1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 Then He called a child to Him and had him stand among them.
3 “I assure you,” He said, “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoever welcomes one child like this in My name welcomes Me.
6 But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths 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 your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.
9 And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!”
(See also Mark 9:33-50 and Luke 9:46-50)
Jesus has been transfigured before Peter, James and John. These three disciples emerge as the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, with Peter declaring Jesus Messiah (Matt. 16:16) and John being called “the one Jesus loved” (John 13:23). As Jesus and His disciples approach Capernaum, the disciples bicker about their place in the kingdom, which they still expect to be an imminent and earthly one. Knowing their hearts, Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about on the way” (Mark 9:33)? So they ask plainly, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1)?
The central theme of this parable is that humility is highly valued in the kingdom of heaven. As the disciples struggle to understand the “mysteries” of the kingdom – especially that the kingdom is both a present reality and a future hope – they wonder about their role in it. Some would seek to sit at Jesus’ right hand or left hand in the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-28), while others would desire to call fire down from heaven on those who refuse to welcome Jesus (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus calls a child and uses him to illustrate that such arrogant thinking has no place in the kingdom. Everyone must enter the kingdom as a child – humble, trusting, with no personal agenda – and once in the kingdom, no one should see himself or herself as more important than another. The entire value system of the kingdom of heaven is in stark contrast with that of Satan’s kingdom and of this present evil age.
The child is the central character in this parable. Jesus calls a young boy and says “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). The word “converted” means changed or turned. It means to turn from one habit of life, or set of opinions, to another. Despite Jesus’ teaching in previous parables, the disciples still seem to think the kingdom of heaven is coming imminently as an earthly kingdom. As a result, they jockey for positions in the king’s cabinet. Jesus tells them they must turn from their wrong thinking about the kingdom and set aside their sinful ambition and pride.
In what way are the disciples to become like children? “Children are, to a great extent, destitute of ambition, pride, and haughtiness. They are characteristically humble and teachable. By requiring the disciples to be like them, he did not intend to express any opinion about the native moral character of children, but simply that in these respects they should become like them. They should lay aside their ambitious views, and pride, and be willing to occupy their proper station – a very lowly one” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament).
When Jesus says “whoever welcomes one child like this in My name welcomes Me” (Matt. 18:5) and “whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones …” (v. 6), He likely is referring not only to children but to new believers, who are humble and teachable, and who need spiritual nurturing. The apostle John refers to Christians as “children” or “little children” (1 John 2:1, 12, 18, 28).
In this teaching, Jesus addresses several facets of the kingdom: 1) entrance into the kingdom; 2) kingdom values; and 3) kingdom stewardship.
1) Entrance into the kingdom. Jesus says “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Entrance into the kingdom is by the new birth (John 3:3, 5), also known as regeneration, which is the work of the Holy Spirit imparting new life to the one who was “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). No believer may take credit for the new birth but receives it with childlike wonder and gratitude. In the same vein, no one may enter the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13) through arrogance or ambition; rather, eternal life is received in gracious humility. In light of these truths, and the disciples’ boastful wrangling, Jesus challenges His followers to live like true citizens of the kingdom.
2) Kingdom values. Next, Jesus says, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child – this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). The things God values and the things people value are different. The values of the kingdom of Satan – summed up in 1 John 2:15-17 as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle” – have no place in the kingdom of heaven and will be done away with in the end. It is wise for children of the kingdom to value what pleases the King.
3) Kingdom stewardship. Jesus, who has given His disciples the keys to the kingdom, warns them to be good stewards of it: “And whoever welcomes one child like this in My name welcomes Me. But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me – it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:5-6). Millstones commonly are disc-shaped stones, two feet in diameter by six inches deep, used to grind grain. These millstones are turned by hand, but larger millstones are turned by mules. Binding millstones to people and casting them in the sea was one form of capital punishment practiced by the Greeks, Syrians and Romans. It would be better to die in this way and escape everlasting consequences, Jesus says, than to keep another out of the kingdom or to neglect or mistreat the children of the kingdom. This is why Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees they will receive greater damnation – because they not only refuse to enter the kingdom but strive to keep others out (Matt. 23:13).
Finally, Jesus tells His disciples to beware of “offenses” – things that produce sin: “If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away … if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away …” (Matt. 18:8-9). He is not teaching self mutilation, nor is He saying that in the resurrection some will have glorified bodies without hands, feet or eyes. Rather, Jesus is teaching the flip side of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price. While the kingdom is of inestimable value, the things of this world may keep us from entering in. As Richard Glover, quoted in All the Parables of the Bible, puts it, “The hand of ambitious rudeness should be cut off; the eye of ambitious coveting should be plucked out; the foot of ambitious willfulness should be cut off.”
Matthew Henry provides further context: “Considering the cunning and malice of Satan, and the weakness and depravity of men’s hearts, it is not possible but that there should be offences. God permits them for wise and holy ends, that those who are sincere, and those who are not, may be made known. Being told before, that there will be seducers, tempters, persecutors, and bad examples, let us stand on our guard. We must, as far as lawfully we may, part with what we cannot keep without being entangled by it in sin.”
Jesus calls believers “children of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:38 KJV) while the New Testament writers stress that we are adopted sons and daughters of God. As such, we are of most value to the kingdom when we trust God to provide our needs and serve Him in simple, childlike faith. Pride has no place in the kingdom of heaven; Christ will abide no competitors to His sovereign Lordship.