GREATEST IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Matt 18:1-6 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Also see Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48)
Mark gives a detailed beginning for this event during Jesus earthly ministry. Jesus had been traveling in the province of Galilee and had now entered a certain house in the city of Capernaum. Although whose house is not specifically stated, it was probably the home of Peter, where Jesus lodged, as he was known to have done on a number of occasions in the past. To fully understand the lesson text we must remember that Jesus had just previously announced the coming of His kingdom (See Matt. 16:19-28). As they traveled to Capernaum, Jesus had observed a dispute among His disciples as to whom should be greatest, which probably meant who would be greatest in His earthly kingdom that they still mistakenly thought was soon to come (See Mark 9:33-34). They brought their dispute to Jesus, and asked Him, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? As Matthew Henry commented, the apostles were not asking the character of the person that Jesus would elevate to the greatest position in His kingdom, but who by specific name - in other words, which one of us, your faithful followers, would become the greatest.
Referring again to Mark's account of this event, he wrote that Jesus, having entered the house in which He was staying, sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all (Vs. 35). During the annals of biblical teaching, there has been no other doctrine, established by divine teaching, that is more desirable to our Heavenly Father, and more misunderstood by mankind, than this one Christian tenet of humility. Mark also records this same Christian doctrine being reestablished by the teaching of Jesus when He emphatically said that whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all (Mark 10:43b-44).
Having established the basis for His reply to their question, Jesus answers them with this visual example of the humility that He requires of His followers. Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, and lovingly, took the child in His arms (Mark, Vs. 36). Then He addressed His apostles, saying to them, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. As used here, to be converted means to change one's mind from its current state of unbeliefs to that of faith. This example was prompted by their question of who shall be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Their concept of this promised kingdom was in error. The apostles, as well as the entire Jewish nation, were still expecting a temporal kingdom. They believed that Jesus would reign as other earthly kings had done in the past. They also assumed that, as king, He would select officers to assist Him in varying capacities, and that one would be selected to be His "greatest" vice-consul, having the most highly regarded delegate authority under the king. It was from these false beliefs that Jesus was attempting to convert His apostles.
In order to change their false beliefs to that designed by God through His Son, Jesus Christ, these apostles must become as little children. Children, during their early years of life, have minds that are open and receptive to learning. They are teachable. They are not biased by selfish ambition; self-pride is absent from their thoughts; most of all, they are filled with humility. It is this child-like state of mind that is necessary for one to be converted from any preconceived, false beliefs to the truth. The disparity found between earthly, material kingdoms and the heavenly, spiritual kingdom of God can only be reconciled by the open, receptive mind like that of a child. Failure of Jesus' apostles to open their minds and readily receive God's truths would result in their failure to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
For our edification, this tenet is just as true today as it was when Jesus was teaching it to His apostles. One does not have to look very far into the lives of their family, friends, and neighbors to notice the dogmatic misconceptions of various "religions" that fill many minds and make it impossible for them to hear, believe, accept, and obey God's will that will lead them to the kingdom of heaven, found only in Christ Jesus.
Then Jesus gave His apostles the formula of life that is necessary to achieve greatness in His kingdom: Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Unlike greatness that is possible for men and women to achieve on earth, spiritual greatness cannot be found by ambitiously seeking it. One's spiritual greatness can only be seen by God's eyes, and the eyes of our fellow man, when they observe our obedient, sacrificial, compassionate, charitable life that is filled with a humble desire to demonstrate sincere love for others through the honest, sincere humility like that of a little child. Greatness, such as this, is never earned by an ambitious desire to attain it. The lesson from Jesus is that greatness within the kingdom of heaven can only be found in humble service to God and others.
And whoso shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me. To "receive" a little child, in this instance, means to accept, with love and kindness, the one in need of spiritual guidance, just as Jesus does. The one receiving the child, as used here, represents Jesus by accepting His doctrine and, in a state of humility, teaches that doctrine to all that are able to receive it with open and receptive minds. On the other hand, those that offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. To "offend" means to mislead one that is sincerely searching for God's plan of salvation, or one that is a new babe in Christ needing spiritual nourishment that can only be found in God's Holy Word. It means to cause one to spiritually stumble and fall, through false teaching and be lead in a sinful, unscriptural doctrine. If there are sins that are more offensive in the sight of God, it would be to cause another to lose their soul through misleading conduct or false teaching. It would be better for that man or woman to suffer immediate death rather than have any future opportunity to mislead others and cause them to lose their souls.
Luke closes out his gospel account of this event with these words of wisdom for, not only His twelve apostles, but for each follower of Christ thereafter: he that is least among you all, the same shall be great (Luke 9:48b).