Matthew 18:1-5
The Greatest In Heaven

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  Today is "Children's Day."  We are spending some time with the children in the 10:30 worship service.  The Lord often called children near him and spoke while showing the people the imagery of children, [the way children are].  The passage we read today is also one of those [passages].  The Lord said, "I clearly say [to you].  Unless you change your hearts and become as a child, you can never enter into the kingdom of heaven."  The Lord is probably saying the same thing to us through the likes of the little ones here with us.  I would like us to react to these words as if they had been addressed to us alone.

Who Will Be The Greatest?

2.  First of all, let's take a look at the kind of setting in which these words of the Lord Jesus were spoken.  It reads like this in verse one:  "At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and said, 'Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?,'" (verse one).

3.  A story very similar to this one appears in chapter nine and verse thirty-three in The Gospel According To Mark.  In that portion of scripture it reads like this:  "The group came to Capernaum.  After they arrived at the house, Jesus asked the disciples, 'What did you debate along the way?'  They got quiet.  Because along the way they had been debating with one another about who was the greatest," (Mark 9:33-34).  Even in Mark's Gospel a story continues after this in which Jesus took the hand of a child and set him in the very midst of them.

4.  Even though [the two gospels of Matthew and Mark] are very similar, the phrase "in the kingdom of heaven" is inserted in  Matthew.  They had not been making an issue of greatness in the world down here.  It was a conversation over comparing [each other's] greatness in the kingdom of heaven.  Their conversation takes as a premise that there is a difference between how [things] are valued in this temporary world and how they ought to be valued in the kingdom of God.  In a sense we see a very pious question here.

5.  The stories of the Lord Jesus and his disciples are recorded in the gospels, but at the same time characters from the later church are superimposed within them.  Those [told of in the stories] are the disciples of the Lord Jesus and at the same time there are some later Christian characters as well.  In Matthew's Gospel, you might say, some characters of the church from a later time period appeared rather more strongly.  There were pious people [in the church at a later time].  There were those who were seeking to be made great in the kingdom of heaven rather than to be made great in this passing world, and there were those seeking to be valued by God rather than be valued by humankind.  Isn't that splendid?  Their question, "Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?," was in no way an insincere one.

6.  Nevertheless, Jesus was not happy about their question.  Instead he called over a child and spoke as follows:  "I clearly say [to you].  Unless you change your hearts and become as a child, you can never enter into the kingdom of heaven."  He was talking not so much about not being made a great person in the kingdom of heaven unless one changes one's heart but about the fact one cannot not even enter the kingdom of heaven without a change of heart.  What ever in the world does this mean, that [you] change [your] heart and become as a child?

Unless You Become As A Child

7. We can find in The Gospel According To John words quite similar to these of the Lord.  In an exchange between the Lord and Nicodemus, recorded in John chapter three, he spoke as follows:  "I clearly say [to you].  Unless a person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," (John 3:3).  "I clearly say [to you].  Unless someone is born of water and the spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God," (John 3:5).    In John's Gospel entering the kingdom of God is combined with being born again.  It is also further combined with baptism.  You might say that he saw the essence of being a Christian when a person was born again through baptism.

8.  In contrast to this, in the passage we read today we come to understand "becoming a Christian or being a Christian is to become as a child."  What is written here as "child" is "baby, infant, small child."  Matthew uses this word for the infant Jesus when he was found by the wise men from the east.  What is being said here is that a person is to become as an infant like him.  Thus, the Lord was looking for "a changing of one's heart."  He said, "Unless one changes one heart and becomes as a child..."  This was originally a phrase with the meaning, "to change direction."  The reason changing directions was required must have been because humans were going in a direction that was all too often wrong.  The concept we have of "what a Christian is" and our "image of a pious Christian" are often times heading in the exact opposite direction of "becoming as a small child."

9.  However, we should not simply think here that "Oh, it's about how we are lacking the purity of a child's heart."  Because hardly anyone thinks the Lord Jesus was speaking of such an ordinary thing as that.  The words of the Lord are always more radical than we think.

10.  We should not read this passage with the perception of a modern person.  In our society the rights of a child are thoroughly safeguarded.  Wait, far from that, there are many homes in which it seems everything revolves around the child at its center.  But, in the society in which the Lord lived the situation was different. A child was not valued highly like in modern times.  In ancient societies a child was frequently considered as the property of his or her parents.  When they counted up the number of people, women and children usually were not included in the count.

11.  Therefore, it ought to have been a surprising thing for the people back then when Jesus called such a small child to himself and said, "Unless you become as a child you cannot ever enter into the kingdom of heaven."  What's more, it becomes even more clear that this expression was so radical as we reflect on the parent-child relationships among the Jews.  In a Jewish household a child could never have become a parent's model.  The parent was always the model for the child.  In regard to the child, it was the duty of the parent to show [the child] obedience to the rule of God.  You might say, [it's more like] "Unless a child becomes as a pious adult, he or she cannot ever enter into the kingdom of heaven."  The commandment "Honor your father and mother" of the ten commandments was taken in such a context as that.

