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TRUE GREATNESS

Matthew 18:1-18:14
Key Verse: 18:3,4

Chapter 18 is one of the five discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. It is about Christian community. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of Christian community. Without Christian community God’s kingdom cannot be expanded. In today’s passage the disciples asked Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is. Jesus gave them a stunning and truthful answer with many practical examples. Let’s think about what true greatness is through this study.

First, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (1-4). Look at verse 1. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” When God created man, he endowed man with the desire to be great. Man wants to be great. Usually young boys have a fervent desire to be great. As they grow older, they lose their desire to be great after facing the realities of the world. As for the disciples, their human conditions were not that impressive. Before Jesus’ calling, they were nothing but ordinary people with the desire to be great diminishing and almost dying. But after receiving Jesus’ calling their desire to be great was revived. They felt great as they followed Jesus and people followed them seeing Jesus’ performing miracles. It looked that they were somebodies in the world. 18:1 says, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Now they showed their desire to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven even beyond this world. Their ambitious spirit seemed to be sky-high.

How did Jesus respond to it? Look at verse 2. “He called a little child and had him stand among them.” At this point people would question, “What is the relation between a little child and the greatest?” In the people’s mind a little child had nothing to do with being great; a little child would be the last one to be the greatest. Then Jesus said something radical. Look at verse 3. “And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wow! What a surprising statement! Jesus did not say about being the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He said that they would never even enter the kingdom of heaven, unless they changed and became like little children. We should really understand what Jesus meant in saying this.

It is a clear teaching of the Bible that no one is qualified to enter the kingdom of heaven, though all want to. It is impossible to enter the kingdom of God because all fall short of God’s standard. But Jesus came to this world and began to invite people to the kingdom of heaven, preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 4:17). The kingdom of heaven was Jesus’ first and last message on earth. Jesus’ earnest desire was to bring the people of this world to the kingdom of heaven. Wherever he went, he preached the good news of the kingdom (4:23; 11:1). When he sent his disciples for fieldwork training, he told them to preach this message: “The kingdom of heaven is near.” (10:17) The kingdom of heaven is the ultimate hope of all mankind. And the way to enter the kingdom of heaven is through Jesus. People do not need an aircraft ticket to the kingdom of heaven, but their faith in Jesus to enter it. So it is only by the grace of Jesus that one can enter the kingdom of heaven. It is by faith lone and grace alone (Eph 2:8,9). Here human greatness does not stand at all. So in the kingdom of heaven everyone is to be grateful because of the grace of Jesus and it makes everyone humble with nothing to be proud of. So the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” does not make sense. The disciples asked such a question, for they did not have a right concept of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the place where everyone is thankful and humble and everyone is great because of the grace of Jesus.

Then why did Jesus say to them, “Unless you change and become like little children…” Little children are not adults or even average children. Little children are little children. They have not accomplished anything in the world. Any title cannot be put before their names. They cannot make money to support their families. So they have no practical value to the families and societies. They need constant help from their families and communities. They are dependent. Yet, they are happy and joyful under the care of their parents. “Who is the greatest among us?”, such a question does not fit to them. Spiritually we are to be like little children, not meaning to be childish. Our attitude toward Jesus and the kingdom of heaven should be like that of children.

Suppose those who are not like children enter the kingdom of heaven and compete with one another to be the greatest there. Then the kingdom of heaven cannot be the kingdom of heaven any more. It would be just like the kingdom of this world. So anyone who is not like little children should not enter the kingdom of heaven. Such person, even one, should not be allowed to the kingdom of heaven. One can destroy the whole kingdom, as just sin entered the world through one man and it spread to the whole world (Ro 5:12). So Jesus’ statement, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” is quite true and understandable.

Then how can one change and become like little children? We should constantly depend of the grace of Jesus. We cannot change ourselves, but Jesus can change us. By depending on Jesus we should continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling until we indeed enter the kingdom of heaven (Phip 2:12). We need the grace of Jesus from first to last. We need to grow in realizing the grace of Jesus. In deep realization of the grace of Jesus Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” Then later on he said in Ephesians 3:7, 8, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” And he said in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Those who know the grace of Jesus say, “I do not deserve, I am the least, less than the least, and the worst.”

Templeton Prize is the world’s largest monetary award given to an individual who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. Mother Teresa received this prize in 1973, and Billy Graham in 1982. 1992 Pastor Han was awarded with this Templeton Prize. It was the time of great honour. But at the special occasion in his life he said, “I am a sinner, who bowed down before a Japanese idol” to many people’s surprise. Thus he unwittingly revealed the grace of Jesus. In our time we see that many celebrities deny the grace of Jesus, even Jesus himself. They brag about their work and achievement as if they are what they are all by themselves. But those who know the grace of Jesus can, “I am a sinner, but Jesus is my Savour.”

