Someone asked Jesus that question. It certainly is a thought-provoking one.
Jesus had predicted His death and resurrection (Matthew 17:22,23). Following that, Peter found a coin in a fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:24-27). The next statement in the Bible reads, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (Matthew 18:1).
What do you suppose was the motivation behind such an inquiry? To get the full picture of what was going on, in addition to the opening section of Matthew 18, one also should read Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 9:46-48. What we find in Luke 9:46 is quite revealing: “Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest.” The reference is to the apostles: they were debating/squabbling among themselves over who was/would be the greatest.
Human beings can be very competitive. At times, we observe that in the spiritual realm, too. The hand-picked disciples of Jesus, at least some of them to a certain degree, were interested in outdoing Jesus’ other followers or being rewarded in some fashion that exceeded what their working mates would receive. It may be that the apostles did not yet understand that the Lord’s kingdom would not be an earthly one.
How did Jesus respond to their inquiry about who is the greatest in the kingdom? Listen to the message of Matthew 18:2-5:
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.
The apostles’ question and Jesus’ answer included a reference to “the kingdom of heaven.” What is that? Prior to this occasion, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the apostles all had preached that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). When we cross-check other verses, we learn that the records of Mark and Luke show that those preachers were saying that “the kingdom of God” was at hand. What should we conclude? Were John, Jesus, and the twelve preaching about the coming of two different kingdoms or only one kingdom? The answer: one kingdom, which was known both as “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God.”
When Jesus spoke about being the greatest in the kingdom, He was pointing out the type of character He wanted His servants to manifest in His church. That character is not limited to one person, but is expected of all the Master’s followers.
What kind of person is the greatest in the Lord’s kingdom? One who becomes/acts like a little child. In what sense? By manifesting humility. Hear the Master’s words again: “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
When we take into account another statement Jesus made to the apostles in this same situation, His meaning becomes even more clear. Consider what is written in Mark 9:35: “And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’”
Put those two ideas of the Christ’s together: (1) being humble and (2) serving others. Jesus basically declared that if someone is entertaining the idea of being first/greatest in the kingdom, he/she must be prepared to humble themselves . . . to the point of serving others . . . yes, be willing to be a servant of all people. It is easier to serve those who look, think, talk, and smell like we do. It is more challenging to step up and serve those who do not have such things in common with us. It definitely is more difficult to humble ourselves to the point of serving those who have an annoying personality, disgusting behavior, or even have mistreated us. Yet, Jesus said to serve all.
In the eyes of many folks in the world, the “greatest” person is one who has authority to boss people around and has a bunch of people serving him/ her. How different Jesus’ teaching is from that way of thinking! According to the worldly concept, great is the one who is served; our Lord’s concept is great is the server.
You and I need to “buy into” what Jesus said. His expectation for citizens in His kingdom is that they be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), that is, view themselves as spiritually bankrupt without the Lord. Without the Lord, we can do nothing (John 15:5). It is by His grace that we are what we are (1 Corinthians 15:10).
The greatest example of a humble servant? Jesus, of course. Let us learn from Him, to be humble to the point of serving others and submitting to God. May we all strive each day to be a humble, faithful servant.
— Roger D. Campbell