GOD MEASURES GREATNESS BY THE STANDARD OF HUMBLE DEPENDENCE RATHER THAN ACHIEVEMENTS OR WORLDLY RECOGNITION OR SOCIAL-ECONOMIC STATUS
One benefit of getting together with your extended family over special holidays like Thanksgiving is that you get a chance to interact with some age groups that maybe you don’t tend to spend as much time around. You appreciate the time you have left with those who are getting along in years and you experience the joy of new life and enthusiasm as children are born and grow up in the family. We certainly enjoyed the couple of young children that spent time with us on Thanksgiving Day. Our story today will star an unnamed young child – a child whom Jesus puts forward to drive home an important lesson about Humble Dependence in the kingdom of God. At issue on the heart of the disciples is the Question of Greatness – Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? How should we view ourselves and position ourselves compared with others in the body of Christ? Jesus responds with a simple Object lesson with accompanying Explanation. In verses 5-9 Jesus will go on to make application in terms of how we should treat fellow believers.
How does the world measure Greatness? Think about any realm where the discussion can revolve around Who is the Greatest:
– Sports – pick one – football, baseball, basketball, tennis, ice hockey, soccer . . . Hall of Fame for each sport has different criteria for judgment – what is more important – individual stats or championships and rings won?? How do you measure success and compare one player’s performance against another – especially in different generations?
– Business – Profits are the most common standard of measurement – it’s all about the dollars that end up on the bottom line; there are various ways that you establish the value of a business – my son Rick talks to me about this as his venture capital company decides which companies to invest money in
– Entertainment – How many Award shows are there each year?? You name the category and there are multiple shows to recognize the top performers in terms of popularity and fame and skill
– Politics – Blatant grab for Power and the taking credit for accomplishments – whether you deserve the credit or not –all about putting yourself forward and puffing yourself up
– Field of Education – more subtle – but aura of sophistication and arrogance – whether in the arena of teaching or of research and publishing
– Technology / Inventions – Creativity, Innovation, productivity recognized
We like to know what criteria will be used in the evaluation process. How would you like a contest where you invested valuable resources to compete along with many other people. At the appropriate time the judging took place and first place was awarded to Mr. X – but the reasoning behind the judgment was never explained. You would find that pretty unfair and frustrating.
The baton of spiritual leadership is about to be passed into the hands of the disciples. They have just been instructed again regarding their Master’s impending cruel death. You would think they would be focused on caring for His needs. Instead their heart of selfishness and pride is revealed in their ambitious striving for the #1 spot in the kingdom. “Tell us the rules,” they cry out. “If we have left all to follow You, we need to know where we stand in the pecking order.”
We will find that any consideration of the subject of the greatest in the kingdom must take us back to focus on the Greatness of Jesus Christ … Remember when Christ upbraided the rich young ruler in Luke 18:19 – there is only one who should be called Good – that is God alone … same thing when it comes to calling one Great …
Craig Blomberg: Chapter 18 contains Jesus’ fourth major teaching block. The first three are the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), the instructions to the Twelve (chapter 10) and the kingdom parables (chapter 13). This teaching block covers various matters about life in the kingdom community, namely present kingdom life and humility, sin, and forgiveness. The fifth major block of teaching material is the Olivet Discourse (chapters 24 and 25). Jesus delivered this fourth discourse in Capernaum after He and the Twelve returned from Caesarea Philippi.
Walter Wilson: With chapter 18, we reach the fourth major discourse of the gospel, which of the five is also the shortest and most loosely organized. Like the mission discourse, this speech is addressed only to the disciples, suggesting that its provisions, while of relevance to the community as a whole, are meant especially for its leaders. Whereas the mission discourse focused on external threats to communal survival, chapter 18 focuses on internal threats, especially the sorts of strains and tensions that can bedevil relationships between members of a nascent sectarian group with rigoristic tendencies.