In Apostle Paul’s time there were people who were proud of their flesh, such as circumcision. They were called circumcision party and felt great in their circumcision and high human conditions. But Paul was furious at such people and rebuked them, calling them “dogs, men who do evil, mutilators of the flesh” (Phil 3:2). He told pure-hearted Christians to watch out for such people. Those who do not know or lose the grace of Jesus try to put their confidence in the flesh.

In Matthew’s gospel “grace” is one very important point along with “righteousness.” The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1 is in a sense the genealogy of grace. At that time women were not counted even in number. But Matthew included the names of some women, not orthodox Jewess but immoral and Gentile women, Tamar, Rabah, Ruth and Uriah’s wife (1:3-6). It was a shocking genealogy to the Jews of those days. Nonetheless to say Matthew became Matthew by the grace of Jesus alone. Jesus called him while he was totally helpless like a baby and babysat him with tremendous effort. In Jesus’ caring love and grace an awfully selfish man was changed into an inspiring sacrificial servant of God.

Jacob was a man of uncontrollable ambition. From birth he was competitive, coming out of his mother’s womb with his hand grasping his brother’s heel. He did not want to lose even in the birth competition. Indeed his life was a life of competition and contending with men. He accomplished one by one, even deceiving others. Esau hated this deceptive and selfishly ambitious Jacob, and had in mind to kill him. Later 20 years, when the time came for Jacob had to confront his brother Esau, fear seized his heart. That night Jacob had to stand before God, alone, being separated from all his possessions and loved ones. Until that time he had struggled with men only, but that night he had to struggle with God. Through the spiritual fight he was changed into a new person, Israel. Fear of his brother left. Soon after, when he met his brother, he confessed, “…to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (Ge 33:10). The competitive life of anxiety was over and a new life of peace and love came by the grace of God. In deep realization of God’s grace he confessed in the last days in his life, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” (Ge 48:15).

To those who know the grace of Jesus, the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” is an awkward question. If we still have to say, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he is the one who knows the grace of Jesus most. One’s humbleness can be in proportion to the degree of one’s realization of the grace of Jesus. So Jesus said in verse 4, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” May God help us to grow deeper in realizing the grace of Jesus who gave his life for us and has been good shepherd so that we may become truly humble, humbling ourselves, especially at crucial times in life.

Second, the life of true greatness (5-14). For a great life, people want to do great work, welcoming and meeting with great people. Then what is the great work? Look at verse 5, “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” In the course of trying to do great work in this world, it is easy to ignore a little one. But Jesus wants us to welcome a little one in his name. Welcoming and serving a little one has nothing to do with being great in this world. But it is truly great in Jesus’ eyes because it is an invitation to Jesus himself.

Jesus cannot tolerate even the smallest of sins . So he said, “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.” There are so many temptations in the world. Young people do not know where to look at and where to go. Grownups don’t care about the influence of sin in order to make money by any means. The world seems to be overflowing with the things that cause people to sin. Jesus says continually. Look at verse 7. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” People cannot make an excuse of their influence for the corrupted world and their sinful generation. Jesus wants each one to be responsible for his or her influence and avoid this woe. Then what kind of attitude should we have? Look at verses 8,9. “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.” Jesus wants us to be really serious about our influence, especially to little ones, our children and young people in our generation. Also, youngsters should be serious about their influence on their peers.

In the following story Jesus teaches the preciousness of one of the little ones. Look at verse 10. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Here we see what is happening in heaven. In school when parents of certain children always see the face of their teacher, the teacher cannot help serving them well, doing his or her best. The job of the angels of little ones is to always see the face of the Father God in heaven. It will not be an easy job, but an interesting job. This shows how much the heaven cares for little ones.

Look at verses 12-14. “‘What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” What is the joy and happiness of our Father in heaven? It is not in the great event of this world, but a little one that wandered off to be found so that the sheep might not be lost. In this part “a little child”, “one of these little ones”, “one of these little ones”, “one of the hundred sheep” “the one that wandered off”, “that one sheep”, and “any of these little ones” are written. In this way Jesus emphasizes the preciousness of a little one and the significance of caring that one soul. May God really help us to care for one in his name and be truly great before God in this world of temptations and woes.

We thank and praise God for the wonderful grace of Jesus through we can enter the kingdom of heaven. May we depend on him all the more like little children so that his grace may abound in us. May be truly humble and serve a little one in his name.

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