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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 6

Greatness in the Kingdom of God

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 9:33-35
Matthew 18:1-5
Mark 9:36-37
Luke 9:46-48

The start of another discourse in Matthew's Gospel, teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus draws out lessons from a child he uses as an example.

The start of another discourse in Matthew's Gospel, teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus draws out lessons from a child he uses as an example.


Hello, and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 6, ‘Greatness in the Kingdom of God’. We're still in Matthew's Gospel where we've been studying in many of our recent episodes and we're going to be studying in Matthew 18: 1 - 5 as our main passage. We've also got a parallel passage which we're going to start with, Mark 9: 33 - 35.

Introduction and Recap

We're coming to a very important part of Jesus' teaching, which Matthew records most fully in Matthew 18, where it's a very extended piece of teaching about the Church as community. To remind us of the context of our passages and our study today: we're now in Series 7, moving away from events in Galilee and we are following the story of Jesus as he gradually moves, over a period of some months, towards Jerusalem. Recent events that have taken place have indicated this change of direction. Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, an important town in the neighbouring province ruled by Herod Philip, away from Galilee, away from the crowds and had a powerful conversation with them, as recorded in Matthew 16, about his identity as Messiah and the foundations for the Church community that he was going to start building.

Then came the Transfiguration, where Jesus briefly was seen in all the glory of heaven, talking to Moses and Elijah, who reappeared at that moment, by Peter, James and John. They viewed this remarkable spectacle as Jesus spoke, according to Luke 9: 30 - 31, about his forthcoming departure from Jerusalem. The disciples were beginning to realise things were going to change. This time of incredible popularity and excitement in Galilee they'd experienced for a long time, was going to come to an end as they headed towards Jerusalem.

Then in the last episode, we saw Jesus, for the second time, warning his disciples about the fact that he was going to suffer, through persecution, imprisonment and beating. He was going to die, die on the cross; and then he was going to be raised again from the dead. This threefold warning to the disciples, about what's going to happen to Jesus, is repeated on a number of occasions. This was the second time that he made such a statement, and a third time is recorded. It appears from Matthew 16 that Jesus was going to warn his disciples many times about how his human life was going to come to an end and then be redeemed by resurrection. Something is really changing in the Gospel story. The direction of the story is changing and the warning signs are there of trouble ahead, suffering ahead and that suffering caused by conflict with both the political leadership, the Romans but also with the Jewish religious leadership, which was the primary point of conflict. It already existed quite significantly and it was going to develop.

This proved very complicated for the disciples to understand. As we looked at in the last episode, they really found it impossible to believe at that point, that this Jesus who they loved so much, who they appreciated so much, who was so popular, who performed so many miracles, hundreds and thousands of miracles, they'd actually seen with their own eyes. How can this Jesus end up dying? How could he end up dying a criminal's death on a cross in Jerusalem? It just didn't make any sense to them. They could not get their minds and their emotions to appreciate this, nor could they absorb the personal consequences. What was beginning to happen in the disciples, which will become evident in our episode today, is that as Jesus' influence increased, their expectations of their own importance increased with it. This is a very human trait, isn't it? If you're working in a company, or a business, or a school, or an institution and it's successful, then you expect some of that success to be of benefit to you. Maybe you'll get promoted, maybe you'll get a more influential position, maybe your wages will go up, maybe the influence of your company or business will become well-known and you'll get some popular acclaim as a result of that happening. This is human experience, isn't it? The disciples were very much expecting that they were going to have some prominent role in Jesus' Kingdom organisation which they expected to develop at a later stage of his ministry. When they were subjected to these very short, sharp, and difficult statements from Jesus about forthcoming suffering and death, they were unable really to comprehend what was going on. They were grief stricken, it says in the text; we saw that in the last episode. They were so confused that they don't really ask Jesus what on earth does he mean? It just didn't make any sense to them.

