The Greatest in the Kingdom – Matthew 18:1-14

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

April 17, 1994

Faith Bible Church, NY

The Greatest in the Kingdom

Matthew 18:1-14


What does it mean to be great? This is a question men and women often ask of themselves and others, though not necessarily out loud in a discussion, but by their view of each other. In each field of activity there are those that are considered great and those that are not. In the recent Winter Olympics, each athlete strived to prove how “great” he or she was in comparison to the others. In that sense, greatness has something to do with being the best, but as you know, the greatest athlete does not always win every contest. The sense of being great goes beyond just physical ability, but also must encompass something of the person’s character and spirit as well. That would be seen clearly in someone like Dan Jansen whose “greatness” as an athlete and as a person is not really reflected at all in how many medals he won. In any field of endeavor we all understand that there is something different about someone who is “great.” A president can be great regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his politics. Abraham Lincoln is not considered a hero in the South, but all will acknowledge that he was a “great” president.

The main problem with a person striving for greatness is that it feeds one of mankind’s chief problems, which is pride. As pride rises and is displayed, true greatness diminishes. We are going to begin to examine Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

The Setting

Turn with me to Matthew 18. This is another one of the great texts of the Bible that is too often abused because people tend to pick things out of it to proof text what they want to believe rather than considering the whole context. As we go through this chapter verse by verse, you will be able to pick out several doctrines that have been wrongly developed by people trying to use Matthew 18. The whole chapter turns on what occurs here in the first two verses. Look with me at verses 1 & 2.

“At that time the disciple came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them . . .” We get a little more understanding of the reason for this question being asked by the disciples from the accounts in Mark and Luke. If we are not careful, we might think this would be just one of those curious questions that get asked, but it is not. It is a question that Jesus drew out of the disciples and one that they were embarrassed to ask, and should have been.

In Luke 9:46 we find that an argument had arose among the disciples about which of them might be the greatest. This discussion occurred while they were traveling south to Capernaum after leaving the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. In Mark 9:34 we find that the other disciples have now joined Jesus and Peter in Capernaum. This is most likely at Peter’s house since Peter lived in that city, and we have found them all meeting in Peter’s house in the past. Luke tells us that Jesus knew what the disciples were thinking in their hearts, which indicates that the discussion had died down in the presence of Jesus, but you cannot hide something from someone who is omniscient. In Mark we find that Jesus starts to question them trying to bring the matter out where it can be dealt with. Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing on the way?” The text there tells us they kept silent. They were embarrassed for having ended up in such a discussion about who among them was the greatest. They should have been embarrassed to have been talking about such a subject right after Jesus had told them for the third time that He was now heading to Jerusalem where He would suffer and be killed. Apparently their grief over that revelation from Jesus was short lived. Still yet, Jesus is gentle and compassionate with them.

Mark tells us that Jesus sat down and called all the disciples to Him. They then admit their question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” We can surmise some of their thoughts. Would it be Peter, since He seemed so often in the middle of things? But then again, Peter was also the one that received the most rebukes. What about James and John? They also seemed to have a special relationship with Jesus. What about Judas, their trusted treasurer? Or maybe one of the other men who were older, or perhaps Matthew who had certainly left the most things of this world behind in order to follow Jesus? Who is the greatest?

Can you see the nature of man’s pride arise in this situation? But be careful, for what they did is a mirror for us, for we easily do the same thing. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of this church? The most obvious candidates of course would be those of us who are up front or serve on the church Boards. Is it me? After all, I am the pastor. How about the chairmen of the Board of Elders and Board of Deacons? Maybe the overseer of all the money? Or maybe those who are leaders in the music ministry?

The push to be the “greatest” is not always in an outward display. It can also be in the quietness of our hearts because we would be embarrassed to say out loud the kinds of things we think. Things like, “I doing a better job than so and so because I . . .” “I am more spiritual than so and so because I . . .” “I please God more than so and so because I . . .” “I am more important to God’s kingdom than so and so because I . . .” No, we are no different than the disciples.

The problem each of us has with pride and conceit does not always manifest itself vocally. It is often more subtle. It can be a sideward glance, a look of disdain, a questioning remark made behind someone’s back, a statement about how we would do it better if we were doing it. Perhaps we manage to keep those thoughts hidden by keeping them to ourselves, those thoughts about how much better we are than so and so a nd how we could do a better job if we were doing it, or how we have such a better spiritual understanding, etc. At times I really wonder how many of you think you that have a better understanding of Scripture than me. If you do, then I praise the Lord, but I do not understand why you then will not correct me though I ask for that on a repeated basis. How do I know that you think your understanding of Scripture is superior to mine? Because for some of you, there seems to be so little change in your lives, so you must disagree either with the Scriptures themselves or with my exposition of them. I would rather it be the latter, because if it is the former, you have placed yourself as superior to God Himself, and that is dangerous. If you do find a problem with my explanation of the Scriptures, then you have a responsibility to come in and go over the Scriptures with me so that we can both understand them and explain them accurately. Remember, that is our goal here at this church. We desire the accurate and clear presentation of God’s word for we are seeking to live according to Godly wisdom that leads to righteousness and life, not man’s wisdom which leads to destruction.

