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Kingdom Community: Humility

Who is the greatest?

Written by David Steltz on .



Matthew chapter 18 is a new teaching unit. As is his style, Matthew uses the location change to signify a change in focus. The chapter starts with them returning to Capernaum. Chapter 19 starts with Jesus leaving the region to head towards Jerusalem which creates the bookend signifying the end of this teaching session. 

The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Chapter 18)
This is the fourth of the five great teaching discourses in Matthew. Jesus sets the tone for life in His church, where the smallest are honored and protected (18:1–9); sinners are treated as lost sheep to be found and as brothers to be reclaimed (18:10–20); and forgiveness flows freely and constantly to those who repent (18:21–35).

‌In chapter 18 there are three major buckets that we want to focus on in the weeks to come. While there could be 10 sermons on this section, we want to bring out three main teachings and show the cohesiveness of the entire chapter. 

To give you a quick overview:

Jesus is teaching his disciples about how they will need to function after he is gone. The messages of chapter 18 are NOT to the crowds, they are to the disciples. ⚡Here are the 3 buckets:

  • Humility (18:1-10)
  • Purity (18:11-20)
  • Mercy (18:21-35)

‌Matthew (Matthew 18: The King Explains Christian Personal Relationships)
Jesus weaves three themes throughout his discourse on the ethics of Christian relationships—humility, purity, and mercy. Those who are humble will be the greatest in the kingdom. The Father protects his “little ones,” and will make every effort to restore those who stray. Christians must mercifully forgive sinning brothers and sisters.

‌Again, there are many other ways to break these out and there are more than just 3 teachings in this section, but we want to focus on these 3 foundations for healthy church life. 

‌This morning we are going to zoom in on verses 1-10 (ish). It is made up of at least three teachings. As you look at the verses you will notice these breaks: ⚡


Become like a child [THEREFORE] - vs 4

Welcome children [AND] - vs 5

Do not cause a child to fall away [BUT] - vs 6

Who Is The Greatest?

Let’s read chapter eighteen verse one together: ⚡

Matthew 18:1 CSB

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

In verse one we have a key phrase that Matthew includes that Mark and Luke do not. 

“in the kingdom of heaven” - this is a significant phrase because it frames the topic of the entire chapter. The kingdom of heaven refers to all people who accept Jesus as their forgiver, redeemer, and Lord. That is an important clue from Matthew that the discourse to follow applies to all those in the kingdom. 

The disciples have a question for Jesus - who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? It seems like a legit question, right? Who is the top disciple? 

Matthew almost makes it seem like an innocent question, but the reality is that the disciples were having an argument about it. ⚡

Mark 9:33–34 CSB

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.

That seems a little more spirited than, “they asked Jesus who was the greatest!” This was not a great theological debate about something in the Torah. They were arguing among themselves trying to determine who was the greatest!

ASK: Who would YOU say are the greatest disciples of Jesus from the Bible? Who would you put on the top of the list?

I think it is funny that most of us would put Paul at the top of the list - the G.O.A.T. of disciples, and yet he was not even there for this debate!

How would one determine something like this?


‌Perhaps it would come down to how many sick people they healed or how many demons they cast out? Obviously, if God uses someone to do more great things than others, that person MUST be more important, right?


Maybe they were discussing that Peter, James and John got to go up on the mountain with Jesus and the others did not. Jesus seemed to have a special relationship with them. That would certainly make them more important, right? 


Who had the spotlight on them the most? Probably Peter! He attempted to walk on water. He is the one who first said Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus had a special conversation with him, calling him a “rock”. When the people who collected the temple tax had questions, they asked Peter and when they went into the house, Jesus spoke to Peter first.  When someone answers a question on behalf of the group it is often Peter that is the spokesman. Obviously, Peter is the one that was recognized as a leader both by Jesus and others.  That would certainly make him greater than the other disciples, right?


‌When we are making a comparison we must have something or someone to compare to. In this case, the disciples were comparing themselves to each other. This is a common thing for all of us to do, isn’t it?

‌So what did Jesus do? ⚡

Matthew 18:2–3 CSB

2 He called a small child and had him stand among them. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus brought in a child and said, THIS is what you need to compare yourself to! “Unless you are like this child...” - those are words of comparison! 

Be Like Children

What does it mean to be like a child?

Finish this sentence [put on the screen]: ⚡

“To come to Jesus you must have _______________ like a child.”

If you answered “faith” you are among the majority. My challenge to you would be to show me a verse from the Bible that says that. 🤨  Jars of Clay, has a song, “Faith Like a Child” so it must be in the Bible, right?

SIDENOTE: I searched 10 difference English translations of the Bible for the phrase “faith like” and do you know I found? NOT faith like a child 😉 I did find faith like a mustard seed.