That's the context in which we take up the story today, and as we do, we're always looking at how the texts relate to each other in different Gospels. That's one of the primary things we are using as a means of studying the life of Jesus effectively. Our conviction is that as we integrate the things that different writers say, we get a much clearer picture of what's going on and a much fuller understanding of what Jesus is teaching. That applies very particularly in today's episode.

Let's start in Mark 9: 33 - 35. Mark adds, in these verses, something to the previous discussion and prediction when Jesus predicted his death which we read i in the last episode, in Matthew's Gospel. Mark adds this statement. After Jesus had predicted,

“The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise,”

Mark 9:31, NIV

as recorded in Mark 9: 31, after that prediction, Mark specifically records something that happens amongst the disciples shortly afterwards, with these words in verses 33 to 35.

‘They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down Jesus called the 12 and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35, NIV

Jesus really caught them out here. They thought their conversation was out of earshot and Jesus couldn't hear what they were saying, as they were travelling along the road but they were wrong. He had heard, or perceived, that they were talking about their own status and reputation and they were arguing about their status in Jesus' team. There were twelve of them. Who were the senior ones? Who were the most important ones? Jesus had already picked out Peter, James and John as his inner circle. He'd already highlighted the significance of Peter, for example in Matthew 16, in Peter's confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi, which we studied in an earlier episode. Peter's prominence is there, James and John's prominence is there but some of the others were debating who was the most important. A strange thing you might think but that's human nature. That's what we do. That's what we do in any organisation, in any business; people generally want to work out where the power is and very often they want to get their hands on some of that power and influence in that organisation. Sometimes, we're jealous of other people. I'm sure you'll understand this from human experience, from your own experience, from what you see in other people around you. These are human characteristics, human responses, to functioning in society and working out where you fit in - often wanting to be in a more prominent place. Jesus challenges this head on. His Kingdom is not going to be based on hierarchy, power structures, power grabbing, seeking importance, seeking prominence and self-promotion. No, his Kingdom is going to be about serving other people. It turns out that the leaders in his Kingdom are going to be those who are not only gifted as leaders but gifted as servants. They're doing, they're leading, for the benefit of other people, rather than for their own personal gain, and pride and status.

Structure of Matthew's Gospel

That was a tough conversation and that happened immediately before the teaching that Jesus gives, which is most fully recorded in Matthew 18. It's alluded to just briefly here in Mark but Matthew characteristically emphasises the teaching of Jesus. His whole Gospel is structured around significant blocks of teaching, significant discourses (as they're called by theologians), significant discussions of key themes. I'm just going to briefly recount to you now, the structure of Matthew because we are turning to Matthew 18. We're going to pick up the first 5 verses which, by comparing with Mark's Gospel, we appreciate happened immediately after this discussion about the argument on the road and who was the greatest and Jesus talking about servant leadership. It happened immediately afterwards. We'll come to the text specifically shortly.

A quick overview to remind us of what has been stated earlier on, in earlier series and episodes, when we looked at Matthew's teaching: Overall, as we look at Matthew's Gospel, we find that there are five main sections of teaching in Matthew's Gospel which are often called discourses. The first one is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6 and 7. This is about the lifestyle of the Kingdom and we've studied it in some detail. The second is in Matthew 10, which is about mission in the Kingdom; Jesus is commissioning the Twelve but he then goes on to give some more substantial and general teaching about the Church on mission. We've studied that. The third discourse, or section, is in Matthew 13, and it's in the form of seven parables and its overall theme is the growth of the Kingdom. How is the Kingdom going to grow? Do you remember the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and other such stories in that section? They all have a theme about aspects of the growth of the Kingdom of God over time. Now we come in Matthew 18 to the fourth of these five sections or discourses. The overall theme is the community of the Kingdom: the community, the fellowship, the Church community as it will become. The fifth discourse or section, is about the future of the Kingdom and it will come in Matthew 24 and 25. We'll come to that in due course.

