The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Who Is the Greatest?
18 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 is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Last week’s reading at the end of Matthew 17 was about the temple tax. The discussion in today’s reading occurred at the same time (verse 1).
Parallel passages are Luke 9:46-48, which I wrote about in 2014, and Mark 9:33-37, which is in the three-year Lectionary. Matthew’s account is the only one of the three which says the disciples asked Him the question of who was the greatest. In Luke’s account, they were arguing about it until He intervened with a child. In Mark’s account, He asked them what they were discussing on the way to Capernaum that day.
The disciples were still thinking of a temporal kingdom of Israel with Jesus as its ruler. Matthew Henry has this explanation:
They strive who it should be, each having some pretence or other to it. Peter was always the chief speaker, and already had the keys given him he expects to be lord-chancellor, or lord-chamberlain of the household, and so to be the greatest. Judas had the bag, and therefore he expects to be lord-treasurer, which, though now he come last, he hopes, will then denominate him the greatest. Simon and Jude are nearly related to Christ, and they hope to take place of all the great officers of state, as princes of the blood. John is the beloved disciple, the favourite of the Prince, and therefore hopes to be the greatest. Andrew was first called, and why should not he be first preferred?
Even though Jesus had already told them of His imminent suffering to come, they focussed on His discussions of glory. They still had not grasped that He spoke of the world to come.
In order to illustrate His answer clearly, Jesus called a child to Him (verse 2). It is unclear whose child this was, but it might have been one of Peter’s as they were in his house when this took place. Some translations, such as the King James Version, says the child was little, implying a toddler.
With the child before them, he explained that they would have to ‘turn’ and become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (verse 3). The King James Version has ‘converted’, not ‘turn’.
Becoming like children in this context involves turning away from sin: repentance. We must put away worldly thoughts and sins of ambition, greed and lust. Furthermore, we must realise we are very little and lowly compared to the Lord. It involves recognising that we are dependent upon our Father in heaven for our lives and His blessings.
Becoming childlike includes donning the cloak of humility (verse 4). Humility leads to greatness in heaven.
Note that Jesus spoke of ‘entering the kingdom of heaven’, which meant that even the disciples, His chosen followers, were not ‘there’ yet. That applies to us as well. We are not born into the kingdom of heaven as an automatic right. We have to be fully dependent on the Lord in order to enter it. John MacArthur says (emphases mine):
If the Bible tells us we must enter the Kingdom of heaven, what does it assume? That we’re born where? Outside of it, right? We’re born outside of it. And that entering it is an act which we must do. All men are born outside of God’s Kingdom and are called to enter that Kingdom. And the gospel is presented that men may enter the Kingdom. “God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance.” God wants people in His Kingdom. Jesus looked at the city of Jerusalem and said, “How often I would have gathered you but you would not.” He wanted to call men to His Kingdom and He did preach the Kingdom and John the Baptist preached the Kingdom and the Apostles preached the Kingdom and they called men into the Kingdom.
And that is exactly what our Lord is doing here. He’s talking about entering the Kingdom. And by the way, that phrase is used three times in Matthew…chapter 7, verse 21; chapter 18, verse 3; and again in chapter 19, verse 23 … about the rich man. It simply means to become saved, to become redeemed, to become regenerate, to be born again, to come into God’s Kingdom, God’s family, God’s influence, God’s rule, God’s dominion, God’s world. It is synonymous, for example, in chapter 18, verse 8, with entering into life. For entering into God’s Kingdom is entering into life. It is synonymous with chapter 25:21, entering into the joy of the Lord. When you enter into the Kingdom you enter into life. When you enter into life in God’s Kingdom you enter into the joy of the Lord.
So, men are called to enter. There is a gate in Matthew 17 and we are to enter, right? By the narrow gate, we are called to enter which assumes we’re outside and must come in…when it means to come under the rule of Jesus Christ, of God in His Kingdom.
MacArthur explains what Jesus is doing here, as recorded in Matthew 17:14 through Matthew 20:
… Jesus teaches the Twelve. He’s getting them ready for His death. He’s getting them ready for His departure. He’s getting them ready for their ministry. And so He’s teaching them very important truths. The emphasis of these months before His cross is not on the crowds, though there were times when He met the crowds, the emphasis is on His own, His disciples. This is their time. They are the object of His teaching.
Contrasting this with the temple tax episode just before this exchange, MacArthur tells us:
… this is not the believer’s relationship in the world, but the believer’s relationship in the family. And so, on the same day they get a tremendous insight into how they are to operate as citizens of the world and how they are to operate as children of God.
