A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 23, 2020.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 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 with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (Matthew 18:1–14).
There are two sinful traits that the Apostle Paul says cause disunity in the church. Do you know what they are? “selfish ambition” and “conceit” (Phil. 2:3). Selfish ambition implies that what you want is more important than what others want or need, individually or collectively. So insidious is selfish ambition that James says wherever you find it “there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). Closely related, conceit implies that you consider yourself more important than others. It may be hard for some of us to imagine that selfish ambition and conceit could arise within the church, and yet the epistles of 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and James (among others) make it abundantly clear that they can surprise even the sweetest of Christian fellowship and unity.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ disciples, who, according to Luke’s Gospel, were arguing amongst themselves about “which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46). Arguing over greatness? Can you say selfish ambition and conceit? They appear to be jockeying for positions of greatness. Even the mother of James and John gets involved eventually requesting of Jesus, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt. 20:21). Now that took courage! But is it courageously wrong? Is greatness a competition?
Perhaps we should start with a better definition: What is greatness and who defines it? The disciples were focused on the wrong kind of greatness, forgetting that we who are the recipients of God’s grace and mercy have no grounds for selfishness. Like children, we are dependent upon our Father’s provision. And so, to understand greatness we start. here, like a child, with child-like faith.
The Simplicity of Faith
Surrounded by his disciples, Jesus invites a child into their midst. The child is obviously the object lesson, but what is Jesus teaching? Is it that children are innocent, pure, or without sin? No. Since the Fall, every child, from conception, is a sinner by nature, a child of Adam. Childhood merely reveals what is innately there. No child was ever taught to sin; it comes naturally. The one who argues for the innocence of a child has never volunteered in a nursery.
No, Jesus is not arguing for innate innocence but instead two simple lessons to be learned from a child: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” But, what does Jesus mean by “turn and become like children” and humility like a child? Simply put, while the disciples argue over greatness, striving in their selfish ambition, Jesus reorients their evil thoughts to the simplicity of faith.
If I may summarize the two lessons, they are: First, faith is received not achieved; and, second, faith leads to dependence not independence. Like children, we are dependent upon God’s provision, even in our faith.
To turn and become like children is an impossibility, as Nicodemus knew well. In that secret meeting with Jesus, we may perceive a hint of sarcasm in his rhetorical questions: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Nicodemus was right; the thought is preposterous. Yet, that which appears impossible to us is possible for God.
Through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, God gives new life to the spiritually dead. We are by God’s sovereign grace born again. What does this new birth produce? Repentance and saving faith. Repenting, we turn from our sin. In faith, we become like children, dependent upon God’s grace.
Here is the way Paul explained this to the Ephesians: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved….For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:4–9). Therefore, we see that faith is received as a gift from God not achieved by our own doing.
Jesus includes in this object lesson a definition of Christian “greatness”: humility like a child. Of course, Jesus’ use of “greatness” confronts the sinful selfish ambition of his disciples, but it also teaches something significant about Christian faith. Faith leads to dependence not independence. Consider the humility of a young child. She is dependent upon her parents for everything: the food that she eats, the clothes that she wears, the home in which she lives.
As parents, we remember the days when our children couldn’t go to the bathroom, or feed themselves, or even walk independently. We longed for the days when our children could be more independent, do things for themselves (especially the bathroom). But for the first several years of their life, children are utterly dependent upon their parents.
This is the object lesson: We, who are the recipients of God’s grace, have not been saved to live independent from God. We are to humble ourselves like a child, dependent upon our heavenly Father for our “daily bread,” forgiveness for our sin “debts,” protection from temptation, and deliverance from evil. This is the life of faith in Christ. God is most glorified in us when we are most dependent upon him.
But Jesus does not end his object lesson here. Because we continue to battle our sinful nature in a fallen world, sin remains a problem for those of faith in Christ. This is a problem unique to the Christian. For, the same Holy Spirit who gives us life dwells within us sanctifying us by his presence, which includes seeing sin for what it truly is.