The Community of the Kingdom

Let's consider now the community of the Kingdom and we'll look at the first section. Everything in Matthew 18 tells us something about interpersonal relationships among the believing community of Jesus' disciples, or the Church community - you and me, if we are Christians following this episode. In the first section, the emphasis is on what true greatness is in the Kingdom of God, what our attitudes should be. Later on, Jesus goes on to talk about protecting believers from danger, from wandering, and protecting the Church from internal division. He then indicates the primary mechanism of maintaining harmony in the Church, which is forgiveness, when offence has been caused. We've got a lot of important and exciting themes to cover during the next few episodes in Series 7. So, we're going to start now by looking at Matthew 18: 5.

‘At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who then is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Matthew 18:1-5, NIV

Here's the question - who is the greatest in the Kingdom, Kingdom of Heaven, or alternatively the Kingdom of God? The expressions are interchangeable and mean the same thing. Jesus uses a little child as an example. The Greek word suggests to us a child who might be of, what we might call primary school age, perhaps aged 6 to 8, something like that. As soon as Jesus talks in these terms then into our minds come our own memories of perhaps being a child that age and our experience of interacting with children that age. I think back to my own three children when they were much younger. I think of my own grandchildren and other children that I'm aware of in the Christian community that I'm part of, and I'm of thinking children in that age bracket - about 6 to 8 years of age. That's a good thing to keep in the back of your mind as you are reading this passage. Think of such a child that you may know, perhaps in your family or in your wider community, or in your church because Jesus placed a particular child among them. The child was the object lesson. They were looking at this child and he was talking about what a child is like. We're not talking about a baby here. We're not talking about an adolescent or a teenager, we're talking about a child in this age group, shall we say approximately 6 to 8 years of age.


Jesus is commending that we need, in some way, to be like little children. The question that we have to think about is ‘what does that actually mean?’ Is he talking about the lack of knowledge that children have at that age compared with adults? I don't think so. Is he talking about the relative immaturity of that child compared with adults? I don't think so. No, he's looking at characteristic attitudes that young children, who've had normal life experience, will exhibit in their relationships with each other and with adults. What attitudes do we find in children? Generally speaking, we find an ability to trust. I'm assuming they've had a relatively normal human experience growing up. Children will trust adults to give them information, to show them skills, to provide things for them, and to help them develop in their life in a way that is not based on the fact that they can prove the trustworthiness of that adult. They just intrinsically tend to trust. Obviously that can be damaged by negative experience, even in young age, but Jesus is talking in the normal human experience and is taking what we can only imagine to be a normal human child, growing up in a Jewish family in Capernaum, or nearby where he was in Galilee. It might even have been a child that he knew because he lived in that area. He's saying, ‘Look, this child trusts and, not only this child trusts but this child is receptive to the leading and the advice given by others.’ There's a receptivity, an openness about children and a humility. Generally speaking, children that age, know they don't know everything. They're learning all the time; they're absorbing fantastic amounts of information. They're changing really fast and there's a humility involved in that process. Trust, receptivity and humility.

What's the opposite of those? What's the opposite of trust? Relying on yourself. What's the opposite of receptivity? Resistance to outside input. What's the opposite of humility? Pride in your own ability. Jesus is warning against self-reliance, resistance to outside input and pride, especially in our attitude towards God. He wants human beings to be like healthy, normal, balanced children of this age are, in exhibiting trust in God; faith, receptivity, openness to God shaping our lives; and humility, knowing that God knows best. There's an awful lot of things we don't understand and know and our function in life is to be his servants, rather than just to get some particular benefits from him and just live an independent life.

Jesus' conclusion here, verses 4 and 5,

“Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Matthew 18:4-5, NIV

is describing greatness in the Kingdom, as continuing as a disciple with that same trust and humility we started with, all the way through our Christian lives. Note - all the way through our Christian lives. Welcoming one such child, is symbolic of welcoming Christ and welcoming God. As this passage goes on, the child, the literal, human, physical child, aged about 6 to 8, becomes a metaphor for believers. We'll see that emerging very quickly. Verse 6,

“If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble.”

