- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

The Kingdom Principle: The Least is Greatest, Part 1: Who is the Greatest?

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew 18.  After the Transfiguration, the Lord Jesus Christ told the disciples of the impending trial and the suffering that He would endure, indeed the death that He was going to die for them in Jerusalem.  And you remember the disciple’s response?  The disciples responded by despairing.  We saw that in Matthew 16.  In Matthew 17 the Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured in His glory.  Three of His disciples saw Him and praised Him.  The other disciples, meanwhile, were having a hard time casting out some demons in the city.  When Jesus and those other disciples came back, the Lord Jesus addressed the disciples about their unbelief. So in Matthew 16 we see the disciples despairing and then in Matthew 17 we see the disciples doubting. 

In Matthew 18 we’re now going to find the disciples disputing.   I’m not sure which direction they’re going with this.  But we see each of these phases in the education of the disciples here in Matthew 16, 17 and 18.  There’s a direct connection between Matthew 18, verses 1 through 6, and the last passage we looked at together, Matthew 17, verses 24 through 27.  In that passage, you’ll remember, Jesus showed His humility while acknowledging that He was the very Son of God.  He did not have the responsibility to pay the temple tax because He was the Son of the one who was the dweller and the builder of the temple.  Nevertheless, He instructed Peter to pay the temple tax, thus showing both His deity and His humility. 

In this passage, Jesus is going to direct the disciple’s attention precisely to the issue of their own humility.  Furthermore, there’s another connection between this passage and what goes before it.  From Matthew 14 to 19, Matthew zeros in on Peter as a spokesman and leader of the disciples.  And in these passages, very often Peter takes the lead part in the interaction between Christ and His disciples, and those who are around them.  For instance, in Matthew 17, verses 24 through 27, do you remember that when the tax collectors of Capernaum wanted to find out whether Jesus paid the temple tax, they went to Peter?  Probably because Peter was recognized even by those who were not part of Jesus’ circle as the leader amongst the disciples. 

Now, bearing that in mind and knowing what comes in the very first verse of Matthew chapter 18, let me ask you a question.  Could it be that the fact that others around the disciples were recognizing Peter’s place of leadership, could it be that the other disciples were jealous of Peter?  And could that be the reason they were discussing amongst themselves who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Mark tells us that they were having that discussion privately hoping that Jesus would not hear it.  He knew what they were talking about and so He said to them, “What are you discussing?”  And with some embarrassment, the disciples admitted to Jesus what they were discussing.  Matthew just picks up the story there.  He picks up the story with them addressing the question to Jesus rather sheepishly after having discussed it amongst themselves.  So let’s look at God’s word here in Matthew 18, beginning in verse 1. 

Matthew 18:1-6 

Our Father we thank You for this passage.  We ask that You would help our hearts to be open to it, That by the Spirit You would search us out and see if there is any unclean thing in us, and we would be conformed to Your word because we want to be like Christ.  We want to bear His moral image.  We want to truly be Christians so teach us, Lord, to be Christians.  We ask it in Jesus name.  Amen.   

Remember what the reaction of the disciples was the first time that Jesus told them that He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and eventually be killed?  They despaired.  They were absolutely despairing of Jesus’ words to them.  But the second time, the second time that Jesus spoke those words, and you’ll find those words in Matthew 17, verses 22 and 23, when He again announces for a second time that He is going up to Jerusalem to die, the very first reported conversation that we have of the disciples is about who is greatest.  The first time they were despairing.  Now they are disputing.  The first time they were sad when they heard of His death.  But now they are preoccupied with assessing the relative importance of their rolls in the kingdom.  This is a serious problem.  Granted, the fact that they were discussing their rolls in the kingdom at least lets us know that they believe that Jesus was King and that His kingdom was real.  But their heart attitude was a problem and it’s no less of a problem for us, my friends. 

The issue that these disciples are struggling with is not a unique issue to them and to their context; it is a perennial issue for us as believers.  Because the rule of life in the kingdom of God is not the rule of selfish ambition.  And the disciples had allowed selfish ambition to spoil their relationship with Christ and to one another.  And if there is any message that the world is giving to us today, it is the message that success and greatness is found when you trample upon others and you follow the way of selfish ambition, gathering everything that you can.  The Spirit is embodied in that phrase that we sometimes see on bumper stickers, He who dies with the most toys wins.  And that spirit is pervasive in our age and it skews our understanding of what success and satisfaction and happiness and ultimately greatness really means.  And so we need Jesus’ corrective to our thinking and to our hearts.  And I’d like you to see that as we look together at this passage today. There are two or three things that I’s like you to learn from this passage. 

