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The Greatest in the Kingdom

In this next section of Matthew’s Gospel we have the fourth of five great pillars of teaching from the mouth of Jesus. And this fourth pillar of teaching has to do with relationships in the kingdom. Jesus lays out three great principles for guiding those relationships:
  1. The least one among you is the greatest.
  2. Confront sin in love.
  3. Forgive and keep on forgiving.
Matthew 18:1-14 deals with the first of these....
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin. Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”

The disciples of Jesus had a concern which is common to many people in our society today. They wanted to be “the greatest”. Do you remember Mohammed Ali saying, “I am the greatest!”? There is a great striving for fame and popularity in our world today. We seem to love reading about celebrities. Otherwise, why are the check-out counters in every supermarket filled with tabloid newspapers and magazines? Even the “news” web site I visit online is filled with celebrity gossip. The striving for fame, the push to be the greatest, and interest in those who have supposedly reached the top of the heap in our world is perennial.

But Jesus turns this upside-down in one fell swoop. When his disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus calls a little child and has him, or possibly her, stand among them. In the Greek language this child is actually referred to as “it”. This shows, perhaps, how little children were valued at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written.

Legend has it that this child grew up to be Ignatius of Antioch who, at a later time, became a great writer and eventually a martyr for Christ. Ignatius had the surname Theophorus which means “God-carried”. According to tradition he had this name because Jesus carried him on his knee. Alternatively, since this event apparently took place in Capernaum, Peter’s home town, the child may have been Peter’s own, a boy or possibly a girl, the neuter “it” prevents us from knowing for certain.

Whoever this child was Jesus said that unless we change and become like children we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. What specific characteristic of a child must we have in order to enter the kingdom? Jesus tells us the character trait he has in mind. It is humility. Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

When I was a child I was taught by my parents to sit on the floor whenever we had guests come to visit and there weren’t enough seats for all of us. To be a child is to take a humble place in life. But Jesus says that if we take the lowest place then we are really the greatest in his kingdom.

Joshua Bell is a world-famous violinist who received his first violin from his parents at age four. By age twelve he was serious about playing and at age fourteen he made his orchestral debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Bell made his first recording at eighteen and now has over thirty CDs to his credit. As a child Bell had other interests outside of music; he was a competitive tennis player on a national level at the age of ten as well as being an avid player of computer games.

Many years ago in his home-town of Bloomington, Bell was approached by a twelve-year old boy who said, “You’re Joshua Bell. You’re famous.”

“Well, umm, not really,” Bell replied.

“Yes, really,” the other boy insisted. “Your name is on every video game in the arcade as the highest scorer.”

Fame and greatness are obviously measured in different ways by different people! Jesus has his own standard of greatness: humility.

However, not only does Jesus want us to develop the humility of a child, he also wants us to welcome the children. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

What does it mean to welcome a child? Jesus has just demonstrated what it means. He has just welcomed a child into the circle of the disciples. By doing this he showed that this child was important to him, valuable to him.

Edith Schaeffer once wrote, 
What a memory for that child through his or her lifetime! This was a flesh-and-blood child, being placed there as an example of the need for being without pride in education, accomplishments, or power, but with the humbleness of being at the beginning, looking forward to life, not looking back with pride.

As we are born again into the family of God, we are wanted as children who are eagerly looking forward to life ahead. We are at the beginning, not only in the sense of being brand-new creatures with a new life ahead, but with the expectation and understanding which comes with realizing that the greatest part of life is in the future. We stand at the beginning of eternity, and what is behind us is comparable to the grass in the fields when summer is nearly over. We are not to feel pride or sadness because of the past. These are adult reactions. At this new beginning, we are meant to be filled with excitement about our sure hope. Children—both kinds of children—are wanted by God.
Because we are all, spiritually-speaking, children wanted by God, we need to welcome all the physical children into our midst, because they too are especially valued by Jesus. We need to welcome the children into the church, into our homes, into our lives.

But children aren’t always welcomed in the way Jesus would want, are they? Often in the world today, just as in Jesus’ time, children are abused and exploited. That’s why Jesus says, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. The millstone in question was a large circular stone used to grind corn. It was so large, in fact, that it took a donkey to move it. And Jesus doesn’t talk about being thrown into the sea, but into the depths of the sea, out in the middle of the ocean. This would have been a very fearful thought indeed to the Jews who, for the most part, were not seafaring people. This may seem like an extremely harsh warning, but it shows us that God hates the greatest evils of this world even more than some of us do.

