Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 2 (KJV)
The Greatest in the Kingdom
Devotional Reading: Matthew 19:13–22
Background Scripture: Matthew 18:1–9; Mark 10:15
1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.—Matthew 18:4
Jesus Calls Us
Unit 1: Called from the Margins of Society
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Summarize Jesus’ view of greatness.
2. Compare and contrast Jesus’ view of greatness with that of the disciples.
3. State one way that he or she will practice childlike humility in the coming week.
How to Say It
A. What a Child Wants
Children can’t wait to grow up! They think that “growing up” means experiencing a life of unchecked freedom and complete autonomy. Ask any child how they would act as a grown-up, and their answers will reflect an expectation for freedom. For example, as a child, I anticipated that I would express my grown-up freedom by eating a container of cake frosting whenever I desired. However, I have yet to do that as an adult!
Although children want agency and power, they depend on caretakers to provide for their needs and wants. For this reason, the world does not customarily regard children as examples of greatness and power. But that did not prevent Jesus from using a child to teach His followers.
B. Lesson Context By the time of today’s text, Jesus’ disciples had witnessed His divine power through His acts of healing (Matthew 14:35–36) and exorcism (15:21–28; 17:14–18), miraculous provision (14:15–21; 15:32–38), and control over creation (14:22–33). The apostles Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus’ power personally as they observed Jesus transfigured before them (17:1–13; Mark 9:2). Later, Peter interpreted the transfiguration as showing Jesus’ divine honor and glory (2 Peter 1:16–18). In that event, God’s power was revealed in and through Jesus Christ.
Peter acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). The title Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah (John 1:41). Both designations refer to the anointed one of God, a phrase describing God’s chosen king (see 1 Samuel 16:1, 12–13; 2 Samuel 7:8–16).
When acknowledging Jesus as the Christ, Peter had certain expectations regarding Christ’s work. Hebrew Scripture, also called the Old Testament, traces the contours of God’s anointed one’s liberating His people, sitting on God’s throne, and ruling in righteousness (compare Genesis 49:10; Psalms 110:1; 132:11–12; Isaiah 16:5; Micah 5:2; etc.). Jews assumed that the Messiah would come with power and strength as the anointed servant of God (see Isaiah 42:1–4). They did not desire or expect a suffering and humbled Messiah (see Matthew 16:21–22; compare 20:25–28).
The Gospel writers use different names for God’s rule on earth as inaugurated by the Christ. All four Gospels include the designation “kingdom of God” (Matthew 12:28; Mark 12:34; Luke 9:2; John 3:5; etc.). However, Matthew’s Gospel includes a second designation: the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; etc.). The reason for Matthew’s unique designation is unknown, but students propose that Matthew used it to avoid writing the holy name of God. Both designations refer to the eternal kingdom established by God where He rules (see Psalms 145:11, 13; 103:19; compare John 18:36).
Jesus’ teaching and ministry prepared people to receive this kingdom (see Matthew 4:17; Luke 8:1). To receive the kingdom requires that people be born again (John 3:3–8) and obey the will of God (Matthew 7:21). Today’s Scripture reveals a third condition to enter God’s kingdom. Parallel texts to today’s lesson are Mark 9:33–37 and Luke 9:46–48.
I. Measure of Greatness
A. Presumptive Question (v. 1)
1. At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus had been teaching on the practices of “the kings of the earth” (Matthew 17:25). Although He was not teaching regarding God’s kingdom, His disciples began considering at the same time their own position in that promised kingdom. The 12 disciples had been arguing regarding who from among them would be the greatest (Luke 9:46). Their discussions and arguments regarding their position continued, even as they shared the last meal with Jesus before His arrest (see 22:24). If the Messiah were to rule in the same manner as an earthly ruler, then the Messiah would require positions of lesser authority in His kingdom. The disciples assumed that they would fill such roles.
Jesus had previously shown special regard for Peter (see Matthew 16:17–19) along with James and John (17:1). At that time, the three saw Jesus transfigured before them (17:2–13). They were told to remain silent regarding what they had seen (17:9), and they obeyed (Luke 9:36). The separation of these three from the rest of the Twelve might have accelerated possible conflict among members of the entire group (compare the later episode of Matthew 20:22–24).