I. The nature of greatness in Christ’s  kingdom differs from the world’s idea of greatness.
First of all, in verses 1 and 2, you see the questions that the disciples are grappling with, and ultimately the one question which they set before the Lord.  And then you see the object lesson which Jesus uses to respond to their question in verse 2.  And in verses 1 and 2 we learn something absolutely profound, and that is that the nature of greatness in Christ’s kingdom is utterly different from the world’s idea of greatness.  The nature of greatness in Christ’s kingdom is utterly different from the idea of greatness that the world has.

Jesus catches the disciples in a discussion that they wished He hadn’t heard.  And He presses them, ‘What are you talking about?’  Even though the other gospel writers tell us that they know that He knew exactly what they were talking about.  But He forces them to come out and express this particular debate that they were having.  And I want you to note that, rather than raging and rebuking the disciples harshly, that the Lord Jesus Christ is, though very firm, He is very gentle and kind in the way He deals with them, even though the mistake they had made, the sin they had committed here, was very grave.  In fact, Jesus was going to say this sin was so grave that if it characterized your life you couldn’t be part of the kingdom of heaven.  He was going to say that in a few minutes. 

But I want you to look at the attitude with which Jesus approaches the disciples.  Jesus is trying to teach these men how to be humble.  And I want you to note that the content of what He says, not only conveys that, but even the way He conveys it teaches them how to be humble.  Jesus could have raged at these men for the sin they had committed.  But in a very gentle and kind way, He teaches them to be humble, and we learn as much from how Jesus does it as we do by what Jesus says. 

Isn’t He always remarkable in the ability that He has to connect the truth of the word with the appropriateness of His actions!  And isn’t that what we ought to be aiming for as well?  Not only to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love.  Not only to be faithful to His word, but to be faithful to it not only in what we think but in how we deliver it.  And this is exactly what we see Jesus doing.  Jesus deals with them in such a way that He shows them true humility not just in His words but in His actions.  He had already given them a picture of true humility in verses 24 through 27 of the last chapter, when He had paid the temple tax which He clearly did not have an obligation to pay. 

And Jesus’ object lesson forces on His disciples the question of “What is greatness?”   When they put to him the question what is greatness, He brings a child and sits him on His knee and looks them in the eye.  He forces on them the issue of rethinking their idea of greatness.  He plops a child down and He says, ‘This is greatness.’  And He’s saying to them, ‘Your idea is all wrong about what is great.’  And His object lesson forces us to ask a question, “What are our aspirations?”  What do we think is greatness?  For us, what is success?  More cars, more house, more money, more prestige, more clothes – what is success? Is that greatness? Influence, significance, prestige, is that greatness?  

There’s a member of our congregation who one day was in grade school and he was told something that he had never heard before.  He found out that his grandfather was a former governor of the State of Mississippi.  He went running home to see his grandmother and said, “Grandmother, why didn’t you tell me that granddad was the Governor of Mississippi?”  In her humility, that was not something she had made a point to impress upon her grandson, but not because it wasn’t something that the family could be rightfully proud of. She wanted appropriate humility to be ingrained in her children. 

I remember hearing a minister in Britain tell me a story.  There’s an island called Fair Isle, which is a bird sanctuary, and there are lots of bird lovers in Britain.  They love to go watch the various, gorgeous birds, Puffins particularly, on Fair Isle, are one of the neatest birds to watch.  They’re beautiful birds.  And there was a very famous British pastor who was a bird-lover.  He loved to watch the birds.  He would take vacations and one of the things that we would do on those vacations would be go bird watching.  Well, he went to Fair Isle once and the man who was operating a particular shop there on Fair Isle was an evangelical Christian.  And he thought that he recognized the man, and so he began to ask him questions: “Well, sir, where are you from?”   “Well, I’m from London.”   “Well, what do you do?”   “Well, I’m a preacher.”  And he pressed him and pressed him and he couldn’t get any more information out of him.  When the man left the island to go back to the mainland to continue his vacation there, the shop owner looked in his registration book, and the signature of the visitor on the registration book said “John R. W. Stott.”  The great Anglican, evangelical minister of All Souls Church in London had been there on Fair Isle and wouldn’t even identify himself.  The humility of this man was evident.  And the Lord Jesus Christ is pressing precisely that kind of issue upon the disciples and asking them to reevaluate their view of greatness. 

