Matthew 18:1–14 ESV
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

Entering into chapter 18, we are about to witness another teaching discourse by Jesus, and this time it specifically addresses the life of the church. As the theologians behind the ESV Study Bible put it – the community of the Messiah is revealed!
After spending so much time addressing his identity and mission, Jesus now moves into the fourth biggest discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, the nature of the covenant community of Christians.
This is particularly interesting because we, as a church, did several Bible studies on the subject of ‘Cultivating a Christian Community’. This here, then, is Jesus’ teaching on the same. And it is particularly interesting for me to see what Matthew includes here in his account of what Jesus taught.
And we begin with the first section that addresses children.
Jesus has been preparing them repeatedly for his death and departure. He has been encouraging them to stay strong and hopeful. Moses and Elijah descended from paradise to converse with Jesus regarding his departure. And in the face of his departure, here is the question on all his disciples’ minds.


Matthew 18:1 ESV
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

  • This question did not arise from mere inquisitiveness or a desire to know about heaven. This was more a selfish squabble among his elect 12.
    Luke 9:46 ESV
    46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.In Luke, we are told that Jesus perceived this argument and addressed it. Can you imagine the audacity of the flesh to argue before the dying Messiah about who among them was the greatest?Mark has a more interesting detail.
    Mark 9:33–34 ESV
    33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
  • First off, here is a lesson in Biblical inerrancy. You have three passages here from Matthew, Mark and Luke, all addressing the same story and yet they give us different details.
    Matthew’s details speak of the disciples coming to Jesus and asking the question. Both Mark and Luke say that Jesus perceived the dispute and asked them about it.
    Mark points out the shame in the disciples whereas Matthew and Luke leave it out.
    Then, there’s the question itself. In Matthew, the question is “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” and in Mark and Luke the question is “Who is greatest among them”.
    1. There is a branch of scholarship called ‘textual criticism’ and the job of textual critics is to analyse such manuscripts for errors and inconsistencies. So how do textual critics say that this text across Matthew, Mark and Luke is harmonious?
      Because all of them are addressing the same question from their perspective witness of it. It is like three people who go to a wedding and each comes back with certain details and omits certain other details. If you have this picture in mind, then what you’re trying to do is not pit one statement against another, but you hold them together and see if they harmonise, if they come together to give you a bigger picture.
      When you do that, here is probably what happened. The disciples on their way to the house in Capernaum, were arguing amongst themselves about who among them was greatest in the kingdom of heaven. When they entered the house, Jesus having perceived the tension and knowing their hearts, asked them what the argument was about. The disciples were at first silent because they were ashamed to speak about their argument, especially considering Jesus marched into Jerusalem to die. Then, they came forward and asked the question of their debate.
    2. The profound mystery and the beauty of the Scriptures are that God used ordinary means to script extraordinary words. He uses a fallible man to write the infallible word. The text, therefore, having the flavour of the natural is yet altogether supernatural.
      When we hold this word in high esteem as we ought, we should not hold unrealistic and unnecessary standards for the miraculous nature of this text. If the Bible is the word of God, then it must be this or that, or that the Holy Spirit should have inspired it in this way or that, is not a good starting point.
      I believe the Holy Spirit highlights this point in:
      2 Timothy 4:13 ESV
      13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.God inspired these words in Paul to be put into the Bible. This is God’s way of saying that he can exalt himself through the means of the ordinary. Paul’s letter to Timothy, at the end of the day, is that, a letter. He wasn’t envisaging writing Scripture. God inspired this ordinary endeavour for extraordinary things.
  • Who among them was the greatest? This question misses the heart of the Gospel. The passion of Christ was to glorify his Father’s name by saving his elect children from judgment by becoming the propitiation for their sins.
    God came down to them constrained in flesh and blood, as one among the outcasts, the greatest clothed in humility that he might save them.
    But, they want to be greater than each other.

