Please join me in looking at this passage in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 18).
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. Then he said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me. Mt 18:1-5
It is clear that the ‘little ones’ in this gospel are the disciples of Jesus, as indeed the term “these brothers of mine” also—his disciples. To ‘enter’ the kingdom they are to humble themselves like ‘this little child’. This makes them vulnerable as they proclaim the good news—sent as sheep among wolves, as harmless as doves. However, in this ‘no rights’ mission, the missionaries (the disciples) even have their own ‘guardian angel’ with immediate access to the Father (Mt 18:10-11). They have resources of enormous power behind them.
So, when He sent the disciples out he said:
if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Mt 10:42
Now look with me at Matthew 11 and the status of John the Baptist:
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who is not offended at me …………. I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Mt 11:3—6, 11.
John, despite his greatness, a greatness underlined by no less than Jesus himself, could not see the true nature of the kingdom—it was withheld from him, God having another destiny/work for him. Otherwise he would have recognised Jesus’ works predicted by the Old Testament prophets, he would have ceased making his own disciples (see John 4:1—3) and he, John, would have followed Jesus as well. There is the strong implication in Mt 11:6 that John was offended by Jesus—he “stumbled over” Jesus. Perhaps he expected the anointed of God to be like the OT prophets or like himself—ascetic, politically outspoken, aggressive and bringing God’s epoch-making judgment which John so passionately proclaimed to the great crowds—all Jewish remember—who flocked to hear his astounding message.
Jesus had a different agenda and a totally separate manner and John must have been acutely aware of this.
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, whom I love, and in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will announce justice to the nations (Gentiles). He will not quarrel or shout, and no one will hear his voice in the streets. He will not break off a damaged cattail. He will not even put out a smoking wick until he has made justice victorious. The nations (Gentiles) will have hope because of him.” Mt 12:18-21
Thus amazingly, John is seen by Jesus to be outside the kingdom of heaven! John will not live to see the kingdom come in power. He won’t be a witness to the dying and rising of Jesus or the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. So the ‘least’ in the kingdom of heaven is (surprisingly) ‘greater’ than even John. John knew nothing of the New Covenant.
Yet we must each ask “but have I entered this kingdom?
In Matthew 5 the verb is passive—it’s about how one is called least or great—not how one considers oneself to be ……
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least [i.e., by Jesus, by God!] in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Mt 5:19
‘These commandments’ means Jesus’ take—his yoke—on how God intends the Torah to be interpreted—not the Torah as spelled out by the Pharisees or their modern equivalents.
We must ask ourselves “am I living in his kingdom? Am I yoked to Jesus of Nazareth?”
My God, how serious all this is for us—how we must desire to be, and turn around our lives to be, what looks to mere men, the least in a kingdom. This is so utterly different, and so painfully non-institutional. Such a reversal of everything we have assumed. Are we willing?
Here is a call to find ourselves only in Christ and to be intimately and totally immersed in Him and in His New Covenant which he has made with the Father.