3. Greatness in the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 18:1-14 11 September 2022
There is an expression that has become very popular recently – G.O.A.T or the GOAT. An acronym for the Greatest Of All Time.
Usually used to talk about sporting heroes. My research tells me that the first person to be described as the GOAT was Muhammad Ali (back in the 90s). But since then there have been many names thrown about as the Greatest Of All Time.
(30 seconds to turn to the person beside you and share who you think is the greatest sports person of all time...)
- Babe Ruth
- Michael Jordan (6 championships, 6 NBA Finals MVPs, 6 League MVPs)
- Tiger Woods
- Wayne Gretzky
- Michael Phelps
- Lewis Hamilton (7 driver championships, most wins, most pole positions, pro since 2007,
youngest F1 World Champion in history)
- Simone Biles (25 World Championship medals, most decorated gymnast in history)
- Serena Williams (23 Grand slam titles, ranked No. 1 for 319 weeks, including 186
consecutive weeks, year end No. 1 five times)
- Tom Brady (7 Super Bowl wins, including 5 Super Bowl MVPs, see what happens when
he kicks off his 24th season in Dallas later today..)
It’s a fun game trying to decide what factors contribute to somebody’s status as the Greatest Of All Time. Is it high scoring like Michael Jordan? Is it longevity, like Babe Ruth or Serena Williams? Is it championships won? Or is it something else?
So what makes someone the greatest?
That is the question at the heart of our Bible passage today. A question that helps us understand what matters to Jesus, and what matters in his kingdom. So why don’t we pray and ask God to teach us as we open his word right now.
Heavenly Father, as we open the Bible now, will you teach us about your kingdom and the values that matter to you. Teach us about greatness and humility, as your Spirit does his work in our hearts. Make us more like Jesus as you make us into people for your kingdom. In Jesus’ mighty name we pray. Amen
We are in the middle of our Fall teaching series from Matthew 17-21, which I’m calling Kingdom People.
In these chapters, Jesus teaches us all about the culture and values of the Kingdom of Heaven. But they are not just cultures and values for when we die – Jesus wants us start living the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And the disciples learn a lesson about Jesus’ kingdom values when they come to him with a question. (v1)
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)
I grew up in a competitive household. I have an older brother and two younger sisters. When we were kids, my brother and I competed for the fastest, and who was the strongest, and who could eat the most pancakes. Then my littlest sister got a bit older and then we all had to compete to be the loudest. And then we all got a bit older again and had to compete with my other sister for who was the smartest... Now we’re all in our 40s and we compete about who’s aging the best. I’d like to say comfortably I’m winning. (May not be true but that’s just the competitive person I am. Win at all costs.)
The disciples want to know who is winning at being the best Christian. Or best Israelite, probably. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” they ask.
Remember not too much earlier Peter and James and John had been invited to go up to the mountaintop with Jesus. They were his closest companions and his inner circle. Perhaps the disciples wanted to know if one of those three was the greatest.
Of course up on the mountainside two dead guys showed up – perhaps the two greatest dead guys in the history of Israel. Moses and Elijah. Moses who represents the law and the ten commandments, kind of the grandfather of God’s OT people. And Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. So great that he didn’t actually die – God took him up to heaven in a chariot of fire. So maybe Elijah is the greatest figure of the OT, and maybe he would be the greatest in heaven, apart from Jesus I guess.
Maybe they were thinking of someone else. (And this is where it starts to look like the debate we had earlier about the GOAT.)
- King David – killed Goliath when he was just a boy, became King, established Jerusalem as the ruling seat of God’s people. God promised David would always have a descendant on the throne. But then there was Bathsheba...
- Solomon? Unparalleled wealth and diplomatic influence, incredible wisdom but not so wise when it came to the ladies.
- Jump to NT times. What about Mary? She gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God. Surely Mary might be one of the greatest in the kingdom?
- Peter who becomes the rock on which the church is built.
- Paul who becomes the greatest missionary church planter in history, not to mention
writer of half of the NT.
What makes a person great in the kingdom of God? Is it achievements like this that make us great?
