The values, the world and Jesus presented are different. Jesus’ disciples were thinking in the world’s line until the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost. In response to their question on “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’s reply was that they must humble themselves like a child. Jesus told that receiving a childlike is equivalent to receiving him. He warned those misguiding the childlike to commit sin would face severe punishment. He also asked to stop whatever prompts to sin, to assure eternal life.
The Greatest in the Kingdom
(Matthew 18:1) At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (2) Then Jesus called a little child, set him in front of the disciples, (3) and said, “I assure you that unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (4) Whoever makes himself lowly like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, (5) and whoever receives such a child in my name receives me.
Temptations to Sin
(6) If anyone should cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble and fall into sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the depths of the sea with a large millstone around his neck. (7) Woe to the world because of so many things that cause people to fall! Such obstacles are bound to come, but woe to the one who causes others to fall! (8) If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life without a hand or a foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with your two hands and two feet. (9) 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 to be thrown into the hell of fire with your two eyes.
The Greatest in the Kingdom
(Matthew 18:1) At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
At that time
This phrase connects with the earlier events that led to the question on who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were:
1. Peter’s confession on the Jesus’ divine origin followed by Jesus giving him prominence in his church (Matthew 16:13-20).
2. The first prediction of Jesus’ passion followed by Peter’s objection (Matthew 16:21-23).
3. Jesus’ expectation that his disciples carry the cross and its later reward in his Kingdom. (Matthew 16:24-28).
4. Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain that only Peter, James, and John witnessed. (Matthew 17:1-8).
5. Jesus’ communication to the disciples that John the Baptist was the second coming of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah (Matthew 17:9-13).
6. The nine disciples’ failure to heal a demon-possessed boy (Matthew 17:14-21).
7. The second prediction of Jesus’ passion (Matthew 17:22-23).
8. Jesus asking Peter to catch a fish with a hook to pay the Temple tax for him and Peter (Matthew 17:24-27).
All these involved the themes of the prediction of Jesus’ suffering, the establishment of God’s Kingdom, and prominence to some apostles. These led to the disciples’ query to Jesus on who would be prominent among them in his Kingdom.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
This was a question haunting the disciples of Jesus during his public ministry. They even had arguments on the topic that came to Jesus’ attention (Luke 9: 46-48). There were several reasons for these.
Competition for prominence was going on among the disciples. They were thinking of a new heavenly kingdom that Jesus would establish in Jerusalem. However, they got confused when they repeatedly heard from Jesus that he must “go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the Jewish authorities, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law and be killed, and be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 16:21). So, the disciples wanted to hear more about the victorious stage than to discuss on the suffering that might happen prior to it.
(2) Then Jesus called a little child, set him in front of the disciples.
According to Mark 9:33, Jesus was preaching inside a house when Jesus taught this lesson. Since this was in Capernaum, it must be at the house of Peter. It was natural that children come along with parents when they visit Jesus. The child could be of Peter or a child that came with parents from outside. There is an Eastern tradition that this boy was the later martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, also known as Theophorous (God Bearer). Mark describes the affection Jesus showed to the child by “putting his arms around it” (Mark 9:36).
Jesus used demonstrations and examples from ordinary life as a memorable aid to teach spiritual lessons. So, the use of a child as an example for spiritual childhood was a teaching technique Jesus used.
(3) And said, “Amen, I say to you that unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Amen, I say to you.
Amen means acceptance or affirmation. Jesus used the Hebrew word, “Amen” at a statement’s beginning to affirm the truthfulness of what follows.
Unless you change and become like little children
Children have characteristics different from the adults. They are innocent, humble, content with little things, not anxious about the future, when helpless or in doubt they turn to their parents believing that they are omniscient and omnipotent, they trust their parents, exchange love with their parents, they do what the parents tell them, they will not keep up rivalry for long, they are open for new ideologies, and they are not position seeking.
The adult Christians must keep up these qualities of children in their relationship with God, who is a parent to them. When Jesus said to the disciples that they must transform and become like children, he meant that they must change their lives of sinfulness to lives of innocence and obedience according to the parental guidance of God.
Jesus did not select his apostles from the Jewish elite group because they were not like God’s children. He told about them to the crowds and his disciples: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees occupy the seat of Moses. Listen and do all they say, but do not imitate what they do.” (Matthew 23:1-3). Since they were unwilling to follow Jesus’ teachings, he selected those who had the heart and mind of children.
Jesus fulfilled what God had promised through Prophet Ezekiel: “Then I shall pour pure water over you and you shall be made clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I shall put my spirit within you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
The kingdom of heaven
Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God refers to the rule of the Almighty with no border. During the Old Testament times, Israel was the Kingdom of God. Jesus reestablished that Kingdom with the church and Jesus as its head. The church is only a foretaste of God’s Kingdom that will happen later in its fullness when the time of redemption is over and when the time of judgement will arrive with the second coming of Christ. God will govern this kingdom, eternal, peaceful, free from any struggle, and will be open only for the faithful children of God.
You cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
According to Jesus, God has restricted entry into the Kingdom of Heaven to those who will convert and gain the qualities of a child in their relationship with God. Hence, John the Baptist and Jesus preached the message of repentance to become members of the Kingdom of God. Those who follow the worldly values like the Scribes and Pharisees would not have access to the Kingdom of Heaven.
(4) Whoever makes himself lowly like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever makes himself lowly
Though there are many qualities in a child compared to an adult, Jesus highlighted humility as the most excellent. We shall understand this in the background of the disciples’ competition on who was the greatest among them. Jesus, who humbled himself to come down from heaven and become a servant of humans, showed himself as a role model.
Like this child
Jesus pointed to the child whom he was holding as the model of humility. Children are not competing for prominence, though parents might encourage them later to become stars in studies, sports, games, or cultural programs triumphing over others in competitions. In Christian ministry and leadership, winning over others is not an aim. The goal of Jesus’ disciples is to win over the evil that might cost self-sacrifice, humiliation, failure, and material loss.
The greatest in the kingdom of heaven
This is a sign that there will be a hierarchy in heaven like the great, greater, and greatest. There will be compensation for humbling oneself for the service of God and humanity through the church. God raised Jesus from the dead after his humiliation, extreme torture, and death. God seated Jesus at His right hand. So also, Jesus, would raise and reward his disciples in heaven according to how well they relate to God and His people in this world.
(5) And whoever receives such a child in my name receives me.
Reception of a childlike means action to help the person in need.
Such a child
Children belong to God, and God entrusts them to the parents to bring them up as God’s own. So, when parents and others take care of children they involve in the service of God. When others take care of children, who are orphans, sick, or disabled, they are also doing a pleasing service to God. Jesus loved and cared for children. He cured the sick children including an official’s son in Galilee (John 4:46-54) and a child with epilepsy (Matthew 17:14-16). Jesus even raised the dead children: a widow’s only son in Nain (Luke 7: 11-17) and Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter (Luke 8:40-56).
Though Jesus was holding a child as a model, he specified that service to a childlike person is also valuable for God and promised a higher position in heaven. Who are the childlike?
In my name
When we receive a child or childlike adult, it should not be merely out of sympathy or for fame but seeing God in them. Each person created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) is dear to God and a child of God. We help the child or childlike as our sibling because we share the same Father in heaven. So the love of God should be the motive behind our service to humanity. Then God who seek mercy rather than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13) would reward us.
At the last judgement, the King will say: “Truly, I say to you: whenever you did this to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). When we serve the helpless on behalf of Jesus, we serve Jesus. Denial of such service will lead us to punishment from God at the last judgement: “‘Truly, I say to you: whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And they will go into eternal punishment, but the just to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:45-46). Let us remember the proverb: “Oppression of the weak insults their Creator, but he is honored by those who have compassion on the needy.” (Proverbs 14:31).
Temptations to Sin
(6) If anyone should cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble and fall into sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the depths of the sea with a large millstone around his neck.
One of these little ones who believe in me
Misguiding children to deviate from God is sin. Here Jesus shifts his focus from the children to his believers, who became like children to follow him. In Matthew 10:42, Jesus uses the little ones for his disciples: “I promise you if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, will not go unrewarded.” So, the little ones can be a believer in Christ. A believer, or even an apostle, is vulnerable like Judas Iscariot whom the chief priests persuaded to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins (Matthew 26:15).
To stumble and fall into sin
The one who leads others to sin is committing a double sin. He is losing himself and making others miss the entry to the Kingdom of God. Lucifer means “Morning Star.” He was once a mighty angel. He became proud of his beauty and splendor, corrupted his wisdom (Ezekiel 28:17) and became Satan, meaning “adversary” through his self-generated pride. This Satan tempted the first parents to commit sin taking the form of a serpent. He continues his role as an adversary until the second coming of Christ. The Satan through humans can influence the innocent believers and church leaders to commit sin.
The primary sin in the Bible is to break away from God by losing faith. In his explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus presented the potential adversaries who would destroy the word of God from the faithful. They are the evil one, tribulation, persecution, worldly anxiety, and the lure of riches (Matthew 13:18-23). There are many who fell from faith because of these hurdles, and there are many others who resisted these and became holy. Bad examples through scandalous living like King Herod Antipas, misguiding people with wrong teachings like the religious leaders during Jesus’ public ministry, people offering money to commit a sin like chief priests who made Judas Iscariot to sin, and those who led the poor women to adultery rather than helping them, are examples of misguiding the little ones to sin in the Bible.
It would be better for him
The one who promotes another to commit sin would cause many others to do the same. Death penalty of such a person would be better for him to stop repeating the destruction of the little ones from their faith and eternal salvation.
