Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: Child-like Faith, 10th Sunday After Pentecost
Volume 8 No. 491 July 27, 2018
II. Lectionary Reflections: Matthew 18:1-14

Unless You Become Like Children

by Yves I-Bing Cheng, M.D., M.A.

Gospel: Matthew 18:1-4

The Lord Jesus, in His teaching, used the example of a child as a model of true discipleship. Most Christians know this passage in Matthew 18 where Jesus instructed His disciples to 'become like children.' Let's read it from v. 1 to v. 4.

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them,
3 and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:1

Worldly ambition

Thinking of their own advancement, the disciples asked, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? This question followed closely a prediction that Jesus would die. The Lord said that He was going to be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill Him, but He will rise again on the third day (Matthew 16:21). Convinced that Jesus was the Messiah but not understanding how He could literally rise again, the minds of the disciples were focused exclusively on the idea that somehow He was about to set up the Messianic kingdom. Though Jesus had recently declared it impossible to follow Him except in self-renunciation (Mathew 16:24), here they were looking forward to becoming chiefs of state in His kingdom and they wished to know who should have the highest office.

But the Lord Jesus said, 'You are going in the wrong direction. You are thinking in terms of earthly glory, in terms of power, fame, wealth, honor, position. I am going in the opposite direction. I am going to an earthly death and humiliation.'

Greatness in the view of men differs much from greatness in the sight of God. The disciples could not see that Jesus came, not to glorify Himself, but to humble Himself. Because that was the only way salvation could be accomplished. This self-humbling is called the 'narrow road' in the Sermon on the Mount.

The first last and the last first

The disciples' question gave Jesus an opportunity to teach them something completely unexpected. He reverses their perspective of greatness by this paradox: If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I think that the best word we can use to describe Jesus' teaching is the word 'revolutionary'. His teaching is revolutionary. In this world, we often apply the word 'revolution' to something that is really not much of a revolution. The outward form may change, but the essence remains the same. And we call that a revolution.

Here the Lord Jesus says that to attain something in the kingdom of God, you don't subject other people to you. You must subject yourself to others and become the least. Everything is reversed. You ascend by willingly going down.

How do we go down? Jesus uses the example of a child. Whoever ... humbles himself as this child. You humble yourself like this child. This is not to say that children are always in the habit of humbling themselves. That is not the point. I don't think that many people would regard humility as characteristic of children. The point is that we, who are already grown up, we turn back and become children again. To go back from adulthood to childhood, to lower yourself down to the level of a child when you have already become mature, that is humbling oneself. So the point is not that children are humble. The point is that spiritual greatness requires humility, which is defined here by a radical change of orientation in a person's life.

You see why I said that Jesus' teaching is revolutionary. It goes against all our human inclinations, against all the ambitions we had since our childhood. As a child, we always wanted to grow up. And now that we are grown up, we are told to become like children (v. 3).

The humility of Christ

I would like you to notice that the notion of humility, of self-abnegation, of going down rather than going up, was already there in the previous section, in Matthew 17:24-27. Let's read it and see in what way it is related to the theme of self-humbling.

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, "Does not your teacher pay the tax?"
25 He said, "Yes." And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?"
26 And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free.
27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself."
Matthew 17:24

This tax was not the Roman tax, but the temple tax of half a shekel paid by the Jews for the public sacrifices and the upkeep of their temple. Payment could be made in person at the Passover festival in Jerusalem, but collections were also made in many other places. The 'collectors' here were probably the temple commissioners who went through Palestine annually.

These collectors came to Peter and asked him, 'Does your Master pay the tax?' Peter said, 'Yes, He pays the tax.' Nothing tells us that he was hesitant in his response. Perhaps he knew from previous years that it was Jesus' practice to pay the temple tax. Otherwise I doubt that Peter would have answered a question concerning his Master based on assumptions.

Jesus used this situation to ask Peter a question. He said, 'Tell Me, Peter, from whom the kings of this world collect taxes? Do they collect taxes from their own children? Or do they collect taxes from strangers, i.e., those who are not their sons and daughters?'

Well, the answer is obvious. The kings of the earth do not collect taxes from their family members because to do so would be to tax themselves. To tax their children is like giving them money with one hand, and taking it back with the other. Clearly, they don't do that. They tax other people, not their own household.

Peter, of course, knew that.

'In that case,' the Lord said, 'the children are free. Taxes are not required of them.'

But who is the ruler of the temple? No human could claim that title. The reference must be to God. God owns the temple. What about the 'sons' who are exempt to pay the temple tax? The obvious reference in context is to Jesus Himself, whose payment of tax was the subject of the question. But the plural indicates that the disciples, the children of the kingdom, also share in this privilege. They are free from the burden of the temple tax.

Notice now Jesus' attitude. Although the children are not obligated to pay taxes to their Father, yet Jesus is willing to pay it. He did not want people to think that He despised the temple and its service, and thus provoke needless opposition.

