NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: Around this time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in God’s kingdom?”
Matthew had just written about the Temple tax and who was liable for that tax. And in Jesus’ explanation, He mentioned that the children of royalty were exempt from such taxation. Could it be that this idea of being part of God’s kingdom may have contributed to their curiosity about how to improve their own status? So, since Matthew did not have an exact time when this conversation took place, he indicates that it occurred sometime after Jesus arrived back in Capernaum, which coincided with the yearly Temple tax collection.
Jerome had his own thoughts about this: “We must seek for reasons for individual sayings and actions of the Lord. After the coin was found, after the tax paid, what do the apostles’ sudden questions mean? Why precisely ‘at that time’ did the disciples come to Jesus saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ Because they had seen that the same tax had been paid for both Peter and the Lord. From the equal price they inferred that Peter may have been set over all the other apostles, since Peter had been compared with the Lord in the paying of the tax. So they ask who is greater in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, seeing their thoughts and understanding the causes of their error, wants to heal their desire for glory with a struggle for humility.”1
Chrysostom also mentions that because Peter was the one who asked the question on taxes and the one our Lord sent down to the shore to catch a fish that would have the coin to pay those taxes in its mouth, that in the minds of the other disciples Peter was quickly emerging as a leader of the disciples. As Chrysostom puts it: “Then being ashamed to admit what they felt, they did not openly say, ‘Why have you honored Peter above us?’ or ‘Surely he is not greater than us?’ When they became ashamed, they asked less definitely, ‘Who then is greater?’ When they had seen the three honored above the rest, they had felt nothing of the kind. But when one took the highest honor, then they were hurt.”2
Verse 2: Jesus then called a little child to come over to Him. He stood the child in front of the disciples.
Instead of going into a long dissertation or chiding His disciples for having such thoughts, Jesus decides to illustrate who He felt were the greatest in the Kingdom of God. Jerome believes that Jesus wanted to impress upon them the image of innocence. He writes: “Jesus called a child to Him to ask its age or to show the image of innocence. Or perhaps He actually set a child in their midst—He Himself, who had not come to be served but to serve—to show them an example of humility.”3
While I agree that over the centuries, manners, customs, and ethics have changed, I’m still convinced that in Jesus’ day, just as it is today, children represented a mindset that was open to learning, to believing, and trusting in those they esteemed as older, stronger, and wiser than they were. I don’t think that our Lord had any intention of suggesting that His disciples become as naïve and easily fooled as children, but to show how children respond to love, as well as, needing discipline from time to time in order to grow, develop, and mature into responsible adults.
Verse 3: Then He said, “The truth is, you must change your thinking and become like little children. If you don’t do this, you will never make it into God’s kingdom.”
While our Lord clearly points out the openness of a child’s mind, He also reveals the obligations for parents in the upbringing of children in the sphere of divine ethics. It’s one thing when a family does not attend church often or give much importance to the reading of Scripture, thus allowing a child to become less informed and show little interest in church activities and devotion; but when parents or adults go out of their way to instill disbelief, and through constant bickering and criticism of the church and all things godly they cause a child to turn away from what faith they did have and begin to abhor the Church, the Bible, and Christians in general, that is a different story. Even though the first neglect has a negative connotation and puts the child at a disadvantage, the second may certainly end with grievous consequences.