Matthew 18:2–3 ESV
2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

  • Jesus called for a child in the house. He then put him amid the disciples.
    He didn’t just point to a child, he put the child in their midst. You know how it is when kids are running around adult conversations. We try to contain the noise and the distraction, give them toys to play with, sit them a little further away from the table, and scold them if they’re too loud, all to have the adult conversation. Well, Jesus just took a kid from the corner and sat at the centre of the table.
    He took the most insignificant individual in this conversation and made him the most significant individual in the conversation.
    He took the least as the example in a conversation regarding the greatest.
  • Truly, I say to you – Jesus is calling for their attention when he uses this phrase. It is like saying “Listen now to me very carefully”. This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.
  • Unless – I want to hang on to every word in this sentence. Here are his disciples, ashamed that they were arguing over something so selfish but wanted to know what Jesus had to say about it. Their hearts were eager to understand once and for all who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of God. So, let us join them in hearing every word of Jesus’ response with care.
  • you turn – You’re facing the wrong direction. You’re going the wrong way and deviated off the path. You need to turn around now. Beloved, these are very scary words to hear.
    The Lord is not talking to just anybody, he is addressing his elect apostles, those in whom the Father is at work bringing revelation of Christ. Jesus is looking at Christians and this is what he has to say regarding their pride -> unless you turn.
  • and become like children – there is a conformity that is expected in the Christians that they are childlike. We’ll come to what that means, but first, let us finish the sentence.
  • you will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven – Forget about great or small! You’re not getting in if this is how you think! You’re very quarrelling about your significance is what will destroy every hope you have of going to heaven. Such talk will NEVER get you into heaven, it will blot you out.

Now, what does Jesus mean by ‘become like children’?

Matthew 18:4 ESV
4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

  • The word here for humble means to make low. It suggests a lowliness that comes from absolute dependence. Therefore, the humble here is the one who has a sound grip on the reality of his dependence upon God in all things.
    Every act and pursuit that depends on the self, on the other hand, is an act of pride.
    Ephesians 2:8–9 ESV
    8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Let me give you 5 verses with 5 brief traits or descriptions of what humility looks like in the Bible,
  1. Humility recognises the sinfulness of man and is acutely aware of his desperate need for God.
    James 4:6–10 ESV
    6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
  2. Humility recognises and embraces the needs and interests of others above the self.
    Philippians 2:3–8 ESV
    3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
  3. Humility breeds prayer and repentance.
    2 Chronicles 7:13–15 ESV
    13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
  4. Humility is the first virtue of being Christ-like
    2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV
    9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
  5. Humility boasts only in God
    Jeremiah 9:23–24 ESV
    23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
    2 Corinthians 10:17 ESV
    17 “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Now, how many children you know are readily repentant, sacrificially tending to the needs of others, in constant prayer, Christlike & boasting only of Jesus? None, I suppose. Because children are meant to be childish. But here’s what they do get right on the journey of humility.

They know they can’t do anything without Dad and Mom. When they’re disciplined, and the rod is not spared, they weep but are soon back on their feet dragging themselves on the hem of your clothes.
They trust you, depend on you, look to you, call upon you, follow you, don’t want to be apart from you, surrender to you, receive from you, lie down with you and wake up with you, ask you, pursue you, imitate you, learn from you, and desire to grow up and be like you.

  • The point here is not to be childish but to be childlike. We are encouraged throughout Scripture to ‘grow up’.
    1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV
    11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
    1 Corinthians 14:20 ESV
    20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
    Proverbs 22:15 ESV
    15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
    Jeremiah 4:22 ESV
    22 “For my people are foolish; they know me not; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are ‘wise’—in doing evil! But how to do good they know not.”
    1 Corinthians 3:1–2 ESV
    1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,
    Ephesians 4:14 ESV
    14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Hebrews 5:12 ESV
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,

  • As you can see, the Bible has much to say about putting away childishness. So here, clearly, Jesus is not contradicting himself. He is asking us to become like children in a very specific thing, namely their humility that is seen in their dependency.
  • Such humility, such dependence is the mark of spiritual greatness. Our greatness in heaven is measured by the stature of our submission and willingness to lay our lives at the feet of Jesus.
    John 15:5 ESV
    5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Matthew 18:5 ESV
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,

