By Christopher VanDusen
v.1) “At that time” (NASB) refers to the time in which the disciples were gathering in Galilee (17:22), and specifically when Jesus and His disciples came to the town of Capernaum (17:24). Here, Jesus pays the tax for the Jewish temple, demonstrating His humility. According to 16:21, Jesus had been teaching them that He was going to Jerusalem to die, and He had recently taken Peter, James, and John with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration, where they saw His heavenly glory. Despite all these experiences that showed the disciples the greatness of humility, they still come to Jesus and ask Him who is greatest in heaven’s kingdom. They knew that Jesus had begun to bring this kingdom controlled by heaven to earth, and they wanted to know which one of them would have the most honor and glory, since they couldn’t decide among themselves who was greatest. From several other places in the Gospels, we see that they all desired to be greatest. Yet, what they had in mind by “greatness” was power, honor, and earthly Bypleasure, rather than usefulness to Jesus, and godliness of heart.
Vss. 2-4) Jesus now puts forward a child as a shocking example of greatness. Then, He tells them that, not only will they only be great if they become like children, but they haven’t even entered the kingdom of heaven yet. The reason for this is that they haven’t been “converted”, or literally “turned around” in their thinking about the kingdom, and about true greatness. Jesus explains that the way to become like children is to “humble” oneself like the child. The verb “humble” means to “lower” oneself down, so that you’re looking up to people, rather than down at them. The child’s true humility doesn’t consist in his lack of understanding, or his ignorance, but in his recognition that he hasn’t done anything deserving of better treatment compared to anyone else. Similarly, the “greatest” in heaven’s kingdom are those who recognize that all they are, have, and have done are gifts from God, and that they deserve no better treatment than anyone else. On the contrary, they live for the benefit of others.
This heavenly greatness is a great contrast to the greatness of the Old Testament Jew who was under obligation to keep the Law of Moses. The Law measured greatness by one’s performance in keeping it, and rewarded one with physical, earthly, benefits for doing so.