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Sermon Message


"Jesus and the Little Ones"

Matthew 18:1-9
Theme: The two implications to Jesus' great love for those who come to Him in humble, child-like faith.

(Delivered Sunday, September 30, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

One of the images from the Bible that I love very much—and I'm sure you love it too—is the image of the little children coming to Jesus. Clearly, it's an image that God Himself loves and values. That's why He has seen fit to include it for our instruction in His word.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Bible tells us that little children (and the Greek word that is used means just that—very small children) were brought to Him by their mothers and fathers; so that He could put His hands on them and pray over them.

The disciples thought that was 'undignified' for these little ones to bother Jesus. The other notable rabbis and teachers of the day would usually keep themselves separate from small children. And so, thinking that they were doing what their Master would want, they rebuked the mothers and fathers and tried to 'shoo' the children away from Him. But Jesus rebuked His disciples. "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them", He said; "for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14). He clearly welcomed them. And it seems equally clear that they loved to come to Him.

I read a story the other day about a very stern-faced preacher who was preaching one Sunday in his church. He was preaching on the subject of "The Tears of Jesus"; and had apparently made this statement: "Three time we read that Jesus wept, but we never read that He smiled." And from the pew below the pulpit, a little girl—forgetting where she was—suddenly cried out, "Oh, but I know He did!"

The serious-looking preacher was shocked; and he glared down from the pulpit at the little girl and said, "Why do you say that, my child?" The little girl knew that everyone was looking at her; and she was understandably frightened. But she spoke with all the humble sincerity she could and said, "Because the Bible says He called a little child and he came to Him. And if Jesus had looked like you, I know the child would have been afraid to come."1

I believe that self-righteous, hard-hearted, super-religious people were afraid of Jesus. And I'm sure that He made a lot of their faces hard and stern. But He didn't scare the truly humble and needy away. They felt safe with Him. They felt genuinely welcomed and loved by Him.

They still do.

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning, we'll look together at the story in the Bible that the little girl spoke of—that story of the time when Jesus called the small boy to Himself, and of how the little boy gladly came.

But we need to remember that it's a story that was told in the context of a rebuke. The disciples had been arguing among themselves over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven; and Jesus called the little boy forward to serve as an object lesson—to show the disciples what true greatness in His kingdom looked like.

It's a story that's meant to teach us about the sort of humble, needy spirit with which we ourselves absolutely must approach Jesus—and, as a result, to move us to a change of behavior. It's a story that conveys His welcoming tenderness toward us; but that is also meant to result in our repenting of our sinful attitude. And this morning, I would like to particularly highlight two implications of the fact that Jesus welcomes those who come to Him in child-like faith.

* * * * * * * * * *

Turn with me to Matthew 18:1-9. And let's see, first, that it teaches us that . . .


The story begins with the words "At that time . . ." Literally, in the original language, it says, "In that hour . . ." The events we see at the beginning of this morning's passage occurred very soon after the events of the previous chapter.

Now; think back to those events. Very shortly before this time, several important things had happened. Jesus had asked the disciples who He was; and as spokesman for the others, Simon announced, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). Jesus told him that he had given the right answer. Then, Jesus changed his name to Peter ("the Rock"); and announced to the others that it would be upon this "rock"—that is, the confession Peter had just made—that Jesus would build His church.

Perhaps at this point, Peter began to wonder if he was something very special in the kingdom that Jesus would set up. Perhaps he thought that, when Jesus conquers all the enemies of Israel and sets up His kingdom on earth, Peter would have a special place of honor in it.

Then, a little later on, Jesus took three of His disciples—Peter, James and John—up to a high mountain. There, He manifested His glory to them—giving them a 'preview', as it were, of His post-resurrection majesty as the risen Son of God before He went to the cross (16:28-17:8).

No doubt, Peter, James and John would have thought that they all must be pretty important for Jesus to have given them such a privileged vision of Himself. He even told them not to tell anyone else—not even the others—about what they saw until He had been raised from the dead (17:9). They were the inside circle. Surely, Jesus must have though of them as VIPs in His coming kingdom!

