Summary: The analogy of the child being the greatest in God’s Kingdom was completely contrary to the prevailing culture then and now. Imagine how His disciples must have reacted to Jesus then and how indifferent it is even today.
Opening illustration: If God was taking resumes, what would you put on yours? In other words, what makes a good Christian? What would really impress them when you arrive in heaven? Experience, qualifications, references, character traits …
The reason I asked is because followers of Jesus Christ have sometimes asked these questions. Matthew 18:1:"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"
They didn't seem to care that Jesus had just told them that he was about to die. Imagine Peter: he'd walked on water, been on the mountaintop and even had his taxes paid through a miracle.
Their assumption was that greatness in the Kingdom comes from human endeavor and heroic accomplishments. The way that Jesus responded tells us that greatness in the Kingdom doesn't come from any of that.
Let us turn to Matthew 18 and see God’s perspective on who is really the greatest! Apparently this is also the most important chapter for Christian ethics … shows the condition of the heart.
Introduction: Jesus is about to be killed and His disciples are arguing about who is the greatest? Who's it going to be? The very question is absurd in a situation like this. Just like today when a parent is about to die and the kids are discussing who gets the property. It shows where their hearts are, doesn't it? They were looking into the Kingdom to see if they could be great. They were seeking to fill the position of Christ … who would replace Him once He was gone. Squabbling like little unruly children.
Question: In the secular world, what was greatness based on?
Answer: In the secular world greatness was based on social rank, wealth, or a special ability.
It is Jesus' teaching in this passage that those standards of greatness in the world are not what count in His Kingdom. Jesus uses the visible metaphor of a little child as His teaching point. The Greek word in the biblical text is paidion, a word used to refer to a child under the age of twelve.
Question: Why does Jesus use a little child to illustrate His teaching point? What differentiates a little child from adults?
Answer: Adults are for the most part self-sufficient, but little children are completely dependent on someone else for their care or they cannot survive.
The analogy of the child being the greatest in God’s Kingdom was completely contrary to the prevailing culture then and now. Imagine how His disciples must have reacted to Jesus then and how indifferent it is even today.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
This question was spawned by an argument according to Mark 9. Can you believe the disciples would have an argument? What was it about? Who would get to wash the others feet? Who would get to cook tonight? Watch the nursery? Drive the bus? Clean the ancient toilets? No, they were arguing over who would be the greatest. Basically determining who is the top dog?
In fact in Matthew 19:14 Jesus exhorts His disciples to “Let the little children come and don’t hinder them. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
1. Transformed like a child (vs. 1-3)
How the disciples’ demeanor must have fallen when Jesus said this! They knew that in that day, children were regarded more as property than individuals. It was understood that they were to be seen and not heard. Jesus said we have to take this kind of humble place to enter the kingdom, much less be the greatest in the kingdom.
• Children are not threatening; we aren’t afraid of meeting a five-year old in a dark alley. When we have a tough, intimidating presence, we aren’t like Jesus.
• 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.
• 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.
Matthew is not intending that we become childish in our behavior but be child-like in our outlook. He is not talking about cry-babies nor is he talking about those who keep sucking on the milk bottle or crying when their nappies are wet. Certainly he is not talking about those who get on the floor to throw tantrums just because their wish was not fulfilled or demands not met. Neither is he talking about those who want a lullaby to sleep and continue to eat, sleep and laze around.
He is talking about those who are transformed to have the purity of heart and the innocence of lambs in their lives. These are the ones who can easily put their faith in Christ without expecting anything in return. It conveys the child likeness of the believer. We're not the high and the mighty. We're not the noble. We're not the lofty. We're not the mature and the adult and the profound. We are children with all that that conveys, lowly children at best.