Who Is The Greatest In Heaven?

November 13, 2005
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Matthew 18:1-5

1. In our worship service today, we are holding a baby dedication ceremony and seek prayer for God's blessings upon these infants. But, this doesn't have meaning for just the children. The existence of these babies is also a sign that points to something important for us. It goes with what is in [God's] word that we read today. It was not for the child himself that the Lord had called this child to himself and had him stand in front of his disciples, but for the benefit of the disciples. As the Lord is having these children stand before us [for a reason], we must give careful attention to [God's] word as he speaks "to us." This is what the Lord is saying to us, "I truly say to you. Unless you turn over a new leaf [or be born again] and become like a child, you can never enter the kingdom of God."

Unless You Become Like A Child

2. For starters, let's take a look at the kind of setting in which the words of Jesus were given. Please look at 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. Be advised that they are saying "in the kingdom of heaven." They are clearly stating as a premise that "greatness in this world" and "greatness in the kingdom of heaven" are not the same. The disciples knew quite well that what is valued in this world as great is not necessarily always valued in God's presence as great. Also, at least they were not seeking to be considered as great men by those of the world. They were very persistent in seeking to be considered great "in the kingdom of heaven." They were earnestly seeking what they should do for it. I'd say it truly was a pious and serious minded question.

4. I wonder why this question from the disciples is left written in the gospels. It's [probably] because the question is not just a question from the disciples, but it is also a question from the Christians of a later period. The way these disciples had been is being compared to the way the later church had been. The church had devoted people. It had people who were seeking to be made great in the kingdom of heaven rather than being made great in the world; it had people who were seeking to be valued by God rather than being valued by humankind. Aren't they fine? [Yet] even today's Christians entertain the question "Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

5. But, in spite of that, Jesus was not overjoyed at their question. Then, he called a child over to him and said the following: "I truly say to you. Unless you are born again and become like a child, you can never enter the kingdom of God." -- How surprising that the Lord said, unless you are born again, you are far from being made great in the kingdom of heaven, but rather you will not even be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wow, that's disturbing. What does be born again and become like a child mean?

Lower Yourself

6. What is written here as "child" means infant. Matthew uses this word for the infant Jesus when he appeared among the wise men from the east. It is saying here in this text that [a person] must become like a baby like that. The Lord demanded there that "[a person] be born again, turn over a new leaf." Originally the meaning of this was "to change directions." The reason one must change directions is one is heading in the wrong direction. In short, it means that "christlikeness" or "the image of a devout Christian," of which we conceive, is most of the time going in the exact opposite direction from "becoming like an infant."

7. But we mustn't just think that "Ooh, we're lacking hearts of baby-like purity." Jesus is not thinking about the simplicity and the pure and innocent heart of a child. What was the Lord saying? "By making oneself lowly and becoming like a child, a person is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," (verse four). It is the "lowliness" of a child that Jesus is thinking of in this.

8. It's not easy for us to get a clear idea of what "the lowliness" of a child is, living as we do in a period of time with fewer children, who are highly treasured. But, in Jewish society at the time in which Jesus lived, a child was generally considered "low" as a person on several levels. A child was this: a powerless being, weak, totally unimportant, not even counted. Therefore, it was commonly held that "Unless a child turned out a fine adult, he or she could not enter into the kingdom of God." Jesus turned that around. The statement from Jesus, when he said "Unless you become like a child," was an extreme declaration devoid of the common knowledge [of the day].

9. So, what does it mean to "lower yourself and become like a child?" This is a message spoke to adults, of course. A contrast is obviously to be made in the text between an adult and a child. He said that a child was seen as low. In a similar way to that then, how would an adult be treated? Generally speaking, adults do not like being viewed as low. We don't like it much when we are viewed as powerless, weak, small, low on the totem pole kind of people. Instead, we wish to be respected as powerful, strong, and great people. From such a position always arises the question of "Who is great?" Yet, on the other side of things, little infants are different. They are totally oblivious to whether being seen as lowly persons, being seen as powerful persons, or being seen as weak persons, small persons or as nobodies. Infants live [fine] without caring about the question of "Who is great?" That's what "lower yourself and become like a child" means.

10. So, why does the question of "Who is great?" have nothing to do with infants? Why is it not a problem to an infant that they are viewed as low persons? Because there is something else more important to the infant. There is something a way whole lot more important than being considered great [to a child]. You know what it is? It is "being with mommy and daddy." It is being with the one he or she can trust in. Because an infant has no power, because an infant is a little person, it knows instinctively that it cannot live unless it has its parents or some other person it trusts. As a result, an infant seeks its parents, not caring about but innocent of how it is being respected or how it is being disrespected. It's good enough for the infant just to entrust itself over to its parents' hands. That's it. For the infant, that's enough.