We are back to this matter of humbling oneself. Jesus did not say to the tax collectors, 'Do you know who I am? Do you know that My Father owns the temple? And you are asking Me to pay half a shekel?' Rather, he said to Peter, 'Though I am the Son, and Son in the sense that is higher than any of you could be called sons of God, yet I will pay the tax. And you will also pay the tax.' Here we see the great humility of Christ. Though He was the Son of God, He humbled Himself to this level where He was willing to stand with all the others who are taxable and be taxed along with them.

Notice also the extent to which He has humbled Himself. He who was the Son of God, by whom all things were created, did not have half a shekel to pay the temple tax. The half shekel was roughly the equivalent of two days' wages. Jesus didn't have that money. Most likely, the treasurer (Judas) was not present at the time. He was the one who carried the bag in which the disciples put their money together (John 12:6; 13:29). In his absence, there was no money to pay the tax with.

This is the reason why He had to ask Peter to catch a fish. The money for the tax would be found in the fish's mouth. He said to Peter, 'Go and catch a fish. In the first fish that you bring up, you will find in its mouth a shekel. Take it and use it to pay My tax and yours.'

The instruction of Jesus to Peter is quite puzzling. It seems that He did something He normally does not do, i.e., He performed a miracle for His own convenience. Jesus could have said to Peter, 'Catch a few fish and sell them in the market place. And give that money to the tax collectors.' That could have worked too. The tax would have been paid. But think about it. If He had done that, it would have altered the principle that because He is God's Son, He was free of the tax.

Jesus' action should be understood in this way. Since the sons are free, the Father will pay the tax. God will provide that coin in the mouth of the fish to pay it. The primary function of the miracle is therefore to provide a sign to underline the truth of Jesus' point that the children of God do not themselves have to pay the tax. And He made His point without causing any offence.

So here we see the proof of Jesus' divinity. He knew that the first fish that came up would have a coin in its mouth. That truly is remarkable. And yet, the Son of God humbled Himself to the place where He did not even have the money to pay the temple tax.

You shall not enter the kingdom

Then, after all this, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom?' They obviously did not understand the humility of Christ. They did not understand the kingdom of God.

You know, I wonder if Jesus was tempted to say in His heart at that moment, 'You, guys, are totally hopeless. You are so dull spiritually! I think I am going to dismiss you. Just go home. I have been trying to teach you all this time the values of the kingdom by word and by example. And now you ask Me, 'Who will be the greatest?'

But observe His response. He called a child and said, 'Let me tell you something about being great. Look at this child here. The greatest in the kingdom of God is the person who humbles himself like this child. And not only that, if you don't humble yourself as this child, you will not even enter the kingdom.' Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Forget about greatness. Seek to get in. Not only are childlike people the greatest in the kingdom; only childlike people get into the kingdom. Thus what seems to be at first a piece of valuable moral advice (i.e. being humble), Jesus now makes it a matter of life or death, being in the kingdom or out of it.

This solemn warning uses the same language about 'entering into the kingdom' that appeared previously in Matthew.

Matthew 5:20.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 7:21.
Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

The use of that expression here in Matthew 18:3 is surprising because Jesus was speaking to the disciples and we assume that the disciples were already within God's kingship, as opposed to those depicted in Matthew 5:20 and 7:21 who are in danger of never being in the kingdom. Was Jesus then suggesting that their position as disciples remained uncertain?

Well, the least we can say is that their concern for status is incompatible with God's values, and that true discipleship requires the eradication of this human tendency. There is no room for complacency, even for those who are in the faith. But it seems to me that by the word 'turn', unless you turn, Jesus was saying something more: If they continue to pursue the path of secular greatness, if they do not change direction, there is a real possibility that they will never get into the kingdom. They were on the broad road which leads to destruction and they had to turn themselves completely. They had to head in a new direction by taking the narrow road, by becoming like children.

Becoming like children

Now, what does it mean to 'become as a child'? Let's go back to that sentence in v. 3. 'Unless you turn and become.' The first thing we need to do in order to enter the kingdom of God is to turn, turn from the direction we are going. It implies a complete change of attitude. The word 'turn' is related to the idea of repentance. It is actually equivalent to repent. So 'to turn' has to do with our attitude towards sin. There must be a change in our attitude with regard to evil. We must turn away from sin.

This is what Paul means in 1Corinthians 14:20. He says, In evil be babes. Little children do not understand the intricate ways of evil. In that sense, they are innocent and harmless. So Paul says to the Corinthians,

'Where evil is concerned, have a childlike attitude. Be free from malice as babes are.'

Therefore to become a child means that you have turned your back on evil. You don't understand evil and you don't want to understand evil.

'Unless you turn and become like children.' Now look at the word 'become'. Being a Christian is to be some kind of a person. It is not just to do something. It is not just to believe in certain things. It is to be a kind of person who is described here as a child. So here is my second point. To become a child means that God has to do something in our life. Because by nature, we are not children anymore. To become something other than what we are involves a fundamental transformation.

