To Be Like Yeshua Means – To Understand Who Is the Greatest in The Kingdom
We are continuing to unpack the Christian Torah as contained in the Gospel of Matthew. In this post, we begin a new mini-series entitled: “To Be Like Yeshua Means – To Understand Who Is the Greatest in The Kingdom.”
Introduction to Mini-Series
A poem I once heard states the problem perfectly:
To live above, with saints we love will certainly be glory. To live below, with saints we know – well, that’s another story!
With so much division and dissension among professing Believers these days, we desperately need what Matthew 18 has to teach. Yeshua rebuked His talmidim for their pride and desire for worldly greatness, and He taught them the three essentials for unity and harmony among God’s people, i.e. humility, honesty and forgiveness.
Someone has accurately defined humility as “that grace that, when you know you have it, you’ve lost it!” It has also been well said, “True humility is not thinking ill of yourself; it is simply not thinking of yourself at all.”
We just completed a mini-series on Yeshua’s teaching in parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. We find here at the beginning of Matthew 18:1 – “… the talmidim came to Yeshua and asked, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”
“Who is the greatest?” was a repeated topic of discussion among the talmidim, for we find it mentioned often in the Gospel records.
The talmidim wondered about this coming Kingdom of which Yeshua would be the King. In Jewish culture, a person’s rank was of considerable importance (see Luke 14:7-11 for an example); thus, the talmidim were naturally curious about their position in the coming Kingdom. Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 5:19 had indicated that there would be distinctions (least and great) in the Kingdom of Heaven. This question had caused an argument among the talmidim (see Mark 9:33-34). This question may have been fueled by the special privileges given to Peter, James, and John at various times, most recently their trip with Yeshua to the Mount of Transfiguration and then their silence about what had happened there (Matthew 17:1-9). Matthew characteristically abbreviates the story in order to focus on the teaching. The situation became an occasion for Yeshua to teach about true greatness and the role of competition in the coming Kingdom.
So absorbed were the talmidim in this matter that they actually argued with each other! (Luke 9:46). The selfishness and disunity of God’s people is a scandal to our faith. What causes these problems? Pride – thinking ourselves more important than we really are. It was pride that led man into sin from the beginning (Genesis 3:5). When Believers are living for themselves and not for others, then there is bound to be conflict and division (Philippians 2:1ff).
At first glance, the answer to the talmidim’ question “Who is the greatest?” is easy: God. But that answer misses their point, which was: Among those who can compete for greatness (God and angels being above competition), who takes the top spot in heaven’s all-star rankings? Now the question becomes much more complicated, since it involves motives contrary to heaven’s interests.
Becoming Little Children
“He called a child to him, stood him among them, and said, “Yes! I tell you that unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even enter the Kingdom of Heaven! So the greatest in the Kingdom is whoever makes himself as humble as this child. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea! Woe to the world because of snares! For there must be snares, but woe to the person who sets the snare!” ~ Matthew 18:2-7
The talmidim waited breathlessly for Yeshua to name the greatest man among them. But He bypassed them completely and called a little child into their midst. This child was the example of true greatness. True humility means knowing yourself, accepting yourself, and being yourself – your best self – to the glory of God. It means avoiding two extremes: thinking less of yourself than you ought to (as did Moshe when God called him, Exodus 3:11ff), or thinking more of yourself than you ought to (Romans 12:3). The truly humble person does not deny the gifts God has given him, but uses them to the glory of God.
Yeshua called a child. The Aramaic language uses the same word for “child” and “servant.” Thus, when Yeshua took a little child into his arms, he made the explanation of greatness even more distinct – to be great, one must serve. The talmidim needed to change and become like children. What did Yeshua want them to change? In this instance, it was their attitude toward greatness. The talmidim had become so preoccupied with the organization of Yeshua’s earthly Kingdom that they had lost sight of its divine purpose. Instead of seeking a place of service, they were seeking positions of advantage.
