The Greatest In The Kingdom Of Heaven


Power struggles are nothing new in any organisation, power struggles usually come about because of pride and people thinking too highly of themselves. Jesus taught over and over again that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be great in His kingdom, however, it’s all about how you go about it. Matthew 20:25-28.

‘They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.’ Mark 9:30-34

Jesus wanted to prepare His disciples for the tragedy that was nearing so He takes them somewhere private to teach them a lesson on humility. He warned them that He would be betrayed into men’s hands and be killed but He also encouraged them by announcing that three days later He would rise again. The disciples didn’t understand, why?

Simply because the concept of an afterlife was foreign to them. 2 Timothy 1:10.

Why were they afraid to ask Him about it?

They didn’t understand the purpose of Christ’s death and they were too busy arguing about who would be the greatest in Jesus’ coming kingdom, in other words, they were struggling with pride, they even argued about this during the Supper. Luke 22:24. This all happened at Peter’s house.

‘At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ Matthew 18:1

‘Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ Mark 9:35

Notice that Jesus sat down, in other words, Jesus adopts the position of a teacher which signalled to the disciples that teaching was coming.

The child object lesson

‘He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ Matthew 18:2-5

‘He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’ Mark 9:36-37

Jesus didn’t need to ask what they were arguing about because He already knew and so, knowing what they had been disputing, Jesus took a child into His arms and used the child as a model of the humility that should characterise the disciples. It must have disappointed Jesus greatly to see the disciples competing for power while He was preoccupied with His coming suffering.

Can you imagine how Jesus must have felt?

He’s about to go and die for the world and all the disciples can do is argue about who is going to be the greatest! Matthew 20:20-28 / Mark 10:35-45 / Luke 22:24-27. There’s no doubt that the disciples were still thinking that Jesus was here to establish a physical kingdom, Acts 1:6, and they wanted to know who was going to be in charge.

Jesus tells them they must ‘change’, which means change their thinking, change their lives, change their attitude. Acts 3:19 / Acts 28:27. The need for change by the apostles was because of their sin of worldly pride and ambition.

They must also become ‘like little children’, children submit to their father’s rule, they trust their father will always do what is right and as a result, they will obey their fathers. As Christians, we need to have the same submissive attitude towards our heavenly Father if we want to receive eternal life. James 4:6-7 / 1 Peter 5:6-7.

The humility of a child should always be the characteristic of the disciple of Jesus, we should always be willing to serve and put others before us, not thinking too highly of ourselves. Mark 10:35-45.

Jesus wants disciples who are humble like a child, free from prejudice like a child, teachable like a child, and lovable as a child, He wants His disciples to have the same simple faith of a child, trust like a child, He doesn’t want His disciples to worry about anything but trust their Father and He wants His disciples to be as innocent as a child.

Welcoming a little child in Jesus’ Name refers to the complete acceptance of a child-like believer because of their innocent and unrestrained trust in the Lord. If we welcome a disciple of Jesus who is of the character which Jesus discusses in this context, we receive Jesus. Matthew 10:40-42.

The Warning

‘If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me— to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!’ Matthew 18:6-7

We should never underestimate the severity of Jesus’ warning here, make no mistake about it, He isn’t just speaking about someone causing someone else to stumble in terms of causing someone to sin but He’s speaking about someone causing someone to stumble to the extent that they cause them to lose their soul, in other words, they cause someone to lose their eternal salvation.

The result of someone doing so is worse than death. Jesus mentions a ‘large millstone’, this is the large millstone which is turned by a donkey, which contrasts with the smaller millstones which are turned by the human hand.

Why is their fate worse than drowning?

Simply because eternal death is worse than physical death. Anyone who persecutes Christians in order to cause them to stumble will be held accountable, Luke 17:2. Anyone who seeks to cause God’s children to stumble will not receive any deliverance but will be punished because they hurt God’s children, Romans 12:19 / Hebrews 10:30.

Because Jesus uses the word, ‘woe’ we can be sure of the seriousness of the crime and the punishment of the crime, Luke 17:1 / 1 Corinthians 11:19 / 1 Timothy 4:1.

Not only does Jesus gives us the warning, but He also gives us the promise that ‘such things must come’. We shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen, and people fall away because of them, so we must be diligent and help each other and watch out for each other’s souls.

‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.’ Matthew 18:8-9

When it comes to any passage of Scripture, context is always the key and with these verses, we must keep them in context. The reason for this is that some sincere people have read these verses and taken them literally, but Jesus didn’t mean that a person should literally cut off one of the limbs of their body.

As far as I’m aware all commentators agree that Jesus uses a figure of speech in order to emphasise the seriousness by which one must consider those things that would cause them to fall. Remember the context is that the disciples are having problems with selfish ambition concerning greatness, and so Jesus is emphasising that they should seriously consider their attitude, or else it will lead to their condemnation. Matthew 25:41 / Matthew 5:29-30.

If we were to think about these words in physical terms, sometimes if a person had a disease such as gangrene, in order to preserve their life, they would need to be an amputation performed to preserve their life. It’s much the same spiritually, there may be sins which need to be cut off from our lives in order for us to inherit eternal life. Galatians 5:19-21.


We could focus on those who cause others to stumble but maybe it’s useful to look at ourselves as Jesus wanted the disciples to do. We must be on our guard against false teachers and those who would encourage us to stumble, mainly those in the world but we must also take a good look in the mirror and ask ourselves, is there is anything in our lives which needs to be cut off?

Our soul is just too precious to play games with, our eternal salvation is just too important to throw away.