In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 18 the disciples come to Jesus and Peter asks, ‘Who is the greatest?’ Ever since they had come to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, they had been eager to share in the glory of the kingdom.
That is not wrong of itself. The followers of Jesus will share in the glory of the kingdom. That’s part of our inheritance, part of our hope, part of our anticipation. But it is a future glory beyond this world. We should not expect glory for ourselves in this world.
As we read the Gospel accounts Jesus has to repeatedly tell his disciples they must expect to face suffering and humiliation for the kingdom. Yet the disciples find it hard to shake off their expectation that the Messiah will bring instant glory without the suffering.
So, on the occasion that Peter asks which one is the greatest, Jesus responds by saying they must be prepared to change their attitude and humble themselves like little children.
Except little children aren’t humble, are they? I’m the father of three little children, and I know how they can be full of pride and vanity and self-satisfaction. Very rarely are they humble!
So what does Jesus mean? He means little children are humble in terms of their standing. We don’t put toddlers in positions of responsibility. We don’t allow them to fly jumbo jets, or run city banks, or perform heart surgery. And little children are entirely dependent on their parents for everything. Their food, their clothing, even their bedtime is determined by their mum and dad.
Jesus is saying that his followers have to be prepared to forego the worldly glory of rank and status and accept the humility of ‘lowly position’. And they have to be entirely dependent on their heavenly Father. They dare not depend on themselves, their own ideas or their own strength. They must look to him for everything.
So much of the contemporary evangelical scene appears to be lacking in this approach. There are sections of the evangelical world that are very much taken up with rank and status. They obsess over who is top of the Christian best-seller list, who has most social media followers, who is running the biggest conference, who is planting the most churches, whose church grouping is growing the fastest.
There are sections of the contemporary evangelical world who rely on their own ideas and their own strategies and their own schemes to expand the kingdom. To them, the most important thing is that it brings instant success, or instant ‘glory’.
Yet up and down our country, and indeed throughout the world, there are countless ‘nobodies’ who have taken Jesus’ words to heart. They have humbled themselves like little children. They have taken on lowly positions and depend faithfully on their heavenly Father.
What does Jesus say about them in Matthew 18? He says they are ‘the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’. The world may not honour them, but we should honour them because the Lord honours them.
Mike Judge is editor and a director of ET, and pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church, Manchester.