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encouragement marriage and family theology

Who is the Greatest?

Thoughts from Matthew 18…

It wasn’t supposed to be about children. The Lord‘s followers had had the greatest experiences with Him so far! They had been to the mountaintop with him and personally saw His glory. They saw Him cast out a violent demon from the raving child. They had personally confessed that He was their King and God!

But now that they were back in town and had time to settle, there was time to contemplate the big question. They all brought a lot to The Master’s kingdom, but who brought the most? Who is the greatest? 

Peter could say that he was the greatest. After all, he was the one who often spoke for the others. He was their self-proclaimed leader. He was in the Lord’s inner circle and scored a personal invitation to the mountaintop. Didn’t Jesus even say that he had the keys to the kingdom?

James and John could say that they were the greatest. After all, they were part of the inner circle too. They also had been with him on the mountaintop, but without Peter’s stupid comments! And above all, they were related to the Lord!

The list could go on. Philip brought his practical side. Andrew was one of the first disciples. Nathanael could talk about how the Lord took away his doubt. Thomas wasn’t afraid to speak up. Matthew could handle money. Simon the Zealot could claim that, after all, he had the most zeal. Judas was a cultured southerner, and probably the best educated. Each of them had a claim to be the greatest!

But when the Lord came to them, he ignored every one of their claims. Instead, he went and brought Peter‘s child to them and set him down among the men.a Using the child he showed them that, If you even want to enter the Kingdom, you need to trust Him like this child. You need to realize that you are totally helpless and dependent without Him. You need to trust Him without question. The greatest ones in His Kingdom are the ones who will humble themselves like this child.

But the child wasn’t merely an illustration. The society of Jesus’ day cared little for children, yet He took time to show how much they mean to Him. Our Lord treasures children, and has sent His personal angels to care for them (Matthew 18:10).

He is always open to children and welcomes them. It is the trusting children, not the proud adults, who will receive the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:14). 

He promises that when you care for and lead a child, you are caring for Jesus Christ Himself! (Matthew 18:5)

But He also warns of the terrible fate that awaits those who would mislead children. If you are the cause of them turning away from Jesus Christ, you are better off to tie a big stone around your neck and drown yourself in the ocean! (Matthew 18:6) It would be better for you to destroy your body than to give into temptations that would hurt these children! (Matthew 18:7-9)

And finally, we should value children like the Lord values them. He doesn’t want any one of them to perish. Like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep to find the one lost lamb, so He cares for each one of them! (Matthew 18:12-14)

May we love and care for the children in our lives the way our Lord loves them. And for all of us, May we come to Him with the trust of a child!

Previous post: What Kind of Faith Do You Have?


Matthew 18:1-14
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 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.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

Matthew 19:13-15
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.


Who is the Greatest?

Matthew 18:1-5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 

Mark 9:33-48
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Luke 9:46-48
An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

The disciples were preoccupied with the dispute over which of them would be the greatest. Instead of answering them, He called over a child (probably Peter’s childa), and then used this child to illustrate two critical points regarding their question:

  • First, you don’t even enter the Kingdom unless you “turn” and become like children. Change your pursuits and go back to the total dependence and trust of a child.
  • Second, the one who humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the Kingdom. It is not the most dynamic but the most humble who is considered the greatest in God’s Kingdom!

What does it mean to be like a child? Mark and Luke’s account show clearly that it is about humility. We must humble ourselves before we can come to Jesus Christ and enter His Kingdom!

Note that there is a difference between childlike and childish. Being childlike, as in this passage involves humbling yourself until you are totally dependent on Jesus Christ. But that is not being immature. Instead, we need to grow toward maturity in Jesus Christ.b 

“The disciples wanted to know who was the greatest in the kingdom. But Jesus warned them that, apart from humility, they could not even enter the kingdom!” – Warren Wiersbe8

“To receive a little child in His name is to receive Him, because He identifies Himself with all who trust Him.” – H.A. Ironside2

Do Not Cause Them to Stumble!

Matthew 18:6-9
“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. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

Mark 9:42-48
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Luke 17:1-2
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.

The millstone here was the large grinding stone which was pulled by an animal. It could weigh over a ton! Jesus is warning that you are better off drowning yourself than to be a stumbling block for one of these children!c (The original word for “stumble” in this passage is skandalon σκάνδαλον, and can be translated as a “stumbling block”.)

This is a repeat of the warnings in Matthew 5:29-30 (see here), where He teaches that you are better to cut off your body parts than to allow them to cause you to sin. The context of Matthew 5 is regarding lust and sexual sin, but the context here seems to emphasize how terrible it will be for those who cause others to stumble. 

We can apply this passage in two ways:

  • If you are the tempter, then you are better off maim yourself than to give into temptation, pulling others down with you.
  • If you are in the presence of a tempter, you are better to remove the tempter (“cut off”), regardless of the person’s value in your life.

But like the passage in Matthew 5, this warning is by hyperbole. This is not prescribing self-mutilation, rather it is illustrating how terrible the temptation to sin can be!

“Why would a Christian want to assist Satan in his work in tempting God’s children?” – John MacArthur18

Do not Despise Them!

Matthew 18:10-14
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

From this passage we can see that God uses angels in the lives of His people. This does not necessarily mean that each person has an angel assigned to him/her,d but rather shows that there is a collective group of angels, dedicated to serving believers.21

The popular Jewish belief was that there were angels assigned to each follower of God. The angels for the wisest and greatest rabbis were the closest to The Lord, while the more lowly ones were farther away from Him.14 Jesus turned this belief upside-down by showing that it is not the greatest who are closest to the Father but the most humble!