Let’s read our passage for this morning and see what that blank should have been: ⚡

Matthew 18:1–5 CSB

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a small child and had him stand among them. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like little 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.

‌From these verses, how would you fill in the blank now? ⚡

“To come to Jesus you must have HUMILITY like a child.”

Mark & Luke each have a few extra details to this teaching that are helpful. I did a “mashup” that combined the 3 gospel accounts and will put that up on the screen for you: [it will be online in the sermon notes as well if you want o reference it later]


Matthew 8:1-5, Mark 9:33–37, Luke 9:46–48
They came to Capernaum. An argument started among them about who was the greatest of them. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent. At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” But Jesus, knowing their inner thoughts, [sat] down, he called the Twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.” He called a small child and had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. For whoever is least among you—this one is great.”


Jesus was in a house with the disciples, so this *might* have been one of their children.

A “child” in Jesus’ day would have been pre-teen 😁 - under the age of thirteen. [have you ever wondered why Jesus said they needed to be like little children instead of saying they needed to be like teenagers?]

He had the child stand among them and he put his arms around the child. 

We do not know anything else about the child - exact age, name, gender, etc. All we know is that it was a child. 

But in response to the argument the disciples were having about greatness, Jesus said that his followers must have the humility of a child. 

I have a feeling that some of you might be thinking, “I do not think of humility when I think of children!” 

We should realize that parenting in the first century was MUCH different than in the 21st century! The disrespect I see in many children today grieves me, and the harshness and lack of care from parents is even more heart-wrenching. 

The mashup explains this humility in the context of serving others, or putting others ahead of themselves. 

Looking back at the Jewish family unit, according to the Torah & Prophets, we see what humility means even more clearly: ⚡

‌The Lexham Bible Dictionary Expectations for Children in Early Israel

God commanded children to honor their fathers and mothers (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16; Lev 19:3):

•      by obeying them (Deut 21:18–21; Prov 23:22);

•      by adhering to their teachings (Prov 1:8–9);

•      by showing them respect (Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9; Deut 27:16; Prov 30:17);

•      by caring for them and for their property (Prov 28:24; Tigay, Deuteronomy, 69–70).

Children were expected to listen to their authorities and not try to be them. They were to be obedient and submissive to their parents. As a matter of fact, the punishment for NOT being this was was very harsh: ⚡

Deuteronomy 21:18–21 CSB

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father or mother and doesn’t listen to them even after they discipline him, 19 his father and mother are to take hold of him and bring him to the elders of his city, to the gate of his hometown. 20 They will say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he doesn’t obey us. He’s a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of his city will stone him to death. You must purge the evil from you, and all Israel will hear and be afraid.

‌A child’s place was not as the head of the household, he/she was a subservient part of the house, under the leadership of someone greater than himself or herself. Submissiveness and servitude would be the qualities that are to be honored: ⚡

‌Colossians 3:20 CSB

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

So, back to our passage. The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, the “magas” in the Greek [μέγας], the ones in charge. Jesus said greatness comes from humility, from being subservient children who listen to and obey their Father (in heaven). 

Welcome other children

After saying that followers of Jesus must be like children, Jesus made this statement: ⚡

Matthew 18:5 CSB

5 And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me.

In addition to being LIKE little children (HUMBLE) Jesus said that his followers much “welcome” other little children. When we do, we welcome Jesus also.

Mark goes a little further with it: ⚡

Mark 9:37 CSB

37 “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.”

‌Mark says we not only welcome Jesus but we welcome our Heavenly Father.

This is a strange phrase for us. Let’s think it through together:

To welcome is to receive or accept.

Little children in this context represents the lowest of the family unit.

Let me plug that in and see if it hits you any different:

“Whoever accepts those lowest in the family of God accepts Jesus and the Father.”

Those that were important were often separated from the women and the children - as those two people groups were lower class in those days.  In the temple there was a place for the priests, and then a place for the men, and then a place for the women and children.  There was a hierarchy in the family and in the “church”. 

‌Those of you that are soldiers understand this because this type of distinction is mandated. There are officers and solders, and you work together inside of that rank but you do not mingle outside because of that rank, right?

‌God’s economy is different from the Roman, or the US military economy. While there is still leadership in the church, there should be no separation because of it. We should welcome all peoples who have accepted Jesus regardless of their social, economic, or intellectual position. 

Since ALL of us are little children of the same Father, all of us have the same value and the same position. We are all sons and daughters and all bought with the same price of the blood of Jesus. Because of that, we need to accept one another.

