Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

by Mike Ratliff

1 Ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ προσῆλθον οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ λέγοντες· τίς ἄρα μείζων ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν; 2 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν 3 καὶ εἶπεν· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ στραφῆτε καὶ γένησθε ὡς τὰ παιδία, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν. 4 ὅστις οὖν ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὡς τὸ παιδίον τοῦτο, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ μείζων ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν. 5 καὶ ὃς ἐὰν δέξηται ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐμὲ δέχεται.
6 Ὃς δʼ ἂν σκανδαλίσῃ ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων τῶν πιστευόντων εἰς ἐμέ, συμφέρει αὐτῷ ἵνα κρεμασθῇ μύλος ὀνικὸς περὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ καταποντισθῇ ἐν τῷ πελάγει τῆς θαλάσσης. Matthew 18:1-6 (NA28)

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3 and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:1-6 (NASB) 

The Bible is the Word of God. It is inerrant, inspired, and our final authority for faith and life. The Bibles we have in our day are translations of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. These translations are rendered into most languages of the earth in our time. When we study the Bible, dig into God’s Word to know Him and His ways then He will bless us with knowledge as He gives us wisdom, discernment, and direction. As our minds are renewed through this as well as through the hearing of godly preaching, teaching, and coming to terms with the extent of God’s grace permeating our lives, we do not become prideful, arrogant, or self-focused for very long. Why? As we become more mature in Christ, we also acquire more and more of His character. That means we will have the proper perspective of our place in God’s Kingdom. This place is not at the head. Instead, it is in total submission to the will of God. It is a humble place to be.

On the other hand, there are many in our day that are all about changing the Church along the lines of our culture. Those pushing for this change insist on a refocus of priorities from God’s glory and the edification of the saints as the Church awaits the return of Christ at the end of this age to a commitment to make the world a better place through changing from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to a social gospel. This refocus cannot take place as long as Sola Scriptura, summarized in the first sentence in this post, is in place and is adhered to by the Church. When Sola Scriptura is ignored then we have a free-for-all. There are no absolutes. There are no boundaries. There is only a push to see who is the greatest. This is not the way our Lord implemented His Church nor is it how it is supposed to operate. Why? When God’s truth is cast off as the final authority for faith and life then anything goes and that will not be humble submission to God in self-denial, taking up one’s own cross, and following Jesus. No, it will be culturally dominated religiosity that professes to love God, but whose adherents’ hearts are far from Him.

Our Lord gave us the scriptural way the Church is to exist and function and how those within it are to relate to one another and the world. Where do we find this? It is all in the Word of God. He described the characteristics of the covenant community within God’s Kingdom in Matthew 18:1-35. The first part of this discourse (vv1-6) deals with the faith one must posses in order to be part of this community of the Messiah within God’s Kingdom.

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3 and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:1-6 (NASB)

The Greek word used here for “the greatest” is μείζων or meizōn. This is a comparative word used to contrast what was older, larger, or greater than the majority. It described someone or something that stood out because of this quality. This quality, in the disciples understanding, was one that was attained through human endeavor or accomplishment that resulted in an elevated status. They had the idea, hence their asking the Lord this question, that in God’s Kingdom, there would be a hierarchy of saints with some being honored more than others because of their own works. What was our Lord’s response? What is the requirement for even entering the Kingdom? It is humility that is expressed to God in trust, vulnerability, and a understanding of ones inability to advance his or her cause outside of God’s grace through which they receive help, direction, and all that is needed from Him in order to even become part of the Kingdom.

Conversion from spiritual death to life comes only to those who come to God helpless and trusting in utter dependence on Him to save them. No one comes to Him on his or her own terms. Our Lord used a small child to express this. Like children, our Lord’s true disciples have no achievements and no accomplishments to offer or with which to commend themselves. No one is saved by works of the flesh, which is all the unregenerate are capable of doing. Those who attempt to do so, however, will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Who are the only ones who enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Only those who “turn” and “become” like children according to Christ’s example in this passage. The word “converted” describes this. It is the Greek word στρέφω or strephō. It literally means, “to turn oneself.” It describes one who reverses or does an about face. However, the tense, mood, and voice of this verb is aorist, subjunctive, passive. In other words, the turning or reversing is the result of some previous action. The word “become” referring to Christ’s disciples “becoming like children” in Greek is γίνομαι or ginomai. It describes the transformation from one form to another. This verb is in aorist tense, subjunctive mood, and middle voice. This describes simple action that one does to oneself. The subjunctive mood is telling us that what our Lord is describing here is conditional. However, we know that no one can do any work to enter the Kingdom because all who do must come like a child who has no ability or merit. Therefore, those who turn (repent) and become like children are those who are changed by the grace of God through the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5).

Who is μείζων  in the Kingdom of Heaven? The greatest in the Kingdom are those who humble themselves as our Lord described in vv2-3. The Greek word used here for “humbles” in v4 is ταπεινόω or tapeinoō. This verb is in aorist tense, subjunctive mood, and active voice. This is action one does to oneself and the greatness is conditional on whether one does it or not. Those who profess Christ, but are in rebellion to His commands and seek to remove themselves from submission to Sola Scriptura are not these who humble themselves. This word describes the action of one recognizing their sinfulness before the Holiness of God and a submission to God’s plan for the Kingdom. They have the right perspective of their place in the Kingdom, which is in total submission to the Lordship of Christ. They do not seek to “change everything” according to their own desires or those of the world.

5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:5-6 (NASB) 

The Greek word used here for “receives” is δέχομαι or dechomai. This describes the welcoming into fellowship as fellow citizens of the Kingdom those who humble themselves and are converted. Those who do this will also receive or welcome Christ as part of that action. In other words, Christ is intimately involved with those in His Kingdom. He brings them in and keeps them. He desires that we fellowship and love one another. The final warning here is to those who would entice one of His disciples to sin. This is a description of how He jealously guards the spiritual wellbeing of His disciples. He takes their sin seriously and is not amused when false prophets tell His disciples that sin is no big deal because they are, after all, forgiven. This is an insidious false doctrine in our time that is filling up the wrath of God against those who teach such things.

My brethren, we must interact with one another humbly and with love for one another. Let us rejoice together in our citizenship in God’s Kingdom, receiving one another as brethren. Let us also rebuke those who teach that God’s Kingdom is open to interpretation by mere men.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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