Again, Edith Schaeffer comments poignantly... 
... today there are little ones being offered drugs, being given dope to smoke or swallow, being led into situations such as the frequent practice in certain clinics of giving contraceptives to girls as young as nine years old in order to ‘protect them.’ The just God who is perfect in His holiness has declared that people leading little children into sin—children He has said should be led to know Him—will be punished. Paradise lost? Childhood lost? Innocence so early destroyed as to be almost nonexistent? Trust walked upon? What a horrible fulfillment of what Jesus told the disciples would happen: ‘. . . It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!’ (Luke 17:1). Woe to all who are hurting and destroying little children today. Jesus says so.
Is there no hope then for those who “cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”? After all, this warning applies not just to those who harm children in the grosser ways we might think of. The warning is also targeted to those of us who lead children astray by simple neglect.

Edith Schaeffer tells of a young man she met who said, 
I was twelve when I left Sunday school and gave up all idea of Christianity as being true. You see, I asked questions of my teacher, and the answer was given: ‘You can’t understand that until you are older. In fact, I don’t even understand it myself.’ I thought that if that was all he could say, it must be worthless, and I might as well not bother going any longer.

So, what hope is there for those of us who, in whatever way, “cause these little ones to sin”? Jesus actually gives us hope in verses eight and nine, severe hope, but hope nonetheless.

Jesus says, 
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
I don’t think Jesus is really recommending dismemberment. After all, even a person without a hand, a foot or an eye can lead others into sin. I believe Jesus is telling us we have to deal radically with sin, and any action or neglect on our part that would lead others to sin.

Where is the hope in this statement? Though Jesus is talking tough, the hope is in the fact that if we repent, even of sin that causes little children to sin, we too can be forgiven. We have to deal severely with our own sin; it’s going to hurt, but it will be worth the pain in the end, for then we will enter the life that is life indeed.

So far Jesus has given us a word of humility, welcome and hope in regard to the least of these who are really the greatest in the kingdom. But Jesus has a fourth word to speak on this subject. It’s a word about angels....
See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
In Isaiah 6 we read of the angels in the throne room of God, that they cover their faces with two of their six wings. As N. T. Wright has said, “They are covering their faces, hiding them in awe before the glory, beauty and majesty of the living God.”

That Old Testament passage makes this one in Matthew 18 all the more amazing. The angels who look after little children don’t have to cover their faces. They are allowed, even welcomed to look at God. They have direct access at all times to Jesus’ Father in heaven. Wow!

As if that was not enough, Jesus drives the point, of his Father’s care for children, all the way home. Jesus tells the familiar story of the shepherd with one hundred sheep who loses one. What will he do? Will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and search for the one who is lost? And when he finds it, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t go astray. In the same way, Jesus says, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

That’s how much the Father cares for the children. Their angels have constant access to him in his heavenly throne room. And when the children are lost, he even leaves his throne to go and look for them until he finds them.

If that’s how much our heavenly Father loves children, then what should our attitude be to all the starving, lonely children in this world? What should be our attitude to all the wealthy, bored children in this world who are just as lost as the poor ones?

Almost ten years ago, I joined Facebook. At first I wondered what good it would be. From all I could see, a lot of people seemed to be wasting a lot of time doing a lot of nothing on the site. But the payoff came for me a couple of weeks ago when I received a message from a former Sunday school student named Brandt who found me through Facebook, someone I hadn’t heard from in 24 years! In his first message to me he wrote, “Wow—Will—it has been sooo long since I have seen you! I am married, with a six year old son, Brennan, living in Los Angeles. Doing really well. Still very connected to God, thanks to you and others at La Jolla Presbyterian Church.”

Then, in his second message Brandt wrote, “Will, it is so good to be in touch again after all of these years! Then to find out that not only are you still actively involved in ministry, but that you wrote a book about C. S. Lewis and Narnia! Unbelievable - how cool! I just want to tell you that when you read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to us in my 4th grade Church Youth Group, on the beach in La Jolla, you literally took us away into another world! I went on to read all 7 books, it made a profound influence on me in terms of loving to read - thanks so much!”

To make a long story short—these two messages on Facebook led to a flurry of e-mails exchanged. Eventually I was able to see Brandt again and meet his family.

What an encouragement! What a joy! I’m sure I have done any number of things that have led “little ones” astray. So it was a blessing beyond belief to hear of some actions on my part which the Lord used to “welcome” one of his little ones into the kingdom—and I didn’t even know it was happening at the time.

If God can use me in that way to welcome one of his little ones into the kingdom, then I am sure he can use you all the more. We just have to open our eyes to the children who are already around us whom Jesus wants us to imitate, to welcome, to seek out and care for. May our heavenly Father empower and bless us as we seek to do just that.


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