A little later still, Jesus and the three disciples came down from the mountain and found all of the other nine disciples—helplessly trying to cast a demon out of a young boy (17:14-21). Jesus rebuked them for having tried to miracles in His name without relying on His presence and help. And though we're not told so, I suspect that Peter, James and John were all three standing off to the side a little smug. After all, Jesus was not with the others at that time; but He was with them.

A little later still, Jesus even told Peter to go out and catch a fish. He told Peter that inside the mouth of the fish, Peter would find a coin that would pay for both His and Peter's annual 'temple tax' (17:24-27). Peter surely would have noticed that Jesus didn't send James or John. They were fishermen too; but Jesus sent Peter! And what a privilege position Peter must have thought he had—that Jesus would pay His taxes jointly with him!

Now; when we put all the Gospel accounts together, we see an interesting picture. Luke tells us that—somewhere along the way in their travels—a dispute had arisen among them over which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46). Perhaps, looking back at the things that had happened prior to this point, we can see why. Who was the greatest? Was it Peter? Was it James and John? And if it wasn't Peter; which of the other two as it?—James, or John? Or why only them? Why couldn't it be one of the others? Hadn't Jesus chosen them, just as much as He had chosen Peter, James and John?

It's a sad fact that, whenever we experience the riches of God's grace toward us, we so often start to think about how wonderful we must be—rather than on how wonderfully gracious God is.

Apparently, the disciples had kept this argument to themselves. But Jesus knew their thoughts. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that when they all got into the house at Capernaum, Jesus asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?" (Mark 9:33)? (Aren't you glad, by the way, that Jesus doesn't meet you and your family here at church to personally ask, "What was it you were arguing about as your car pulled up into the parking lot?")

It seems that the disciples didn't know what to say to Jesus' question. They were embarrassed. But I suspect that, though they were embarrassed—and since the Lord already clearly knew their thoughts—they went ahead and spoke. All of this helps us understand why our passage begins as it does. We're told, "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'" (v. 1).

And in response to their question, we read, "Then Jesus called a little child to Him" and "set him in the midst of them . . ." (v. 2). Apparently, the little boy was already there in the house. And apparently, he was old enough to come to Jesus when He called him. But the word that the original language uses means just what our translation says—a little child. He was just a tiny fella'. The little guy felt safe with Jesus.

Our Lord called, and he gladly stopped whatever he was doing and came. That's good practical theology, by the way! When Jesus calls, we should come! This little boy did better than a lot of religious experts and New Testament scholars would do!

Jesus placed this tiny, humble little boy in their plain view—as if he were an object lesson to them. Then He dropped the bombshell on them all. He said,

"Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (v. 3-4).

* * * * * * * * * *

Think with me about what Jesus says. He speaks in very strong terms. He begins by saying, “Assuredly” or “Verily, I say to you”; which is an indication that He is about to say something of great importance. We should always listen to what the Son of God says; but we should especially do so when He prefaces what He's about to say with the words, “Assuredly, I say to you”. And then, He uses one of the strongest negations that could be used—that is, unless the disciples or anyone else did what He is telling them, they would not in any way enter the kingdom of heaven. It's not that they simply wouldn't be “great” in the kingdom; they wouldn't even enter it! These words, then, are essential to our eternal salvation.

So then; what does Jesus say to do? First, He says that we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless we are “converted”. And let's not understand that word to be simply a “religious conversion”; because that's not what Jesus means. The word He uses basically means “to turn around”. It means that we recognize that we're going in a wrong direction; and that we must turn around and go in the opposite direction. This means, by the way, that there are some “converts” that have never been truly “converted” at all.

Think of this in terms of the disciples. They were after “greatness” in Jesus' kingdom; and Jesus doesn't rebuke them for having that ambition. In fact, I would suggest that Jesus wants us to be great in His kingdom. But the problem was that the disciples were going in the wrong direction to get there. They were engaged in a program of elevating themselves; and of putting everyone else in the position of serving them. They were preoccupied with “one-upmanship”; and were trying to crawl up to greatness upon one another's backs. And yet, to achieve true greatness, they needed to turn around and go the other direction.

