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“Who is the Greatest?”
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And He said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. 6But 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.
7“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! 8If 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. 9And 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.
In recent sections, Jesus has been speaking frequently of His upcoming humiliation at the hands of His enemies. Jesus never preached self-advancement or self-aggrandizement. He always and ever preached (and indeed lived) humility. “As there never was a greater pattern of humility, so there never was a greater preacher of it, than Christ; He took all occasions to command it, to commend it, to His disciples and followers” [Henry]. It is surprising then that the disciples would even dare broach this question: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (vs. 1). “The very fact that they asked that question showed that they had no idea at all what the Kingdom of Heaven was” [Barclay, in Morris, 458]. We learn in Mark and Luke that the disciples were arguing about who of them was the greatest (see Mark 9:33ff; Luke 9:46ff). One could only imagine the argument that they had. “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 favorite of the Prince, and therefore hopes to be the greatest. Andrew was first called, and why should not he be first preferred?” [Henry]. And all this took place in light of Jesus’ very recent teaching to them: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). “Many love to hear and speak of privileges and glory, who are willing to pass by the thoughts of work and trouble. They look so much at the crown, that they forget the yoke and the cross” [Henry]. “They seem to have become increasingly sure that Jesus was the Messiah, which meant that the messianic kingdom was just around the corner, and that in turn meant for them that the top places in the kingdom were up for grabs” [Morris, 458].
Jesus, no doubt, surprised them with His answer: “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’” (vss. 2–4). Ironically, the disciples, in their arguments about who was the greatest, were acting like schoolyard children; it is not that sort of child-like behavior about which Jesus was speaking. Rather, it is the humility displayed by a little child placed in the midst of grown men. Notice that Jesus called “a little child and had him stand among them” (vs. 2). The large, bearded, swaggering men must certainly have intimidated the little child to a state of humility before them. “Surrounded by grown men, the child must have looked insignificant, which of course is Jesus’ point” [Morris, 458]. “The kingdom of heaven is not like earthly kingdoms. In earthly kingdoms military might or earthly wealth is what counts. It is the ability to overthrow others or to outsmart them or to outbid them that matters. The person who asserts himself is the one who gets on. But Jesus’ kingdom is quite different. Paradoxically, it is the person who is like the little child who is the greatest. Being in the kingdom does not mean entering a competition for the supreme place, but engaging in lowly service” [Morris, 460].
With the child still among the disciples, as a prop, Jesus continues His teaching: “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” (vss. 5–6). The child here is representing the humble believer. Jesus tells us that the way we treat a believer, He will consider us to be treating Jesus in the same way. If we “welcome” the believer into our homes, Jesus will consider that we are “welcoming” Him into our homes. Conversely, there will be serious consequences for us if we cause the believer to stumble into sin. Evil people in this world love to see Christians stumble into sin. They love to have the opportunity to trot out the saying, “See! All Christians are hypocrites!” “Wicked men often think it great sport to induce a Christian to sin, especially one who seems very meek and gentle. If they can make him violently angry, or lead him into excessive levity, to say nothing of gross vices, they are prodigiously amused and gratified. Such persons ought to remember these solemn and awful words of the compassionate Savior” [Broadus, 384].
Jesus continues: “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!” (vs. 7). God hates sin: make no mistake about this. Sadly, though, because of the state of fallen man, “such things must come.” However, just because sin is inevitable, this does not lessen the punishment for sinners: “…but woe to the man through whom they come.” “The world being what it is and people being what they are, it is inevitable that ‘the things that cause people to sin’ will make their appearance. But that they are certain to come does not excuse the person who brings them about” [Morris, 462].
Jesus goes on with some teaching concerning the seriousness of sin: “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” (vss. 8–9). Jesus repeats some of the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5:29). “Those hard sayings of Christ, which are displeasing to flesh and blood, need to be repeated to us again and again” [Henry]. This teaching of Jesus is shocking, and is, of course, meant to be shocking. Jesus is teaching us the seriousness of sin. “He is using picturesque language to make clear that He looks for a complete and thorough repudiation of evil” [Morris, 463]. None of us would ever want to cut a hand off, or gouge out an eye. Yet, we waltz lightly, willingly, knowingly into sin, day after day. Jesus is teaching us that we must make extraordinary effort to get rid of the cause of sin. “What it is that is here enjoined: We must part with an eye, or a hand or a foot, that is, that, whatever it is, which is dear to us, when it proves unavoidably an occasion of sin to us” [Henry]. Now, there are no examples in the Bible of people cutting off limbs to get rid of the source of sin, but there are examples of people making extraordinary efforts to be rid of the cause of sin. “When Abraham quitted his native country, for fear of being ensnared in the idolatry of it, and when Moses quitted Pharaoh’s court, for fear of being entangled in the sinful pleasures of it, there was [figuratively speaking] a right hand cut off. We must think nothing too dear to part with, for the keeping of a good conscience” [Henry].
Note in these last few verses, Jesus alludes to judgment for sinners after death. He implies that judgment is worse than having “a large millstone hung around one’s neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (vs. 6). He speaks of “eternal fire” (vs. 8), and “the fire of hell” (vs. 9). Jesus, being the Son of God, would know about eternal judgment, for judgment comes from God. “Jesus leaves His hearers in no doubt as to the seriousness of the eternal state of sinners” [Morris, 463]. We often here teaching that waters down eternal punishment. Some say, “God would never do that!” But, who are you, O man, to say what God would or would not do. Again, Jesus, who knows about such things, speaks of eternal punishment for the unsaved. “Let no man deceive us with vain words upon this awful subject. Men have arisen in these latter days who profess to deny the eternity of future punishment and repeat the devil’s old argument, that we ‘shall not surely die’ (Gen. 3:4). Let none of their reasonings stand fast in the old paths. The God of love and mercy is also a God of justice: He will surely requite” [Ryle, 222].
The good news is that, sinner though we are, we can avoid eternal punishment. Jesus has paid the price for our sins, if we would accept this great gift of His. God truly is love. He is the God of grace and forgiveness, through His Son Jesus Christ. May the Lord be praised!