Yeshua used a child to help his self-centered talmidim get the point. They were to have servant attitudes, not being “childish” (arguing over petty issues) but “childlike,” with humble and sincere hearts. As children depend on their parents, so people who come to God must be willing to wholly depend on him. The kind of people whom Yeshua described as “blessed” in the first four beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-6) picture the complete dependence upon God that is needed in order to come to faith.
That Yeshua called a child as his example of greatness in His Kingdom reveals the nature of this Kingdom. God’s people are called to humility and unconcern for social status. Those who persist in pride and “ladder climbing” for the sake of status in this world won’t even enter the Kingdom of Heaven. By contrast, those who, in humility, realize their need of a Savior, accept him, and move into the world to serve, not only enter the Kingdom but will be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yeshua would later explain in Chapter 20: “Among you, it must not be like that. On the contrary, whoever among you wants to be a leader must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave! For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve — and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:26-28). True humility means to deny oneself, to accept a position of servanthood, and to completely follow the Master. To be like Yeshua means to serve others.
Yeshua taught the talmidim to welcome children. This was a new approach in a society where children were usually treated as second-class citizens. Yeshua equated the attitude of welcoming children with a willingness to receive Him. The principle, as often seen in Matthew, is that God and Yeshua will consider the way one treats others to be equal to (1) the way one will be treated, or (2) the way one treats Yeshua (for example, see 6:14-15; 25:31-46).
But the meaning here goes deeper, beyond simply welcoming children, as important as that is. An attitude that whoever welcomes one such child in my name, readily welcomes and embraces Believers of little worldly importance and low status. This shows an attitude that also welcomes the Savior, for He too was of little worldly importance and of low status. In God’s Kingdom, greatness lies in acceptance of and dependence upon the Savior. Together, Believers are to welcome and love one another, encourage one another, allow everyone a place to shine according to their gifts, and appreciate one another.
As in verse 5, these little ones refers not just to children but to Yeshua’s “little ones” – the talmidim. Children are trusting by nature. They trust adults; and because of that trust, their capacity to trust in God grows. God holds parents and other adults who influence young children accountable for how they affect these little ones’ ability to trust God. To cause a child or any fellow talmid to sin or fall away from the faith means to purposely put a “snare or stumbling block” in the way to make him or her trip and fall. Yeshua warned that anyone who turns believers away from him will receive severe punishment. Yeshua’s words warn believers that they must not only teach the truth, but live it. If anyone causes young people or new Believers to doubt or fall back into sin, commits a grievous sin with terrible consequences. If they stumble because of wrong teaching, that is a stumbling block as well.
Yeshua graphically described the harsh consequences of such sin. A millstone was a heavy, flat stone used to grind grain. There were two common kinds of millstones in use at this time. One was relatively small and was operated by a person. One was large and was connected to an ox or donkey that would walk in a circle, causing the stone to roll and crush the grain. The Gospel writers used the word for the huge animal-operated millstone. To have a millstone tied around one’s neck and then be dumped into the sea meant certain death by drowning. Even the horror of such a death was minor compared to what this person would face in eternity.
The talmidim wanted to know who was greatest in the Kingdom. But Yeshua warned them that, apart from humility, they could not even enter the Kingdom! They had to be converted – turned around in their thinking – or they would never make it. It seems that Yeshua is, in these verses, blending two concepts: the human child as an example of humility, and the child of God no matter what his age might be. As Believers, we must not only accept the little children for Yeshua’s sake; but we must also receive all of God’s children and seek to minister to them (Romans 14:1ff).
Snares will always be a danger to Yeshua’s talmidim in their time on earth – whether they come from the fellowship (18:6), the world (18:7), or – as we will see in verses 8 – 9 the sinful nature itself (18:8-9). As Yeshua had explained in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds will exist until the end of the age, so evil and its accompanying temptation to sin will be ever-present problems for Yeshua’s followers.
In my next post, we’ll look at some of the snares in life and the Parable of the Lost Sheep.