Verse of the Day Devotion Matthew 18:1
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” – Matthew 18:1
The disciples were no doubt concerned about who Jesus considered the greatest of the twelve. They knew that obviously Jesus was the greatest, both here and in the final kingdom. But they were essentially asking, who came after Jesus. It seems that the disciples were often concerned about this. We see two instances recorded in Luke alone. “And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest.” Luke 9:46. And then “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.” Luke 22:24. We also know of at least two other instances and who knows if the verses in Mark and Matthew, our focus verse, is the same as those in Luke or are different.
Matthew’s version does not say they were arguing or discussing amongst each other as in the other instances, but I imagine this occurred more times then recorded here. So, after they asked Him, He gathered them around Him, along with a child. The fact that the child came when Jesus called says something about Jesus. He was the sort of man that children would trust and willingly come to Him. And then, what He tells the disciples was no doubt somewhat of a disappointment, for they expected a specific name from Him.
However, what He said was that humility is what He is looking for. “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. He starts by telling them that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they must become like children. A child was a person of no importance in Jewish society, subject to the authority of his elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, not one to be looked up to. Children are not threatening; we aren’t afraid of meeting a five-year-old in a dark alley. Children are not good at deceiving; they are pretty miserable failures at fooling their parents. When we are good at hiding ourselves and deceiving others, we aren’t like Jesus. The child is held up as an ideal, not of innocence, purity, or faith, but of humility and unconcern for social status. Jesus knew that we must be converted to be like little children. It isn’t in our nature to take the low place and to humble ourselves.
Then He says the following, which I believe was a shock to His disciples. “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.” Matthew 18:5. Jesus addressed the issue of greatness. When we most fulfill the humble place a child had in that culture, we are then on our way to greatness in His kingdom. This is the picture Paul gives of Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. “Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-8. This is true humility; the Son of God Himself being humble in order to do the work needed to save mankind from their sins.
And finally, he finishes with two powerful statements. First, “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.” Matthew 18:5. Since the nature of Jesus is like one of these little children, how we treat those who are humble like children shows what we think of the nature of Jesus. Unfortunately, we see this all too often. The essential fact in the transformation Christ works in us is that He changes the great ones into little children. And in this world, it is easy to actually despise the humble. They are the losers; the kind who will never make it in our competitive and aggressive and get-ahead world. Yet when we despise humble people, we also despise Jesus.
And secondly, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6. The idea of ‘to stumble’ is to sin. So, what He is saying is that anyone who causes one of those who humbles themselves as children to sin, it would be better for them to receive the above severe punishment of being drowned in the sea with a millstone wrapped around his neck. The stone, and anyone attached to it, was sure to sink and never come up again. And this was a big millstone. Theologian D.A. Carson notes, “Most millstones were hand tools for domestic use…here it is the heavy stone pulled around by a donkey.” And the very picture of drowning had its terror for the Jew. Drowning was sometimes a Roman punishment, but never Jewish. This is probably why Jesus used this form of punishment.
In closing, rather than strive to be the greatest in this world, we should simply trust in Jesus and serve others, thereby serving Him. Positions of power are meant to be positions of service. We are not called to lord over others, we are to use any influence or resources we have to serve others. The greatest in the kingdom are those who have the humility of a child and the meekness of Jesus. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” Matthew 5:5. What is valued in God’s kingdom is loving the way He loved us—selflessly.
William Funkhouser MDiv, ThD, Founder and President of True Devotion Ministries.