Images of the Savior (32 – His Teaching on Life in the Kingdom)
Among all peoples, they who are considered greatest in a kingdom or government are they who are in the most prominent positions, who command great honor and respect, and who use their authority to exercise dominion over all those beneath them (see Matthew 20:25-27). It was a most natural circumstance, therefore, that the disciples who had heard so much of Jesus’ Kingdom would begin to dispute and argue among themselves as to who should hold the highest position in this Kingdom, sitting at the right hand of Jesus when he ascended to the throne of David (Mark 9:33-34; 10:35-37). But Jesus’ Kingdom was not to be like the kingdoms of men; for in the wonder of divine wisdom, the greatest glory is gained through the deepest humility, and the most selfless and lowly servant is indeed the highest of all. The King of kings won his throne through the emptying of himself, taking on the form of a servant, and being found obedient unto death, even the shameful death of the cross (Philippians 2:5-11). But if even the all-glorious Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), then what sort of men ought his followers to be? Let us take these truths to heart, and be attentive to the richly instructive words of Christ, as he takes the opportunity of this dispute among the disciples to open up to us the mystery of the Kingdom, the way in which it is ever to be entered, and the manner in which life within its borders is to be conducted.
We must be aware that when Jesus took a little child and placed him before the disciples, as an example to them, he was doing so in a society in which old age was greatly revered, and youth was very little esteemed (see Leviticus 19:32). It would have been unthinkable for a young man to rebuke or dispute with an elder – and how much less a little child? So then, Jesus was taking a representative of the least esteemed segment of that culture, and the segment with the least semblance of prestige or authority, and indeed with the least pretension to such, and equating that sort of character with true greatness in the Kingdom. This must have been a profound shock to the disciples, and it certainly turned the societal norms upon their head; but even at that, Jesus had not done with his surprising message; for he went on to explain that, not only must one be as this lowly child in order to be great in the Kingdom; but if he would even enter the Kingdom at all, he must become as one of them. The true heirs of the Kingdom are as unassuming and humble as little children, to whom the idea of exercising authority over men is never in their thoughts; and it is only they who continue in this lowly frame of mind throughout adulthood that are truly great. Let us consider some reasons for this unexpected doctrine.
First, the little ones are great because they are the ones who represent Christ. In fact, if one should receive and embrace those who are as these children, and hence heirs of the Kingdom, he is receiving Christ himself (vs. 5). Is this not because those whom Christ has chosen to be his ambassadors and representatives are those who are humble, even as he was humble? Consider the apostle Paul, who served in the proclamation of the gospel, as the very representative of Christ, offering the forgiveness of sins through repentance, with the full authority of Jesus’ own name: was he not the humblest and most despised of men (2 Corinthians 4:1-15; 5:18-21)? If even Jesus, who is the King and the Redeemer, won his Kingdom and redeemed his people through humility, then how much more will they who merely spread that Kingdom, and proclaim the news of that redemption, do so with humility? The true heirs of the Kingdom are those who are like Christ, and the greatest in the Kingdom are those who are the most like him.
Consider further: if receiving one of the little ones, which is to say, receiving a true Kingdom citizen, is to receive Christ himself, and if heeding their gospel message is to heed the very words of Christ; then the corollary truth must be that, resisting these little ones, and attempting to lead them astray, is the same thing as resisting Christ, and is indeed setting a snare for his very body. How well did Christ express the gravity of the sin of leading a little one astray: for believers in Christ are humble indeed, and little in all the world’s eyes, but they are his representatives and his own mystical body; and therefore, it were better to have a millstone hanged about one’s neck and to be cast into the depths of the sea, than to resist the humblest Kingdom citizen, and so to resist Christ, the all-glorious King. Let us be sure that we do not despise the humble and afflicted; for these are the ones who are truly great in God’s eyes.