Grant Osborne: Jesus begins by defining greatness in terms of humility; the model for true discipleship is the simple humility of a child. In the same way that a child exemplifies a lack of pride and concern for status, the faithful follower must adopt humility in all relationships. At the same time, the section begins with the issue of power and greatness and establishes a tone for the rest of the chapter; this humble use of power will enable the church to overcome sin and find forgiveness.
I. (:1) THE QUESTION –
AMBITIOUS PRIDE FOCUSES ON INDEPENDENT SELF EXALTATION
A. Context for Teaching on Humble Dependence
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying,”
At least a temporal connection between this teaching and the previous incident about taxation;
Charles Swindoll: What had precipitated that misguided debate? Perhaps Peter, James, and John had been behaving arrogantly toward the other nine because they had been chosen to accompany Jesus up Mount Hermon to witness the Transfiguration. When asked what happened on the mountain, they would have been tight-lipped according to Jesus’ command (Matt. 17:9). This would have increased the tension between disciples already disposed to wrangle over their positions in relationship to Jesus. If that’s what was going on, then the three seem to have strangely forgotten the fact that earlier Jesus had been standing in blazing glory while they were reduced to trembling wrecks on the ground. And the Twelve seem to have ignored the fact that Jesus had just told them that He would be betrayed and killed in Jerusalem. Instead of letting those realities sink in and transform their personal priorities, they argued with each other over pride of place.
R. T. France: And there is a further factor which has sharpened the question: in the previous pericope, as in several other situations already in the gospel, Peter has been in the limelight, living up to Matthew’s singling him out as “first” (10:2). His declaration at 16:16 has evoked Jesus’ warm commendation of his insight (16:17) and a consequent statement about his special role and authority in the founding of Jesus’ ekklēsia (16:18–19), and Peter with his two closest colleagues has been singled out for a special journey with Jesus up the mountain (17:1), leaving the rest of the disciples behind to face a difficult situation. In 17:24–27 it has been assumed that Peter speaks for Jesus, and Jesus’ “solution” to the tax problem has included Peter along with himself, to the apparent exclusion of the rest of the Twelve. “So who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
D. A. Carson: Jesus has just been declared God’s unique Son (v.5); yet his glory is veiled as he moves toward betrayal and death, thus establishing a pattern of humility for his followers (18:1-5). . . (vv.5-9) Jesus’ disciples must deal as radically with pride as they were earlier commanded to deal with lust (5:29-30).
The issue of Greatness should focus on the unique Majesty of the Royal Son of God – not on the dependent subjects of His kingdom – who need to be humbly performing service and still viewing themselves as unprofitable servants – look at how the context highlights the Greatness of Christ:
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13) Passage has tremendous implications for Roman Catholicism – this is where the succession of Peter should naturally be taught; with Christ departing from the scene, will Peter now take over the visible leadership of God’s people on earth? Apparently this position of primacy had not been established back in Matt. 16:17-19 or that would have been the end of the debate.
- “He was the Christ” (16:20)
- Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him.” (17:5)
Ability of Jesus to heal vs the inability of the disciples because of the littleness of their Faith; they were big in their opinion of themselves (Pride) – but not like a child in terms of unquestioning dependence and faith and humility
Incident about paying the Temple Tax – Jesus is in the unique position of being the Son of the King – “the sons are exempt” – not talking about civil taxes to the Roman govt.; This was a Jewish religious tax for supporting the service in the house of God
Conclusion of John Piper: How do we humble ourselves? Is not the most effective way of bridling my delight in being made much of, to focus on making much of God? Self-denial and crucifixion of the flesh are essential, but O how easy it is to be made much of even for my self-denial? How shall this insidious motive of pleasure in being made much of then be broken except through bending all my faculties to delight in the pleasure of making much of God! Christian Hedonism is the final solution. It is deeper than death to self. You have to go down deeper into the grave of the flesh to find the truly freeing stream of miracle water that ravishes you with the taste of God’s glory. Only in that speechless, all-satisfying admiration is the end of self. Christians should be characterized as those who “make their boast in God” = message of 1 Corinthians 1:3; 3:21, 23
B. Question That Exposes Lack of Humble Dependence and Failure to Properly Respond to the Unique and Supreme Greatness of Christ
“Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?“
You have all of the 12 gathered around Jesus in the dwelling place of Peter or the place where Jesus customarily stayed while in Capernaum; familiar home territory; know all of the players
You would think there would be some reluctance or shame on their part to even admit to such a question or debate on the subject of Who is #1 – Mark 9:33-34 indicates they were ashamed and Jesus had to pull this out of them …
Grant Osborne: It is clear that they are not so much interested in the qualities that lead to greatness or the kingdom realities behind such greatness. Their question, “Who then is the ‘greatest’ [the comparative μείζων for the superlative]?” shows their primary interest is in status, power, and authority—in particular, their own future power position (as will be demonstrated in 20:20–21).