The parallel to this is found in John 3:3-5. Jesus said, 'You must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus could not understand that statement. 'How can it be? Does that mean that I should go into my mother's womb and be born again?' Not at all. It has to be an act of God. God has to transform you and I. The question that Nicodemus asked is the same question that we have in Matthew 18. How can I be a little child when I am already grown up? It is impossible except by God's power. God has to do this work of transformation. So first, we have to turn. But just the turning is not enough. We need the life that comes from God. This transforming power is what is meant by 'regeneration' in the Bible.

And finally, the third thing about becoming a child is that we must be willing to be without status in this world. A child was a person of no importance in the Jewish society. He had no place in the hierarchy of authority and decision making. He was not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to look after, not one to be looked up to. And Jesus said, 'You need to become as little children, unconcerned for social status and, in fact, be socially insignificant. That is a very difficult thing for any of us. We all want to be respected. We all want people to look up to us. But Jesus calls us to be a social nonentity, a nobody in this world, like a child.


Jesus and The Little Ones
Gospel: Matthew 18:1-9

Theme: The two implications to Jesus' great love for those who come to Him in humble, child-like faith.

One of the images from the Bible that I love very much - and I'm sure you love it too - is the image of the little children coming to Jesus. Clearly, it's an image that God Himself loves and values. That's why He has seen fit to include it for our instruction in His word.

* * * * * * * * * *
The Bible tells us that little children (and the Greek word that is used means just that - very small children) were brought to Him by their mothers and fathers; so that He could put His hands on them and pray over them.

The disciples thought that was 'undignified' for these little ones to bother Jesus. The other notable rabbis and teachers of the day would usually keep themselves separate from small children. And so, thinking that they were doing what their Master would want, they rebuked the mothers and fathers and tried to 'shoo' the children away from Him. But Jesus rebuked His disciples. "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them", He said; "for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14). He clearly welcomed them. And it seems equally clear that they loved to come to Him.

I read a story the other day about a very stern-faced preacher who was preaching one Sunday in his church. He was preaching on the subject of "The Tears of Jesus"; and had apparently made this statement: "Three time we read that Jesus wept, but we never read that He smiled." And from the pew below the pulpit, a little girl - forgetting where she was - suddenly cried out, "Oh, but I know He did!"

The serious-looking preacher was shocked; and he glared down from the pulpit at the little girl and said, "Why do you say that, my child?" The little girl knew that everyone was looking at her; and she was understandably frightened. But she spoke with all the humble sincerity she could and said, "Because the Bible says He called a little child and he came to Him. And if Jesus had looked like you, I know the child would have been afraid to come." (1)

I believe that self-righteous, hard-hearted, super-religious people were afraid of Jesus. And I'm sure that He made a lot of their faces hard and stern. But He didn't scare the truly humble and needy away. They felt safe with Him. They felt genuinely welcomed and loved by Him.

They still do.

* * * * * * * * * *
This morning, we'll look together at the story in the Bible that the little girl spoke of - that story of the time when Jesus called the small boy to Himself, and of how the little boy gladly came.

But we need to remember that it's a story that was told in the context of a rebuke. The disciples had been arguing among themselves over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven; and Jesus called the little boy forward to serve as an object lesson - to show the disciples what true greatness in His kingdom looked like.

It's a story that's meant to teach us about the sort of humble, needy spirit with which we ourselves absolutely must approach Jesus - and, as a result, to move us to a change of behavior. It's a story that conveys His welcoming tenderness toward us; but that is also meant to result in our repenting of our sinful attitude. And this morning, I would like to particularly highlight two implications of the fact that Jesus welcomes those who come to Him in child-like faith.

* * * * * * * * * *
Turn with me to Matthew 18:1-9. And let's see, first, that it teaches us that . . .


The story begins with the words "At that time . . ." Literally, in the original language, it says, "In that hour . . ." The events we see at the beginning of this morning's passage occurred very soon after the events of the previous chapter.

Now; think back to those events. Very shortly before this time, several important things had happened. Jesus had asked the disciples who He was; and as spokesman for the others, Simon announced, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). Jesus told him that he had given the right answer. Then, Jesus changed his name to Peter ("the Rock"); and announced to the others that it would be upon this "rock" - that is, the confession Peter had just made - that Jesus would build His church.

Perhaps at this point, Peter began to wonder if he was something very special in the kingdom that Jesus would set up. Perhaps he thought that, when Jesus conquers all the enemies of Israel and sets up His kingdom on earth, Peter would have a special place of honor in it.

Then, a little later on, Jesus took three of His disciples - Peter, James and John - up to a high mountain. There, He manifested His glory to them - giving them a 'preview', as it were, of His post-resurrection majesty as the risen Son of God before He went to the cross (16:28-17:8).

