Who Is the Greatest?

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-3)

Matthew 18 is Jesus’ fourth major teaching section in the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus focuses on instructing His disciples how to live in community with one another.

What’s the destroyer of community? Pride and self-centeredness.

The disciples come to Jesus with a question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Two things stand out in their question:

1. They are still focused on the coming of the kingdom on earth. Jesus has clearly told them two times that He is going to suffer and die. But their minds cannot process this information. They still look to Jesus to defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in the Messianic kingdom.

2. They are vying with each other to be the greatest in the kingdom. Mark makes it clear that behind the disciples’ question is an ongoing argument about which one of them is the “greatest disciple” (Mark 9:33-34). Wow. Can you imagine that discussion?

“Well, c’mon guys, Jesus did tell me that the church would be built on me.”
“Are you kidding, Peter? Did you forget that he referred to you as Satan a short time afterward?”
“Yeah, I am the disciple that Jesus really loves.”
“John, you are so full of yourself.”
“Jesus certainly trusts me the most since I am the treasurer of the group.”
“Give me a break, Judas.”
“On that mission trip, I healed more people than any of y’all.”

And so on… It was like a bunch of guys arguing about SEC football and whose team is the best.

Do we do the same thing today? Maybe not verbally but we certainly have our ideas on what makes a “great disciple.” And we are constantly measuring ourselves by other people. “My family is in better shape than theirs.” “I obviously serve more than that person.” “That person is such a hypocrite. At least I am honest about myself.” “Look at how much I witness. No one else is sharing their faith like me.” “The church is full of such shallow people. No one has a passion for the Bible like I do.” And on it goes.

So Jesus takes the opportunity to instruct His disciples. He brings a little child into their midst. It is a child old enough to stand on his own but young enough to be called a “little child” (Greek, paidion). It is probably a toddler. And as the disciples look at this little child, Jesus says, “Mark this down as true. Unless your heart attitude changes and you become like a little child, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”


What Jesus did in setting a child forward as an example for adults to follow was shocking in His day. People of the ancient Near East regarded children as inferior to adults. They did not receive the consideration that adults enjoyed until they reached adult status. Children were to look to adults as examples to follow. Now Jesus turned the tables and urged His disciples to follow the example of a child. To do so would require humility indeed (Tom Constable).

What is it about a child that makes them such an example to us? It is not their supposed innocence. They are born sinners just like all of us are. I don’t even think it is their humility so to speak. Children can be as selfish as any of us. I think the primary issue is child-like dependence. When a child is hurt or fearful or sick or just looking to be held, what do they do? They stretch out their arms toward their parent and long to be embraced.

Everything a child has is a gift from his parents.

I think Jesus is taking the disciples right back to the Sermon on the Mount. Do you want to be part of My kingdom? Then you must recognize yourself as a destitute beggar. You must mourn over your sin, submit your will to me, and hunger and thirst for My righteousness. You must hold out empty hands and long to be embraced by Me.

Somewhere along the way the disciples had forgotten that. As they followed Jesus more and more, they began to depend on Him less and less. They stopped talking about His greatness and started wondering about their own.

Jesus makes it clear that they need to “turn” from a self-focused, self-reliant, self-glorification and “become” like little children, dependent, teachable, and hungry for the Lord.

The only people in Messiah’s kingdom are those who have entered by grace.

Lord, humble my heart. Bring me back to Yourself. It is so easy for me to focus on myself, to depend on myself, to compare myself to others. May my eyes be only on You. May I open up empty hands and be filled with Your Spirit. Give me a child-like faith and a child-like joy today.

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