Who is the greatest?
At the same time came the disciples of Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, 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. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 18:1-4.
This theme of this chapter is motivated by a question that the disciples put to our Lord: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (ver. 1). According to Luke, this question came about because of an argument that they had been having over this very issue (Luke 9:46). In other words, each of the disciples wanted to be the greatest. Like John and James, who got their mother to petition Jesus for honored places at his right and left hand in the kingdom, the apostles wanted to be number one in the future kingdom of glory. Each one was arguing why he should have the greatest advantage over the others. And are we not so often just like the disciples? Do we not often have a desire to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
To the disciples (and to us), our Lord answers, “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (ver. 3). Just to make sure the disciples got the message, he called for a child and set the child in their midst (ver. 2).
Notice that our Lord technically didn’t answer their question. He didn’t tell them who will be greatest. The question was wrong. One should not be seeking status in the kingdom of heaven. This is the reason our Lord tells his disciples to become like children. He is not telling us to imitate certain traits of children, as if children were models of humility and forgiveness and innocence. Rather, he is saying that we are to adopt their status. Children have no status, no authority, and no power. In other words, as God told Barach, we ought not to be seeking great things for ourselves (cf. Jer. 45:5). The desire for preeminence is fundamentally contradictory to the spirit of Christ (cf. 3 Jn. 9-10). It is a call for radical humility.
Our Lord tells us to “be converted and become as little children” (ver. 3). The word “convert” in the KJV means to “turn.” Normally, when we use the word “converted” we mean the initial turning from the world and sin to Christ. But these disciples had already been converted in that sense. A similar word is used when our Lord told Peter, “Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:32). So he is not saying they have never been converted but rather that they need to change. In particular, they need to change their attitude towards their brethren. Instead of seeking preeminence they should seek to be servants.
And this is serious, because our Lord tells us that unless we make this change, we “shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Again, I think it’s important to point out that these words are addressed to disciples, not to those outside the church. So he is not saying that you can’t outwardly be a Christian unless you humble yourself like a little child. His point is that those who refuse to humble themselves are kidding themselves if they think God will receive them into his eternal kingdom.
God hates prideful people but he welcomes the humble. This is exactly the opposite the way this world works. If you want to get ahead in this world, you have to be willing to toot your own horn. But in the kingdom of God, the first will be last and the last will be first. The proud are rejected and the humble and meek are accepted. Thus the apostle Peter writes, “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:5-6). I cannot think of anything worse than be resisted by God or anything better than being exalted by God. “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isa. 66:2). The blessing is upon the poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3). We ought therefore to turn and become like little children.
Further, our Lord says that the one who humbles himself “is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (ver. 4). Isn’t it interesting that the contrast is not between those who do not enter the kingdom and those who do, but between those who do not enter the kingdom of heaven and the one who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? When God receives us into his fellowship, then we become great. But this does not happen by our jockeying for positions of power and prestige. It comes about for those who by God's grace see themselves as totally dependent upon him, humble themselves before God, and become servants of others.
Let us then welcome each other. That is the application of our Lord’s command to the community of the church. A disciple of Jesus does not seek to rule over others; rather, he or she seeks to receive others as Christ received us (verse 5; cf. Rom. 15:1-7). We are to welcome others, not distance ourselves from them in a spirit of superiority. “As pride is the mother of disdain, and as contempt hardens men in giving offense, our Lord . . . forbids his disciples to despise the little ones” (Calvin).