Lord once God’s discipline was accomplished. …  Like little children, these men trusted the Lord & God exalted them in greatness.  As Peter & James both quote from the Proverbs, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  James goes on to say, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (Jas 4:10)
  2. We cannot humble anyone else; we must humble ourselves.  In our pride, we are focused on exalting ourselves; in our humility there’s no one else we can humble except ourselves.  It’s easy for us to look at the sins of others & start listing off the ways that they need to change, what’s harder is to turn that look inward.  But that’s exactly where it must begin.  Actually, humility can occur one of two ways: (1) we can humble ourselves, or (2) we can be humbled.  The former is far more desirable than the latter!  God will humble us Himself if need be, but He invites us to first take the initiative.  Notice this kind of humility and greatness is not limited to a few; this is open to anyone.  “Whoever humbles himself as this little child…”  It’s not just men of the past like Moses and David.  It’s not only women like Mary (who completely submitted herself to the plan of God).  ANY of us can humble ourselves and be exalted by God, and that’s exactly what God wants for ALL of us.  Pride keeps us from the plan of God – pride keeps us from experiencing the grace of God – pride keeps us from exampling the love of God.  The way around it all is godly humility.
    1. BTW – nothing Jesus teaches here pushes false humility, where people act pious & meek in an attempt to look religious.  That’s all prideful and self-serving.  It’s an attempt (again) to put all the attention on ourselves to show others how humble we’re being.  True humility casts attention off of ourselves and on to God.  THAT’s what Jesus is teaching.
  3. Why would we humble ourselves in this way?  Because that’s exactly the model Jesus set forth for us.  He is our very example of humility.  Philippians 2:5–8, "(5) Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, (6) who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, (7) but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (8) And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." [] As God the Son, Jesus had every right to come to earth in all of His glory, with all the peoples of the earth naturally worshipping Him (and in fact, that’s exactly what will happen at Jesus’ 2nd coming, as Paul goes on to write in Philippians).  But in His 1st coming, there was a different plan.  In His 1st coming, the infinitely glorious Son of God became humbly incarnate as a mere man.  The holy perfect God took upon the vile filthy sin of mankind and died upon the cross.  And God was glorified as a result.  Jesus truly humbled Himself for the glory of God, and that’s what we are to do as well.  Our Lord does not ask us to do more than what He Himself has done.

5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.

  1. Those who are humble receive the humble.  People who consider themselves to be great and important don’t often take time to talk with the small.  After all, we know the right pecking order, and those at the top don’t spend time with those at the bottom.  Right?  Wrong.  That might work in worldly business and political cultures, but it has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.  From Jesus’ perspective, for one of His followers to receive someone who is truly humble (and unimportant in the world’s eyes) is like receiving Jesus Himself.
  2. There’s a similar idea here to the parable of the sheep and the goats.  In reference to a judgment that the Son of Man would administer towards the nations (perhaps at the end of the Millennial kingdom), Jesus taught how He would separate the nations based upon their actions, and the difference between them would be as plain as the difference between sheep and goats.  Those who acted in love towards their neighbor were praised by Christ, whereas those who acted in selfishness were chastised by Him.  Ultimately, the way they treated their neighbor was the way they treated Christ Himself.  Each group asked Jesus when they treated Him well or poorly & hears a similar response: Matthew 25:40, "And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’" []  God takes notice of how we treat those who are humble.  In the parable of the sheep & the goats, Jesus referred to those who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger in the land, someone without proper clothing, those who were sick, and those who were in prison.  Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive listing for us to check off categories, but Jesus is showing that those who are the most neglected, those who are in the most need, those who are typically the most forgotten or shoved away into the shadows – those are people that Christ Himself takes note of and identifies with.  God is intimately familiar with how we treat those who are humble in the sight of our culture (be it the general categories in the New Testament or the people we see in the grocery store or on the street & try to ignore).  How do you treat the people around you who are unloved or humble in the eyes of the world?  It’s worth examining as we will one day give an account to our Lord and King about it.
  3. The idea here is that it’s one thing to humble yourself; it’s another thing to remain humble.  Those who are humble will be known by their humility & thus by their service.  Parenting a toddler is often a thankless job.  You’re surrounded by dirty diapers, dirty clothes, and the word your child most enjoys saying is “no.”  Yet parents lovingly and (hopefully) patiently endure those days of service, knowing that they will eventually pass.  They love their child & are willing to humble themselves in order for their child to receive the benefit.  That’s the idea here.  To receive “one little child” in the name of Jesus is to speak of serving others in a humble way.  It can sometimes be difficult, but when we serve willingly and graciously, then we can know we’re serving Jesus Himself.
    1. BTW – there is a principle here that goes far beyond children, but don’t write off children entirely.  To demonstrate gracious humble love to a child (who may not be deserving of that love) is to give out the same thing that we ourselves have received from our Heavenly Father.  It’s a good thing to serve children, and pour your lives into them.  It can be humbling at times, but it is service unto the Lord.  Obviously God values and loves children. Jesus specifically told the disciples not to hinder little children from coming to Him (Mt 19:14).  Children are included in the Great Commission.

Do you want to be great?  Then you’ve got to be small.  The disciples were arguing about positions of greatness in the one place where all of our focus is going to be on the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ.  What got them to that point was pride & they didn’t understand what they were doing.  Pride can prevent someone from even entering the kingdom of heaven; it surely cannot elevate anyone there!  God doesn’t need our pride (our pride just gets in the way of what He desires to do); God wants our humility.  When we entrust ourselves into His hands – to the point that a toddler trusts his/her parents – THAT’s the point that God can use us for His glory.  That kind of humility is what God will use to exalt us in the best way possible.

So how are you doing on the point of pride?  Obviously we all know people with big egos (some larger than others), but if we’re being honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with pride to some extent.  There’s always something that comes up in our days in which we think we’ve got to assert our way, or show off to someone else what we’ve done.  We want the accolades and attention from the people around us – even if it’s to demonstrate how good of Christian we think we are.

Beware of pride!  When Christians start acting in our pride, we let down our defenses against the other sin and temptation around us.  Pride may not be THE specific sin that causes someone’s downfall, but it’s almost always the gateway to it.  We think we’re doing OK on our own, and we don’t need to remain humbly broken before the Lord…and before we know it, we’re right back in the filth of our sin in which we started out.  Be careful – be humble!  Remain humble.  Be wary of exalting yourself in your eyes, but remain in that place in which you’ve cast yourself upon the mercy of God, trusting Him just as a babe trust his/her parents.

For some of you, that trust needs to be renewed today – for others of you, that trust needs to begin.  Understand that apart from Jesus Christ, you are covered in the filth of your own sin & there’s nothing you can do to clean yourself up.  Sure…you might be less filthy in comparison with someone else, but at the end of the day, filth is filth.  The wages of sin is death, no matter what sin you think you committed in comparison to someone else.  But Jesus saves us from that.  He picks us up out of our filth, cleans us up, and makes us right in the sight of God.  What love that He offers to all mankind!  Respond to Him today.  Cast yourself upon His mercies in humility.  Convert!  Change from the way you were going & humble yourself before the Lord Jesus today.  He promises to save all who believe upon Him by faith.  “Whoever humbles himself…”  Are you “whoever” today?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s