In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches us how to keep relationships sound in the family of God. This passage teaches us to humble ourselves and treat everyone, especially the young and the weak, with respect.
Luke says the disciples were arguing about this and that Jesus knew their thoughts (Luke 9:46–47). Mark says Jesus asked what they were arguing about, and they suddenly became silent (Mark 9:33–34). It seems that they felt a little guilty about their desire to be the greatest.
Jesus had recently shown his greatness in the transfiguration. They believe he is the Messiah. He had also promised that the disciples would possess the kingdom. The disciples’ hope for greatness flows, in part, from their faith.
They believe in Jesus and his power, and they expect to share in it. On the other hand, pride and greed also fuel the disciples’ persistent questions about preeminence in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20–28; Luke 22:24–30).
The disciples assumed they were members of the kingdom and wondered only about the splendor of their rank. Jesus questioned their confidence. He said they needed to start at the beginning. He told them they had to consider how to enter the kingdom, not how to achieve supremacy in it.
Little Ones Inherit God’s Kingdom
They were asking about the All-Star team. He said: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4). The word translated “change” means to turn or repent.
There is a mystery here. In a way, everyone is responsible to repent. Jesus commands people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).
Jeremiah blesses Israel when they see their sin and pray to the Lord (to translate literally), “Turn me, that I may be turned” or “Restore me, that I may be restored” (Jeremiah 31:18).
Only God can change the heart. We must be changed. He must renew us. Yet, it is our solemn responsibility to change. God must first change our hearts, to make them soft and receptive. Yet Jesus says that anyone who wants to be great in the kingdom must “humble himself like this child” (Matthew 18:4).
The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). But he also promises, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). And again, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
This is the wonder and the liberating power of the gospel. The gospel says we do nothing to earn God’s favor or his salvation. We cannot even earn any rank in the church by hard work or sacrifice. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. He sees our sin, our weakness, and our foolishness, and he loves us as much as parents love their little children even in their foolishness.
The surest mark of conversion, of belonging to Jesus, is this humility. The Christian faith is humbling. Remember the proud Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11).
But the humble do not compare themselves to others. If we compare, we can always make ourselves look good because we can always find someone worse than ourselves. We excuse ourselves by making comparisons.
The humble see themselves as they are before God, not as they are in comparison to others. They know what God sees, and they plead for the grace that comes by faith in Jesus Christ. When we humble ourselves this way, God will lift us up.
That is the path to eternal life, and it is immensely liberating. Then we need not pretend to be better than we are. Then we need not comfort ourselves by condemning others. As we humble ourselves before God, we become humble toward each other.
Little Ones Represent Christ Himself
Jesus’ next teaching brings out another aspect of the kingdom. He insists on the importance of little ones by means of a promise and a warning expressed in poetic parallelism (Matthew 18:5–6)
This passage has a logical progression. First, Jesus’ disciples must become like humble children to enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:1–4).
Second, those who receive a “little one” have, because he belongs to Jesus, in effect received Jesus: “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). Here a little one includes both physical children and spiritual children — new disciples.
Third, suppose someone rejects a little one or causes one to stumble. In that case, he faces God’s wrath, which is so great that drowning is preferable: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
It is inevitable that temptations and troubles strike God’s children so that they stumble, “Such things must come” (Matthew18:7). There is temptations on every side. But the fact that something will make them stumble is no excuse.
Jesus says: “Woe to the man through whom they [offenses to children] come” (Matthew 18:7). Whoever causes God’s children to stumble is culpable. The Bible often teaches the importance of leading and nurturing young believers; this passage, conversely, tells us we dare not mislead them.
But Jesus does not say this so we can rail against the miscreants in the land who wreck our children. Jesus would have us deal radically with our sin first:
“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 maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:8–9).
Jesus says that if a hand or foot or eye causes us to sin, we should cut it off and throw it away, for it is better to enter life maimed than to enter hell whole. Jesus said this before in Matthew 5:29–30.
In both cases, Jesus shows that we should not take the command literally; we can sin just as well with one eye as with two. Yet we hear his point: It is better to suffer bodily pain in the present than to suffer spiritual pain for eternity.
Jesus used the revolting image of gouging out our eyes because sin should be as revolting to us. We recoil at the thought of maiming ourselves, yet Jesus says maiming is better than eternal death.
Further, if our eye leads to sin, we should strive to act as if we had no eye and refuse to look at the object that tempts us. If a hand tempts us to sin, we should act as if we had no hand and refuse to touch what tempts us.
Although Jesus has said something much like this before (Matthew 5:29–30), the context here gives it a new meaning. We must never use hand or foot, eye or mouth, to lead a little child or a young disciple into sin.
But the phrase “little ones” covers more than the young, the literal child. New or immature believers of any age are little ones in the faith.
The Lord watches all little ones, and we should too. That entails an interest in physical safety (buckling seat belts, using tools safely) but much more, a mind for their spiritual development.
Humility in the Christian Life
The life and teaching of Jesus summon us to gospel humility in several ways. First, we must humble ourselves enough to admit our need for God’s redemption.
Far from asking “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1), we should seek God’s unmerited love with childlike simplicity — leading with our need, not our merit.
Blessedly, Matthew 18 declares that Jesus welcomes and loves all who come to him with childlike humility. The latter part of Jesus’ teaching is hortatory. If he cares for little ones, then so should we.
The gospel instills a humility that teaches us to despise no one and grant honor, respect, justice, and mercy to all. Still, Jesus singles out our treatment of children as a test of our love.
If you want to be great in the kingdom, he says, be humble as a child, welcome a child, lead a child toward the Lord.
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Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and is the Host for the Equipping You in Grace Podcast. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Parler, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.