Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings subvert human wisdom. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in his discussion of greatness:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 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.” (Matthew 18:1-6)
Consider the context of our passage. It is late in Jesus’ ministry. Over the past two and a half years of preaching and teaching, Jesus had amassed many disciples, including an inner circle—The Twelve—and a select three from among them: Peter, James, and John. Their intimacy and comfort with one another led to open and honest discussion and arguments concerning who is the “greatest.”
Recent events in Jesus’ ministry would have naturally prompted this inquiry.
- Just two chapters prior in Matthew 16, when Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, the eager disciple responded, “The Christ”—the Messiah and King who would set Israel free. Jesus liked the answer and told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (v. 17). It would seem as though Peter was in the running for greatest.
- On another occasion (Matthew 17:1-13), Jesus selected only Peter, James, and John to accompany him to the top of a mountain to witness his transfiguration.
Given these recent circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that the disciples would ask who was greatest. And as naturally proud beings, it is easy for us to empathize with the disciples’ sentiment. Whether we outwardly express it or not, we all delight in being the favorite, and we all dislike feeling excluded. Ultimately, we all love greatness—and that is by God’s design. As image bearers of God, every person is made by greatness and for greatness. A desire for glory is written on the heart of man. This is why Jesus doesn’t criticize his disciples for pursuing greatness.
However, this striving, like all desires, is corrupted by sin. Jesus knew his disciples were driven by pride and envy. They were not just interested in greatness; they thirsted for the praise and applause of man more than the glory that comes from God (cf. John 12:43).
So, sitting a child in their midst, Jesus subverted his followers’ definition of greatness in at least three ways.
1. True Greatness is Unconcerned With Status (v. 3)
As Jesus’ kingdom loomed near in his preaching, the disciples vied for political rank with all the accompanying perks, power, and privileges. They, after all, had been with Jesus when he was a “nobody” in terms of reputation; now, they wanted to share in the benefits of his public ascendance. They envisioned the kingdom of heaven as an organizational chart, with Jesus at the top but the number-two spot open for the taking.
But in setting forth a lowly child as his example of greatness, Jesus showed that greatness in the kingdom of heaven begins with rejecting a status-obsessed mindset.
To turn and become like children who don’t even register on this imagined org chart—this thought stunned the disciples. By calling them to turn, Jesus was calling them to abandon their quest for glory.
Three barriers prevented the apostles from relinquishing their thirst for position. First, they believed that they were a little bit better than everyone else. Psychologists often talk about “the illusory effect” or the “above-average effect,” which occurs when people overestimate their own qualities and abilities relative to others. Consider that:
- 68% of University of Nebraska faculty think they are better than average1
- 87% of MBA students at Stanford think they are above the median2
- 85% of high schoolers who took the SAT thought that they were above average, and
- 25% of them thought that they were in the top 1% in the country.
Second, the disciples were smug about their relationship with Jesus. They, after all, had fellowshipped with the greatest man to walk the face of the earth, were privy to private conversations, and were privileged to witness supernatural events. This only fed their superiority complex.
Third, they took sinful pride in their accomplishments. The disciples had cast out demons, participated in miraculous healings, and stood beside Jesus as he rebuked the most powerful religious figures in the world. By all worldly standards, they deserved respect and honor.
Jesus dashed these selfish expectations when he placed a mere child upon a pedestal. The disciples lacked humility, which, according to Jesus, is what made John the Baptist stand out as a great man: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
True Greatness Assumes Childlike Humility (v.4)
Note that Jesus chose the child not as an example of innocence, purity, or faith, but of humility. A child wields no political authority and carries no clout. He relies on a parent or guardian for provision and care. Grace alone from someone with more power and ability sustains the life and health of a helpless child.
Jesus knew this unlikely object of the lesson would penetrate the disciples’ hearts, beckoning them to embrace humility and reject pride.
Every Christian must recognize their complete and total dependence on God. As finite humans, we cannot save ourselves or merit the kingdom of heaven. We are but passive recipients of the blood of Christ and of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Hence, the greatest subjects in the kingdom—those who faithfully serve their Lord on earth and may one day be stand closer to the throne in heaven than others—approach their God now with the empty hands of faith.
3. True Greatness Receives the Lowly (v. 5)
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:5). The word translated in the ESV as “receive,” dechomai, refers to accepting the presence of a person with friendliness—that is, welcoming a guest hospitably. This stands in stark contrast against our modern notion of spirituality as something tucked away in the private recesses of our own thoughts and emotions.
In our individualistic culture, we often think one’s walk with Jesus is just that—his or her own walk, private affair, or personal business. But Jesus connects being childlike with receiving those who are childlike. The disciples are to welcome others into the kingdom—especially the marginalized “dregs” of society who can offer nothing in return.
How we receive the poor, the outcast, and the children reveals whether or not our hearts are humble enough for the kingdom. We must allow the gospel remold hearts such that we no longer crave the sort of power and influence that neglects the marginalized or underprivileged.
Pastors, missionaries, teachers, small group leaders, and all other sorts of ministry leaders much recognize: we do not become great in the eyes of Christ when we lead a church of ten thousand, publish a book, earn a blue checkmark on Twitter, or attain national renown. Neither is greatness found in amassing wealth, friends, or professional contacts.
We will only be a great when we turn from seeking our glory and come to Jesus like a child, overflowing in humility as we receive others and put them before ourselves. Let us live for him, follow him, glorify him, and therein know true greatness.
1. Alicke Mark D. “The Better Than Average Effect” Psychology Press. 2005.
2. “It’s Academic” Stanford GSB Reporter: https://www.leadersbeacon.com/so-you-think-youre-an-above-average-leader/
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published October 10, 2020.