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The Upside Down Kingdom

Back to all sermons MATTHEW: Jesus King of Heaven and Earth

Date: July 22, 2018

Speaker: Erik Raymond

Series: MATTHEW: Jesus King of Heaven and Earth

Category: Biblical Exposition

Scripture: Matthew 18:1–18:14


Can you imagine if all of your conversations were recorded? Certainly some things would embarrass us a bit if they became public record. In our passage this morning, the disciples are having one of those conversations. Looking back years later, I’m sure they cringed at the memory. But, nevertheless, here they were, engaged in a vehement debate amongst one another.

What were they debating? They were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. This seems like a petty thing to debate. But, it’s even worse when we think about the context of the discussion. We might even join them with a cringe.

The disciples were walking with Jesus. And because of his teaching and a number of miracles and experiences, they are seem to be more convinced that he is really the promised King—the Messiah. And this means that they, being Jesus’ close friends and disciples, could potentially be up for some high-level cabinet appointments. So they ask Jesus this ill-advised question in verse 1. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

As we learn by how Jesus answers the question, they really had a misunderstanding about what the kingdom actually was.

And, Jesus doesn’t really answer their question. Instead, he redirects them away from their appraisal of their own greatness and teaches them what God considers to be great. Jesus teaches them about the kingdom of God by educating them about kingdom values. He redefines greatness according to the dictionary of heaven.

How would you define greatness? How do you know when you see it?

You likely won’t be surprised that at the time of the writing of the gospels the world defined greatness much like people do today. It was seen in power, influence, security, wealth, and knowledge. And today, greatness is, generally speaking, described in terms of one’s achievements, influence, and experiences. Depending upon which part of the country you are in you see different pronunciations of greatness. In LA, greatness is tied to entertainment. In Washington, DC, it’s political. In New York it’s financial. And, here in Boston, greatness is often tied to education.

Not that any of these things are categorically bad or wrong. They are just different than what we find in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has a different metric because he has a different value system. The values of the kingdom of heaven are a bit different than what’s common in our world. When we encounter Jesus we find the shocking reality that true greatness is expressed in terms of humility. This was shocking for the disciples and it should be shocking for us as well. It must shape how we view the kingdom of heaven.

But it must go more than information. It has to go further into the realm of transformation. If you and I are to be followers of Jesus, and members of this coming kingdom, then we must be characterized with the value system of the kingdom. You and I must be characterized by a humility that reflects God’s value system.

This morning we’ll consider three heavenly values to emulate. First, Prize humility and the humble in verses 1-5, then second, Hate sin and its effects this is found in verses 6-9, then finally, Lovingly pursue wandering sheep and we’ll see this in verses 10-14.

Let’s look first in verses 1-5, prize humility and the humble.

(1) Prize humility and the humble (1-5)

I want you to imagine the scene here. Jesus is walking with his disciples and there is a dispute among them about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus responds to the disciples’ political posturing and personal campaigning with a shocking lesson. It’s shocking because of what he says and how he says it.

Look with me at verses 1-2 and we’ll catch the flow as we go. “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

To answer their question he calls a child to the forefront and places him in the midst or in the middle of everyone. If you are thinking this is a strange way to answer this debate, you would be right. What’s this about?

Well, let’s keep reading, look at verse 3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

It’s here that Jesus flips everything on its head. This little boy is put in the center and his disciples are told they need to become like a little boy otherwise they will never enter the kingdom. Forget about being the secretary of defense, you won’t even get in without becoming like a child.

First I think it will be helpful to say what this doesn’t mean. I don’t believe Jesus is saying we have to become childish or immature in order to see the kingdom. He is not celebrating the foolishness that often attends adolescence but rather the apparent insignificance.

In the first century Jewish context a child would have no real importance in their society; they were insignificant. They couldn’t serve in the military or lead in the community. They were not wealthy or wise. Because of their stature and experience they were very humble members of the community.

Others have also observed that children are a picture of trust and dependence. Rather than adults who display and depend upon their own wisdom and accomplishments, children are comfortable holding the hand of the one who is greater than them. They are content to take their place with humility.

And, what Jesus is saying here is shocking: children were to be looked after not looked up to.