However, Jesus’s answer, complete with child, still does not resolve the issue of temporal greatness among them:
If you were to go over to the twentieth chapter of Matthew … you would find they’re still debating about this and James and John, in the twentieth chapter around verse 20 to 28, send their mother to Jesus and they say through their mother, “Well, could my boys be the chief ones in the Kingdom?”
And in case you just want to lay all the blame on James and John, you might want to know that the Bible also tells us that all the rest of them were filled with envy and jealousy. They were all having the same problem. They just didn’t all have a mother around who would do what James and John’s mother did. So they were all in the same boat.
And you want to know something that’s really sad? The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, they were arguing about the same thing still. I mean, they just never bothered to get in on the fact that Jesus was going to die and demonstrate a little sympathy and a little care and a little comfort toward the one who would bear the sins of the world. They never came to that, to the very night before He died, they were still arguing about who was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom. I mean, they were really stuck on that issue. Ambition, pride, selfishness, self‑glory were behind the discord, the dissension and the in‑fighting among the Twelve.
Let us remember this lesson the next time we are tempted to be first or to be great, especially in a church context. Our Lord humbled Himself to come to earth, mingle among sinful mankind, then die on the cross in order to redeem us. He gave us the greatest lesson in humility, humility, humility throughout His earthly life from start to finish. May we never forget it.
In closing, some may wonder if there is a difference between Gospel references to the ‘kingdom of God’ and the ‘kingdom of heaven’. MacArthur provides this analysis:
You say, “Why the different titles?” Very simple. The Kingdom of God emphasizes the ruler. The Kingdom of heaven emphasizes the character of His ruling. It is God who rules that Kingdom and He rules it with heavenly principles and heavenly power and heavenly majesty and heavenly blessing, as opposed to that which is earthly.
So, what Jesus is talking about is the Kingdom of heaven insofar as it means the rule and reign of God, the dominion of God, the sphere of God’s influence and God’s power and God’s rule and God’s blessing coming into the Kingdom of the Lord, coming into the sphere of God, coming in to eternal life, if you will, being saved, being redeemed, belonging to God, under His dominion. So, the concept of Kingdom of heaven simply means God’s sphere of rule.
Now when you see the term “Kingdom of heaven,” in the book of Matthew and you see it many, many times, as I said, there are many facets to that dominion of God, that sphere of God’s rule, many facets. And when you see the phrase, you must carefully look at the context to help you to understand what facet of that Kingdom is in view.
For example, if you were to look at chapter 25 and verse 1, here you read, “Then shall the Kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins,” and you remember the virgins who had the lamps, five had them ready and five didn’t when the Lord returned. Now there you have the Kingdom of heaven relating to the return of Christ to set up His Kingdom. So it is the millennial aspect of the Kingdom of heaven in view in chapter 25. The future thousand year reign of Christ on the earth, that’s in view with that use of Kingdom of heaven …
So, sometimes the Kingdom of heaven can refer to eternity. Sometimes it can refer to the millennial earth, sometimes it can refer to the influence of Christianity on the world. Sometimes it can refer to the sphere of Christianity which includes the true and the false. Sometimes it refers to the personal appropriation of the Kingdom, that is coming into the Kingdom personally, receiving Christ, being redeemed, being saved in the genuine sense …
And now we can turn back to chapter 18. And I believe what the Lord is saying here is again relative to the personal appropriation of the Kingdom. He is not talking here about entering the Millennium, He’s not talking here particularly about entering the eternal state, although those are all inherent in this because they will be the final end of all of those who are in the Kingdom. He’s not talking about the true and the false existing within the sphere of Christian influence and the influence of the Kingdom. He’s not talking about its influence on the world externally. He here is saying if you want to really genuinely enter in to God’s Kingdom, if you want to become one of His subjects, one of His followers, a child of God, a Son of God, redeemed and saved and born again, it is a parallel, if you will, to the third chapter of John’s gospel, it’s another way to talk about regeneration and the new birth.
So, the aspect of the Kingdom of heaven in view here is personal appropriation, entering in to God’s Kingdom by believing, receiving salvation. And I think that’s clear from the context, it can’t mean anything else. So, let’s talk about that. We then know what the Kingdom of heaven is, let’s talk about entering the Kingdom of heaven because He says in verse 3, “Except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter.”
It is a happy coincidence that this passage from Matthew came up for Exaudi Sunday, between Ascension Day and Pentecost, even if some will be reading it on Saturday. It tells us how much the apostles and disciples needed the Holy Spirit’s gifts and guidance — and how much we need them, too. Something for us to reflect on with thanksgiving in the week ahead.
Next time: Matthew 18:5-6