The Seriousness of Sin
Jesus teaches his disciples about the seriousness of sin from two perspectives: personal and relational. But before we consider these two perspectives, let’s make sure we understand what is meant by sin. This may sound absurd to some of us, but we live in an age in which the definition of sin changes like the latest fashion trends. Ironically, what we hear declared as sin within our society may not be sin at all and vice-versa. I find the Shorter Catechism’s definition timelessly helpful here: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (WSC 14). Meaning, sin is not doing what God requires or disobeying what he commands.
To be clear, sin is not simply making a mistake, as if to defend our thoughts, words, and deeds by the aphorism: “To err is human.” Sin is an affront to a holy God. It is a serious matter.
How serious is sin? Jesus says that our personal sin is so serious that if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out. This may sound extreme, but that is the point: We are to take drastic measures regarding sin. It’s that serious.
Of course, Jesus is employing hyperbole to teach us about the seriousness of sin. If you cut off both hands, both feet, and tear out both eyes, do you know what you would be? A blind, disabled sinner. In reality, it is neither your hands or feet nor your eyes that cause you to sin. It’s your heart. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks…” (Matt. 12:34-35), and “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). The hands, feet, or eyes are merely the servants of the heart.
This is not only the case with our personal sin but relational sin as well. What I mean by relational sin is not sinning against someone else but causing or encouraging others to sin against God. Jesus reserves some of his harshest condemnation for those who lead his disciples, God’s children, astray: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Wolves amongst the sheep deserve drowning.
We should not interpret Jesus’ metaphorical language as describing merely physical punishment. No, we are to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Eternal torment awaits the unregenerate deceivers of God’s children.
How then does one cause or encourage God’s children to sin? Overtly, it can come as one actively keeps others from Christ, whether it be persecuting, ridiculing, or discouraging the advancement of the gospel or denigrating Christ’s church. But it can come in a far more subtle form too, through the way in which one lives, whether by word or deed. Your life and my life tell a story, but is it the gospel? How many Christians are tempted and fall by enticements introduced through those they watch or follow. Who is watching you? Are they being encouraged in their pursuit of godliness through your words and deeds? Or, are you unintentionally paving a highway to hell?
To the denizens of immorality, Jesus says that though temptations to sin do and will come, “woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” We recall Jesus’ words of Judas’ condemnation, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). So it is for those who are the enemy of Christ and his church, knowingly and unknowingly.
For Christ’s disciples, the children of God, this is a caution to us all. Temptation to sin in this fallen world is a given. So it is and so it will be until the end. Therefore, by God’s sustaining grace, as sheep surrounded by wolves, let us “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). For, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Sustained by God’s grace, let us fix our minds on the fact that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
So, we walk in the simplicity of faith, knowing the seriousness of sin for us and for other children of God. And, in this life that we live we rejoice in the love of God through the Son by the Spirit that he saves sinners like you and me.
The Salvation of Sinners
John Newton penned these words of encouragement in a hymn,
Though troubles assail us
And dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail us
And foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us,
The promise assures us,
“The Lord will provide.”
And, indeed he does, even to the least of us. Even those angelic beings who minister before the face of God are sent to serve and protect the children of God, without distinction.
Such is the love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep, as Jesus describes: “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” The problem with the disciples’ argument over who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was that it was fundamentally the wrong argument. Rather, if they were to argue at all it should have been over this: Why would God save a sinner like me? Yet, like the shepherd, he saves the straying sheep, not because the one is greater than the others, but because the shepherd loves his sheep. But why even bother with the one, if the rest are safe?
Why indeed! Why in love did he elect me before the foundation of the world knowing that I would fail him in so many ways? Why would he by the grace of the Holy Spirit give me a new birth, leading me to repentance and give me the gift of faith in Christ Jesus? Why would he graciously continue to conform a sinner like me to the image of his holy and perfect Son? Why would he prepare for me a glory that is yet to be revealed? You want to argue like the disciples? Let’s argue over why a holy God would save a wretch like me.
In an age of self- promotion, you may be surprised to learn that the church does not assemble to recognize your greatness but to worship our good Shepherd. We worship a God who seeks and saves not the greatest but the least, promising his provision to the sheep of his pasture, and assuring us that it is his will that none of his little ones shall perish.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 “Though Troubles Assail Us” in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 95.