No doubt, Peter, James and John would have thought that they all must be pretty important for Jesus to have given them such a privileged vision of Himself. He even told them not to tell anyone else - not even the others - about what they saw until He had been raised from the dead (17:9). They were the inside circle. Surely, Jesus must have though of them as VIPs in His coming kingdom!

A little later still, Jesus and the three disciples came down from the mountain and found all of the other nine disciples - helplessly trying to cast a demon out of a young boy (17:14-21). Jesus rebuked them for having tried to miracles in His name without relying on His presence and help. And though we're not told so, I suspect that Peter, James and John were all three standing off to the side a little smug. After all, Jesus was not with the others at that time; but He was with them.

A little later still, Jesus even told Peter to go out and catch a fish. He told Peter that inside the mouth of the fish, Peter would find a coin that would pay for both His and Peter's annual 'temple tax' (17:24-27). Peter surely would have noticed that Jesus didn't send James or John. They were fishermen too; but Jesus sent Peter! And what a privilege position Peter must have thought he had - that Jesus would pay His taxes jointly with him!

Now; when we put all the Gospel accounts together, we see an interesting picture. Luke tells us that - somewhere along the way in their travels - a dispute had arisen among them over which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46). Perhaps, looking back at the things that had happened prior to this point, we can see why. Who was the greatest? Was it Peter? Was it James and John? And if it wasn't Peter; which of the other two as it? - James, or John? Or why only them? Why couldn't it be one of the others? Hadn't Jesus chosen them, just as much as He had chosen Peter, James and John?

It's a sad fact that, whenever we experience the riches of God's grace toward us, we so often start to think about how wonderful we must be - rather than on how wonderfully gracious God is.

Apparently, the disciples had kept this argument to themselves. But Jesus knew their thoughts. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that when they all got into the house at Capernaum, Jesus asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?" (Mark 9:33)? (Aren't you glad, by the way, that Jesus doesn't meet you and your family here at church to personally ask, "What was it you were arguing about as your car pulled up into the parking lot?")

It seems that the disciples didn't know what to say to Jesus' question. They were embarrassed. But I suspect that, though they were embarrassed - and since the Lord already clearly knew their thoughts - they went ahead and spoke. All of this helps us understand why our passage begins as it does. We're told, "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'" (v. 1).

And in response to their question, we read, "Then Jesus called a little child to Him" and "set him in the midst of them . . ." (v. 2). Apparently, the little boy was already there in the house. And apparently, he was old enough to come to Jesus when He called him. But the word that the original language uses means just what our translation says - a little child. He was just a tiny fella'. The little guy felt safe with Jesus.

Our Lord called, and he gladly stopped whatever he was doing and came. That's good practical theology, by the way! When Jesus calls, we should come! This little boy did better than a lot of religious experts and New Testament scholars would do!

Jesus placed this tiny, humble little boy in their plain view - as if he were an object lesson to them. Then He dropped the bombshell on them all. He said,

"Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (v. 3-4).

* * * * * * * * * *
Think with me about what Jesus says. He speaks in very strong terms. He begins by saying, "Assuredly" or "Verily, I say to you"; which is an indication that He is about to say something of great importance. We should always listen to what the Son of God says; but we should especially do so when He prefaces what He's about to say with the words, "Assuredly, I say to you". And then, He uses one of the strongest negations that could be used - that is, unless the disciples or anyone else did what He is telling them, they would not in any way enter the kingdom of heaven. It's not that they simply wouldn't be "great" in the kingdom; they wouldn't even enter it! These words, then, are essential to our eternal salvation.

So then; what does Jesus say to do? First, He says that we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless we are "converted". And let's not understand that word to be simply a "religious conversion"; because that's not what Jesus means. The word He uses basically means "to turn around". It means that we recognize that we're going in a wrong direction; and that we must turn around and go in the opposite direction. This means, by the way, that there are some "converts" that have never been truly "converted" at all.

Think of this in terms of the disciples. They were after "greatness" in Jesus' kingdom; and Jesus doesn't rebuke them for having that ambition. In fact, I would suggest that Jesus wants us to be great in His kingdom. But the problem was that the disciples were going in the wrong direction to get there. They were engaged in a program of elevating themselves; and of putting everyone else in the position of serving them. They were preoccupied with "one-upmanship"; and were trying to crawl up to greatness upon one another's backs. And yet, to achieve true greatness, they needed to turn around and go the other direction.

Jesus' path to greatness in His kingdom is not upward-mobility; but rather downward-humility. In His kingdom, the moral law of gravity states that "whatever comes up must first go down". Jesus pointed them toward the true direction of greatness when He later told them,

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave - Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many"
(Matthew 20:25-28).

So; the first thing they needed to do was to "be converted". They must stop seeking greatness in the way the people of this world seek it. They must turn around and go the other direction.

And second, Jesus tells them that , along with being "converted", they must also "become as little children". And there, before them, stood a living example.