Matthew 18:6, NIV

Ah, so, the little ones have become ‘those who believe in me’ not just children, but actually they've become believers. The metaphor is changing. The image is changing from the little child to the child of faith. We'll say more of that in the next episode. Greatness is to welcome one such child, which could be a little child, but it could be welcoming fellow Christians. An open attitude to welcoming other believers and having fellowship with them, is an attribute or an aspect of humble discipleship.


Let's just reflect on these quite challenging statements. We have to think about this carefully. We have to think about what Jesus is saying and what he's not saying. My first reflection is that we can learn a lot from children in these areas. I have the privilege of interacting with children in the wider context of a big family and also in the wider context of the church community, which has many children. I believe that we can learn from them. We can learn about trust, about faith, about receptivity, and about humility.

We can also, as we reflect on this passage, notice that this isn't the only time that Jesus talks about these themes to adults. A good example is when he speaks to the Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus, in John 3. Nicodemus was a very senior religious leader. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He was amongst the 70 most influential Jewish religious leaders in the time of Jesus. Yet, early in Jesus' ministry, John records that when Jesus was in Jerusalem, Nicodemus approached him with a searching question. I'm just going to get back to this passage because it illustrates some of the things that we've been speaking about. John 3: 2,

‘(Nicodemus)came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you're doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I say to you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You must not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”’

John 3:2-8, NIV

This is a passage in which Jesus is saying, don't depend on your religious traditions; don't depend on your knowledge; don't depend on your maturity; and don't depend on your status in society. All of which Nicodemus had in abundance. No, you have to, if you like, go through the process of birth again. Here's another childhood related analogy that Jesus is using but he's talking here about actual physical birth, and saying you have to spiritually be born again. Take away all your pride; take away all your self-reliance; take away all the reliance in following religious traditions; and simply trust God. Open yourself up to be receptive and be humble towards him. That's what he encouraged Nicodemus to do. Those very principles are the ones that Jesus is talking about here. Effective Christian discipleship means that we need to maintain these attitudes all the way through our Christian lives: to avoid cynicism; self-reliance; turning away from the Christian fellowship and community, saying we don't need them or they're no good; and trying to work things out for ourselves rather than trusting in God. No, Jesus wants us to take a very simple, humble attitude towards God, all our lives. To become like children and stay like children in those simple attitudes: being accountable to others; being focused on prayer and worship; fellowship with God; and being focused on the Bible - the text of the Bible, studying it, understanding it and meditating on it. These are the things that Jesus encourages us to do here.

As it happens, as I'm recording this, I'm thinking back to an event that happened not so long ago, which was the death of the hugely, widely-respected and well-known evangelist Billy Graham. The incredible obituaries and storytelling that went on about Billy Graham, whose ministry covered many decades in the second part of the 20th century and just into the 21st-century. A man who was characterised by these very simple attitudes. He was a highly intelligent man with tremendous gifts of public speaking, evangelism, interpersonal relationships and diplomacy but he was a man who was very simple in his inner attitude. He exemplified trusting in God, receptivity to God's will, and humility towards God, all the way through his life. He was an incredibly successful evangelist and productive in his whole life. To me, he's an example of the fact that success in Christian life is not ultimately based on our own gifts and skills. It's based on the call of God and our willingness to adopt a very simple, humble attitude towards him, all our lives. This is the thing that I learned from this remarkable and moving passage. As I think of that little child that Jesus put in the midst of his disciples, I think I too need to maintain a very simple attitude to God: to pray every day; to ask him, “What do you want me to do?”; to not seek any position but simply to serve; to listen; and to trust and obey. These are some of the keys to a productive and fruitful Christian life. Thanks for joining me.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What did Jesus mean for his followers to be ‘child-like’?
    2. Is there a person you admire, like Martin Charlesworth admired Billy Graham?
    3. Where do you see people in your society looking to be more important than others? What are the traps of humble service? Are you at risk of seeking status?
  • Discipleship
    1. What attributes of being a servant that Jesus wants do you want to show?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Can you sense the change in the Gospels at this point? Discuss these signs.
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