Jesus' path to greatness in His kingdom is not upward-mobility; but rather downward-humility. In His kingdom, the moral law of gravity states that "whatever comes up must first go down". Jesus pointed them toward the true direction of greatness when He later told them,

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

So; the first thing they needed to do was to “be converted”. They must stop seeking greatness in the way the people of this world seek it. They must turn around and go the other direction.

And second, Jesus tells them that , along with being “converted”, they must also “become as little children”. And there, before them, stood a living example.

What does it mean, in Christ's kingdom, to become as little children? Well; we can sure that it doesn't mean that we should become “childish”. The disciples were being childish; and that's why the Lord needed to rebuke them. And we also know that it doesn't mean that we become “children” in our understanding; because, as the Bible tells us, in understanding we are to be “mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

I think that a biblical explanation of what it means to become as a little child before Jesus—as vividly illustrated by the little boy that Jesus had set before His disciples—is given to us in Psalm 131. There, King David wrote;

LORD, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever (Psalm 131).

So; taking our instruction from this psalm, to become like a little child means that we cease from being “haughty” or “proud”. It means that we cease from raising our eyes in a “lofty” or “arrogant” way. It means that we humbly accept that there are things that we cannot understand about the greatness of God's plan. It means that we cease being so arrogant and self-important that we wont accept what God says, unless it make perfect sense according our standard of reasoning. In a word, it means that we are meek and humble before God and His word.

Second, it means that we become content in God's love. It means that we don't fret and worry about tomorrow's needs. It means that we become like a little child resting comfortably and satisfied in mother's arms after being fed. It means that we become calm within our soul because of the Father's good care for us. In a word, it means we're at peace in God's care.

And finally, it means that we hope in God. We don't look to our own resources. We don't imagine that it's all up to us. Instead, we place our hope in God's good care; and know that He will never let us down. We entrust tomorrow to Him, and look expectantly to His good plan. In a word, it means we're confident in God's power.

Jesus said, “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of God” (v. 4). Unless we do so, we can't even enter Jesus' kingdom. But whoever does so is “great” in His kingdom.

So then; have you come to Jesus on those terms? Have you repented of your pride and self-sufficiency; and have you come to Him as a little child? He warns that, unless you do, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; before we go any further, I'd like to show you something. Look at this story as Mark tells it to us, in the ninth chapter of his Gospel.

Mark tells us that Jesus called the disciples to Himself and said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Then, to illustrate, we're told that He took this little child and set him in the midst of them. They could plainly see the living example of humility He was calling them to.

But then, as a separate illustration, we're told, “And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (v. 36). With the first act—that of bringing the child before the disciples—Jesus was illustrating how we should come to Him in the humble manner of a little child. And with the second act—that of taking the same child up in His arms—He was illustrating how we should receive and welcome those who come to Him in such humility of spirit.

This leads us to the next point in our passage. And it is an unusually serious one! It teaches us that . . .


First, notice that Jesus begins by saying, “Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me” (v. 5). I don't believe Jesus had only strictly “little children” in mind; but that He would have us also apply this to anyone who believe on His word, and rest in Him, and who trust in His grace with childlike faith—no matter what their age.

He says that, if we “receive” them (that is, welcome them and kindly include them), and if we do so “in His name” (that is, as His representatives, and as He Himself would do), then we are truly receiving Him. And notice that He says that this is true, even if it is only one such child. He values each and every one of those who trust in Him with simple faith; and watches carefully to see that they are treated rightly by others. He has already spoken of this to His disciples; when He said,

He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).

* * * * * * * * * * *

But now is when our Lord speaks some of the most frightening words we find Him speaking in the Bible. He says, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (v. 6).

Literally, Jesus speaks here of an upper-millstone—a stone that was used in the grinding of grain on a mill. It was so large and heavy that it had to be harnessed to a donkey by a large beam, so that the stone could be turned by brute force. It was so big that, if it were tied to a man's neck and he were thrown into the sea, he'd sink directly to the bottom and not come up. What's more, Jesus speaks of throwing such a man into the depth of the sea. A smaller stone in shallower water would do the job just as much; but Jesus is speaking her of something that is sever and permanent.