What does it mean, in Christ's kingdom, to become as little children? Well; we can sure that it doesn't mean that we should become "childish". The disciples were being childish; and that's why the Lord needed to rebuke them. And we also know that it doesn't mean that we become "children" in our understanding; because, as the Bible tells us, in understanding we are to be "mature" (1 Corinthians 14:20).

I think that a biblical explanation of what it means to become as a little child before Jesus - as vividly illustrated by the little boy that Jesus had set before His disciples - is given to us in Psalm 131. There, King David wrote;

LORD, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever
(Psalm 131).

So; taking our instruction from this psalm, to become like a little child means that we cease from being "haughty" or "proud". It means that we cease from raising our eyes in a "lofty" or "arrogant" way. It means that we humbly accept that there are things that we cannot understand about the greatness of God's plan. It means that we cease being so arrogant and self-important that we wont accept what God says, unless it make perfect sense according our standard of reasoning. In a word, it means that we are meek and humble before God and His word.

Second, it means that we become content in God's love. It means that we don't fret and worry about tomorrow's needs. It means that we become like a little child resting comfortably and satisfied in mother's arms after being fed. It means that we become calm within our soul because of the Father's good care for us. In a word, it means we're at peace in God's care.

And finally, it means that we hope in God. We don't look to our own resources. We don't imagine that it's all up to us. Instead, we place our hope in God's good care; and know that He will never let us down. We entrust tomorrow to Him, and look expectantly to His good plan. In a word, it means we're confident in God's power.

Jesus said, "Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of God" (v. 4). Unless we do so, we can't even enter Jesus' kingdom. But whoever does so is "great" in His kingdom.

So then; have you come to Jesus on those terms? Have you repented of your pride and self-sufficiency; and have you come to Him as a little child? He warns that, unless you do, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

* * * * * * * * * *
Now; before we go any further, I'd like to show you something. Look at this story as Mark tells it to us, in the ninth chapter of his Gospel.

Mark tells us that Jesus called the disciples to Himself and said, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). Then, to illustrate, we're told that He took this little child and set him in the midst of them. They could plainly see the living example of humility He was calling them to.

But then, as a separate illustration, we're told, "And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me" (v. 36). With the first act - that of bringing the child before the disciples - Jesus was illustrating how we should come to Him in the humble manner of a little child. And with the second act - that of taking the same child up in His arms - He was illustrating how we should receive and welcome those who come to Him in such humility of spirit.

This leads us to the next point in our passage. And it is an unusually serious one! It teaches us that . . .


First, notice that Jesus begins by saying, "Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me" (v. 5). I don't believe Jesus had only strictly "little children" in mind; but that He would have us also apply this to anyone who believe on His word, and rest in Him, and who trust in His grace with childlike faith - no matter what their age.

He says that, if we "receive" them (that is, welcome them and kindly include them), and if we do so "in His name" (that is, as His representatives, and as He Himself would do), then we are truly receiving Him. And notice that He says that this is true, even if it is only one such child. He values each and every one of those who trust in Him with simple faith; and watches carefully to see that they are treated rightly by others. He has already spoken of this to His disciples; when He said,

He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward" (Matthew 10:40-42).

* * * * * * * * * * *
But now is when our Lord speaks some of the most frightening words we find Him speaking in the Bible. He says, "But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea" (v. 6).

Literally, Jesus speaks here of an upper-millstone - a stone that was used in the grinding of grain on a mill. It was so large and heavy that it had to be harnessed to a donkey by a large beam, so that the stone could be turned by brute force. It was so big that, if it were tied to a man's neck and he were thrown into the sea, he'd sink directly to the bottom and not come up. What's more, Jesus speaks of throwing such a man into the depth of the sea. A smaller stone in shallower water would do the job just as much; but Jesus is speaking her of something that is sever and permanent.

If I may say this reverently, Jesus almost speaks like a hit-man in this passage - promising to send someone off to 'sleep with the fishes' if they tamper with any of his believing little ones. But really, it's much worse than that! Note that Jesus isn't simply saying that someone who harms one of His little ones should have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. He is saying that such a person would be better off if that were done for them than what will happen to them. Jesus is warning that an unspeakably worse destiny awaits such a person than anything that could be done with a millstone and the sea! He speaks later of being 'cast into the everlasting fire' (v. 8), or of being cast into hell-fire' (v. 9).

Being thrown into the midst of the deep sea with a millstone tied about one's neck would be a horrible end. But it's temporary compared to the eternal judgment Jesus is speaking of. Clearly, the Judge of all the earth is putting the people of this world on notice never mess with any of His little believing ones. No one had better ever interfere with their faith, or hinder them from coming to Him; and once they come, no one had better ever cause them to stumble in their faith or tempt them into sin! They will most certainly answer to the Judge of all the earth for it if they do.

* * * * * * * * * * *
Note that Jesus speaks realistically of life in this fallen world. "Woe to the world because of offenses" (v. 7); that is, because of the occasions and enticements to sin that are in it. We live in a world that is full of such things. We can't expect to escape being touched by them. In fact, Jesus even says, "[F]or offenses must come". Literally, they are "necessary". In some mysterious way, even they are a part of God's decree. In His sovereign wisdom, He has permitted that it be so.