As humans we like to compare and try and put ourselves on top somewhere. In the foolishness of our depraved minds we think that we are more important if we can find some way in which we are better or of superior quality or skill than someone else. The point is proved by how many times we compare ourselves to those that are below us trying to build up our ego rather than comparing ourselves to those who are of superior character and skill than us. We do a lot more of “I am better than so and so,” than “I am not as good as so and so.” And yet this is what was going on between the disciples. Yes, they should have been embarrassed, and yet, look how gracious Jesus is in correcting them.

The Nature of a Child

Jesus calls a child to Himself. The Greek word here indicates a little child, perhaps just a toddler. If they indeed were in Peter’s house, it may have been one of Peter’s relatives whom Jesus would have been very familiar. The child comes without hesitation. Jesus loves children, and they love Him. And Jesus uses that child as a beautiful object lesson about what it means to be great in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ first point in Matthew 18:1-4 is that entrance into His kingdom is not through pride, but coming in the same nature as a child. As the chapter continues Jesus shows that there is no room for pride in the kingdom because everyone in it is treated as a child (vs. 5-9), protected as a child (vs. 10-14), disciplined as a child (vs. 15-20), and forgiven as a child (vs. 21-35).

The child analogy Jesus draws here is so perfect because if anything, the disciples were acting as children and they needed to be reminded that is what they were in comparison to what they should be and to what their Heavenly Father was. I laugh sometimes in watching my sons Jonathan and David when we go for our daily walk around the church property. There is one spot where there is a fairly good sized rock that they both like to climb on. One shouts to the other, “I am king of the rock,” and then the other tries to climb up too, pushing the first one off if needed, and then saying, “I am king of the rock.” That is the sort of thing the disciples were doing. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” The truth is, like when I reach the rock and stand on it and the kids say, “Daddy’s king of the rock,” that the greatest in the kingdom is the one that is over us. The greatest in the kingdom is Jesus, and if you want to display greatness in His kingdom, then there is only one way possible. You must reflect His greatness. You must be like Him.

Look at Matthew 18:3 for Jesus’ first response to the disciples’ question. Jesus calls the child to Himself, and then says to the disciples, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”

We catch the strength of what Jesus is saying in this statement. Jesus does not castigate the disciples for the pride that resulted in their arguments with one another and eventually their question to Jesus. Neither does Jesus get upset with them for their utter selfishness displayed in the fact that they would be having such a discussion so soon after He had just told them that He was going to Jerusalem where He would suffer and die, then be raised from the dead. Their initial response was being deeply grieved (17:23), yet because of their self-centered hearts, their thoughts had turned away from Jesus to themselves and about each one’s relative worth.

The disciples are in the midst of arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom, and Jesus response goes straight to the center of their pride and questions them whether they are even going to enter the kingdom. How can they be contesting with one another about whom the greatest is when there is some question about whether they will even be part of it. Man in his foolishness often argues in this manner. Arguing about which baseball team is the greatest and will win the World Series is foolish when the basic qualifications for entering that contest have not yet even been met.

Who Gets Into the Kingdom?

Some have balked at this text. They do some expositional gymnastics to make sure that there is no question in their mind that Jesus is not questioning the disciples’ salvation. Yet that is exactly what Jesus is calling into question. Due to an incorrect view of the security of salvation some have in effect changed the phrase “once saved, always saved” from being based in God to being based in man’s action. They claim to be Calvinistic, but they are actually Arminian because in the end they hold salvation to be the work of man. Salvation comes through faith in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Faith is a noun of continuing present, that is, it is a trust placed in someone that is on going. It is not something that happens once in the past and therefore continues evermore. In this last century the gospel message has been changed in much of America from trusting Christ to trusting something you did, whether it be to walk an aisle, raise your hand, get baptized, make a profession of faith, etc. Many people have faith in what they did rather than in what God has done.

In this text, Jesus response is a direct challenge to them about whether they are going to enter into the kingdom or not. In other words, don’t be so proud in considering which of you will be the greatest in the kingdom, you must first make sure that you are entering the kingdom at all! You may object because the disciples had already professed faith in Jesus, with Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples proclaiming that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the living Son of God (Matthew 16:16). They had already demonstrated and were demonstrating their trust in Jesus by following Him wherever He went. Each of them had already gone out on a mission for Jesus where they healed the sick and cast out demons (Luke 10:17). How could their salvation possibly be questioned? Simple. Salvation is not about doing, it is about being. It is not about what you do, but about being in a r econciled relationship with God. Jesus’ statement to them was not only designed to challenge their pride, but was designed to put their minds back on the more important things. It was designed to make sure they were going to enter the kingdom. The result would be a time of reflection and repentance for those disciples that were in the kingdom, and it was a call to salvation to those that were not in the kingdom. Who was not in the kingdom? Remember that Judas is also present.

