Yesterday at Baltimore Bible Church Pastor George began teaching through the next major section of Matthew beginning in Chapter 18. This passage and the following verses form a unit Pastor George is calling “Life in the Father’s House.” In this discourse Jesus presents a radical re-ordering of our worldly values with the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. This week we covered verses 1-6, which answer the question “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
This passage comes as Jesus and the disciples are returning to Capernaum after a journey that would have taken several months. On this trip, Jesus taught the disciples specifically about his identity, his coming death and resurrection, and what they should expect in the coming weeks. Some of the disciples even witnessed his transfiguration and heard the voice of God the Father from heaven. So what are the disciples discussing (and even arguing about, as we learn from other accounts) on the way? Who among them will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And this wasn’t the first or last time this question was on their minds. It seems that throughout their ministry, the question of greatness was what the disciples were primarily concerned about. Even up to the night of Jesus’ betrayal (Luke 22).
Here they come to Jesus and ask directly, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Since they couldn’t figure it out arguing among themselves, they might as well ask Jesus, right? They did get an answer, but not the one they were hoping for. Jesus used a powerful object lesson to show them that they had it completely backwards, and that to be made high in the Kingdom we should seek to be made low on Earth. Children in Roman culture had no standing whatsoever. A child wasn’t even considered a legal member of the family until it was acknowledged as such by the father. And even in our day, children are utterly dependent on their parents. That’s why neglecting a child is such a heinous crime. But when we make ourselves low and dependent on God here on Earth, we are exalted (lifted up) in the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is also a stern warning for how we treat God’s children. The way of the world is to always look up. Who is higher than me and can help me raise my own status? But how ought we to view our brothers and sisters? As a means to more success, or higher achievement? No, but we should receive even the lowest person as if we were receiving Christ Himself. We cannot treat people based on what they can do for us, but rather how we would treat Christ if it were Him instead of the “low” person we encounter. I am reminded of this attitude in one of the brothers in our church. It’s his habit to stand when someone enters the room, and if asked why he says, “Because a child of the King just entered.” What a wonderful example and perspective; one that understands the implications of this text in a practical way.
There is a further warning that God’s people are so precious it would be better to die in shame than to lead them into sin. To have a millstone tied around your neck and cast into the sea was among the most dishonorable ways to die at the time. It prevented any possibility of a dignified burial. Your body would be desecrated and eaten by fish. This is the example Jesus gives to warn against leading those weaker than yourself into temptation.
For those that are serving faithfully, even without recognition, there is a great encouragement here. Keep serving, you are lifted up in the kingdom! For those that seek their own honor and praise, remember that to be made high you must be brought low.