The penalty for causing a child to lose faith or interest in Christ and salvation is a woeful one. We all should reevaluate our attitude toward children and their place in the Christian family. But Jesus was not talking about little children in the physical sense, He was referring to the openness and belief factor intrinsic in children. Therefore, He was not entreating that believers become childish in their actions or attitudes, but to emulate a child’s willingness to believe when taught. Solomon recognized this after he replaced his father David on the throne. So, in his prayer he pleaded with God, “LORD my God, You have made me the king in my father’s place, but I am like a small child. I don’t have the wisdom I need to do what I must do.”4
Origen raises some questions that he feels will help his readers to better understand what Jesus is attempting to teach His disciples here. He writes: “As an act of theological and ethical reflection, let us ask what sort of a child Jesus called to Him and set in the midst of the disciples. Imagine it this way: The child called by Jesus is the Holy Spirit, who humbled Himself. He was called by the Savior and set in the middle of the disciples. The Lord wants us, ignoring all the rest, to turn to the examples given by the Holy Spirit, so that we become like the children – that is, the disciples – who were themselves converted and made like the Holy Spirit. God gave these children to the Savior according to what we read in Isaiah: ‘Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me.’5 To enter the kingdom of heaven is not possible for the person who has not turned from worldly matters and become like those children who had the Holy Spirit. Jesus called this Holy Spirit to Him like a child, when He came down from His perfect completeness to people, and set it in the middle of the disciples.”6
Something that every minister and Bible teacher can do while listening to a guest preach or teach in a seminar or worship service, that may have far less training and experience than they do, is never ask, “What can they tell me that I don’t already know?” rather, “What does God want to tell me through His servant that I need to know?” In translating this teaching of Jesus from the Aramaic, the scribe for Matthew uses the Greek word strephō, which is translated into English as, “converted” in the KJV, and “change”, in the NIV. In Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, we find the way it is used here being listed under “to change one’s mind.” This simply means to reevaluate what you have always accepted as normal and replace it with something either never used before or something that changes your real intention.
When I took my training in Clinical Pastor Education, I found out that I had to make a complete turn-around from what I was used to doing. As a senior pastor and seminary professor, I settled into the groove of meeting with people who always wanted to hear what I had to say. Now, however, I was challenged to train myself to meet with people who wanted me to listen to what they had to say. Jesus’ disciples had been raised in a culture where they were taught that the verbal teaching of the law was the scale and measuring stick by which to judge their actions. Now Jesus was telling them that the Word of God was the thing they needed to heed in order to do God’s will, not man’s will. A song that David often sang before going into the tabernacle showed his humility:
“Lord, I don’t feel proud.
I don’t see myself as better than others.
I am not thinking about doing great things
or reaching impossible goals.7
This is the attitude Jesus wanted the disciples to adopt as His followers. When the Lord called me to preach, I resisted because I told Him I didn’t feel prepared; that I had not studied enough or knew His Word as thoroughly as I should. So I begged Him to teach me before He sent me out. He was so gracious and answered my prayer. Even today, some fifty years later, I’m still in the erudite mode, always ready to learn more from Him and about Him.
Verse 4: “The greatest person in God’s kingdom is the one who makes himself humble like this child.”
Early church Bishop Hilary feels that Jesus was attempting to teach His disciples to keep the message of the Good News simple so that no matter who they shared it with they could easily understand its truth. He writes: “The Lord teaches that we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless we revert to the nature of children, that is, we must recall the simplicity by which children understand the potential of the body and mind. He has called children all who believe through the faith of listening. For children follow their father, love their mother, do not know how to wish ill on their neighbor, show no concern for wealth, are not proud, do not hate, do not lie, believe what has been said and hold what they hear as truth. And when we assume this habit and will in all the emotions, we are shown the passageway to the heavens. We must, therefore, return to the simplicity of children, because with it we shall embrace the beauty of the Lord’s humility.”8
Jerome also sees in Jesus’ use of a child to teach a lesson that no matter what esteem His disciples may get or to what level of leadership they may rise among the disciples, it is the humility of a little child that should teach them how to accept such honor. Jerome has Jesus saying: “Just as this child whose example I show you does not persist in anger, does not long remember injury suffered, is not enamored inordinately by the sight of a beautiful woman, does not think one thing and say another, so you too, unless you have similar innocence and purity of mind, will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.”9 In other words, it does not mean believers must continue to be simple-minded, but that as they grow wiser and more mature, that they retain the simple attitude of a child who is willing to follow, willing to be led, and willing to trust the one leading them.
1Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 18.1
2Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 58.3
3Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 18.2
4I Kings 3:7
6Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13.18
8Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 18.1
9Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 18.4