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.—Matthew 18:1–4
After hearing the question, Jesus calls over a child. He places the child in the center of them. And he told them that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is one who is like this child. The disciples didn’t understand. Luke records John changing the subject about some guy who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name that they tried to stop. Jesus goes with it, and probably showing a bit of his frustrations, tells them, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Matthew left that part out. No one seemed to understand what Jesus was teaching and they didn’t bother to ask.
1. To be a Disciple of Christ, you need faith like a child.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record at least one occasion in which the disciples began to argue about who was the greatest in the kingdom of God (see Matt. 18:1–6; Mark 9:33–37; Luke 9:46–48; Luke 22:24–27). In Matthew 18 and Luke 9, Matthew and Luke present a comical scene. The disciples come to Jesus wanting to know who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. In Luke 9:46–48, Luke reveals that they were arguing about this. They probably threw out names like Moses, Isaiah, or John the Baptist. Each disciple probably secretly thought that they themselves would be the greatest. So, they came to Jesus expecting him to settle the dispute, each hoping that Jesus would recognize their wisdom or commitment to his cause.
Later, Luke records another occasion in which the disciples disputed about who is the greatest (Luke 22:24–27). This time they explicitly ask who among them was the greatest. Again, they didn’t get it. Jesus had to explain that they were asking the wrong question. That is the sort of question the world asks. Instead, Jesus explained, if one wants to be great in his kingdom then one needs to take the position of the working-class, the servant, the slave. Jesus explained that this is exactly the position that he himself took. They still didn’t understand, and they wouldn’t understand until much later after Jesus was raised.
Jesus’ point in using a child to illustrate what it means to be his disciple is telling. Children are weak and needy. In Matthew 19:13–15, the Bible records an occasion in which parents were bringing their children to Jesus. They wanted Jesus to bless their children. The disciples tried to turn the people away, but Jesus interrupted his disciples’ plans: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). Notice, the children didn’t come out of their own ability. These children were brought to Jesus to receive his blessing.
The gospel is God’s promise of salvation to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ that they would receive the gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Rom. 3:22 – 25; Rom. 5:10,18; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 2:8–9; 1 John 1:1–3). This gospel is not for the strong. It’s not for those who insist on relying upon their own ingenuity, strength, experience, or moral resolve. Jesus did not come for people who think they have no need of healing or life. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. Jesus came for the sick. He came for sinners (Mark 2:17).
2. To be a disciple of Christ, you need to embrace the foolishness of the cross.
Much of Christianity seems childish or foolish to those who want to identify with power and privilege. In the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with a church that wanted to redefine the gospel and make it more appealing to the world. They wanted to make it seem wise and powerful. They wanted to be the kind of disciples who had authority, power, and respect. They wanted the kind of greatness that contradicted Jesus’ teaching in Luke 22:24–27.
Paul goes at great length to cure the Corinthian church of their power-hungry approach to Christianity going so far as to describe the gospel as the foolishness and weakness of God (1 Cor. 1:25). Paul argues that true power and wisdom, the power and wisdom of God, is found in the cross of Jesus Christ, the death of God the Son (1 Cor. 1:18–31). This weakness and foolishness isn’t just a rhetorical trick, Paul really meant it—the gospel by all human accounts and expectations is weak and foolish. And this weakness and foolishness isn’t limited to the cross of Christ but extends into the Christian life. For Paul and Jesus, discipleship was weakness and foolishness to the world. Paul illustrates this with his own life as a life of weakness trusting in Christ and relying upon God’s power to sustain him (2 Cor. 4:7–18; 2 Cor. 12:7–10).
Christians need to embrace the foolishness of their life as a picture of the death of Christ, and Christians need to embrace the foolishness of other disciples. The two sacraments of the church—Baptism and the Lords Supper—are perfect communications of this reality. In Baptism, we participate in Christ’s death so that we may also participate in Christ’s life. In baptism, Christians are identified with the death of Christ so that they can also be identified with the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3–4). In baptism, God pictures the Christian life following Jesus into death so that Christians can receive the life that God promises.
In the Lord’s Supper, we participate in the body and blood of Christ. Through eating ordinary bread and wine with other Christians, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we become more like Jesus. We embrace each other in weakness and embrace each other’s weakness. We identify as one people, the people of God’s kingdom, without regard to racial boundaries, class divisions, and gender differences (1 Cor. 10:16–17; 1 Cor. 11:17–26). The Lord’s Supper tells us what is true. It reminds us of what God is doing. It reveals that God is ending hostility between us and himself. It displays that God is turning enemies into friends, divided peoples into a united kingdom of grace and peace (Eph. 2:11–19; Eph. 4:1–7).
3. To be a Disciple of Christ, you need to commit to the kingdom.
When Jesus used a child to teach his disciples what it means to be great in the kingdom of God he didn’t mean to dissuade the disciples from an aspiration to greatness. Jesus didn’t want disciples who were uncommitted to his cause. He taught,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:37-39)
Jesus wanted disciple who were committed to the kingdom of God even above their own families. Disciples commit. They strive for greatness, but they strive for the kind of greatness that most people don’t notice. Disciples strive to be faithful to realities beyond this world. Disciples strive to live contrary to the power-grabbing mentalities that capture the imaginations of many.
God’s mission is to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that Jesus taught (Matt. 28:18–20). The kingdom of God, the mission of God, discipleship, and the local church are all connected to one another. When the church gathers, committed to hear the teaching of Jesus, to witness baptisms, and to eat bread and drink wine as a community of faith excepting the return of Christ, the church reflects the realities of the kingdom of God and advances the mission of God.
To commit to the kingdom means embracing Christ’s call to love your enemies; its call to belief and practice, words and deeds, faith and love. To love your enemies is one of the main characteristics of Christian discipleship in action. In Romans 12:9–21 the apostle Paul, following the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5, instructs the church to love and care for the very people that show themselves enemies. Like Jesus, the apostle Paul saw the call of discipleship as following in the way of Jesus, overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
Being a disciple of Christ can seem like the most difficult calling in the world. It is, but the good news is that God has not left his people alone in their discipleship. Jesus himself is with his people (Matt. 28:20). God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom God himself has given to us (Rom. 5:5). And the Holy Spirit produces the love that God demands (Gal. 5:16, 22–23). As disciples of Jesus Christ, we live by faith in Jesus Christ and we live in the power of the Holy Spirit to serve and love like Jesus.