But he goes on to further say, in verse 4, Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is telling a bunch of ambitious, self-promoting, men who were hungry for power and significance in his kingdom that in order to actually get into the kingdom they must become relatively insignificant people. Imagine how insignificant and unimpressive a little boy must’ve appeared before a bunch of grown men. True greatness then, according to Jesus, is found in being rather unimpressive. This is certainly not what the disciples would’ve had in mind.

But notice, Jesus does not present this as some type of ideal. He is not saying, It would be great if you toned down the pride a bit, you know it’s really rather off-putting. How about it guys? Not at all.

Jesus is saying this is a must. Notice again the language of verse 3, unless. This isn’t ideal or optional; it’s essential.

And his teaching is radical and intentionally so. It’s like trying to stuff a grown man’s foot into a pair of kindergarten sneakers. It seems like an impossible adjustment for one who has grown accustomed to trading upon the currency of power and influence to shrink themselves down and embrace a position of humble insignificance.

What’s more, Jesus ties this important concept to actually receiving him. Look what he says in verse 5, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”

What does Jesus mean here? Well, there are a couple of things happening in this verse. First, Jesus has made a slight pivot away from the child he has physically brought forward and now he is talking about the child he has just taught them about. In other words, Jesus has moved from talking about this young boy to talking about the disciples of his kingdom—those who have become like children. The child was a teaching device to refer to his followers (those who have become like children).

Also, Jesus is showing the solidarity between his humble, insignificant followers and himself. Anticipating them being ostracized, Jesus stitches the children to himself.

Is this surprising to you? It really shouldn’t be. After all, we understand Jesus to be the eternal God, the second person of the Trinity. Prior to his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus enjoyed the eternal happiness of heaven. He left the glory of heaven to come and adorn the flesh of man. He humbled himself to live and walk among us. Like a king leaving the palace and eating at a homeless shelter, the eternal God became a man and breathed the polluted smog of humanity. Listen to Philippians chapter 2,

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,” (Philippians 2:5–9)

If you reject the insignificance and humility of Christ’s followers then you will be rejecting Christ himself. Likewise, to receive the childlike insignificance and humility of those who claim Christ, you will be receiving him. For these children walk the path paved by their master.

Implications for us

  • We need to consider how different this teaching really is. Jesus’ value system is shaped by a completely different set of priorities. He is not impressed by so much of what moves the needle in our world today. And, if we are honest, he is probably not impressed with a lot of what we think is so great today. God does not value those who aim to find their significance in themselves and their things. Rather, Jesus commends this who are perceived as insignificant in the world’s eyes and significant in his. We need to take stock of what and who we value as well as who we are trying to be.
  • “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God's holiness and our sinfulness.” CJ Mahaney - Humility
    • Why is Jesus attracted to humility? Because it is consistent with reality. It gives glory to God and puts us in our proper place.
    • How are you pursuing humility?
    • Why is humility a difficult virtue to prize?
    • Why are the humble less attractive to us?
  • This passage calls into question a tendency among evangelicals who seem to be craving affirmation and be allergic to insignificance. Throughout the last two hundred years, American evangelicals, in particular, have demonstrated a relentless pursuit of public honor. In varying cycles, they have pursued relevance and significance in academics, politics, and the broader cultural moment. And so often what we regrettably see is a compromise of core kingdom values and teaching in exchange for a moment of affirmation and influence. As evangelicals, we would be better served to look at the child and embrace our insignificance rather than clamor for the significance, power, and fame that comes from another kingdom.
  • If you are here this morning and you are not yet a Christian, this is a great opportunity for you to consider what Jesus says about those who follow him. In order to follow Christ, you must humble yourself. Have you honestly assessed yourself in light of God’s perfect holiness? Have you seen that he is so perfect that nothing impure could ever come into his presence? Have you seen that even your best moral day is still imperfect in his sight? And, have you then seen Christ who was always perfect—in faith and love—for you? Jesus was the perfectly humble man who loved God and others. And he went to the cross to pay for prideful people like you and me. You can become a Christian, even today, if you would humble yourself, admit you are a sinner, and turn to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. He will certainly not refuse one who becomes like a child and comes to him in humble faith.
  • To those who are following Jesus and in fellowship at this church, let’s not forget that this is not only to be the posture of the new convert but the living disciple. In other words, humility is to characterize us and this church. The gospel comes with an apron for humble service. Is your life characterized by humble service to God and others? What job in the kingdom is beneath you? Would others characterize you as humble? Why or why not? You might consider asking those close to you this week. Inspect your life for footprints and fingerprints of pride.
  • We must be a people who, according to Philippians 2, think of others and their needs first.
    • Our identity as Christ’s followers must shape our actions. Therefore, we have to think of others’ needs before our own. How does this affect you as a church member? A deacon? An elder? A ministry leader? A ministry worker? A mom? A husband? A son or daughter? A friend? A citizen?