Nevertheless, He doesn't fail to hold the 'secondary cause' of that offense responsible. He goes on to say, "But woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" Woe to that man or woman who keeps 'little ones' from coming to Jesus. Woe to them when they undercut a growing faith in Him; or when they deliberately keep those little ones from church; or when they deliberately mix the pure gospel message up with the philosophies and religions of this world in order to confuse them or hide its truth from them. Woe to the teacher or college professor who mocks and belittles the faith of Jesus' little ones; or who makes it their aim to destroy the faith of those unfortunate believers who end up in their classroom. Woe to those who recruit Jesus' little ones to cults and false religions though the pretense of professing the truths of the Christian faith; thus embittering their poor victims from the pure claims of His word. Woe to anyone who would dare to lead one of Jesus' little ones into sin in order to justify their own sinful inclinations. And especially, woe to those who ever dare to lay a hand on any of Jesus' precious little ones as an object of their own vile lusts!

Jesus here gives prudent advice - advice, in fact, that He had given before in His Sermon on The Mount;

"If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire"
(Matthew 18:8-9).

Jesus is saying, in this context, that if there is anything in your life that would lead you to cause one of His little ones to stumble and fall into sin, it would be better for you to take whatever drastic measures are necessary to sever yourself from it. I don't believe that Jesus is saying that you should actually, physically cut off your hand or foot, or dig out your eye. But He is saying that if there is anything in our lives that would lead us to cause you to harm the faith of even a single one of His little ones who believe in Him - even if it were your hand, or your foot, or your eye - you're much better off going through life without it.

This is meant to be understood as an argument from 'the greater to the lesser'. Does your television tempt you into sin - or cause any of Jesus' little ones into sin? Then get rid of it. Does the computer in your home give the enemy opportunity to grip your heart - or to grip the heart of any of Jesus' little ones? Then you're better off without it. Better - better by far! - to live life deprived of these temporal conveniences, than to answer to the Judge of all the earth for having caused one of these little ones who believe on Him to stumble!

* * * * * * * * * *
This, as I said before, is not only an affirmation of Jesus' attitude toward those who come to Him with simple child-like faith. It's a call to repentance.

Do you make sure that you are one of His "little ones"? Do you come to Him in the humble faith of a simple child? If not, you need to convert, and become like a little child, and come to Him in humility. Otherwise, you will, by no means, enter the kingdom of heaven.

And then, do you receive and respect the faith of those little ones who believe on Jesus? Do you place as high a priority on them as He does? Do you make sure that you do nothing to cause a single one of them to stumble from Him? Those who harm His little ones will answer to Him.


1 Harry Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1948), p. 223.

Copyright 2007 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights Reserved
(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

In the Meantime

by Prof. David Lose

Gospel: Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

We are so accustomed to seeing paintings of Jesus with children that we hardly notice a scene like this. It's been rendered into all manner of "art," including just about everything from Rockwell-esque paintings to the velvet-Jesuses you might find at a roadside truck stop. Perhaps there's something comforting about Jesus as the benevolent, even adoring benefactor of children. Or maybe a child is just the thing to balance out all the talk about going to Jerusalem and dying that surrounds this scene. Or maybe we just like pictures of kids. Whatever the reason, there's something about these snapshots of Jesus and children we just can't get enough of.

But consider: the conversation wasn't about those in need of protection or care, and it wasn't about how cute kids are, and it definitely wasn't a crash course in parenting. Jesus was talking about greatness. Jesus doesn't start the conversation, we should note, the disciples do. They come to him with a question about this kingdom of God he's been preaching and teaching about. Specifically, they want to know is greatest in the kingdom or, more likely, who will be the greatest in the kingdom.

It's not that unusual of a question when you think about it. In any new setting or situation and the kingdom Jesus proclaims is the very definition of new we want to gain a sense of our place, our standing, our status. We feel more comfortable when we know the rules of the environment and have figured out the pecking order. Even if we don't like the pecking order or think it's unfair, we still feel better knowing it, as we might then at least look out for ourselves or even advance according to its rules. And so the disciples ask Jesus about the rules of this kingdom and what it takes to be great.

In response, he draws a child to him. And before we get all sentimental, we should remember that in the first century children had no particular economic or societal value. That doesn't mean that parents didn't love their children; of course they did. It's more the simple recognition that for most of the world's history children were an economic liability until they could work and generate income. As a result, they have no standing in the ancient world, no material value, and no power. And so this child represents the vulnerability and need and utter dependence of all children of that day.

And that is what Jesus says will count for greatness in the kingdom. Not military power, or physical might, or athletic prowess, or great beauty, or immense wealth, or societal standing and fame, or any of the other things they or we are likely to equate with greatness. But rather vulnerability and need and dependence.