Thomas a Kempis, the great medieval author, once said, “He is genuinely great who considers himself small and cares nothing about high honors.”  And one Christian said, “Great men never know that they are great, but small men never know that they are small.”  Great men are so given to doing what the Lord has called them to do, they never stop to think about their personal greatness.  But small men are so wrapped up in themselves that they never realize that they are midgets.  God calls us to that kind of self-effacing, self-forgetful quest for kingdom greatness which is utterly different than the greatness and success that the world offers. 

II. The way we enter the kingdom is directly connected to the life of the kingdom.
Now in verses 3 and 4, Jesus specifically defines the nature of kingdom greatness.  And He defines it, and I can define it for you in two words: Trustful humility.  Kingdom greatness is found in an attitude of trustful humility.  And in verses 3 and 4, He is showing us the necessity of that kind of attitude in believers.  In fact, He argues, in verses 3 and 4, that the way we enter the kingdom is directly connected with the life of the kingdom.  Jesus teaches them in verses 3 and 4 that the way you actually become a Christian teaches you a lesson that you’re never, ever to forget about how you are to be a Christian in the walk of faith. 

Jesus declares in verse 3 that a heart changed from pridefulness to humility is absolutely essential to belonging to His kingdom.  In fact, He says to His disciples, He’s speaking to His disciples now, not to crowds, He says to His disciples, ‘If your heart is not changed, if you are not converted to become humble like a little child, you will not enter My kingdom.’

Jesus is reminding us about the doctrine of conversion.  The heart change which He is speaking about here is the conversion of our hearts which is worked and operated by the Holy Spirit when He breaks us of pride and opens us to humility and trustful humility flows from that heart change and it makes one truly great in the kingdom.  The standard of greatness in the kingdom is connected with the way you enter the kingdom.  When we become Christians we have to face up to the fact that we are sinners and that we don’t deserve anything but God’s condemnation.  If we have to face up to that when we become Christians and humbly entrust ourselves to the Lord, saying, “Lord, I deserve to be condemned but I trust You and so I entrust my life to You and I ask You to save me.”

Jesus says that that posture of humble trustfulness in the Lord is precisely the posture that the believer is to live the rest of his life.  In the kingdom, the least is greatest.  In the kingdom, the one who is the most trustful, who is the most humble, he is the greatest in the kingdom.  Now, that attitude is so different from the attitude of the world today and we can illustrate it in a lot of ways.  But let me give you an example.  You will see this on childrens’ shows in the morning, you will see this at athletic events and hear it from coaches – “Believe in yourself, you can do anything.”  And the world bombards us with that kind of thinking. 

Well, my friends, listen to that phrase – believe in yourself, you can do anything.  And then listen to this phrase – I can do all things through him that strengthens me.  Do you understand that those two views are at the opposite ends of the polls?  Those views never meet.  They are utterly different.  To say, “I can do all things through Him that strengthens me,” is utterly different than saying, “I can do all things.”

I’ll never forget one of the most traumatizing events in the history of Clemson University was a football game against Florida State about 10 years ago.  It was one of the best Clemson teams in a long time.  They were tied 21 to 21 with Florida State with about a minute and one half to go, and they had Bobby Bowden’s team inside their own 10-yard line with a fourth down and 20 something.  The stadium scoreboard was flashing up the sign, “You gotta believe, you gotta believe.”  And 85 to 90 thousand orange-clad, raving lunatics believed it.  They just knew that they were going to get that ball back, drive into field goal position and beat Florida State at home.  And Bobby Bowden threw a pass on fourth down that went for 90 something yards and Florida State won.  And as that crowd fell silent, the stadium scoreboard was still flashing, “You gotta believe, you gotta believe.”

Now you know what?  That ‘believing’ got them nowhere.  Because that kind of thinking is utterly opposite from “I can do all things through Him that strengthens me.”  Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “I sometimes think that the very essence of the whole Christian position and the secret of a successful spiritual life is just to realize two things: I must have complete, absolute confidence in God and no confidence in myself.”