‌It is one thing to consider yourself less than others. That is one part of humility. It is another to accept others that are not as accepted in society and even to EMBRACE them - which is exactly what Jesus did with that child:

Mark 9:36 CSB

36 He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,

ask: would you agree that there is a difference between embracing and tolerating?

A truly humble person does not concern himself with position or power, but is concerned about active service, especially toward those who are most in need.

Humility recognizes my place in the big picture (I am just a child like everyone else)

Humility recognizes others as valuable because they are children of Yahweh also.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke 3. The Heinousness of Causing Believers to Sin (18:5–9)

The one who welcomes “a little child like this in my name” is not welcoming literal children but “children” defined in the previous verses—those who humble themselves to become like children, i.e., Jesus’ true disciples. They are not welcomed because they are great, wise, or mighty, but because they come in Jesus’ name (v. 5)

Then Jesus kicked into the third part of this teaching - the WOE TO THE WORLD...

Do not cause other children to fall away⚡

Matthew 18:6–9 (CSB)

6 “But whoever causes [σκανδαλίζω] one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—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 [σκάνδαλον]. For offenses [σκάνδαλον] will inevitably come, but woe to that person by whom the offense [σκάνδαλον] comes. 8 If your hand or your foot causes [σκανδαλίζω] you to fall away, 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 [σκανδαλίζω] you to fall away, 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 hellfire.

In verse 6 there is another key phrase which is important for understanding the greater context and teaching of the entire chapter: “one of these little ones who believe in me”

This would be ALL disciples. This would include them. We are not just talking about young people any longer, we have now expanded that definition to include all who are followers of Jesus. 

Jesus will refer to disciples as “little children” as he continues to teach them how to live in his absence:

John 13:33 CSB

33 Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so now I tell you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’

The word “scandalize” means to push away, cause to sin, drive away. I highlighted it in the passage on the screen so you can see how many times it shows up in this passage. 

There is a severe warning that is given to the disciples - as that is the audience. You either accept others or you run the risk of scandalizing them. 

Whoever causes a follow of Jesus to fall away from following Yahweh (scandalize) - it would be better for him to be horribly killed - death by drowning - than to face the wrath of God for this!

Matthew (Explanation of the Text)

The “large millstone” (μύλος ὀνικός) was the large stone (probably the upper stone of two used for grinding) turned by a “donkey” (ὀνικός = “pertaining to a donkey,” so BAGD, Turner). It could have weighed several tons and if attached to a neck would render drowning absolutely certain. Execution by drowning was a frequent Roman punishment and was terrifying because there could be no burial and therefore no peaceful afterlife (in a Hellenistic sense). Jesus’ point is that this would be preferable to the punishment God would render such a person.


After this warning he gives a remedy - if your hand or foot scandalizes you, cut it off. If your eye scandalizes you, pluck it out.


Matthew 5:29–30 CSB

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

This is the second time Jesus used this lesson. In the sermon on the hill it was about what does it REALLY mean to be an individual follower of Yahweh. In Matthew 18 it is in the context of what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of Yahweh. Same lesson is applied once to the individual and the second time to community.

While this could mean that we need to remove the sinful actions and thoughts from our lives, in the context of community it could also be referring to other people that cause damage to the Kingdom of God and the need to remove THEM from among the community. 

This is actually part of the focus on the next section of teaching.



In this section of teaching, the disciples were concerned about who was the greatest among them. This prideful bantering became the foundation for a group of teachings about what the kingdom of God really should be like - what the church should be like - how you and I should be living and treating others. 

We must be humble and willing to serve others.

We must be accepting of others.

We must draw people to God not push them away, and we must protect them from those who would drive them from God.

Greatness in the kingdom was not based on great works or words, but on childlike humility of spirit. It is not who WE have power or sway over that matters. It is who has power and sways US as well as how we respond. 


5992 Because Christ Jesus came to the world clothed in humility, he will always be found among those who are clothed with humility. He will be found among the humble people.

A. W. Tozer


And I think that is a fitting thought for us to end with. We are called to be humble… like Jesus was humble. Listen to this command from Scripture and see how it connects with our lesson this morning: ⚡


Philippians 2:5–12 CSB

5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 


6 who, existing in the form of God, 


did not consider equality with God 


as something to be exploited. 


7 Instead he emptied himself 


by assuming the form of a servant, 


taking on the likeness of humanity. 


And when he had come as a man, 


8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient 


to the point of death—


even to death on a cross. 


9 For this reason God highly exalted him 


and gave him the name 


that is above every name, 


10 so that at the name of Jesus 


every knee will bow—


in heaven and on earth 


and under the earth—


11 and every tongue will confess 


that Jesus Christ is Lord, 


to the glory of God the Father. 


12 Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.



Kingdom Community: Humility