1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 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.
Psychologist Paul T.P. Wong has listed three “hindrances to humility” in his article, “I’m glad that I’m a nobody: A positive psychology of humility.”
Competition is clearly the No.1 hindrance. Humility is probably the most difficult virtue to achieve, mostly because egotistic pride works so much better than humility in a competitive society. Think of all the star players in major-league sports; how many really stand out as a good role model of personal humility?
Success is another hindrance. Feeling good about success can easily lapse into pride, especially when others heap praises on you. Pastor Brett has this to say about the temptation of pride: “Of all the problems Pastors face, this is one of the hardest. On the one hand, you have to completely die to yourself and be a humble servant, and on the other you feel God’s power flow through you and experience His inspiration and begin to feel like God uses you because you are special. This is where pride sneaks in and your head begins to swell.”
Thirdly, even reflecting on one’s own humility can be a hindrance. Humility thrives only when one’s attention is directed away from it towards serving others. It withers away whenever attention is directed toward its presence. When I congratulate myself for making progress in humility, or when “I thank my God for my humility” (Shakespeare), I actually hinder its development.
In many ways Wong’s three hindrances to humility are all present in the audacious question some of the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 18:1. In response, Jesus uses the occasion to attack arrogance and point out what true greatness looks like. He defines greatness, tellingly, in terms of humility.
Jesus attacks the assumptions of arrogance.
Asking questions of Jesus could be a perilous undertaking. This was because Jesus always knew what was behind the questions asked: the heart of the questioner, the mind, the assumptions, the biases, the motives, the premises, the presuppositions. Jesus’ initial response to this question is case-in-point.
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Do not miss what is happening here. The disciples appear to be asking a specific question about kingdom rank. Who is greatest in the kingdom? But there is an assumption lurking behind this question that Jesus pinpoints and attacks: “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Did you catch it?
The assumption behind the question was that they, the disciples, were in the kingdom or would be in the kingdom when it came. Their place, in other words, was assured in their own minds. So on that foundational assumption they build their question: “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus’ response—“…unless you turn…you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”—destroys their assumption. It is as if He is saying, “Perhaps you should be more concerned about whether or not you really will be in the kingdom than about who is greatest in it!” Or, put another way, “What does it matter who the greatest in the kingdom is if you are not there to see it!”
Why would Jesus do such a thing? At least in part He would do it because their very question revealed that at that moment their hearts were far indeed from the kingdom!
The problem was not only the content of their question but also the timing of it. Matthew reveals that they asked it “at that time.” But what was happening at that time? Amazingly, if you look near the end of Matthew 17 you will find this:
22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.
In other words, on the very heels of the distressing news that Jesus would die the disciples ask who will be greatest in the kingdom! Talk about missing the point!
The point here is not that we cannot have confidence in our salvation. Indeed we can! But to grow arrogant and haughty is to invite this chilling reminder from Jesus from Matthew 7:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Before you start worrying about the particulars of the kingdom, you might want to make sure that you yourself will be in it!
Jesus undermines the world’s understanding of greatness.
Returning to our text, we see that Jesus makes a prophetic gesture to illustrate his point about the dangers of arrogance and the need for humility.
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
The disciples were thinking and speaking of “greatness” as the world sees and defines it, that is, in terms of power, prestige, clout, and authority. They were thinking of crowns, of thrones, and of worship. Their vision was one of pomp and circumstance, of spectacle, and of might. What Jesus does, then, is utterly undermining. He calls a child, puts him in the midst of them and says, “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.”
What does this mean, “become like children”? I do not think we need to overthink this and thereby miss the beautiful point he is making. First, the most obvious point: children are small and, in comparison to adults, physically weak. They are not mighty and powerful as the world defines those terms. And what is Jesus soon to demonstrate? He is going to demonstrate the humility of the cross on which His body will be broken, on which He will die. The “weakness” of God, if you will, is stronger than the strength of men! The humility of Christ is more awe-inspiring than the pomp of men!
What is more, the child is dependent. They must look for somebody else to feed them, to care for them, to provide for them. And surely this dependency is in mind.