This is a familiar passage about the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to rescue the single one. But this time it is applied to show how much the Father values each of these little ones. Do not despise or to hold children in low esteem, because the Father rejoices over the salvation of each of them.e f

Let Them Come to Me!

Matthew 19:13-15
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.

Mark 10:13-16
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

Luke 18:15-17
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

This companion passage (in Matthew 19) shows a scene where parents brought their children to Jesus so that He might lay hands on them and pray for them. It was a common custom for parents to bring their young children to be blessed by a teacher, but the disciples blocked them when they came to Jesus. Jesus sternly rebukes the disciples telling them to let the children come. I especially like Mark’s description of how Jesus responded to the disciples, when it says that “he was indignant”. This was no small matter!g

for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”. This is shown in the previous passage in Matthew 18. Each person must come to Christ as a child in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 18:1-14, pages 215-217

[2] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 19:13-15, pages 225-226

[3] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 18, Ideal Subjects of the Kingdom and Discipline in the Church

[4] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 19, The New Law of the Kingdom

[5] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 34, At the Foot of the Mount, Luke 9:37-50

[6] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 58, Subjection to Christ, Luke 17:1-10

[7] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 61, Importunate Prayer, Luke 18:1-17

[8] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 18:1-14, pages 52-53

[9] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 9:30-50, pages 115-116

[10] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 10:13-16, pages 117-118

[11] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 9:46-56, page 168

[12] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 17:1-6, pages 195-196

[13] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 18:9-17, page 200

[14] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, CHAPTER III: THE LAST EVENTS IN GALILEE, THE TRIBUTE-MONEY, THE DISPUTE BY THE WAY, THE FORBIDDING OF HIM WHO COULD NOT FOLLOW WITH THE DISCIPLES, AND THE CONSEQUENT TEACHING OF CHRIST (St. Matt. 17:22 xviii. 22; St. Mark 9:30-50; St. Luke 9:43-50.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.ix.iii.html

[15] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 10, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/21-last-efforts-in-galilee.html 

[16] Stephen Davey, First Class Citizens, Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 19:13-14; Matthew 21:12-15; Luke 9:46, 9/9/1991

[17] John MacArthur, Entering the Kingdom, Matthew 18:1-4, Dec 26, 1982

[18] John MacArthur, The Danger of Causing a Christian to Sin, Matthew 18:5-9, Jan 2, 1983

[19] John MacArthur, The Care of God’s Children, Matthew 18:10-14, Jan 9, 1983

[20] John MacArthur, Jesus Loves the Little Children, Matthew 19:13-15, May 22, 1983

[21] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 18:1-14, page 1157

[22] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 19:13-15, pages 1159-1160

[23] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Mark 9:33-50, pages 1227-1229

[24] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Mark 10:13-16, page 1230

[25] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Luke 9:43-50, pages 1295-1296

[26] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Luke 17:1-2, pages 1313

[27] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 18:1-14

[28] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 19:13-15


Notes

[a] Many commentators believe that Jesus was in Peter’s home, among Peter’s children when He taught about children during the events of Matthew 18.

Matthew 8:14-15 shows that Jesus and His disciples were at Peter’s home when He healed Peter’s mother-in-law (see also here), and the next passage (Matthew 8:20) shows that Jesus did not have a home of His own. Therefore, we expect that Jesus must have regularly stayed in Peter’s home.

During the scene of this current study, Mark 9:33 shows that they were in Capernaum, in the house. Therefore, it must have been His common residence at Capernaum where Jesus taught about children. If we agree that this was likely Peter’s home, then the next conclusion must be that the child in the home must be Peter’s child.

I am following these assumptions in the notes here to assume that Jesus used Peter’s child as an illustration. 

[b] The following passages in the New Testament shows us more about what it means to grow in Godly maturity:

[c] Bible Scholars have discussed the identity “these little ones” in these passages. The simplest answer (and the answer that I have used in the notes here), is that the “little ones” here refer to physical children. However, some teachers have also applied this term to indicate new believers in Jesus Christ, since you must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is an excellent warning that we should also apply the same level of care to new believers (“children in Christ”) as we would to physical children. However, given the goal of trying for the simplest explanation of a passage, I am applying it only to children here in this study.

[d] Matthew 18:10 says, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”. This has given rise to the popular belief that each child has been assigned a guardian angel who watches over them.

Note that this passage never tells of the angels’ role regarding the children. God has sent angels to protect believers (see Genesis 19:1-22; Acts 12:6-19), but it is always clear that we look to God or our protection. The angels are there to carry out His commands.

Some commentators have interpreted the angels in this verse to mean the spirits of deceased children. While we are encouraged by the fact that young children are brought into His presence, it is very rare to have a departed spirit referred to in scripture as an angel. The popular reference for this belief is the supposed viewing of Peter’s “angel” in Acts 12:15, but even this was a cry by the confused disciples, not a teaching from the Lord. Therefore, it is best to dismiss this interpretation and expect that “angels” in Matthew 18:10 really mean angels.

[e] This parable of the lost sheep is also taught in Luke 15:4-7. But in Luke’s account, Jesus uses the same illustration to show the joy in Heaven when a single sinner repents. In Matthew 18, it is showing that God highly values each of these little ones.

[f] Some translations contain Matthew 18:11, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” This verse has been omitted by the ESV and contains a footnote in other translations, indicating that this sentence is not in older manuscripts. This line appears to have been copied from Luke 19:10 and is not in the original text.

[g] Some have used this passage as a basis for infant baptism. However, not only is this entire scene unrelated to baptism, but we know that Jesus didn’t even baptize adults (John 4:1-2).10

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