Had the disciples comprehended Jesus’ previous teachings, they would have understood how inappropriate their question was. Jesus had already defined the character of a person considered great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19–20; compare 11:11). The disciples were unaware that this kingdom was already in their midst (Luke 17:20–21).
What Do You Think?
When is it appropriate for Christians to concern ourselves with greatness?
In what situations can a focus on greatness become a distraction or even an idol?
Who’s the goat? No, I’m not referring to the ruminant farm animal. Instead, I’m referring to the “Greatest of All Time”—the GOAT. This title is bestowed on people regarded as the greatest in their field of work or performance. Conversations regarding a GOAT in professional sports leagues can turn heated. Among sports fans, there are numerous metrics for defining who is the GOAT. However, fans acknowledge that success and the prestige it brings are necessary for an athlete to be designated the GOAT in his or her sport.
An assumption of prestige and success was central to the disciples’ question. They believed that Jesus would define greatest in a manner consistent with the world’s assumptions. Do you seek worldly measures of success and prestige so that you might be great by the world’s expectations? Or, instead, can you practice faithful and humble service to the Lord who is “great … and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 145:3)? —T. Z. S.
B. Perplexing Example (vv. 2–3)
2. And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them.
Jesus did not answer the disciples’ question directly. Instead, He incorporated a visual teaching aid to make His forthcoming point more vivid. During His earthly ministry, Jesus used a variety of teaching methods, including parables (examples: Luke 15:1–16:15; see lesson 1) and physical illustrations (examples: Mark 12:41–44; John 13:3–17). Jesus’ use of these teaching methods was one reason that His hearers were “astonished” about His authoritative teaching (Matthew 7:28–29).
3a. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted.
To be converted in this verse does not refer to a person’s conversion to salvation. Instead, Jesus was teaching of a general conversion of thought: a person’s process of changing his or her consideration on a matter. The underlying Greek word occurs some two dozen times in the New Testament, and it is almost always translated as some variation of the word turn (examples: Matthew 5:39; 7:6); that is the sense here.
3b. And become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus did not imply that His followers should become like immature or naïve little children (compare Matthew 10:16; 1 Corinthians 13:11; 14:20). Rather, what is implied is having a sense of being guileless and without pretense. The world’s definitions of power and acclaim do not apply to God’s kingdom (compare Mark 10:31).
What Do You Think?
What positions of status or influence do you hold? If following Jesus required you to renounce them, how would you do it?
What would leadership look like based on being childlike?
C. Primary Position (vv. 4–5)
4. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
The disciples desired that Jesus would indicate who among them would be greatest. Jesus, however, responded with a teaching applicable to everyone. Whosoever lived in the manner that Jesus prescribed would find prestige in the kingdom. To humble themselves and each become as a little child meant that the disciples would need to take on an attitude of trust and dependence. Children demonstrate humility by trusting others for their survival and flourishing. They can do little for themselves in this regard.
Jesus demonstrated a life of humility during His time on earth (see Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:5–8; 1 Peter 2:23). Because of His humility, He received exaltation from His heavenly Father (see Acts 5:30–31; Philippians 2:9–11). He yet today commands followers to humble themselves (see Matthew 11:29–30; Luke 14:7–11; John 13:12–17).
When followers of Jesus live with humility, they will be lifted and considered greatest in the kingdom of heaven (compare James 4:10). Such people may not meet the world’s standards of power, celebrity, status, or influence. But when believers live with humility, they will receive a greatness beyond what the world can provide (see Proverbs 3:34; Luke 1:52; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:6). The disciples needed to change their assumptions of greatness from the world’s criteria to that of God’s kingdom.
Learning from Children Laughs and giggles drew my attention to a nearby playground where a grandfather and his two young grandchildren were playing. The grandchildren adored their grandfather, and he loved spending time with them. When I asked the grandfather if he was having fun, he responded with a toothy grin, “I sure am!” I mentioned my own grandchildren and the joy they provide our family. He and I agreed that we don’t need to pretend to be great for our grandchildren. Instead, the main things that grandchildren want from their grandparents are love and attention. Though the world considers children insignificant, they can reveal to adults the power of love and humility. How will you be attentive to how children reveal the attitudes that God requires of His people? —C. R. B.
5. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. One such little child does not likely refer to an actual child, but a believer who shows the required childlike innocence. When Jesus’ followers receive others through practices of hospitality, they demonstrate the required life of humility. Although this verse teaches hospitality toward other believers, God’s people are to show hospitality toward all people (see Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9). Believers receive their reward through humbling and hospitable acts that indicate the presence of genuine faith (see Matthew 10:40–42; Luke 14:12–14; compare Matthew 16:27). The resulting reward does not consist of worldly acclaim or wealth, but of Christ and the life that He offers (see 1 John 5:12).
II. Warning of Sin
A. Regarding Little Ones (vv. 6–7)
6a. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me.
The subject of this verse (whoso) is a parallel to the “whosoever” of Matthew 18:4 (above). Jesus continued with a universally applicable teaching.
The word offend translates a Greek word from which we derive our word scandal. It can refer to something that causes a person to trip, as in a “stumblingblock” (Romans 11:9). However, it can also refer to something more serious: an obstacle that breaks fellowship and causes sin (see Matthew 13:41).
Offense in this verse is not a cause for mere difficulty or dislike. Additionally, it is not a response of disgust, like how a person might respond to a bad odor or foul language. Rather, Jesus meant this in a much stronger sense: something that results in another person’s transgressing God’s law.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the phrase little ones when speaking of His followers (here and in Matthew 10:42; 18:10, 14). Two possibilities exist regarding the identity of these little ones. They could be other believers in general (see commentary on 18:5, above), or they may specifically describe believers in less powerful positions. Jesus’ warning works for both possibilities.
6b. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Jesus illustrated His teaching by referring to an item that His audience would easily recognize: a millstone. These stones were critical to turn grain into usable flour (compare Matthew 24:41). Such stones varied in size. Some could be held in a hand, while other larger stones could only be moved by beasts of burden.
These stones would come in pairs (see Deuteronomy 24:6). The upper stone would rotate on the lower, stationary stone. Grains like barley or wheat would be poured between the stones. As the upper stone rotated over the lower stone, it would crush and grind the grains into usable flour.
One can imagine the horror on the disciples’ faces as they imagined one of the larger millstones tied around a person’s neck. The image of being in the depth of the sea with this “necklace” implied certain death by drowning. A dramatic point resulted from the illustration: causing entrapment and sin in others would lead to swift and unavoidable judgment. Followers of Jesus should not cause other believers to sin, and they should not abuse any authority that they might have. Either would lead to swift and certain judgment.
7. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
In the Old Testament, a statement of woe was proclaimed for several situations and several kinds of audiences. First, it was a lament for sin (example: Lamentations 5:16). Second, it warned people who had turned their backs on God and His commands (examples: Isaiah 10:1–2; Hosea 7:13). Matthew’s Gospel directs most of its proclamations of woe toward the scribes and the Pharisees regarding their hypocrisy (examples: Matthew 23:13–36).
The scribes and the Pharisees were not the intended audience of this particular teaching. Instead, Jesus’ first woe was directed at the world, the present evil age that leads people to stumble and sin (see Galatians 1:4; 1 John 2:15–16). Jesus’ followers must not be tempted to adopt a position of worldly greatness and disregard the world’s abuses. Even so, such abuses and offences would continue to come and “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
While Jesus directed the second woe at that man, He was not referring to a specific person. Rather, He was directing the woe to any person who would cause another to suffer offence and to stumble into sin. While evil is unavoidable, a person has no excuse for causing another to sin.
What Do You Think?
When you stumble, what steps can you take to mitigate the “offence” that you caused to others?
What Scripture passages give insight into the stakes of not taking care when you might cause “offence”?
B. Regarding the Self (vv. 8–9)
8a. Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee.
Jesus did not state the kinds of actions that would offend a person and cause him or her to sin. However, the inclusion of multiple body parts indicates various possibilities that might lead to sin.
A person’s hand or hands might grasp something that is not theirs to take (Exodus 20:15), create idols (2 Chronicles 32:19), or shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:17). On foot, a person might walk from God’s will (2 Kings 21:22) and step toward deceit (Job 31:5) or evil (Proverbs 4:27).