Now hear what I’m saying carefully there, my friends.  Humility does not mean a permanent inferiority complex.  Humility does not mean that you’re the person who hangs your head the lowest and you walk around with a dark cloud over your head, here and there in sackcloth and ashes.  Rather, humility is self-forgetfulness.  Calvin said,  “Nothing but the knowledge of God can produce humility in us.”  And Sinclair Ferguson expands that a little bit when he says,  “Humility is not simply feeling small and useless – like an inferiority complex.  It is sensing how great and glorious God is and seeing myself in that light.”

Do we have that kind of humility?  You know, every member of the kingdom can exercise that kind of humility.  Every member of the kingdom can achieve that kind of greatness.  The world’s greatness only allows a few who make it to the top to achieve its kind of fleeting greatness.  But kingdom humility can be experienced by every member of the kingdom and therefore kingdom greatness can be experienced by every member of the kingdom.  In fact, it is sometimes in those moments when we have lost the world’s ideal of success and greatness where our kingdom greatness is shone the most. 

III. True humility manifests itself in our care not to cause stumbling.
One last thing, in verses 5 and 6.  Jesus reminds us that it’s not only the attitude of humility that we have in ourself, but it’s our attitude of humility as we relate to one another which is an evidence, a sign, an indicator of God having worked a change of heart in us and given us true kingdom humility.  He teaches us in verses 5 and 6 that true humility manifests itself in our care not to cause others to stumble.  Jesus says two things in verses 5 and 6:  He says that your receiving of these little ones is receiving Me; and He says if you cause these little ones to stumble you are not only displeasing Me but you are displeasing Me in such a way as to injure those that I love and I’ll cast you into the deepest sea with a heavy, donkey-drawn millstone wrapped around your neck so that you will never come back up. 

Jesus uses strong words here, my friends.  What is saying?  Why is He saying this?  Because He is saying that your humility is also manifested towards those who are little ones, those who are weak in the faith, those who may seem small and insignificant to the world, and yet who are precious in the eyes of Christ.  And, by the way, does this not remind us how Christ cares for us?  We may be small in the eyes of the world, we may be unsuccessful in the eyes of the world, we may be the least in the eyes of the world.  And yet, if the Lord Jesus loves us, who can be against us?  He says that if anyone is against us, He’ll tie a millstone around their neck and He’ll plunge them into the deepest ocean.  The Lord Jesus is looking out for His people, but His prime message here is for His disciples in taking care in the way they manifest their humility to others.  How do we manifest humility to others?  Has our self-estimation led us to care for others and to order our choices for their sake? 

Many years ago my wife shared with me a saying that her pastor had given.  His saying was something like this: “Humility is being out in one of those huge mid-western states on a highway that is empty and deserted with not a car or a soul for miles around and going the speed limit.” And I said to Anne, “What in the world is he talking about?  I have no idea what He is talking about.”  But you see, that statement in the light of this passage is illumined.  That statement indicates that humility does not say, “The rules aren’t for me, they’re for other people, and since nobody’s going to catch me doing something wrong I’m going to do what I want to do, because I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  That’s not humility.  That attitude is not humility.  The attitude of humility is always concerned to act out of a proper estimation of who we are and out of a concern for others. 

And so, C. S. Lewis said, “If anyone would wish to acquire humility, I can tell him the first step – to recognize that he is proud.”  And C. H. Spurgeon said, “I believe that every Christian man has the choice between being humble or being humbled.”

My friends, this is a timely season for this message.  It is timely for us to evaluate what real greatness means, what real success means in life, because the world wants to hold up for us a very different model of success.  But let me tell you this, if you buy into the world’s model of greatness the world will come crashing down around your ears because it cannot support reality.  Only the greatness of the kingdom gives joy and happiness and lasting satisfaction and everything else is a fable, a fantasy, a fiction, a falsehood.  May we seek the greatness of the kingdom together and may we help one another seek that greatness above everything else.  May the Lord bless these words.  Let’s pray. 

Our Lord and our God we thank You for the solemnity and the encouragement of this word.  We confess in our hearts our pride.  We ask that You would help us to desire kingdom greatness above everything else.  For Christ’s sake.  Amen.