Who Is the Greatest?
“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 (ESV)
As there never was a greater pattern of humility, so there never was a greater preacher of it, than Christ; he took all occasions to command it, to commend it, to his disciples and followers.
I. The occasion of this discourse concerning humility was an unbecoming contest among the disciples for precedency;
They came to him, saying, among themselves (for they were ashamed to ask him, Mk. 9:34), Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? They mean not, who by character (then the question had been good, that they might know what graces and duties to excel in), but who by name. They had heard much, and preached much, of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of the Messiah, his church in this world; but as yet they were so far from having any clear notion of it, that they dreamt of a temporal kingdom, and the external pomp and power of it.
Christ had lately foretold his sufferings, and the glory that should follow, that he should rise again, from whence they expected his kingdom would commence; and now they thought it was time to put in for their places in it; it is good, in such cases, to speak early.
Upon other discourses of Christ to that purport, debates of this kind arose (ch. 20:19, 20; Lu. 22:22, 24); he spoke many words of his sufferings, but only one of his glory; yet they fasten upon that, and overlook the other; and, instead of asking how they might have strength and grace to suffer with him, they ask him, “Who shall be highest in reigning with him.” Note, Many love to hear and speak of privileges and glory, who are willing to pass by the thoughts of work and trouble. They look so much at the crown, that they forget the yoke and the cross. So the disciples here did, when they asked, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
1. They suppose that all who have a place in that kingdom are great, for it is a kingdom of priests.
Note, Those are truly great who are truly good; and they will appear so at last, when Christ shall own them as his, though ever so mean and poor in the world.
2. They suppose that there are degrees in this greatness.
All the saints are honourable, but not all alike so; one star differs from another star in glory. All David’s officers were not worthies, nor all his worthies of the first three.
3. They suppose it must be some of them, that must be prime ministers of state.
To whom should King Jesus delight to do honour, but to them who had left all for him, and were now his companions in patience and tribulation?
4. They strive who it should be, each having some pretense or other to it.
Peter was always the chief speaker, and already had the keys given him; he expects to be lord-chancellor, or lord-chamberlain of the household, and so to be the greatest. Judas had the bag, and therefore he expects to be lord-treasurer, which, though now he come last, he hopes, will then denominate him the greatest. Simon and Jude are nearly related to Christ, and they hope to take place of all the great officers of state, as princes of the blood. John is the beloved disciple, the favourite of the Prince, and therefore hopes to be the greatest. Andrew was first called, and why should not he be first preferred? Note, We are very apt to amuse and humour ourselves with foolish fancies of things that will never be.
II. The discourse itself, which is a just rebuke to the question, Who shall be greatest?
We have abundant reason to think, that if Christ ever intended that Peter and his successors at Rome should be heads of the church, and his chief vicars on earth, having so fair an occasion given him, he would now have let his disciples know it; but so far is he from this, that his answer disallows and condemns the thing itself. Christ will not lodge such an authority or supremacy any where in his church; whoever pretend to it are usurpers; instead of settling any of the disciples in this dignity, he warns them all not to put in for it.
Christ here teacheth them to be humble,
1. By a sign (v. 2);
He called a little child to him, and set him in the midst of them. Christ often taught by signs or sensible representations (comparisons to the eye), as the prophets of old. Note, Humility is a lesson so hardly learned, that we have need by all ways and means to be taught it. When we look upon a little child, we should be put in mind of the use Christ made of this child. Sensible things must be improved to spiritual purposes. He set him in the midst of them; not that they might play with him, but that they might learn by him. Grown men, and great men, should not disdain the company of little children, or think it below them to take notice of them. They may either speak to them, and give instruction to them; or look upon them, and receive instruction from them. Christ himself, when a child, was in the midst of the doctors, Lu. 2:46.
2. By as sermon upon this sign; in which he shows them and us,
(1.) The necessity of humility, v. 3.
His preface is solemn, and commands both attention and assent; Verily I say unto you, I, the Amen, the faithful Witness, say it, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Here observe,
[1.] What it is that he requires and insists upon.
First, “You must be converted,
You must be of another mind, and in another frame and temper, must have other thoughts, both of yourselves and of the kingdom of heaven, before you be fit for a place in it. The pride, ambition, and affectation of honour and dominion, which appear in you, must be repented of, mortified, and reformed, and you must come to yourselves.”
Note, Besides the first conversion of a soul from a state of nature to a state of grace, there are after-conversions from particular paths of backsliding, which are equally necessary to salvation. Every step out of the way by sin, must be a step into it again by repentance. When Peter repented of his denying his Master, he was converted.
Secondly, You must become as little children.
Note, Converting grace makes us like little children, not foolish as children (1 Co. 14:20), nor fickle (Eph. 4:14), nor playful (ch. 11:16); but, as children, we must desire the sincere milk of the word (1 Pt. 2:2); as children, we must be careful for nothing, but leave it to our heavenly Father to care for us (ch. 6:31); we must, as children, be harmless and inoffensive, and void of malice (1 Co. 14:20), governable, and under command (Gal. 4:2); and (which is here chiefly intended) we must be humble as little children, who do not take state upon them, nor stand upon the punctilios of honour; the child of a gentleman will play with the child of a beggar (Rom. 12:16), the child in rags, if it have the breast, is well enough pleased, and envies not the gaiety of the child in silk; little children have no great aims at great places, or projects to raise themselves in the world; they exercise not themselves in things too high for them; and we should in like manner behave, and quiet ourselves, Ps. 131:1, 2.
