The Greatest in the Kingdom
Updated: May 2, 2022
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Colossians 3:5-8
It can be very easy to start comparing ourselves to one another, "Well at least I'm not that person!" or "I don't think I'll ever be as good a Christian as so and so..." Sometimes it's just thinking that we understood something better than the person sitting next to us in Bible Study and instead of sharing that "wisdom," if that's what it was, we give ourselves brownie points for having a "superior understanding" of the scriptures. Oh, how thankful we should be for Jesus' patience with us! The apostles themselves were busy having such silly debates among themselves when they got brave enough to bring the question to Jesus Himself...
Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Matthew 18:1
At the end of last chapter, Jesus had just finished reminding Peter that He is the Son of the King, so it is unnecessary for Him to pay the Temple Tax; just as it is not required for the sons of earthly kings to pay taxes to their fathers. With that understanding finally clicking into place, the disciples begin to argue, "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Today we're going to study Jesus' three-part response.
Humble Like a Child
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And 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 crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. Matthew 18:2-9
Jesus' first answer is that at the moment His disciples aren't making it into the Kingdom at all, much less competing for the top spot! First, they must become like little children. Unless they humble themselves, becoming like a little child, they will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. What I found incredible about this statement is that Jesus Himself humbled Himself, coming down from glory to be born as a helpless infant and live only to suffer and die on the cross on our behalf!
Some scholars interpret the "little children" in this passage to be talking about followers of Christ (those who are able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven). This is interesting because Jesus follows up His command to humble themselves like little children with, "Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me." The inverse is also true, when we are rejected or persecuted for the name of Jesus, the One they're really rejecting is Him.
Yet this also puts a great responsibility on the followers of Christ, especially those who have the influence to lead other Christians in the right way to live or into sin. Jesus makes it very clear that sin is a part of the fallen world we live in, but woe to the things and the people who cause others to fall into sin. Don't be the cause of others' sin or stumbling!
Likewise, just as the verses at the beginning of this post stated, put to death the flesh that causes you to sin. This doesn't mean to physically remove a limb, but it certainly gives a vivid picture of how seriously God wants us to take our sin, as well, as another reminder that following Jesus means to take up our cross.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Matthew 18:11-14
That first verse can be very distracting if you've ever heard a rumor about something known as a "guardian angel." Several people will point to this verse as proof of their existence, but when we think of a guardian angel, we think of someone that is here with us; protecting us; and watching over us. However, this verse, even if it can be interpreted to mean that individuals have an angel or groups of angels assigned to them, doesn't fit that picture at all. This type of angel is in heaven with its eyes fixed always on the face of God. Either way, this statement certainly raises the stakes for why we should treat one another with love, respect, and a heart for truth of God's Word.
The parable Jesus tells may be familiar to you as its imagery has been used in several contemporary worship songs. In the past, I've heard it taught as a picture of the Gospel. But this is a continuation of Jesus' answer to the question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
Here are a few hints:
NOT the nintey-nine sheep who never strayed, who kept doing everything they were supposed to be doing.
Your works have nothing to do with it!
The Shepherd is happier about the sheep that He found and returned to the flock.
While your sin is important... sinning less than others isn't giving you a leg up in the Kingdom of God. We are all lawbreakers apart from His grace!
Therefore, we should treat one another differently as Christians, extending more grace to one another not less.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:15-20
These verses are a clear picture of how leading a wandering Christian back to the flock is supposed to look. It's not a process of judgment, but a process of that extension of grace that the one who has wandered won't be left behind.
Step by step, Jesus gives us the roadmap to bring that lost sheep home:
Go to the one who has fallen away and address it. If they don't listen and repent...
Take two or three witnesses with you and address it. If they don't listen and repent...
Bring the issue to the church and address it together. If they don't listen and repent...
Treat them as a pagan or tax collector (This doesn't mean to shun them!) It means to treat them as in need of the Gospel and proclaim it faithfully to them!
Those last few verses have often been taken way out of context to mean that the disciples have been given power over heaven and that whatever we ask for as long as we're with two or three other Christians in agreement, then it will be done. In context, this is a part of the foundation on which Jesus is building His church and one of the leaders of that Church's greatest responsibilities: determining whether a person is in need of church discipline and when if necessary they should be considered removed from the body of believers. They are called to prayerfully consider these matters and trust in the authority that God has called them to on this earth. How beautiful is that the number Jesus is establishing that should come together for these decisions is consistent with the Legal requirement for witnesses in establishing whether or not a sin has been committed?!
The Merciful King
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35
Keeping with that context, Peter asks a very relevant question for the time and the position he was about to be in. According to the religious leaders of their day, the Law only required the Jews to forgive someone who had wronged them, seven times. Yet, Jesus' clarification of how His followers are to go about pursuing those who have wandered has already shown the greater mercy and grace He is commanding them to give one another. Still, I'm sure they were all wondering... how long do I have to keep trying with someone?!
Jesus' answer, depending on your translation, is seventy times seven times or seventy-seven times. Neither interpretation is pointing to an exact numerical cut-off for how often we're expected to forgive. Instead, it's a numerical play on words from the Biblical/cultural perspective of Jesus' day... meaning, "forvice them to fullness or completion."
This also makes crystal clear that Jesus does not equate discipline with a spirit of vengeance, "justice," bitterness, or unforgiveness. We have been given great grace, therefore we are required to give grace to others!
Ask any believer whether a day old in their faith or many years, they will tell you that they have fallen short in pride; they have fallen short in their own temptation and dragging others along with them into sin; they have failed to give grace as we all have been called to give grace. That may be the longest way to tell His followers that the answer to their question is: "None of you are greatest or will be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven!"
Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven then?
Jesus, who humbled Himself becoming a frail mortal child that humbly lived only to suffer and die on the cross for us. The Great Shepherd who faithfully watches over His sheep, relentlessly pursuing those who wander. The King who compassionately gives mercy and grace when all we deserve is judgment.
God is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven!