At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 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.
“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! 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. 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.
“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. For the Son of Man came to save the lost. 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? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Matthew 18:1-14 (ESV)
I had the joy of preaching on this passage today. (Here's a link to the sermon if you'd like to read it) "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" It is a tough teaching that Jesus gives his disciples to answer their question. Their whole worldview about position and power is turned on its head. Jesus uses the example of a child. He does this to show them a couple of things. First, children are in positions of humility. To be great in God's kingdom, you can't seek after power, but you must humble yourself. Yet a humble person doesn't care for power, so in essence, anybody who desires power can't really enter into the kingdom.
Second, children cannot take care of themselves. Jesus is teaching us that we are inadequate to help ourselves. We need someone to look after us. He carries on his discussion talking about how sinful we are. Not only do we sin, but we are so depraved, that we tempt others to sin as well. We sin with our actions (the hands and the feet) and we sin with our thoughts (the eyes). The punishment we deserve is so severe, that it would be better if we were drowned or crippled or blinded.
At this point the disciples must have been feeling lowly and humble. But Jesus comes in to rescue them from all of this trouble. He says that He came to save the lost. He uses the parable of the lost sheep to drive that message home. Jesus rescues the lost sheep and rejoices over it more than the ninety-nine others who think they are already righteous. The one that is found will not perish either. God the Father will protect and keep it.
This sheep is us. We are lost because of our wicked ways. We have no way to rescue ourselves, but need to rely on the good shepherd to come and find us. Yet once he does, it is a full rescue and we are kept safe. What a great God we have!
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus is. He is the one who humbled himself like a child by becoming flesh and dying on the cross for our sins. He rose from the dead three days later and now sits at the right hand of the Father in a position of power and honor.