1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 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. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.
10 “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. 11 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.
12 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? 13 And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Do you remember what it was like when you were a child? Do you remember no getting to decide anything? Do you remember just waking up every morning and doing what you are told (as best you could)? Your clothes were picked out for you. Your meals were decided for you. What you were doing that day was not up to you. As a child you were totally subservient. You had no rights! You were incredibly humble, but only because you didn’t know any differently. That’s just the way the world was. Now that most of you are adults and have the freedom and responsibility that comes with being a grown-up, it would be extremely hard to go back to that, wouldn’t it. You wouldn’t want your mom picking out your clothes for you in the morning or telling you what chores you needed to do. You’d want to be free. Our passage today is about just this, going back to the subservience of childhood, and doing it gladly.
Greatness in Christ’s Kingdom (v. 1-5)
The disciples come up to Jesus and want to know something, they want to know about how the kingdom of heaven works. Specifically, they want to understand the social hierarchy of the kingdom of heaven. Who is at the top in the Kingdom of Heaven? Presumably, they want to know how they can be the ones at the top. And so Jesus shows them who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. He calls to Him a little child and says “Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” What? What does that mean? What is Jesus saying to them? There are a lot of times you will hear things about childlike faith, that little children just instinctively believe what you tell them, and that we should emulate that. But from the text itself, it doesn’t appear to be about the quality of faith that we are supposed to have, but something else. Jesus says we must humble ourselves like a child. We miss a great deal about what this means, because the way we view children is quite a bit different from children in the ancient world. Much is made about how the Christian religion elevated the status of women in the ancient world. This comes out in the fact that women were the first witnesses of Jesus’s tomb, which is the last thing you would do in the ancient world if you were making this up. Their testimony would be inadmissible in a court. But like women, children, too, were low status. In the ancient world, children did not matter. They were unimportant. You did not matter until you became a man, which is why every ancient society placed great importance upon the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. You went from not mattering to mattering. From no status to finally some status. Children in the ancient world were an annoyance. You see this later in Matthew when the disciples try to shoo away children from Jesus. He’s got more important things to worry about than little kids.
We don’t realize how radically different ancient society was from ours because despite how messed up ours currently is, it still has had two thousand years of the leaven of the gospel working in it. We expect the normal thing to be playfully liking children. That is not the way that it was. Children were looked down upon. Your own children you would love and nurture and care for, but children as a group or class, no, they were looked down upon. Children, like women, were low status, because they had very little you could gain from caring about them. If you wanted to climb the social hierarchy, other men is who you needed to be concerned with. Paul makes a point similar to this in Galatians, showing that being a minor son and a slave are not much different, you are both under taskmasters and have to just do what you are told. Children and slaves were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the ancient world.
So, Jesus doing this, taking a child and saying you need to be like this little child would be stunning. In fact, you won’t even be allowed into the kingdom of heaven unless you become like a child. If you want to be the greatest in the kingdom, you must humble yourself like a child. Jesus is talking about renouncing the seeking of status. You need to make yourself of absolutely no status if you want to be in my Kingdom. If you humble yourself like a little child, who commands no authority over anyone and just does what he is told, then you will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it. Jesus is God in the flesh. All worship and adoration and respect and human adulation is His possession. No one deserves more than He does. He, rightfully, is at the very, very top. No one could have greater status than Him. And what does He do? He literally humbles Himself as a little child, comes down from heaven and enters our world as a helpless baby. He bears the indignity of childhood. He spends His life ministering to the lowly. And then He humbles Himself to give His life for us—those who absolutely do not deserve a drop of His blood. Jesus is the model of greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. He is the model of becoming like a little child.
This is why verse five is a difficult one for many Christians, we are to receive children in Jesus’s name, because if we do we are receiving Him. There are a great many godly, faithful Christians who disagree about what this means. Many traditions hold you cannot enter the kingdom until you prove you have something like the kind of faith and understanding an adult would have. But it sure seems strange to expect that of little children we are told to receive in Christ’s name, especially after Jesus says He wants us to become like those little children.