If I may say this reverently, Jesus almost speaks like a hit-man in this passage—promising to send someone off to 'sleep with the fishes' if they tamper with any of his believing little ones. But really, it's much worse than that! Note that Jesus isn't simply saying that someone who harms one of His little ones should have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. He is saying that such a person would be better off if that were done for them than what will happen to them. Jesus is warning that an unspeakably worse destiny awaits such a person than anything that could be done with a millstone and the sea! He speaks later of being 'cast into the everlasting fire' (v. 8), or of being cast into hell-fire' (v. 9).

Being thrown into the midst of the deep sea with a millstone tied about one's neck would be a horrible end. But it's temporary compared to the eternal judgment Jesus is speaking of. Clearly, the Judge of all the earth is putting the people of this world on notice never mess with any of His little believing ones. No one had better ever interfere with their faith, or hinder them from coming to Him; and once they come, no one had better ever cause them to stumble in their faith or tempt them into sin! They will most certainly answer to the Judge of all the earth for it if they do.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Note that Jesus speaks realistically of life in this fallen world. “Woe to the world because of offenses” (v. 7); that is, because of the occasions and enticements to sin that are in it. We live in a world that is full of such things. We can't expect to escape being touched by them. In fact, Jesus even says, “[F]or offenses must come”. Literally, they are “necessary”. In some mysterious way, even they are a part of God's decree. In His sovereign wisdom, He has permitted that it be so.

Nevertheless, He doesn't fail to hold the 'secondary cause' of that offense responsible. He goes on to say, “But woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” Woe to that man or woman who keeps 'little ones' from coming to Jesus. Woe to them when they undercut a growing faith in Him; or when they deliberately keep those little ones from church; or when they deliberately mix the pure gospel message up with the philosophies and religions of this world in order to confuse them or hide its truth from them. Woe to the teacher or college professor who mocks and belittles the faith of Jesus' little ones; or who makes it their aim to destroy the faith of those unfortunate believers who end up in their classroom. Woe to those who recruit Jesus' little ones to cults and false religions though the pretense of professing the truths of the Christian faith; thus embittering their poor victims from the pure claims of His word. Woe to anyone who would dare to lead one of Jesus' little ones into sin in order to justify their own sinful inclinations. And especially, woe to those who ever dare to lay a hand on any of Jesus' precious little ones as an object of their own vile lusts!

Jesus here gives prudent advice—advice, in fact, that He had given before in His Sermon on The Mount;

“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire" (Matthew 18:8-9).

Jesus is saying, in this context, that if there is anything in your life that would lead you to cause one of His little ones to stumble and fall into sin, it would be better for you to take whatever drastic measures are necessary to sever yourself from it. I don't believe that Jesus is saying that you should actually, physically cut off your hand or foot, or dig out your eye. But He is saying that if there is anything in our lives that would lead us to cause you to harm the faith of even a single one of His little ones who believe in Him—even if it were your hand, or your foot, or your eye—you're much better off going through life without it.

This is meant to be understood as an argument from 'the greater to the lesser'. Does your television tempt you into sin—or cause any of Jesus' little ones into sin? Then get rid of it. Does the computer in your home give the enemy opportunity to grip your heart—or to grip the heart of any of Jesus' little ones? Then you're better off without it. Better—better by far!—to live life deprived of these temporal conveniences, than to answer to the Judge of all the earth for having caused one of these little ones who believe on Him to stumble!

* * * * * * * * * *

This, as I said before, is not only an affirmation of Jesus' attitude toward those who come to Him with simple child-like faith. It's a call to repentance.

Do you make sure that you are one of His "little ones"? Do you come to Him in the humble faith of a simple child? If not, you need to convert, and become like a little child, and come to Him in humility. Otherwise, you will, by no means, enter the kingdom of heaven.

And then, do you receive and respect the faith of those little ones who believe on Jesus? Do you place as high a priority on them as He does? Do you make sure that you do nothing to cause a single one of them to stumble from Him? Those who harm His little ones will answer to Him.

1Harry Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1948), p. 223.

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