This is truly an upside down kingdom. But, if we are going to be a part of it, then we must be characterized by a humility that is prized and modeled by the King himself.

(2) Hate sin and its effects (6-9)

Jesus now shifts his focus to how he cares for his sheep and wants his followers to do the same.

He talks about causing these little ones who believe in him to sin. These little ones are his followers, also known as the children according to this teaching context.

Jesus is showing his concern for his people. He is admitting, in verse 7, that there will be a myriad of temptations. He is not condoning this but stating it as a fact. And, he is pronouncing judgment upon it. Woe is not an expression of sympathy but judgment. He is saying with the power and authority of a king, I will judge those who cause my people to sin.

These temptations can take the shape of many faces, whether social through the pressure of a cultural wave against the out-of-step Christians. Or theological by leading them to believe false doctrine. Or perhaps by some other type of pressure that causes them to wander away from the Lord Jesus.

This is a general warning to all (inside and outside the church) of the consequences of leading Christians into sin. He does not mention what the consequence is precisely but makes his point by saying it would be better if they were dead.

Look at verse 6, “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.

Jesus uses the word picture of a great millstone. A millstone would be common in that culture. It was a large, heavy wheel-shaped stone tied to a pole that was turned by a donkey as it walked in circles. As the donkey would walk it would cause the grain to be crushed. The millstone then was extremely heavy. The point is clear: if you are thrown into the sea with a large millstone attached to you then you would most certainly die.

But notice what Jesus is saying here, execution by drowning with a millstone around your neck is preferable to the consequences for making a believer stumble into sin.

How concerned are you about your brothers and sisters? Have you given much thought to what you say and do around them? Have you thought about your actions and how they will affect others?

At the very least we must be very careful about what we say and do.

We should speak in such a way that we give grace to others and not an occasion for stumbling into sin. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

And, we should live in such a way, conducting our lives, with the care that reflects a loving concern for our brothers and sisters. If you are doing something that you would not do if it was the last hour of your life, then don’t do it. If you are doing something that you would be embarrassed by if Christ saw you, then don’t do it. If you are doing anything that does not bring glory to Christ, then don’t do it. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

This might be a new category for some of you. You might only be thinking about your own life. But, friends, it’s about more than this. We are part of a kingdom with fellow child-like believers, and we must be concerned with and for one another.

Therefore, in light of the great consequence and this warning from Jesus, there is a radical call for us to deal with sin. Not only must we be on guard against provoking others to sin but we must hate sin altogether. This is what humility does, it hates sin.

Look what Jesus says in verses 8-9, 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.”

Jesus is not here speaking of mutilation of the body. He’s speaking with hyperbole—the language of an extreme exaggeration—in order to make the point. What’s the point? The point is it's better to go through life without an arm or foot than it is to go to hell. It is better to be impaired than in hell. Sin is not something to be trifled with.

Jesus is calling for his followers to hate sin and its effects. We cannot domesticate sin like it is our pet, but rather, we must hate it and its effects.

Do you hate sin? Do you hate what sin is doing? Every tear, every ounce of pain comes from sin. Every hearse is fueled by it. Every grieving widow. Every wail of hurt. Every bit of shame. Every regret. Every biting word. Every prideful thought. Every bit of injustice. Every betrayed heart. Every corrupt action. Every bit of neglect. It’s all sin. Sin is the greatest evil on this planet. Will you not hate it?