Millstones (v. 6-11)
Jesus continues to speak about little ones who believe in Him. There is some confusion here, because he talks about little children, but has just used little children as an analogy for believers in general. The Apostle John speaks the same way in his epistles, calling believers in the churches he wrote to “my little children.” It makes sense that Jesus would be speaking in this same way here. Yes, causing literal little children to stumble is a horrible evil, but so too is leading ones who have assumed the same posture as little children being lead into sin. That is what Jesus seems to have in mind here. Who is it that is leading God’s people into sin? Is it not the Pharisees and Priests and Scribes? Someone bears responsibility for leading Israel into its current state. Someone is responsible for laying before them stumbling blocks (offenses). Jesus is saying you do not want to be that man who leads His people astray. You would be better off having a millstone hung around your neck and being thrown into the sea. He then reiterates what He similar things He said in the Sermon on the Mount, better to be maimed or blind in the Kingdom of Heaven than enter the fire of Hell whole. Don’t ever forget that Jesus preached fire and brimstone.
In v. 10-11, Jesus says something interesting, that no one should despise His people (these little ones) because in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. What this means has puzzled people for centuries. It is from this verse, and really this verse alone that the idea of “guardian angels” has become a concept. Whether or not this means that there are specific angels guarding each individual Christian, it does mean that Christ’s people do have heavenly beings serving and protecting them in some fashion. These angels He speaks of very likely are the same angels that take our prayers, when we pray together later in the service and bring them before the Father as an incense offering. It is a further reminder that what is happening in our worship goes far beyond what we can see. Jesus then sums up His mission: The Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.
Only 100% Success Accepted (v. 12-14)
That mission is explained further by Jesus through analogy. A shepherd will leave his 99 sheep to go find the one that has gotten lost. At the risk of losing the 99, he will do whatever it takes to find that straying sheep. And when he gets it back, he’s happier about that one than he is about the ones that never got lost. Jesus is not talking about sheep here. He is talking about His people. He has come to redeem them, to bring them back into the fold. He rejoices over those who have been lost and are now found. And He explains this, that it is not the Father’s will that these little ones, His people, should fall away and perish. When His people go astray He will search them out and bring them back.
We live in age of great apostasy. The world that most of us grew up in no longer exists. A civilization that instinctively understood what God calls good and what He calls evil are, in fact, good and evil. That civilization largely no longer exists. We now live under a system that has increasingly become stridently anti-Christian. And it is incredibly powerful. It determines what you have to believe in order to gain social status. In particular, you must call what God says about sex “evil” and you must call rebellion against God “good.” If you just play along, people will like you, life will go easier, more career opportunities will open up, etc. etc. If you resist, your status will diminish. Things will be harder for you, people will not like you, you will find yourself cut off from opportunity.
And there are many leaders within our churches who feel this pull and give into it. They want the praise of people on top. They make compromises to do it. They begin teaching God’s people that things He clearly condemns he really just “whispers” about. And one justification leads to another and lo and behold, they believe exactly what the culture believes. And they lead many into sin, in doing so. This is what Jesus means by leading these little ones to stumble. When those who bear the responsibility for leading God’s people lead them into sin, it is a great and terrible thing.
This is what seeking after status will always do. If you desire to be great by the world’s standard’s you will cause others to stumble. You will set before them stumbling blocks. But in the kingdom of heaven, it is not this way. Those who have humbled themselves and made themselves of nothing and of no status for Christ’s sake are not tempted to do this. “Why would I care what the New York Times or CNN thinks of me? Why would I care what the CEOs of Apple or Goldman Sachs think of me? Why would I desire their praise?” We live in the rural midwest, a place about as low status as it gets. The big important people do not care about us. But do you know who does care about the “unimportant” people in a place like this? The Good Shepherd who has come to save that which was lost. He cares about people that the world does not care about. He cares about us.
That must be the attitude we have in ministry, there is no one who we are “too good” for. The lowliest sinner who repents He rejoices over. That is how we should approach ministering to people in our town. We make ourselves to be nothing that we might join Him in saving that which is lost. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!