Bruce Ball: Signs of pride:
– Do I continually think about myself?
– Do I continually talk about myself?
– Do I use the pronoun “I’ more than “YOU” or “WE”
– Do I remember every service I may have rendered?
– Do I feel rejected if someone doesn’t know how much I do?
John MacArthur: They were seeking self‑glory, prestige, prominence and Jesus had just been teaching them, chapter 16, verse 24, that if any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me, let him lose his life if he wants to find it. And He’s been talking about self‑denial and humility all along. And they still are self‑seeking, grasping, desiring prominence. They are bent on self‑glory. They are bent on sitting in the chief seats. . .
So, what Jesus is talking about is the Kingdom of heaven insofar as it means the rule and reign of God, the dominion of God, the sphere of God’s influence and God’s power and God’s rule and God’s blessing coming into the Kingdom of the Lord, coming into the sphere of God, coming in to eternal life, if you will, being saved, being redeemed, belonging to God, under His dominion. So, the concept of Kingdom of heaven simply means God’s sphere of rule. . .
So, here we find‑‑first of all‑‑repentance, a sorrow for sin and a desire to change. And then out of that comes a sense of unworthiness knowing you don’t have any resource for that, you can’t change. You’re personally bankrupt. You can’t do anything to deserve it. And then you feel humble before such an awesome God and an awesome Kingdom. And then you learn that you’ve got to do more than just say you want that. It’s not just saying you belong to the Lord. It’s not external, it’s something deep inside. And it’s obedience to the will of God. And there you have submission to Lordship…submission to deity.
II. (:2-3) THE OBJECT LESSON AND EXPLANATION –
HUMBLE DEPENDENCE IS GOD’S REQUIREMENT
What?? I thought all that was needed was Repentance and Faith??? Now you are adding other conditions???
You cannot truly acknowledge who God is in His Holiness and Majesty and Lordship and who you are in your fallen condition of Total Depravity and Helplessness and Moral Bankruptcy and Inability to save yourself – without HUMILITY
A. (:2) Presentation of the Object Lesson (Visual Aid)
“And He called a child to Himself and set him before them,”
William Barclay: There is a tradition that the child grew to be Ignatius of Antioch, who in later days became a great servant of the Church, a great writer, and finally a martyr for Christ. Ignatius was surnamed Theophoros, which means God-carried, and the tradition grew up that he had received that name because Jesus carried him on his knee. It may be so. Maybe it is more likely that it was Peter who asked the question, and that it was Peter’s little boy whom Jesus took and set in front of everyone, because we know that Peter was married (Matthew 8:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5).
Grant Osborne: The major points are the low status of children in the first century and their lack of interest in power and prestige.
John Walvoord: They had been asking the wrong question. They should have been asking, How can I best serve the King? Rather than, How can I best serve myself?