But more than this, sin is the instrument that killed our dear Lord Jesus.

Imagine a man whose brother had been murdered, going to his home to sort out his belongings. In the course of going through the tool shed, he finds the murder weapon, a bloody knife. Can you imagine the man cleaning off the knife and putting it in his own shed? No, of course not! He couldn’t bear to set his eyes upon that knife much less use it. The instrument of his dear brother’s death must be far away from him, for he hates it with an overflowing hatred. So too it must be for us as Christians, we behold the great knife sin, and we must have it far from us. We cannot clench sin, harbor sin, love sin, delight in sin—because it was sin that slew Christ!

Oh, friends, be done with sin. Hate it more than anything. Hate it for what it is and what it has done. And, hate it for how it cost our precious Lord Jesus his life.

(3) Lovingly pursue wandering sheep (10-14)

Again the temptation to despise or think less of these followers of Christ—because of their insignificance and humble state. See right away in verse 10, See that you do not despise one of these little ones.

We learn here about the way in which God values these sheep. This shows us why and how to pursue any who might be wondering.

The first is a little more complicated than the second. Look at the second half of verse 10, For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

Some people believe that this passage teaches the concept of a guardian angel for each of the little ones. It is certainly true that angels are sent by God to serve those who will inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14). But, we don’t see anywhere in Scripture that supports the concept that there is one angel per person. And with a concept this important we would expect there to be more mention of it. Another option is to take their in the collective sense and referring to the church. Rather than seeing one angel per person, the angels are deployed to serve, protect, and care for those in the church—Jesus’ children—as the need arises.

But, let’s not miss the point. We mustn’t despise the little ones because they are highly regarded in heaven, even by God’s own angels (who stand in the presence of God).

Then there is another aspect here. It is how God pursues wandering sheep. Look with me at verses 12-14, “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.”

Jesus here is teaching the value of the sheep. He shows that the shepherd pursues the one who is lost, even while leaving the ninety-nine on the mountain. And, if he finds it he rejoices. “Jesus is not saying that the shepherd does not rejoice over those who are safe, nor does he say that the heavenly Father is less than delighted over disciples who are safe in the fold. But he points out that there is a peculiar joy over bringing one that is lost safely into the fold. The flock then has not lost one of its members.” (Leon Morris), 466

Isn’t this great news? The Father loves and pursues his sheep—even to the place that none of them shall perish.

What are the implications of this for us?

  • We must share God’s concern for each of these little ones, or believers. Not only are we do not despise them but we are to lovingly pursue them.
    • We shall look in more detail next week (verses 15ff), but for now, I want you to begin thinking about what this looks like in your life and this church.
    • What is a wandering sheep? It is someone who is wandering away from the Good Shepherd. This often starts slows and quietly in the heart. In one sense we are all wandering sheep that need corralling. But, as it progresses it shows itself with a slow detachment from God in prayer, Bible reading, and joy. Then it begins to show itself in a detachment from other believers through fellowship, the Sunday gathering, and relationships. And eventually, whatever sin or issue that is pushing the wandering begins to dominate them.
    • Who should pursue them? Certainly the elders or the pastors, it is our calling to shepherd the flock of God. But, is this just a job for the elders? No, certainly not. I think this passage along with what is to come shows us that the pursuit is the job of the entire church. We join God in the pursuit of the wandering sheep.
    • How should you pursue them? We pursue with love, fervency, truth, persistence, and compassion.
    • Why should you? Because this is what it means to follow God. He pursues the wandering sheep—even like us—and he calls us to do the same.
  • Why is this difficult for us? Because we like to be comfortable and like to think that everything is okay with ourselves and everyone else. But the truth is, it’s not. We need God and we need one another. Thankfully, he pursues us and bids his people to do the same.


Jesus uses an embarrassing question to teach some important lessons. Worldliness had encroached upon their thinking, and I trust it has for us also. We need to be renewed in our thinking. This means that our value system needs to transform. We need to value what God values. We must understand that his kingdom is an upside down kingdom. But this is nothing new in Matthew, is it?

““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:3–6)

Let us then prize the humility that the King values and seek to live it out in our lives together as a church and as we go into the world around us.