Jesus does what he often does. He takes an everyday object and turns it into a teaching tool for us. (v2)
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-3)
I kind of laughed when I first read this, because my siblings and I were just like the disciples – we always wanted to know who was greatest. I assume Jesus did not pick a child like me and my brothers and sisters as his example ;-)
No, he calls a little child to come over. And he says to the disciples, don’t worry about who is greatest. He says, if you even want to enter the kingdom of heaven, then you need to change and become like this – like little children.
So what is it about little children that makes them an example of what you should be like, if you want to belong to the kingdom of heaven?
I would love to say it’s innocence. But watch a two year old for a couple of hours and you’ll find out that they are anything but innocent. Cheeky and adorable, yes, but naughty as well...
So it’s not that Jesus wants us to be innocent to be worthy of the kingdom.
Maybe it’s child-like wonder. There is something about little kids that helps them see the world with fresh eyes. They haven’t been conditioned by disappointment, or constrained by cultural expectations. They sing and dance without worrying about what other people think. They have this beautiful optimism, and as adults we wish we could shield them from the realities of the world so that they don’t lose that hopefulness. But life rarely works out that way.
So I don’t think Jesus is talking about child-like wonder.
Maybe he is talking about the receptiveness of children – the way that they trust what we teach them. But then again, little kids will also believe the wrong message if somebody they trust teaches it to them. Surely Jesus isn’t saying we need to be gullible to be part of his kingdom.
So what was Jesus getting at? There’s a little word in v4 that tells us what he was thinking: lowly.
Time for a little history lesson. In ancient times, many cultures thought less of children than we do today. Children were treated as property rather than people. Children were bought and sold as slaves, at other times beaten and neglected, and even sacrificed to pagan gods. In the first century when our story today takes place, Roman law gave a father absolute power over his family – which extended to life and death.1 A father could have his child killed, and not be punishable by law. Children had very different rights than they do today. They were some of the lowliest (most unimportant) people in society.
And that lowliness was what Jesus commended about children. (v4)
4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:4-5)
You see, the disciples had come asking who was the greatest in the kingdom. Who was most important.
And Jesus says the kingdom is not about achievement. It’s not about individual accolades. It’s not about winning, or earning, deserving. It’s the very opposite. It’s all about dependence.
Think about children. Children play no part in the decision to be born. They enter the world completely helpless. They rely on a parent or a carer to feed them and clothe them and change their diapers. Even as they grow more independent, our kids trust us to provide a home, and safety. They have no way of paying for those things, and it wouldn’t even cross their mind. They don’t get to be our children by earning it. They don’t receive our love only when they deserve it, at least that’s the way it’s meant to work...
Children are completely dependent. And entry into the kingdom of God, it’s about being dependent. On Jesus.
That’s a humble position to be in, isn’t it? Completely dependent on someone else.
And it’s the very opposite of what this world says makes us great. Our world says you need to be independent, able to hold your own, pay your own way, climb the ladder, beat a pathway to success.
1 https://www.crossway.org/articles/what-jesus-thinks-about-children/ 4
And the same can happen in the world of church. Some of the disciples had grown up in very legalistic religion. They thought the kingdom was a matter of keeping the commandments, and performing religious ceremonies. And some of us might have grown up that way too, trying to earn God’s love.
But Jesus says, none of that matters. Not in my kingdom. The greatest will be the one who accepts my gift of forgiveness. The one who receives my pardon. The one who trusts me like a child.
It’s a change of mindset, isn’t it?
And that’s what the disciples needed. Jesus told them that back in v3: unless you change and
become like little children...
That word for ‘change’ in the original language, it really means coming to have a new perspective. Jesus needs them to see that they have been thinking about it all wrong. The kingdom is not about greatness, it’s about humility.
I just want to pause before we move on to ask, is this a mindset you need to change as well?
My whole upbringing was about seeking greatness, so I know how hard it is to switch the mindset from seeking greatness to seeking humility. But Jesus leads the way in humility, and he shows us that the humble can still achieve great success – it’s just about the way you carry yourself on the journey.
I grew up watching Rugby Union, a kind of tackle football played without pads. In the 1990s, Australia dominated the world stage, and brought home two Rugby World Cups (like Olympics, only played every 4 years).
At the center of the Wallabies’ success was the captain, John Eales. 6’7”, 262lb, a work horse on the field. A fierce competitor but always fair; well-spoken and gracious in victory or defeat. He led from the front, but never brought attention to his own achievements. He just quietly went to work, leading Australian rugby into a period of unparalleled success.