12.  However, the Lord wound up overturning this generally held idea.  "Unless you change your hearts and become as a child, you can never enter into the kingdom of heaven."  He said it was not the pious adult who was to enter into the kingdom of God, but rather the person like this small child.

Humbling Oneself

13.  So, what was the Lord trying to say?  The Lord went on to say the following:  "The person who humbles himself and becomes as this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," (verse four).  Thus, we understand that what was being said about children was not about "purity, or sincerity" but about their "lowliness, or humility."  The being of a small child stands at the opposite extreme of greatness.  As I mentioned before, small children are looked down upon.  They look short or lowly.  They seem like small [fries] not much to work with.  And small children do truly live as people described above.  Since they live as short people even though they are humbly regarded or seen as short they do not complain.  Even though they are taken lightly they do not complain.  They don't even care to be regarded as great.  Small children have nothing in common with the question, "Who will be the greatest?"

14.  There is something more important for young children other than becoming great, being considered as a great person or becoming a ruler over others.  It is to be with mom or dad.  It is to be with someone they can trust.  Because a short person is at the same time a powerless person.  Children know instinctively that they cannot live unless there is a parent or some other person they can trust.  Therefore, small children, not concerned either way about whether they are respected or looked down on, will innocently look for their parents.  They turn themselves over to their parents' hands.  That's enough for them, isn't it?

15.  That one point was missing from the question the disciples [had].  As I mentioned earlier, they were not seeking for any authority in any temporal rule or for any advantage.  They were not looking for a this worldly esteem or praise.  What they were looking for was the circumstances related to the kingdom of God.  It was a pious search.  But, they were only concerned with what they would get in the kingdom of God and how they would turn out.  That's the problem.  The focus of their interest was on what it was they were getting in the kingdom of God and not on the kingdom of God itself or the One who was king in the kingdom of God.  It was about the fact that their thoughts were not directed towards [the issue of] who would be with them or who would take care of them.  Why was that so?  Because they were not humble as small children.

16.  If we don't clearly understand this, we will begin to misunderstand the words of the Lord in verse four.  These [words] are not "a method by which to become the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."  Those who only react to [the Lord's message]  in that way will start "humbling themselves" with all life and limb in order to become great in the land of heaven.  We humble ourselves but all the while telling ourselves inside, "I will truly be the greatest by doing this.".  "Even if others don't think so, God sees it that way.  The world's standard of measuring worth and the standard of measuring worth in God's land of heaven are different.  God sees us as great in the land of heaven when we so humble ourselves."  While muttering this in their hearts, they begin to humble themselves.  It may seem outwardly the way a pious Christian ought to be.  But, by doing that one is completely off from "becoming as a child," of which the Lord spoke.

17.  We must direct our eyes on the small child standing with the Lord Jesus, where we find a child who could care less about the question "Who is great?"  There stands a small child not in used to making claims or demands for rewards for his achievements in anything.  If the parents are there that is enough for the child and the child is satisfied.  Unless we can be satisfied with just being in God's mercy and under God's rule, [we cannot say we are like little children]; unless we can be satisfied with the kingdom of God itself, [we cannot say we are like little children], and if there are any thoughts of wanting to make demands from God and from others for expected rewards for what we have done, I don't think we can say we are like little children.  We must have a change of heart at that level and change directions.

Accepting A Child

18.  In addition, the Lord Jesus put a child before him and said, "Whoever receives a child like this one on behalf of my name is receiving me," (verse five).

19.  What does it mean "to receive a child?"   If it is about accepting the person who is easy to accept, the Lord would have had no need to deliberately say.  Since this is the case, this must instead be about accepting the hard to accept person.   A small child is mostly a dependent being.  He or she requires care.  They create a burden.  They are a great responsibility.  It is about receiving this type of little child.

20.  It doesn't seem like the Lord was only talking here about the child that was right before their eyes.  Because the speech he was giving continues on (verse six), "One of these small ones who believe in me."  The Lord overlapped "other Christians" with 
this "child."  Furthermore, he was pointing to not others who were doing good to him, but to the person dependent on him.  Thus, in verse fifteen the words, "If your brothers sinned against you" appear in the text.  In addition, in verse twenty-one Peter asked the question, "If my brothers sin against me, how many times ought I to forgive them?"  His speech was going in this particular direction.

21.  The person who nominates his or her own name in the "Nominating Committee Meeting" for "Great People," cannot accept a dependent small child.  He or she cannot accept another dependent "little child."  Only the person who lowers himself or herself and becomes as a small child can accept another child.  Only the person who knows he or she is a little being of life under the mercy of God can see others as people under the mercy of God.

22.  So, the Lord says, receiving a child on behalf of [his] name is nothing other than receiving the Lord Jesus.  Because the Lord himself was humbled, he was humbled until death on the cross, and had stood nearby that child.  Because he stood near that one who was hard to accept.  To reject that one was nothing but to reject the Lord Jesus.  Later a man called Paul expressed it like this:  "Christ died even on behalf of those brothers," (8:11).

23.  In this way changing one's heart and becoming a child specifically have to do with how we live together with our brothers and sisters in the faith, and furthermore, it has to do with the relationship between us and Christ.

Home | Translations | Both J-E | Chapel | Email