With a large millstone around his neck
People used millstone to grind grain during the Biblical times. It included a stationary base stone and a runner stone that humans or animals would turn on the top. Humans use small millstone as given in Luke 17:35 where “two women grinding meal together.” The great millstone stands for large runner stone moved by an ass. If the executioner hung such a great millstone around the neck of a person and drowns in the depths of the sea, that person would die, and his body would not be available for burial rites.
To be thrown into the depths of the sea
Drowning to the depths of the sea with a great millstone hung around the neck shows the severe punishment for a heinous crime. Unlike other capital punishments, the seriousness of this was the denial of burial rites of the assassinated. Though the Gentile nations like Romans, Greeks, and Syrians implemented this punishment, the Jews avoided this method because it was not in the Mosaic Law. Since the Gentiles might have implemented this in Galilee, Jesus used it to show the seriousness of the offense in misleading others to sin.
(7) Woe to the world because of so many things that cause people to fall! Such stumbling blocks are bound to come, but woe to the one who causes others to fall!
Woe to the world
Depending on the context, “woe” is an emotional response or a judgement. In this context, Jesus expressed great distress the world has because of those who cause others to sin.
So many things that cause people to fall
Satan is the primary source of evil and temptation. He makes use of sinners to lead the innocent believers to commit sin like Eve tempted Adam to join in her sin. Such temptations cause more people’s destruction and the multiplication of sins in the world.
Such stumbling blocks are bound to come.
Sin and temptations to sin are inevitable in this world until the second coming of Christ. Satan and his team are actively leading people to focus on worldly happiness than eternal joy. People would prefer wider road and not the narrow one. God permits the temptations to measure our faithfulness to Him as he did with Abraham, Job, and Jesus. However, God also provides the grace to overcome them.
Woe to the one who causes others to fall!
In this context, “woe” means “alas” or “oh no” as a part of a punishment or condemnation from God. Severe punishment is sure for those who tempt others to sin. It is more serious than one’s own sin. We are responsible to help others to keep their faith, morals, and sanctity. If we do the opposite, it will lead us to severe destruction. Jesus was expressing his emotion on what was going on in the world through the influence of the evil spirit.
(8) If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life without a hand or a foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with your two hands and two feet. (9) 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 to be thrown into the hell of fire with your two eyes.
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.
From the theme of tempting others to commit sin, Jesus now turns to the human organs that become instrumental for one to commit sin. Matthew 5:29-30 gives the same message as part of the Sermon on the Mount. The hand, the foot, or the eye becomes a cause of sin when it is used to commit sin. However, this is to apply to other elements that we value in life and cause us to sin like bad friends, destructive habits, reading materials, visuals, and social media. If any of them cause us to sin, we must cut them off and that sacrifice would give us excellent result at the end.
Cut it off and throw it away.
If you cut off the tempting elements and leave them in your proximity, they can tempt you to use them. If someone who gave up alcohol keeps it at home might have the temptation to use it later. The same can be the case with other items like cigarettes, drugs, bad friends, or destructive media.
To enter life
Jesus contrasts “enter life” to “thrown into eternal fire” or “thrown into fiery Gehenna.” “To enter life” implies enter eternal life with perfection. Cutting off the organs like hand, foot, or eye is a hyperbolic expression and we shall not take it in a literal sense. If we give up whatever offers temporal happiness in this world for a righteous life, we will inherit a perfect and eternal life.
Thrown into eternal fire / Thrown into fiery Gehenna
“Eternal fire” and “fiery Gehenna” are the metaphorical presentations of eternal punishment for the sinners. Literal meaning of Gehenna is “the valley of the sons of Hinnom.” Though unknown today, Hinnom must be the name of someone lived in the ancient Israel.
Gehenna is a deep and narrow valley at the south of Jerusalem that was famous for idolatrous worship of Molech where people sacrificed children (2 Chronicles 28:3). God had forbidden pagan worship and child sacrifice for Jews. However, some, like King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1-3), sacrificed their children as a burnt offering to the false god (Jeremiah 19:4). So the Jews considered this as a cursed valley. King Josiah later stopped the sacrifices here (2 Kings 23:10).
Later, Gehenna became a place of waste disposal. People burned all kinds of wastes, including the dead bodies of animals and criminals here. Because of the dumped garbage of the city, it was also a place of worms. Since the fire kept burning there all the time, this place became a symbol of the everlasting destruction of sinners in the life after death.
The Bible uses hyperbole, which is an exaggerated expression for emphasis. The Eastern people used hyperbole to add vividness and power to the matter. We see this in the Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. So, we should not take hyperboles in the literal sense. Jesus used hyperbole in his teaching. When he said, “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 18:9), he did not want us to blind ourselves. Instead, he clarifies that we should take aggressive action to stop committing sins.