  • Jesus here, is using the analogy of a child and then carrying that over to the one who in Christ is like this child. There is now a dual meaning to the word child. Jesus is talking about the child he placed in their midst and consequently about the Christian who is childlike.
  • The word ‘receive’ here means to readily welcome. It suggests a high level of self-involvement. Now, because this is an analogy, it works only if you start with children, and then relate that over to your fellow Christian.
    What is the appropriate way to receive a child? What do you feel when you see a child? Putting away all your biases and baggage and whether you’re naturally good with kids or not, what do you feel? If you only feel that they’re a noisy distraction and a burden, O how I pray that this sermon is a rock of offence for you!
  • in my name – Now here is the primary message of this verse. If you, as a Christian, receive (readily welcome) a child-like Christian (or analogously, I believe, little children) in Jesus’ name, you’re expressly doing this because of the banner of Christ’s name, if you do that, you are welcoming Jesus.
    Matthew 19:14 ESV
    14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
    So, when you as a Christian, grab a hold of a little child and embrace them with love and affection, you are receiving Jesus.
  • The contrast here is, that if you do not welcome a little child, you do not welcome Christ.
    Psalm 127:3 ESV
    3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.
    Psalm 8:2 ESV
    2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.
    James 1:27 ESV
    27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Matthew 18:6 ESV
6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

  • This is the wrath of Christ upon the one who leads Christians or children to sin. The righteous judgment of Christ that will be poured out upon them will be of such great a measure that being dragged under the ocean by a heavy stone around your neck would be ‘better’.
  • The Lord is jealously passionate about his people. He always has been and he always will be.
    One of the ways that your seriousness in this matter is made evident is by how you deal with the children around you. When you teach children to follow Jesus and to love him, and then you become the stumbling block to their spiritual growth because of your sin or your lack of seriousness, it is a grave offence.
    The church is suddenly a dangerous place to be because here you have actual children and spiritual children, and our call is to receive readily and avoid all that might lead them to sin.
  • Beloved, distracted and playful children in the room are not the least significant persons in the room. They are among the most significant persons in the room because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    I am one of those theologians who see this as God’s promise that his sovereign grace can abound to a child who is unable to exercise or recognise saving faith, that in the event of their death, there is only one place they will go, to heaven!
    But children are most significant in the attention we must give to their training and admonishing in the word. We ought not to wait for them to become old enough to teach them God’s word. We must teach them now, and ignorance to do so will be the very reason that causes sin to grow unchecked in their lives.
    Parenting is a dangerous business, and poor parenting (Christless parenting) is damning to the soul.

Note – Now, in v7-9, Jesus talks about how to deal with sin, in this context, the sort that stumbles children and spiritual children. This will be the subject of my sermon next week.

Matthew 18:10 ESV
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

  • See to it that you do not despise one, not even one of these little ones. Here’s what the word despise can mean -> view down, i.e. with a negative (hostile) outlook; to despise, thinking down on (thinking little of); esteem lightly, seeing as insignificant or detestable; to treat with contempt or disregard (BAGD); devalue; to depreciate (scorn); pay no regard to (because something seems of no account); ” ‘despise, scorn,’ and show it by active insult” (Souter).
    Anything of this sort must be volitionally avoided for our sake.
  • God has appointed angels to guard and minister to God’s people
    Psalm 91:11 ESV
    11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
    Acts 12:15 ESV
    15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”
    Hebrews 1:14 ESV
    14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
    This is an encouragement for us, but also a warning since these beings are in constant communion with God.

Matthew 18:11–12 ESV
12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

  • Certain translations have a v11 which says that the Son of Man came to save the lost. Translations such as ESV and NASB avoid it because it was probably a scribal addition later on in one of the manuscripts.
  • The faithfulness of the shepherd.

Matthew 18:13 ESV

13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

  • The joy of finding the lost sheep is the joy of a lost soul turning around

Matthew 18:14 ESV
14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

  • As sure as God’s will is to preserve the little ones from perishing, so he has determined to keep the childlike spiritual infant from death.