As children are little in body and low in stature, so we must be little and low in spirit, and in our thoughts of ourselves. This is a temper which leads to other good dispositions; the age of childhood is the learning age.
[2.] What stress he lays upon this;
Without this, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Note, Disciples of Christ have need to be kept in awe by threatenings, that they may fear lest they seem to come short, Heb. 4:1. The disciples, when they put that question (v. 1), thought themselves sure of the kingdom of heaven; but Christ awakens them to be jealous of themselves. They were ambitious of being greatest in the kingdom of heaven; Christ tells them, that, except they came to a better temper, they should never come thither.
Note, many that set up for great ones in the church, prove not only little, but nothing, and are found to have no part or lot in the matter. Our Lord designs here to show the great danger of pride and ambition; whatever profession men make, if they allow themselves in this sin, they will be rejected both from God’s tabernacle and from his holy hill. Pride threw the angels that sinned out of heaven, and will keep us out, if we be not converted from it.
They that are lifted up with pride, fall into the condemnation of the devil; to prevent this, we must become as little children, and, in order to do that, must be born again, must put on the new man, must be like the holy child Jesus; so he is called, even after his ascension, Acts 4:27.
(2.) He shows the honour and advancement that attend humility (v. 4), thus furnishing a direct but surprising answer to their question.
He that humbles himself as a little child, though he may fear that hereby he will render himself contemptible, as men of timid minds, who thereby throw themselves out of the way of preferment, yet the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Note, The humblest Christians are the best Christians, and most like to Christ, and highest in his favour; are best disposed for the communications of divine grace, and fittest to serve God in this world, and enjoy him in another. They are great, for God overlooks heaven and earth, to look on such; and certainly those are to be most respected and honoured in the church that are most humble and self-denying; for, though they least seek it, they best deserve it.
(3.) The special care Christ takes for those that are humble;
He espouses their cause, protects them, interests himself in their concerns, and will see that they are not wronged, without being righted. Those that thus humble themselves will be afraid,
[1.] That nobody will receive them; but (v. 5),
Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name, receiveth me. Whatever kindnesses are done to such, Christ takes as done to himself. Whoso entertains a meek and humble Christian, keeps him in countenance, will not let him lose by his modesty, takes him into his love and friendship, and society and care, and studies to do him a kindness; and doth this in Christ’s name, for his sake, because he bears the image of Christ, serves Christ, and because Christ has received him; this shall be accepted and recompensed as an acceptable piece of respect to Christ.
Observe, Though it be but one such little child that is received in Christ’s name, it shall be accepted. Note, The tender regard Christ has to his church extends itself to every particular member, even the meanest; not only to the whole family, but to every child of the family; the less they are in themselves, to whom we show kindness, the more there is of goodwill in it to Christ; the less it is for their sakes, the more it is for his; and he takes it accordingly. If Christ were personally among us, we think we should never do enough to welcome him; the poor, the poor in spirit, we have always with us, and they are his receivers. See ch. 25:35–40.
[2.] They will be afraid that everybody will abuse them;
The basest men delight to trample upon the humble; Vexat censura columbas—Censure pounces on doves. This objection he obviates (v. 6), where he warns all people, as they will answer it at their utmost peril, not to offer any injury to one of Christ’s little ones. This word makes a wall of fire about them; he that touches them, touches the apple of God’s eye.
Observe, First, The crime supposed; offending one of these little ones that believe in Christ.
Their believing in Christ, though they be little ones, unites them to him, and interests him in their cause, so that, as they partake of the benefit of his sufferings, he also partakes in the wrong of theirs. Even the little ones that believe have the same privileges with the great ones, for they have all obtained like precious faith. There are those that offend these little ones, by drawing them to sin (1 Co. 8:10, 11), grieving and vexing their righteous souls, discouraging them, taking occasion from their mildness to make a prey of them in their persons, families, goods, or good name. Thus the best men have often met with the worst treatment in this world.
Secondly, The punishment of this crime; intimated in that word,
Better for him that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. The sin is so heinous, and the ruin proportionably so great, that he had better undergo the sorest punishments inflicted on the worst of malefactors, which can only kill the body.
Note, 1. Hell is worse than the depth of the sea; for it is a bottomless pit, and it is a burning lake.
The depth of the sea is only killing, but hell is tormenting. We meet with one that had comfort in the depth of the sea, it was Jonah (ch. 2:2, 4, 9); but never any had the least grain or glimpse of comfort in hell, nor will have to eternity.
2. The irresistible irrevocable doom of the great Judge will sink sooner and surer, and bind faster, than a mill-stone hanged about the neck.
It fixes a great gulf, which can never be broken through, Lu. 16:26. Offending Christ’s little ones, though by omission, is assigned as the reason of that dreadful sentence, Go ye cursed, which will at last be the doom of proud persecutors.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1703–1704.