What does Jesus say it will take to enter the kingdom of heaven? Jesus says that you must be converted and become like children. Otherwise, you will not enter the kingdom.

Conversion is the other half of repentance. Repentance focuses in on the change that takes place in the mind. There is a recognition that you cannot save yourself and that you are doomed to eternal hell unless something changes, but you also recognize that you are helpless. Repentance involves being poor in spirit. Repentance also involves sorrow for sin, the change of mind that comes when you recognize that what you do and think is sinful before God, and harmful to yourself and everyone else. Repentance involves the change in mind that comes when you recognize that you are going the wrong direction and must go in another direction and that you must proceed in a new direction. Repentance puts emphasis on the change in mind.

Conversion means to “turn around” and puts emphasis on the change in the will. You volitionally change your direction to match your change in mind. It is not enough to repent. There must be conversion as well. In Peter’s message shortly after Pentecost in Acts 3, he told the people to “repent and return (be converted), that your sins may be wiped away . . .” and he declared to them, “God raised up His servant (Jesus), and sent Him to bless you by turning (converting) every one of you from your wicked ways.” Conversion is the outworking of repentance. It is the outward evidence of what has occurred in the heart: that salvation has come to the individual. Salvation is a person being converted from sin to righteousness.

Jesus is not saying in this passage that the disciples could be “converted” by their own power. That is an impossible task for man. The verb form here is passive. The action must take place upon them by a force outside them. A person is only converted by the acting of the Holy Spirit coming and convicting a person of their sinfulness and need for the savior. The spirit then prompts the human heart to turn from sin to the savior. No one is going to enter the Kingdom of God without being converted first!

To be converted requires a person to become like a child. A child is not sinless. They inherit a sin nature as a descendent from Adam and they display it very early in life – often from day one. A child is not sinless, but most children do possess certain characteristics that are needed for saving faith to develop. A child is simple, dependent, helpless, genuine, unpretentious and modest. My son David is probably about the age of the little child Jesus called to Himself. He trusts me to provide for him, he believes what I tell him, he submits to my authority and obeys me, and if he does something wrong he wants to be reconciled to me. Those are all things that are marks of saving faith. Salvation is impossible without a recognition of your sin and a desire for reconciliation with God. Peace with God cannot be attained without a submission to His authority. A relationship with God cannot be established without believing what He says and trusting Him. This is why Jesus uses a child as the model of what is needed for a person to enter the kingdom.

A person who remains proud, arrogant, boastful, bombastic and insincere will not be converted because their vanity will always keep them from admitting their sin and seeking forgiveness. Their pride will keep them from believing what God says and trusting Him, and their arrogance will keep them from submitting themselves to God’s authority. Unless a person is converted from those things and becomes as a child, they shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. They will not spend eternity with Christ. They will forever be separated from Him in everlasting torment.

Some of you here today have yet to be converted and become as a child. God is not interested in what you may have professed a long time ago. God is interested in whether you are following Jesus or not. Today is the day to begin that journey. You cannot do it by yourself, but God is willing and able to change you. Your starting place is to seek after Him. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that God rewards those who believe that He is and seek diligently after Him. Are you seeking after Him as a full grown sinful adult or as a trusting child? God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Search for Him as a child, and you will find Him and He will give rest to your soul.

Salvation comes when the Holy Spirit converts a man and he comes to God in the humility and trust of a child. I pray that if you have not entered the kingdom, that today may be the day.


The disciples were arguing about who was the greatest in the kingdom. They should have been more concerned about what it means to even enter and be a part of the kingdom. Jesus answers their question directly in Matthew 18:4. “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The greatest in the kingdom is the one who is the most humble. The kingdom is made up of servants of the King and ranking depends on being a good servant (Matthew 23:11,12), and no one can be a good servant without humility. What is humility? The word means to “make low.” It is the opposite of the modern usage of the term “good self esteem” by which we seek to view ourselves high. Paul described it in Philippians 2:3,4 saying, “do nothing from selfish or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interest, but also for the interest of others.”

What makes a person great? A person may have superior skills and abilities, they may win the contests and achieve much success by the world’s standards, but in God’s eyes, those things are unimportant for the truly great in His sight are those who are humble servants. They may serve in the spot light, or they may serve out of sight, but if they serve with the humility of a child they are great in His sight.

Are you great? If you are, then you don’t have to draw attention to yourself. You do not have to brag on yourself. You don’t even have to think of yourself as better than anyone else in the world. If you are truly great, then you don’t even have to think about it. You just continue being as a child, humbly believing and trusting the Lord and follow after Him. That is true greatness.

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