Kingdom Greatness

“Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said…‘Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (vv. 2–4).  

- Matthew 18:1–4

Once again the disciples display their knack for missing the point when they ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mat. 18:1). This question, the other gospel writers tell us, results from an argument between the disciples over who will have the highest status in the kingdom (Mark 9:33–37; Luke 9:46–48). The analogy our Lord made earlier between God and the kings of the earth (Matt. 17:24–27) may be what has spurred the disciples to talk about the kingdom again, but the way in which they are viewing the kingdom of heaven is the problem. Christ has just emphasized the reality of His death and that His followers must likewise suffer (16:21–28; 17:22–23), but these images of powerlessness have had little impact on the disciples’ values. They are grasping for power and status in the kingdom of heaven.

Our Savior’s answer refutes the ungodly attitude of the disciples. Greatness, He says, belongs only to those who humble themselves like a child (18:2–4). Jesus is not saying that children are naturally humble; experience teaches us otherwise. He is emphasizing the objective reality of childhood. Children rely almost entirely on adults to survive, and they have not lived long enough to claim lasting success or merit for themselves. Christians must cast off dreams of power or status and like a child admit their ultimate dependence on God for all things. Rather than seek status in the eyes of men, they should rely more and more on the Father. It is not wrong to seek church office (1 Tim. 3:1), but we must desire leadership only to serve others, not to grab status or power for ourselves. John Calvin says the humble person “neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.”

Such principles are entirely at odds with the world’s way of doing things. The non-Christians around us are motivated by a desire to get ahead of the next guy. Our profession of Christ is wanting when we as individuals or a corporate body seek to lord our authority, power, or status over others (Matt. 20:20–28).

Coram Deo

Matthew Henry writes: “The humblest Christians are the best Christians and most like to Christ, and highest in his favor, and fittest to serve in this world, and enjoy him in another.” Humble believers have an honest assessment of their own abilities and are examples of what it means to have regard for Jesus’ honor, not their own. We will point others to Jesus if we possess these qualities. Consider the humble people you know and imitate them as they imitate Christ.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 149
Proverbs 3:33–34
Isaiah 66:1–2
John 13:1–17

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.