Jesus’ command to cut … off any offending body parts is a metaphor and hyperbole. Although a pointed command, He was not advocating for physical self-mutilation. After all, sin can still be committed in one’s heart when the physical opportunity or ability to do so is absent (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus used exaggerated language to impress on His listeners the seriousness of sin. He wanted His followers to remove and cast away the things that would cause it.
What Do You Think?
What radical life changes might help you live a more Christ-centered life?
What barriers prevent you from making either radical or minute changes for the sake of Christ?
8b. It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. Matthew’s Gospel elsewhere describes fire as a form of punishment (Matthew 3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 49–50; 18:9). Matthew uses this imagery more than any other New Testament book besides Revelation. However, this verse is only one of three uses in the New Testament of the Greek phrase translated as everlasting fire (see also 25:41; Jude 7). It would be better for people to experience life halt (life with an impairment) or maimed, and without the things that cause sin, than to suffer eternal punishment (also Matthew 5:29–30). Part of this punishment includes separation from the Lord’s presence and His power (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Jesus desired that His followers evaluate whether their actions (or inactions) cause sin in themselves or others (compare Romans 14:19–21; 1 Corinthians 8:9–13). If such actions are continual and willful, then judgment will occur.
9. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
With the eye, a person might commit lust (Matthew 5:28; 1 John 2:16), show hateful intentions (Psalm 35:19), or refuse to look on a person in need (Proverbs 28:27). Eyes and vision are a means for temptation (see Genesis 3:6; Matthew 4:8–9). Jesus’ inclusion of an eye with a hand and foot highlights the numerous ways that a person might sin—intentionally or unintentionally (Luke 12:47–48; John 9:41; James 4:17).
Matthew’s Gospel uses the words eye and eyes more than any other New Testament text. Frequently, Matthew describes the healing of physical eyes (examples: Matthew 9:29; 20:33–34). However, his Gospel also shows greater concern for spiritual sight to see Jesus’ work in the world (examples: 13:15–16; 15:14). People’s spiritual vision and their spiritual health are connected (see 6:22–23).
The command to pluck … out one’s eye and cast it from thee was not a command requiring forced blindness. As in the previous verse, Jesus taught His followers to take strong measures to remove temptation. The psalmist reflected a similar feeling: “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 101:3). If willful and unrepentant sin continued, then people would experience eternal punishment in hell fire (see also Mark 9:47–48; compare Isaiah 66:24). Jesus’ language is almost identical to His teaching found in Matthew 5:29.
What Do You Think?
How do you discern not just what is sinful for you to see but what does not edify you (1 Corinthians 10:23)?
What role does your responsibility toward other believers play in deciding where you will rest your gaze?
A. Humility and Self-Control
Most people, at some time or another, desire to have power and be seen as great by the world. We are bombarded with messages and images that celebrate people who appear powerful, prestigious, and famous—great by the standards of the world.
The response to these messages requires that believers immerse themselves in Jesus’ teaching regarding the required attitudes toward greatness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, followers of Jesus must learn to embrace Jesus’ definition of greatness—it must include childlike humility.
Further, followers of Jesus must remove those things that would cause themselves or others to stumble in sin. This includes disregarding the world’s messages of greatness, power, and prestige. Believers should also remove the temptations to sin in the things that they see, hear, and do. These are the parts that make up a believer’s actions and habits. Do your actions shape you to desire the world’s definition of power and status? Do your habits lead you to sin or cause others to sin? If so, remove those causes of sin and adjust your habits!
Finally, followers of Jesus must embrace an attitude of humility and trust. This is not a sense of naivety, but confidence that God will provide for His people and show mercy consistent with His nature. When we embrace this attitude, we will likely not receive worldly glory. Instead, we will share in the promised—and far superior—glory from God (Romans 8:17).
Heavenly Father, transform our hearts and minds so that we will continue to seek the kind of greatness that is required in Your kingdom. Orient our hearts toward the actions and habits that mark citizens of Your kingdom. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
True greatness results from a life of humility and self-control.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (pp. 633-715). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.