Next, we see that these little ones are great by virtue of the fact that the greatest of God’s creatures, his holy angels, minister unto them and serve them. “Are they all not ministering spirits, sent to the service of them who are about to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14)? If they who are so glorious that the mere sight of them inspires terror in the hearts of men (e.g. Luke 2:9), and indeed are so glorious that they behold the very face of God, as they worship in his presence (Matthew 18:10) – if these glorious creatures minister to the little ones of the Kingdom, then how great must these little ones be, for all their humility and lowliness? And so we see again, that those who are little in their own eyes will be found truly great at last, even as Jesus humbled himself and so was glorified and lifted up above all. “Everyone who exalts himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). This is the mystery and paradox of the Kingdom.
But more than all this, we see how great it is to be a little one of the Kingdom for this reason alone: it is only the little ones whom Christ came “to seek and to save” (Matthew 18:11; cf. Luke 19:10), and he loves one sheep who is lost more than ninety-nine sheep who are already righteous in their own eyes, and need no salvation. Christ, the good Shepherd, rejoices over the little lost sheep more than all the others who were not lowly enough to need his salvation; and it is not the will of the Father that any of these little lost sheep should perish. Consider then: would you rather be one of the ninety-nine, and think great things of yourself; or the one who is hopelessly lost, but who becomes a joy to the Savior, the fruit of his work, and eternally secured by the will of the Father? If you would taste the eternal riches of the glorious Kingdom of Christ, you must be a little one, and a sheep who has gone astray.
Next, in Jesus’ discourse, we see that he is diligent to order and structure his Kingdom, so that its administration might be carried out appropriately by those little ones who were great in its ranks, even after he had left. We thus encounter in verses fifteen through twenty a description of the means of judgment within the Kingdom, and a solemn bestowal of the authority thus to judge. We must note that the method of this judgment is different than the courts of all earthly kingdoms in that it is carried out through humble and inauspicious means, and is directed to the end of mercy and reconciliation; but that its verdicts, when given in pursuance of the assigned means, possess all the authority of God himself, and are given with the very presence of Jesus confirming and accomplishing all. We have already noted that on this occasion, Jesus is extending to all the leaders of the Church the same authority that he gave to Peter, after he had made his confession of Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:13-20).
And finally, Jesus illustrates his doctrine pertaining to life and governance within his Kingdom with a concluding parable. It is most appropriate that this parable teaches nothing other than that, only he who is like Jesus will be forgiven by the Father, and brought into the Kingdom. And what is it to be like Jesus? Jesus freely forgave the chief of sinners, who but acknowledged his debt and his inability to pay; and if we would be like him, we must freely forgive our brothers who are at all indebted to us. Jesus humbled himself, and so the little ones, who humble themselves, will enter into his Kingdom; and Jesus freely forgave, so the forgiving, who thus imitate Jesus, will be forgiven by the Father. By means of this parable, Jesus makes manifest the utter incongruity of claiming to be a Kingdom member and yet treasuring up in the heart an unforgiving spirit. If one were freely forgiven a great debt by his king, and the next day cast into prison a fellow-servant who owed him but a paltry sum, would not that king require the debt in full from his wicked servant? And so they who claim God’s free forgiveness, but rage against their brothers because of piddling little offenses, which are as nothing when compared to the enormity of the debt that they have been forgiven – do they not make a lie of their claims to be the people of Christ, and will they not pay their full debt, in the place of everlasting torment?
We have thus learned from Christ the paradox of the Kingdom: they who are little and humble are truly great; and they who will not abase themselves will not at all enter the Kingdom, but will be abased at the last. Now, let us make sure that we are aware of how serious a thing it is to be left out of the Kingdom: for this is the only place where God’s presence dwells, and the only place where there is fullness of joy. Outside, there is but the Father’s wrath, and it is a place of eternal torment and fire, “where their worm does not die, and their flame is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). For this cause, let us love our souls in truth, and so seek to abase them no matter what the cost! Let us pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands, if by doing so we may humble ourselves before the Father, and be able to follow him into his glorious Kingdom instead of running after our prideful sin and rebellion to eternal destruction (Matthew 18:8-9). Remember Jesus, who humbled himself so that he might be exalted at last, and labor to follow in his steps! If we die with him, we will share in his glory and Kingdom; let us then seek to know him in “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10-11) so that we might taste as well the power of his resurrection! Let us be as a little child, for only then will we enter the Kingdom, and be counted great before God.