They should have been focused on the privilege of being in the kingdom rather than striving for the position of preeminence
Any striving for a position of preeminence in the church is so wrong – cf. Diotrephes in 3 John 9
Charles Swindoll: Jesus further explained that the key to having a place in the kingdom is humility. The child had no pride, no arrogance, no conceit, no expectations, no desire for promotion, no spirit of entitlement, and no phony piety. It was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get moment. Those who humble themselves like that little child —that is, those who understand their utter dependence on the mercy and grace of Jesus for their admission and position in relation to Him —will be regarded as greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:4).
B. (:3) Explanation of the Object Lesson – Humble Dependence Required for Entrance Into the Kingdom
“and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall
not enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
- What Does Conversion Involve? Fundamentally a change in our relationship to God
- How is Conversion similar to “becoming like a child”?
- What is the Ongoing application of Conversion (vs. the one time conversion at the point of Justification)?
John MacArthur: Jesus pictures faith as the simple, helpless, trusting dependence of those who have no resources of their own. Like children, they have no achievements and no accomplishments to offer or commend themselves with.
John Piper: The key to humility is not merely feeling the absence of merit (as we saw in the last chapter), but feeling the presence of free grace. Humility is not only like the servant who says, “I am an unworthy servant”; humility is also like a child at rest in his father’s arms.” . . . We must humble ourselves in both ways: like an unworthy servant and like a trusting child.
R. T. France: The instruction to “become like children” is thus not about adopting some supposed ethical characteristic of children in general (innocence, humility, receptiveness, trustfulness or the like) but about accepting for oneself a position in the social scale which is like that of children, that is as the lowest in the hierarchy of authority and decision-making, those subject to and dependent on adults.
C. (:4) Explanation of the Object Lesson Extended – Humble Dependence Required as God’s Standard for Measuring True Greatness
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
- What is Involved in Humbling Ourself like a child?
a. Total Inability
b. Complete Dependence
John Piper: For a strong, self-confident, self-sufficient, intelligent, resourceful, controlling person, Jesus’ demand was devastating. Jesus knew that children were not models for imitation in his day. The reason he chose them is because of their powerlessness and their low social standing. His demand is that we end our love affair with power and status and self sufficiency and rights and control. . .
Children may have all kinds of faults, but in a normal, healthy family they trust their daddy to take care of them. They do not lie awake wondering where the next meal is coming from. They do not fret in the stroller that the sky is turning gray. The child is, by its very position, lowly . . . and lives by instinctive confidence.
Stu Weber: This second statement served as a poetic restatement of the first (18:3), but it also clarified the specific childlike quality believers are to imitate—humility. All the complicated mental gymnastics adults use to avoid facing the truth take us farther from the kingdom. The person who comes to Jesus in simple humility, recognizing Jesus greatness and his own lowliness, is the greatest in God’s kingdom. This person enters the kingdom by grace and serves in such a way as to inherit reward. A person like this warms the heart of the Almighty. He will be used by God to accomplish the greatest good for the kingdom.
- Do we still want to be the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven”?
Focus our thoughts on the Greatness of Christ.
Respond as His servant – without taking thought for how we might benefit.
(not saying that rewards is not a proper motivation – how does this harmonize?)
- Whoever thinks he is the greatest is the furthest from it = Scribes and Pharisees
- Whoever strives to be the greatest is serving from the wrong motivation
Donald Hagner: From Jesus’ point of view, the disciples were so fundamentally on the wrong track in their admiration of, and quest of, what they considered to be greatness that it was questionable whether they really understood the kingdom he proclaimed and, in particular, that its basis lay in God’s free grace (cf. Mark 10:15). The status of the disciples before God was like that of dependent little children, and their corresponding attitude was to be a childlike humility, not pride of position or power (cf. 1 John 2:16–17). Clearly, a primary virtue of those who would be disciples, hence for those in the church, is a humility that marks them off radically from a world obsessed with the quest for greatness construed only as power and status. The disciple is called to be like his or her Master, whose demeanor even as the Christ was one of humility (cf. 12:18–21; 21:5).