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Matthew 17:14 – 18:9 – Greatest in the Kingdom

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:1-4

This took place in Capernaum shortly after Jesus was transfigured. Jesus and the disciples had come again into the populated areas of Galilee, but Jesus was still staying secluded, “because He was teaching His disciples” (Mark 9:30f). Mark’s account says the disciples were arguing, while on the road, about who would be the greatest. Jesus asked them what their argument was about.

After Jesus and the three disciples with him came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, several things happened that could have prompted this argument. Of course, the very fact that three of them had seen Jesus transfigured could have made those three feel that they had a place of special privilege – and that they were therefore greater than the others.

Then, when they came down from the mountain, there was a crowd of people with a man who had brought his son to Jesus. This boy had an evil spirit that gave him seizures. In Jesus’ absence, the father asked the nine disciples to help him. However, they failed. (See Matthew 17:14-16.) They could not drive out this spirit, though when they were on their “limited commission” they had performed such miracles. It is easy to imagine Peter boasting over the nine, “If I’d been here, I would have handled that old demon!” James and John, whom Jesus called “Sons of Thunder,” could easily have made similar boasts.

Then, the tax-collectors came to Peter wanting the two drachma tax from Jesus and Peter. Why come to Peter? Perhaps because it seems that Peter’s house was Jesus’ headquarters when he was in Capernaum. They asked Peter, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” Peter said, “Yes, He does.” (Matthew 17:24-25).

When Peter came to Jesus, He spoke up first and asked, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own sons or from others?” Remember that Peter had just confessed Jesus as being the Christ, the son of the living God and that this tax was for the Temple of God in Jerusalem. When Peter answered, “From others,” was he saying Jesus should be exempt from the tax? At any rate, Jesus continued,

Then the sons are exempt. But so that we may not offend them, to to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours. – Matthew 17:26-27

This incident could also have made Peter feel superior to the other disciples.

Whatever, the reason, the disciples argued about who is the greatest.

Humility would have caused them to see all of these incidents in a different light.

Peter, James, and John should have been humbled by having been on the Mountain with Jesus. True, they saw His glory, they saw Him conversing with Moses and Elijah, and the heard the voice of God. But, as Paul once asked, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you have not received?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Having these experiences should have humbled them, not given them cause to boast.

Similarly, when the man asked for help for his son, the nine should have remembered whose power had helped them perform miracles in the past. Had they been sufficiently humble, they would have remembered that. When they asked Jesus why they could not cast the demon from the boy, He said, “Because you have so little faith (Matthew 17:20). In Mark’s account, He said, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29). Did He mean to imply here that some demons would come out without prayer? I think not. What kept them from praying? Wasn’t it their lack of faith? They did not have the humility to realize that only God could cast out demons, and in their pride they thought they could do it themselves.

So, in answer to their question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus gave them a lesson in humility.

Unless you change and become as a little child, you will not even enter the kingdom of heaven.

In other words, do not be concerned about who is the greatest; instead, be concerned about your own relationship with the Father.

What He went on to discuss with them is closely related: How you treat others, particularly the children, has much to do with your standing in the kingdom of Heaven. To welcome a child in the name of Jesus is to welcome Jesus Himself. To cause one of this little ones to stumble means you would be better off to have a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea.

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! 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 cripples 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. – Matthew 18:7-9

Taken in context, again this seems to be saying that it is more important to have concern for getting into the kingdom of heaven than for who is the greatest there. Why insult someone else by insisting you are greater than he? Would that potentially cause that person to stumble or to sin?

Humility drives us to God and opens the door for us into His kingdom. That same humility will make us servants of others as we treat them in the way Jesus treated His disciples. This humility leads us into the greatness enjoyed by all who are in God’s kingdom.

Questions for Consideration

  1. Is there a discrepancy between Matthew and Mark about how the question they argued about (Mark) and asked Jesus about (Matthew) came before Jesus? How do you resolve the apparent discrepancy?
  2. Why would some of the twelve feel superior to the others? Discuss the reasons given above. Are there other ways one disciple may feel superior to other disciples?
  3. Jesus said faith as a grain of mustard seed would enable His disciples to move mountains and that if they had such faith, “Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). How do Christians today deal with this text? How should we deal with this text?
  4. Matthew is the only writer of the gospels to mention the incident of Peter catching a fish to pay his and Jesus’ Temple tax. What reason could there be for Matthew to include this, and for him to include it here where he does?
  5. In what ways are we to change and become like little children? (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:20)
  6. Why is physical mutilation better than to sin? Can physical mutilation prevent us from sinning? Why?
  7. I once heard a brother say, “I would rather my daughter learn her abc’s in heaven than to be a PhD in hell.” How is this statement similar to what Jesus said in Matthew 18:7-9?

NEXT: SEEKING THE LOST – Matthew 18:10-35



2 Responses

  1. […] PREVIOUS: GREATEST IN THE KINGDOM – Matthew 17:14 – 18:9 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)LEADERSHIP (6): The Shepherd ModelCOMMUNION MEDITATION (22): God’s Party […]

  2. […] NEXT: THE GREATEST IN THE KINGDOM – Matthew 18:10-35 […]

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