To become a child is to embrace the counterintuitive weakness and gentleness and humility and dependence of the Kingdom. It is to refuse to play the world’s games on the world’s terms and to dare to believe instead that the last truly will be first.
It is amazing to see how many pastors in particular play power politics. They dress powerful. They sound powerful. They act powerful. They exude authority. These kinds of pastors do not know the language and behavior of gentleness, of meekness, of dependency. Everything about them seems to communicate that they are just a bit above others, if not greatly above others, and that they are in control.
Jesus is not saying we become sniveling or grovelly or refuse to act with courage and strength. On the contrary, He is simply redefining strength and meekness, as trust, as humility, as dependence upon God!
In other words, it is only by becoming like little children in these regards that we can truly grow up! It is only in humbling ourselves that we can become mighty indeed!
Perhaps this is why we, the church, followers of Jesus are referred to as children in the New Testament. In Galatians 4:19 Paul refers to the Galatian Christians as “little children.” John refers to believers as “little children” seven times in 1 John: 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, and 5:21.
Do you cringe at this? Do you balk at this? Do you chafe under this? Do you wish to correct Paul and John? Do you wish to say, “I am not a child! I am a grown man!” or “I am a grown woman!”
Why? Why do you wish to say this? So that you can establish that you are strong? Mighty? Powerful? Self-reliant? Without need of assistance?
Perhaps we need a child in our midst, no? Perhaps we need to be reminded of what true Kingdom greatness looks like!
Jesus associates Himself with the lowly and despised.
Jesus does not merely use the child as an object lesson. No, he elevates the child by associating Himself with the child!
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me
To receive the child is to receive Christ! My, my! How powerful! Christ stands with the child, with the lowly, with the outcast! Thus, to receive these is to receive Him!
This would have hit the disciples of the first century in much the same way as it hits us: as odd, as unusual, as surprising! My goodness! But there it is: just as we must humble ourselves to see the little child as the example of the Kingdom so we must humble ourselves to see Christ as Lord of the Kingdom? Why? Because, again, He is about to die! He is about to show them on the cross what it means to see as mighty what the world calls weak, to see as powerful what the world sees as derisive.
If we can see the child as great we can see the crucified Christ as Lord. Both require an inversion of our values and understandings, a subversive overturning of our assumptions about strength and power!
Such is the Kingdom.
But if we reject the child then we reject what is most dear to Jesus. This is why He says the chilling words:
6 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.
The millstone Jesus is referring to here is the mylos onikos “which means ‘donkey-driven millstone,’ the large stone rotary quern turned by donkeys or by prisoners…This type of millstone, weighing dozens, if not hundreds of pounds, rotated in a cone-shaped interior piece of stone socket, propelled by a donkey walking in circles on a track and often guided by two men.”
Do you see? It is not merely that harming the child brings judgment—certainly it does and may we never misunderstand this point!—but it also means that to harm a child shows that our hearts are far from the heart of God and that we are far from the Kingdom.
In the Kingdom, a little child is valued as the very exemplar of the Kingdom. In the world, historically, many children are seen as without value and without a voice. To harm the child is to choose the way of Satan and of flesh.
This is why the regenerate heart recoils at the thought of hurting the child, the lowly, the weak, the vulnerable. It is not merely that the child does not have a fighting chance against raw power. It is also that, in hurting the child, we are rejecting the Kingdom and trying to wound and mar that which Jesus lifted up as worthy of emulation.
The child is created in the image of God.
So is the elderly person.
So is the weak person.
So is the person with mental illness.
So is the person with the deformity.
So is the person mired in poverty.
Of such is the Kingdom. Such are loved by God! Such are valued by Christ!
W.H. Auden envisioned King Herod, as he orders the slaughtering of the innocents, shuttering at the implications of what the coming of Jesus would mean for the overthrow and redefinition of power. Here, in the creative words of the poet Auden, is how Herod sees what is coming:
The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with the animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does.
Ah, yes! The new aristocracy! Herod was onto something there! In the Kingdom the weak are made strong and the poor are made rich and the lowly are exalted and children are exemplars of what it means to be fully alive!
Would you be great? Humble yourself. Learn to kneel. Take the cross. Honor the child. Walk the path of love. Follow King Jesus.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.113.