Matthew 18:1-14

Jimmy JoMatthew, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Our passage today begins (what is usually identified as) the discourse portion of this fourth major section. Once again, I want to point out that the sub-headings in our English translations can sometimes be unhelpful, if not misleading.  The NIV divides this passage into three sections respectively titled “The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (vv. 1-5), “Causing to Stumble” (vv. 6-9), and “The Parable of the Wandering Sheep” (vv. 10-14).  The ESV, NASB, NRSV, and NKJV use similar divisions (though the versing and headings may differ).  The reason that I point this out is that these “three sections,” though certainly distinct, seem to me to be clearly connected.  In each section, Jesus’ concern is with the “little ones” or the “little children.” 

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble…

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Matthew 18:3, 6, 10, 14. Emphases added.

So at any rate, I simply mean that vv. 1-14 should probably be read together. 

So, let’s begin with vv. 1-5: 

18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Matthew 18:1-5

Frequently, when I’ve heard discussion on these verses, it’s on the question of what it means to “become like little children.”  Usually, in my experience, it’s interpreted along the lines of innocence, simplicity, open-mindedness, trustfulness, or something like that.  And those are all good qualities.  However, it seems that the context is actually pretty specific as to what Jesus means. 

Jesus here, uses the example of little children as a response to a specific question or situation.  Specifically, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Now Matthew has a tendency (which we haven’t explored, but he does) to shorten or simplify some of these stories compared to what we find in Mark or Luke.  But if we look at those corresponding passages, we see: 

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Mark 9:33-34

46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Luke 9:46-48

In other words, the question “Who is the greatest…” is not “what sort of person is greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” or “what qualities are important in the kingdom…?”  Rather, the disciples are quite specifically asking “which of us will be the greatest?  Which of us will have the highest position in the kingdom?” 

Therefore, it seems that Jesus’ response seems specifically directed at the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who would be the greatest, and is essentially about status (or the importance of status in the disciples’ minds).  He says, “you are concerned about status (and power and position) but in the kingdom of God, it’s the person who has none who is the most important.  Like these children here.  Children have no status in this society, and you should seek to be likewise.” 

This is actually made pretty explicit in Mark’s telling of this incident. 

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-34. Emphasis added.

And Matthew, in our passage, in fact does the same thing.  He reports Jesus as specifically telling the disciples (us) that to be like little children is to be “lowly.” 

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Matthew 18:3-5

We should recognize that this is nothing new in Jesus’ conception of the kingdom as told by Matthew.  Indeed, this is consistent with what we’ve been seeing about the conflict between the Kingdom of God as demonstrated and taught by Jesus and the existing preconceptions and assumptions of the kingdom, as usually represented by the Pharisees and religious leaders, but also revealed in the disciples.  And we seem to be seeing it again in the disciples again here.  They still have expectations about the Kingdom – here, specifically about their “privileged” place in it.  And Jesus once again is telling them, your expectations about the Kingdom are wrong. 

It’s with this in mind that we should read the rest of our passage. 

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Matthew 18:6-9

The principle here seems pretty straightforward – the well-being (probably spiritual – as in one’s relationship with God) of others is a paramount value in the kingdom of God.  That in and of itself is not likely in dispute.  However, we have also seen throughout the Matthew’s gospel is that there was a population of people that Jesus seemed to go out of His way for, that the religious leaders ignored or rejected.  These people tended to be the Gentiles, the poor, the crippled, women, and (as our passage here suggests) children. 

Where the religious leaders tended to focus on their own establishment, their own power and privilege, and how to keep Israel pure and undefiled, Jesus and His kingdom sought out the neglected, the rejected, and the forgotten. 

And the final verses in our passage seem to bear this out: 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Matthew 18:10-14

Now it’s worth noting that this same parable is told by Luke in his gospel. 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:1-7

And we see in Luke’s telling that Jesus shares this parable in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of His welcoming and eating with sinners – whereas Matthew tells the parable in the context of “little ones.”  In both cases, Jesus’ emphasis is on those who have little standing in society. Jesus seems to be saying something along the lines of, “those who are rejected or neglected by the world are precisely those that God seeks out and welcomes into His kingdom.” 

Of course, we shouldn’t understand this to mean that God does not want the Pharisees and religious leaders to be part of His kingdom.  The point seems to be that the things that the world values are not the things that God values.  Position and privilege are what help you get by in the world, but this is not the way of the Kingdom. 

To be a child is (usually) to not yet have attained those things that the world values (such as power, position, and privilege).  By the same token, children (usually) have little or no utility – they don’t earn money, they can’t make things for you, or whatever else it is that society thinks is important.  But these are not the things that matter in the kingdom of God. 

Now this doesn’t mean that we – as Christians and as the church – shouldn’t do things.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a mission, a purpose, or a calling.  But it does mean that it is not by doing such things, it is not by achieving such things, that we find our place in the Kingdom.  And it does mean that how we welcome people into the community is not based on such things. 

It strikes me that the disciples had certain expectations – we’ve talked about this a lot so it should come as no surprise.  But what we’ve mostly talked about was the disciples’ expectations of Jesus and what kind of kingdom he was supposed to bring.  But in reading this passage, we see that the disciples had particular expectations for themselves in the kingdom – that is, what place or privilege they would receive. 

This makes a great deal of sense because they had given up whatever they had in order to follow Jesus.  For the past several years, they had followed Jesus everywhere, witnessed everything that he did, and were key participants in his ministry (even if they often got things wrong).  And now that they had recognized him as the Messiah, and understood that the kingdom was to be restored through Him, naturally they expected that their investment would provide an appropriate return. 

Not surprisingly, we still do this today.  We still seek to establish our value, prove our worth, make people love us and accept us.  The general rule of thumb seems to be, the more you can accomplish, the more you can produce, the more you are needed, the more value you have. 

As a bit of an aside, entire discipleship programs in churches are based on this principle.  There’s often a multi-step process where a new Christian or church member:  1) learns the basics of Christian theology, 2) Some sort of advanced theology class, 3) getting involved in ministry, and finally 4) getting involved in leadership. 

These sorts of structures or programs are not necessarily bad – people often work, learn, or grow with some sort of structure.  The problem is when we think that the people at the end of the pathway are the most useful and therefore the most valuable.  In order to have a “healthy” church, we need to move more people through the pathway to leadership. 

Now that’s just a particular example – and one that’s informed by my own personal biases and preferences.  But I think this perspective and attitude reveals itself in many areas of life.  But the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about seems to be distinctly different.  For Jesus, the people who belong are not (necessarily) the most useful.  Belonging in the Kingdom of God is not about moving up the prominence ladder. 

For Jesus, belonging in the Kingdom of God is to become like lowly children – it seems precisely about coming to the recognition that there is nothing that we can bring, nothing that we can do, that we depend entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

I don’t usually, but I have over the years, read some books by the so-called ‘experts’ on church growth, church planting, ministry effectiveness, and etc.  Some are good, and some are not.  But of all the books that I read, the ones that usually strike me, the writers that seem to make a difference in my life and ministry, are not those who talk about how we can do more or better for Christ.  Rather, they are the ones who talk about how desperately we need Christ. 

Maybe to become mature in Christ, maybe to be “first in the Kingdom,” to find belonging in the Kingdom, is not about competence, productivity, or effectiveness.  Maybe it’s simply about how deeply we know our need for Christ.  And therefore, how deeply we depend on, and put our hope and trust in Christ. 

Now I’m not talking about wallowing in our brokenness or reveling in our sinfulness.  It’s not about becoming passive in our spirituality.  I believe we are called to participate in Christ’s work, as co-heirs of the kingdom. 

But maybe as we walk with Christ, work with Christ, and witness Christ working in the world, it’s not about becoming more skilled, more useful, or more noticeable.  Maybe it’s about realizing, and coming to grips with, the depth of our brokenness and fallenness and from that truth, finding that our truest freedom – indeed our truest selves – are found only in Christ.

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