Jesus enlightened Peter as to what it meant to be a child of God—it meant exemption from the civil and ceremonial laws in the Torah. Adopted sons are no longer strangers. Jesus got at salvation and reward by grace alone through faith alone. The purpose for the Law was not to make someone righteous but to bring those Christ has chosen into adoption as sons of God after realizing that they fall short of God’s glory and cannot earn righteousness for themselves. The question arises, how then can we be better Christians if our reward is as children by grace alone?
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
The question (v. 1)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Recall, Jesus taught that those who are adopted children of God are exempt from the Law. The Law, though, was the basis by which spirituality was measured within the context of the popular religion of the day—the religion of the Pharisees and Sadducees. If someone is not great because he or she keeps the Law, who then is the greatest?
I want to take some time to understand this question in our current context. In the world today, we are very works-based and works-driven. Starting out in ministry, I was led to believe that those who are the greatest produce more converts, good works, or content. Those who are closer to Christ are better than others. More effective pastors have larger congregations and grander ministries. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the most pious, those who abstain to a higher degree and produce more good works than others. We have seen, through our study of Matthew’s Gospel, that this view is contrary to reality and contradicts the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Cf. Colossians 2:20-23; Ephesians 2:8-9). So, we wrestle with the same question the apostles did. Who is the greatest? How can we be great Christians? What do we need to do to earn a higher place or a greater reward?
Those with different religious worldviews and traditions answer the question differently. Mostly, people always get back to how much work a person is doing. Even within some traditions in which people refer to themselves as Christians, we hear things like, “God initiates the process, but you must then work.” We still see the greatest as those who do the most, give the most, or abstain from the most worldly pleasures. The apostles struggle with the truth of salvation as Jesus has been teaching it in contrast to popular Judaism in the First Century. They struggle to really understand what it means for a person to be saved and receive his or her reward by grace alone through faith alone—not of any work (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). So, they ask Jesus an honest question. Who is the greatest? If not by works, how could they know who was a good Christian and who was not? How could they judge themselves to see if they are strong in their faith? Jesus does not reprimand them for their question. He does not tell them they have little faith as we saw previously. The disciples are trying to understand God’s work of adoption (Cf. 17:14-27) and what it means to be sons rather than strangers. In our own day, those who are adopted by the Father struggle with the same question. If we are not great by works or the keeping of the Law, then what makes a person great in God’s eyes? Jesus answers their question.
The answer (v. 2-6)
And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
For people, their Christian lives begin at their respective conversions. What is conversion? In a simple word, conversion means change. Conversion takes place when people are changed. In this case, the conversion means changing from being strangers to children (Cf. 17:24-27). As we saw in the previous passage, strangers are under the Law. Therefore, the measure of greatness depends on the degree of one’s specific adherence to the Law. Children, though, are exempt. It is perspicuous that true Christians are converted from the works-righteousness or legalism demanded by the Law of those under the Law. What are true Christians converted to? The answer is grace, the grace a father has toward his children as illustrated in the previous passage—Chapter 17, verses 24-27.
What does it mean that those who are in Christ are converted to be like children instead of strangers? Do we begin to act childish? Do we become immature or content ourselves to lack understanding? Does being converted and becoming like children entail ignorance or blind faith? I have seen the blatant selfishness and self-centeredness of children from birth, and it doesn’t seem that godly. All of us are little sinners from the moment we emerge from our mothers’ wombs. After Jesus taught about the children of God’s exemption from the Law, He calls a child to him. He explains that someone must be converted, which is a passive (not active) experience according to the verb usage in Greek. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. The Father must choose to adopt us. We must become like children, unconcerned about greatness and simply living to please their fathers. Jesus isn’t teaching His disciples to have blind faith, be ignorant, or remain immature. He is teaching them that the conversion they have experienced is conversion from a religion that seeks to make much of people to liberty in the grace of the Father. If a person is not converted from the works-based systems of the world, of strangers, to the grace of sonship through adoption by the Father’s choosing, that person will not enter the kingdom of Heaven according to Jesus.