This isn't new, mind you. We've noticed that from the beginning of Matthew's story, Jesus he seems to favor those who can admit their need and ask for help. But here he states it most plainly: greatest constitutes those who recognize their need for God and for each other. Period.

Prayer: Dear God, help us to admit our vulnerability and need so that, rather than striving for greatness according to the world's standards, we might turn to you and those around us for the love and acceptance we all crave. And let us then meet the needs of others and see them as great in your kingdom. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Source: Daily Bread

He Who Is Greatest

by Dr. Donald T. Williams

Gospel: Luke 9:46-50

Luke 9:46 And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by his side, 48 and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great." 49 And John answered and said, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him because he does not follow along with us." 50 But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you."


In the last few weeks, beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we have seen Jesus reject the offer of a worldly throne and commit himself to walk the way of the Cross. We've seen him declare that if we want to be his disciples, we have to walk with him on that path, denying our selves, taking up our own crosses, and following him. We have seen the disciples' inability to make sense of this teaching. And we have seen the Father, on the Mount of Transfiguration, approve those very teachings and exhort the disciples to "Listen to him!" But listen though they might, the way of the Cross still does not make any sense to them. We can see this clearly in the conversation hinted at in our text today. Who is the greatest? I think we can imagine all too well how it might have sounded.

The Three must have insisted, "Well, it pretty much has to be one of us, doesn't it?" To which the rest probably responded, not without a certain credibility, "Oh, he just takes you three along to keep you out of trouble!" John: "Hey, I'm the one who leans on the Master's breast." James: "Yeah, and he's going to get tired of you hanging on him like that all the time, too." Peter: "Hey, I'm the Rock, after all, the foundation of the Church!" Andrew: "Oh, yeah? If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't even be a disciple!" Matthew: "Well, I used to be a tax collector, so I'm clearly the most improved." Judas Iscariot: "Well, that's all well and good, but it's obvious that I'm the one he trusts the most--after all, he did make me the treasurer." Hmmm.

"And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest." What clearer symptom could we want of the fact of their complete failure to understand the way of the Cross? They were not denying self; they were affirming self. They were not taking up the cross; they were competing for a crown. They were not following Christ; they were pursuing their own self interest, their own glory. They had not yet been liberated from the world's concept of greatness, what we have called the "Gentile Paradigm" of leadership as superiority which allows you to "lord it over" your subordinates. They needed desperately to learn the principle that the Lord tries once again to teach them here: the world's concept of greatness is backwards, and the Christian concept is radical: "for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great."


The world finds greatness in status, and therefore orients itself around the pursuit of status. Webster defines status as "position or rank in relation to others; position in a hierarchy of prestige." The key idea is rank "in relation to others." Status is a zero sum game in which, as you go higher, everyone else ends up lower. It is not enough that I be recognized; I must be recognized as better than you. It is not enough that I be honored; I must be honored more than you. It is not enough that I be valued; I must be valued more than you, or it is worth nothing. This is the default position in a fallen world. Sinners automatically think like this, though the more civilized among them have learned to hide it. The disciples had at least not become hypocrites about it yet! They wanted to know who was the greatest.

Well, if that is what status is, how do you acquire it? What are the sources of status? In our society there seem to be mainly three: power, wealth, and celebrity. Power is the most important of them all, perhaps because it is a key to getting the other two. Professional athletes make more money than the president of the U. S., and some movie stars get more publicity. But he is the most powerful man in the free world. Only one person can be president of a nation of a company at time, but everyone can pile up wealth--or, what may be more important, the appearance of wealth. That is why fads are so potent. You have to have the right possessions or you lose status. My house has the most square feet. I trump your square feet with a Jacuzzi, or by parking a Lexus in my driveway. For about $20,000 you can get a good, reliable car that is even decently accessorized. For twice that you can get a "luxury car." Is the luxury car really twice as good? Is it really twice as comfortable? Twice as fast? Twice as reliable? No, it is only marginally better. In fact, it may be built on the very same frame and have the same engine and drive train. So why don't we pay just marginally more for it? Because what we are buying is not a better car at all, but the status that having it confers. The hollowest source of status of all is celebrity. Celebrity has been defined as being famous for being famous. Now, most of us aren't really famous, but we can pretend to be by playing the name-dropping game. Back in the mid eighties, Michael Jackson had a concert in Atlanta. It was announced that for fifty dollars you could "apply" for a ticket. If you were chosen, you would get to fork over another hundred or more, depending on where you wanted to sit. It was a sadistically brilliant publicity stunt. A sufficient number of idiots were falling all over themselves to get one of those coveted tickets. Why? Because his music was really that good? No, it was because the publicity created a kind of illusory sharing of his celebrity: you were "special" if you actually got to go. (I would have paid real money to be spared; fortunately, that was still free). Do you think believers are immune from such absurd temptations? Think again. A person I know once met a woman whose big thing was to get all the really big Evangelical celebrities--TV preachers, pastors of famous megachurches--to autograph her Bible. And he was dumbfounded to discover some of the names of people who had been silly enough to do it. I will not reveal them here, but they were people you have heard of! And oh, was she proud of those signatures! Then she offered him the opportunity to add his autograph too, right under . . . oh, that's right, I wasn't going to tell you. He said, "Lady, there is one Name in that Book that matters, and it isn't mine." He had witnessed to or counseled prostitutes, adulterers, and gossips; I don't think he ever felt soiled by an encounter the way he did by this one. Thiking about it, I want to rend my garment and cry, "Blasphemy!" that someone should demean the Word of God so. Yet his objections produced only an uncomprehending stare. Why wasn't he granting her the status she had obviously earned by traveling around to these huge churches and stroking the egos of their pastors? Maybe because it would have been a betrayal of everything the Lord is trying to teach us here.

