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Once again, let’s put ourselves within the story of what took place with Jesus and his followers. As you know, there were twelve men who were among the primary followers of Jesus. In addition, there was a group of women who accompanied them and helped provide for the basic needs of the group.
Like the old newscast used to say, we were there as Jesus placed Peter in a position of importance, when he said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16.18).
We have traveled with an inner circle of disciples, who witnessed Jesus revealed in his heavenly glory. Matthew wrote, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them” (Matthew 17.1-2a).
We have also witnessed the failure of the other nine disciples to deliver a boy from the oppression of a demon. The boy’s father in desperate need brought him to Jesus and said, “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him” (Matthew 17.16).
I am profoundly thankful that the Bible does not portray the disciples as cartoon cut-out pictures of perfect men and women. We can only guess what kind of tension was present in the group as they followed Jesus, walking miles all over the countryside, meeting with hundreds of people, and having their faith stretched on a daily basis.
A question in chapter 18 gave Jesus an opportunity to speak about relationships and troubles among his followers. No doubt these words are as important today, as they were when Matthew wrote them. The account is as follows:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18.1)
The disciples had just received from Jesus the second prediction of his death in Jerusalem. Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17.22-23).
This statement raised at least two questions. First, who would be the one to betray the man they had followed for the past three years? The possibility of the betrayal and death of Jesus generated an enormous amount of grief, as was noted by Matthew (Matthew 16.23).
Second, if the kingdom of God movement were to continue, there needed to be a leader. The question, “who is the greatest,” could be seen as simply asking who was Jesus designating as the leader.
Apparently, there was more to the question than merely getting information about the next leader. Because Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me'” (Matthew 18.2-5).
Who Is The Greatest?
Jesus used the child like he used parables at other times. I imagine Jesus tenderly holding the child with both hands on the child’s shoulders and talking to his close friends.
He first told them that people need to be like a child, if they hope to enter the kingdom of God. This statement is reminiscent of the first statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.3). People who recognize their need for God and humbly receive the gift of his grace are ready to enter the kingdom of God.
I see Jesus gently holding the child in front of his disciples to answer their question about power and prestige. He said that the greatest among them would be like a child. It may be that Jesus was simply telling them, “There are no great ones in the kingdom of God, only servants.”
It is obvious that groups need leaders, but they don’t need individuals who use their status to control, coerce, and use their fellow servants to their own advantage. Leaders need to be strong, but the strongest leader of all, Jesus, established the standard for leadership. He said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.27).
While Jesus still had the child in the middle of the group he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (verse 5). When you welcome a child into your friendship and love, you are extending a welcome to Jesus. Jesus has a profound love and concern for children and the “little ones,” as we will discover following him on his way to Jerusalem.
A Message for Our Times
I can’t think of a more important message for 2020 than Jesus’ answer to his disciples.
The church in 2020 has more challenges than I have ever known. Our country is angry and divided. I have lived through the Vietnam War and race riots in the 1960s, but I have never seen a climate like the one in which we are living. In addition, church life has been disrupted by the corona virus and no one knows what the church will look like when we return to “normal.”
Our world needs disciples of Jesus, who are willing to walk with him and do the hard work of healing our broken nation. Our world needs to be delivered from the many forms of evil that oppress and injure humanity.
Like the first disciples who walked with Jesus, the stress of a difficult world system and the pressures of attempting to serve with Jesus causes the church all sorts of issues. Jesus used a little child to give us three things to remember as we serve him in these tough times.
(1) The most vulnerable – the little children (verse 5) and the “least of these” – (Matthew 25.40 and 45) are important to God. When we serve them, we are serving Jesus. I don’t know the full meaning behind Jesus’ words in this instance, but I do know this. We are called to welcome the most vulnerable of society.
(2) There are no great ones in God’s kingdom (verse 4). We are all servants. Yes, there needs to be leaders, but not “lords” who use their position for selfish ends.
The emphasis at Maywood Baptist Church on leaders being “coaches” and non-clergy as equally important to the ministry is entirely based in the Bible. This is a shift in thinking from traditional church practice, but it is greatly needed today.
If we are going to join Jesus in his healing, saving and delivering mission, we all must serve. We must find ways to exercise the gifts God has given us and penetrate our society with the love and power of the Lord.
(3) People only enter the kingdom of God as children (verse 2). The poor in spirit (Matthew 5.3) are all around us. Western Independence is defined by the “poor in spirit.” People whose lives have plummeted to rock bottom are ready to receive a rope or a ladder from a friend, so they can climb to a new life.
We have a message of God’s love that is contained in the stories of Maywood Baptist people. Many people who read or listen to my blog articles have powerful messages. As we come to people with the kind of love and acceptance that Jesus portrayed in these verses, they will respond to us.
Remember, there are no great ones, but we all are servants. As we serve the vulnerable with kindness and humility, they will respond and find the life they have been looking for. Please use what God has given you and let’s join Jesus in this work.
Dear Jesus, we respond to your direction today and say “yes.” Yes, we will follow you and serve you and others like the ones you have pictured in this passage.