The Father’s choice to adopt comes first. After that conversion, the one who walks in humility—not boasting in his or her religiosity, spirituality, number of converts, or good works, perceived closeness to Christ, influence, piety, or abstinence—are the greatest. In essence, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who rest in Christ as Christ builds His kingdom rather than trying to build their own little kingdoms on this earth. We build our own kingdoms by glorifying our ministries rather than Christ’s, choosing to earn money or make it in this world rather than submit to Christ, spending our time according to our desires rather than use God’s time the way He desires. There are many people who have been converted who have not humbled themselves—they still choose their jobs over fellowship with the body of Christ, their education over training in righteousness, and their own careers over Christ’s mission. They still put themselves first, and they only honor their Father when they have enough extra time or money or energy; Pastors, deacons, and dedicated church members are not exempt. If we want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, we humble ourselves as children.
A focus on works makes some people out to be greater than others. The disciples ask who is the greatest because that was the legalism they were brought up in. The answer was simple in their religious system: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes are the greatest because they do the most and strive to keep the Law. Jesus’s answer is different—it’s the one least interested in being the greatest or earning his righteousness or building his own kingdom.
“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Jesus has a child in front of Him. He has also explained that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become like children rather than strangers. Which sort of child is He referring to? Is Jesus teaching that those who receive children who are identified because of their age also receive Him? Or, is Jesus teaching that whoever receives those who are adopted by the Father as children by grace alone also receives Him? Might Jesus’s teaching refer to both types of children? I believe Jesus is referring to both, but primarily to those who have been adopted by the Father by grace alone. We have been in Matthew’s Gospel for 80 weeks, working our way through verse-by-verse and word-by-word. This passage is one of those where we see how necessary it is to receive Scriptures lectio continua. Without the immediate context and without understanding the trajectory of Matthew’s Gospel, we have no idea that Jesus is talking about God’s children, and our interpretations are limited because all we see is the child in front of Jesus. Consider Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. Jesus has already taught what He is teaching in this passage. When sending His disciples on a short-term, local mission trip in Galilee, Jesus encouraged them:
He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40-42).
There, Jesus also referred to His disciples as “little ones,” children of God. We also consider the immediate literary context. Leading up to this passage, Jesus taught:
From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” When Peter said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are exempt (Matthew 17:25b-26).
Jesus was referring to His own exemption from the requirements of the civil and ceremonial Law. In this passage, Jesus tells His disciples they must be converted to become like children instead of strangers—not measuring their status before God based on the legalistic requirements of religious law. When Jesus teaches about accepting children, He is referring to those who have been converted to become like children of God by grace alone and not by works of the Law. Such a teaching is radical in Second-Temple Jewish culture, but the Jews to whom Matthew writes need to know how the Gospel applies—by grace and not by works.
What do you think it means for someone to receive a child of God or cause a child of God to stumble? The context, here, draws our attention to the legalism of Second-Temple Judaism with regard to the civil and ceremonial Law. To receive a child of God means openly and without placing any unnecessary religious, legalistic, or prosperity requirements on them. To receive a child of God is to receive a brother or sister in Christ by grace, like we receive children. To cause a child of God to fall is, then, to place religious burdens on them and teach them that they must keep the civil and ceremonial laws meant for strangers. When applied, Jesus’s teaching means that to be legalistic, require works like tithing, promise prosperity in return for a deposit, and heap on rules according to our expectations and preferences is to cause a child of God to stumble into religion that is by works instead of grace—to again live like strangers even though they have been adopted as children. That isn’t to say works are not important, but we understand that works neither bring about salvation nor cause faith to be produced. We cannot require works, but we do understand that Jesus will prepare us for the works He has prepared for us by grace (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). The biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone will lead Paul to condemn living by the rules of worldly religion:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).
You died with Christ, you were converted to be children of God; Why, then, do you still practice worldly religion with rules that make you seem religious according to the standards of the world but are actually of no value before God? To those who cause God’s adopted children by grace to stumble into living like strangers according to worldly or works-based religion, it is better for that person to have a heavy millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in depth of the sea. Jesus is serious about salvation by grace alone. To lead people to live according to another Gospel, as if works make people great, is a serious crime against the divine throne. People are better off dead than leading others into legalism like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes do at this point in the biblical narrative.
True disciples are children by grace, not strangers under the yolk of works-righteousness.
|A child of God is…||A stranger is…|
|converted, adopted, by grace alone and exempt from works-righteousness.||stuck trying to earn his or her own righteousness.|
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