Legend has it his team gave him the nickname “Nobody” because Nobody’s perfect. John Eales is considered one of the greatest rugby players of all time, and I think his humility is a huge part of his legacy. Not surprisingly, John Eales is a follower of Jesus.
How is Jesus forming humility in your life?
That’s our first big idea for today. The kingdom is a matter of humble dependence. Little Ones
The second big idea from today is welcoming little ones.
No doubt you saw on the news this week that the Queen of England died at the age of 96. A sad day for the world. As an Australian, I’m actually a subject of the Queen – Australia is a member of the British Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth has been part of my life for all of my 46 years. And that’s true for my parents as well – the Queen was crowned in 1952, when my parents were just 4 years old.
Now I know I’ve told you this before, but my mother got to meet the Queen in 1954 when she was on her coronation tour to Australia. Mom was 5 or 6 years old, and she lined up with a row of other kids who had lost their fathers in the war. And the Queen came past and spoke to them, and took their gifts of flowers. And that pattern continued all through the Queen’s 70 year reign. She loved to meet her subjects, especially little children.
Jesus loved little children too. In a society where children were often overlooked and undervalued, Jesus was never too busy for the littlest ones in his kingdom.
And he says to the disciples in v5:
5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:5)
When we reopened Yountville Community Church a year ago, it was really important to us to welcome the little children into Jesus’ kingdom. And so we launched Yountville Kids, a program for 0-10 year olds. We had two trained leaders – my two children Charlotte and Jamie. And we had a mission – to share the hope of Jesus with every member of our church, from the biggest to the littlest ones.
It has been such a joy to see the way Yountville Kids has grown over the last 12 months. The number of kids has grown, the number of leaders has grown. Every week the classroom is buzzing with kids playing games, doing craft, singing songs, and most importantly – hearing about Jesus from the Bible, and learning to put their trust in him.
And so I would ask you to pray for Yountville Kids. Pray that we can welcome more and more children into our programs, which means welcoming more and more families into our church. It means praying for more leaders, so that we can open more classrooms. Soon it will mean asking for the finances to pay for a staff member who will lead Yountville Kids as it expands, and so that we can start planning for Youth Ministry.
But we do all this because it’s part of sharing the hope of Jesus in the Napa Valley and beyond. The gospel is for everyone, from the biggest to the littlest amongst us. And Jesus says, whenever we welcome just one child in his name, it’s the same as welcoming him.
But kids aren’t the only little ones in our society. 6
Jesus wants us as a church to make sure that we extend the welcome to all those who find themselves in lowly positions in our society. Just like Jesus had time for children, he also had time for the blind, the lame, the sick, and the outcasts.
In a world that measures people by their achievements, those ‘little ones’ are often overlooked, aren’t they? Or more strictly speaking, we are the ones who overlook them, ignore them, and push them out of sight because they aren’t successful like us... It’s that greatness/humility theme again, isn’t it?
Jesus talks quite a bit about ‘little ones’ in Matthew’s gospel. It’s here in ch18, back in Mt 10:42, and also in Mt 25:40. Jesus wants us to have concern for those who are hungry, those who need clothing, those in prison... In our context, I think Jesus would be talking about the homeless and the most vulnerable in our cities.
But look at what Jesus does for those little ones in v12:
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14)
You see, Jesus will go to extraordinary lengths for the little ones. He reaches into their lives, into their messes, he finds them where they are, and he brings them home into his kingdom.
I’ve seen amazing testimonies from the Alpha prison program, where inmates have the chance to learn about Jesus through Alpha just like we do here. And Jesus is changing lives through it, and creating new futures.
I’ve seen the same thing with the crew who do our landscaping here at church every week. They are all part of an addiction recovery program called The Bridge in Napa. It’s a 12 month residential recovery program where the guys replace their addiction with a year of learning about Jesus. I love talking to the guys – a couple of them are really on fire for the Lord. All because Jesus walked into the messiness of their addiction and carried them home.
We get to be a little part of that here at Yountville Community Church, but don’t you want to do more? Wouldn’t you love for this church to be a place where everyone is welcome, from the greatest to the least?
That’s my prayer for us. Maybe you’ll join me in that now...