11. It was that one point that the disciples were missing. As I mentioned before, they were not seeking for any kind of secular authority to rule or for worldly benefits. They were not seeking admiration and acclaim in the here and now. What they were seeking was the situation pertaining to the kingdom of heaven. It was a reverent request. But, they were only interested in what they themselves might get in the kingdom of heaven, in how they would turn out [there in heaven], in exchange for what they were doing now. There is a problem with that. The focus of their interest was on "what" they would get in the kingdom of God and not on God himself. [Did they care] who [would bless them with His presence and] be with them? [Did they care] who was ruling over them? That was not the most important thing [to them].

12. When we don't get this right, then we will misunderstand the Lord's message in verse four. The Lord said, "The person who lowers himself or herself and becomes like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." But, as far as this goes, he was not stating "a method by which to become the greatest person in heaven's kingdom." Anybody who takes it that way will probably start doing everything he or she possibly can with all his or her might to "lower himself or herself" in order to become the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. While telling oneself in one's heart that "I, in doing this, am truly the greatest," he or she will start to make oneself lower and lower. "Even if other people don't see me that way, God will. Societal standards and God's standards in the kingdom of heaven are different. Thus, God sees me, [as I] am making myself low, as a great person in the kingdom of heaven." While murmuring like that in one's heart, he or she will be lowering himself or herself. On the outward side, that might seem like the way a devout Christian ought to be. But, by doing that, one ends up in a completely different direction from that of "becoming like a child" as Jesus had said.

13. We must turn our eyes on the infant who was standing with Jesus. There was a child there who was unconcerned with the question of "Who is great?" The child was standing there not insisting and demanding anything as a reward for his accomplishments. There was the child satisfied, enough just with his parent there.

14. Thus, [the command to] "lower yourself" does not merely mean "be humble." A person low will look on up. A person, small and powerless, turns his or her glance of trust to the powerful One. He or she will turn to one's true father. Yes, indeed, the very place that we would expect the kingdom of heaven to be is like that, where there is a relationship full of trust in God. We would expect the kingdom of heaven to be a place where there is no need to get rank, a place where there is no need to want to be great. To enter that kind of heavenly kingdom, we must become like children and surely change directions.

We Are To Accept Children

15. In addition, Jesus went on to say as he placed the child in front of them, "Whoever accepts a child like this on behalf of my name is accepting me," (verse five).

16. After his speech on "becoming like a child" he added a talk on "accepting a child." What did he mean by "accepting a child?" If it were about accepting an easy to accept person, Jesus wouldn't have had any need to give a deliberated speech on it. Therefore, this must instead have the meaning of accepting someone hard to accept.

17. In other words, after "the lowliness" of a child, Jesus is turning [their] attention to the other parts about it. Namely, [he is pointing them to] the many areas of difficulty in accepting a child. For example, a child requires care. At times, a child is bothersome. It often annoys others. Even though a child becomes a heavy burden of responsibility to someone else, it never carries the other person's heavy burdens. Its pretty smiles usually make up for all of these other parts about it. But, I think that to the person who doesn't feel like a child "is cute," to accept a child with all these other parts about him or her is really hard to do. Having a child [with all this in mind] stand up, the Lord said, "Whoever accepts a child like this on behalf of my name is accepting me."

18. When we read this last part, it doesn't seem to be just Jesus giving a speech about a child in front of them. I say that because at the last part his speech continues with "one of these little ones who believe in me," (verse six). In short, Jesus is comparing another Christian to this "child." He is not pointing to another Christian who is good to you, but to a person hard for you to accept. So, the statement "If a brother has sinned against you" appears in the text in verse fifteen. In addition, in verse twenty-one, Peter asks "If a brother sinned against me, how many times am I supposed to forgive him?" The text is heading in that direction.

19. The persons who nominate their own names in "The Selection Committee For 'The Great In Heaven'" will not be able to be receptive to an annoying little kid. They cannot accept some other annoying "little person." Only persons who lower themselves and become like a young child can accept another young child. Only persons who know that they are small beings who are under the mercy of God and who lift their eyes unto God's mercy can see others as persons who are under the mercy of God.

20. Then, the Lord says that receiving a child for his name is the same as receiving the Lord Jesus. For, the Lord himself lowered himself and stood at the side of the child. He did. For, he lowered himself to the point of death on the cross and he stood with those who were hard to receive. Paul, later, would express it as follows: "Even for those brothers Christ died," (First Corinthians 8:11). Thus, being born again and becoming like a child, logically then, is connected with accepting and living with other children -- other Christians.