What is the result of the quest for status? Spiritual impotence. It is great super-churches only half or less of whose "members" actually bother to show up on Sunday morning. It is "Christian" TV modeled on secular media techniques developed to fuel and exploit the celebrity syndrome. It is great hue and cry and impressive statistics but no spiritual reality. Why? Because it is the exact opposite of the way of the Cross. Those on this path have their backs to the Cross; and therefore they have their backs to Christ. Which of us has not been touched by this? To the extent that we have our backs to him, he calls us to turn around and face him, to move towards him, again. And he does it by means of a little child.

"But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by his side, and said to them, 'Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great.'" This child is the Lord's alternative to the search for status. To "receive" this child--to accept him, to take him in, to care for him--is to receive Christ. Why? Because the child is weak, he is insignificant, he is a nobody. He is utterly lacking in any ability to confer status on you. Nobody will be impressed that he has autographed your Bible! He is not going to give you one iota of power, wealth, or celebrity; in fact, he may cost you quite a bit of some of those things. So why serve him? Only one reason: love. Because in so doing you are serving Jesus.

Who has status in the Kingdom of Heaven? Billy Graham? Spurgeon? They have their honor as faithful servants, no doubt. But who has STATUS? The nursery worker! The nameless, unsung nursery worker has a status in the Kingdom that is not eclipsed by the famous preacher who has evangelized millions. How? Because status as the world defines it is irrelevant in the Kingdom. All who are truly Christ's have everything in him. Comparison with others is therefore totally superfluous. The only thing that matters is pleasing the Lord, and to do that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. Specifically we must follow his example and serve the brethren. The world finds greatness is status, but the Lord finds it in service.


There is a second point to be made here. John tries to salvage the situation, which has become rather embarrassing for the disciples jockeying for position, by changing the subject to an encounter he has had with what he considers a potential rival, expecting the Lord to be pleased that he has put him down and discouraged him. Oops! But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you." Why was Jesus not in fact pleased by John's care for the apostolic band's market share? Because John's motive for putting down the potential rival was one more manifestation of the very pride that had been fueling his quest for status. Jesus was zealous for the glory of the Father. As long as that is maintained, it did not matter to him which human being got the credit for the ministry. What matters to him is that the ministry happens and the Father is glorified. But those among us who are trying to build their own little kingdom have a different agenda altogether. Show me a church with a closed and self-perpetuating board (i.e., one that chooses its own replacements), and nine times out of ten it will be populated by people like John in this encounter. You see it in certain denominations where it seems more important to them whether you are a member of their group than it does whether you are a Christian or not. It is one more manifestation of the search for status. When this attitude prevails, servanthood is not the model and ministry is not the priority--unless we get the status of the inflated numbers as a result. And so, in our missions program, in our building fund, we should be constantly examining our motives. Are we doing this to build His kingdom or our empire? To gain status or to serve better? The answer to that question will determine the kind of blessing we receive. For the world forms a monopoly, but the Lord furthers the ministry.


The concept of greatness through servanthood we see here is not just an arbitrary ethical rule the Lord made up. It is central to the very Gospel itself. How? The Gospel is the good news of salvation by God's grace alone accepted by faith alone. The notion of fallen human beings earning salvation is anathema to Christ. This salvation can only be received as a gift by the undeserving. No one who believes he deserves salvation has it. For it is by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, lest any man should boast! (Eph. 2:8-10). Don't you see? In principle you gave up the world's view of greatness when you accepted Christ. How inconsistent it is for us to return to it in our practical lives after we are saved! Servanthood is not something tacked on to the Gospel, but something that flows inevitably from it. Therefore, to be a slave to status and to those means of achieving it we have been studying, to seek fulfillment and self worth from the world, in the world's way rather than from Christ in Christ's way, is to live in a manner utterly incompatible with the belief in the Gospel we profess to have. Thank God we are not saved by our consistency! But we must come to see inconsistency as intolerable, because it is a betrayal of our Savior and our Lord. And it causes us to forfeit many of the blessings salvation brings: freedom from the tyranny of the opinions of the crowd, freedom from the rat race, and most of all the fulfillment that comes from denying ourselves, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus.


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