“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Matthew 18 is one of the essential texts for us when we develop a theology of the church, but it is typical to start in the middle of the chapter at verse 15 which focuses on pursuing a brother who has sinned against another within the congregation. As we look at the broader section, it is informative to include most of chapter 18 in the context. Matthew organizes his book into 5 discourses which all end with the phrase “when Jesus had finished these words…” The most famous section is the sermon on the mount in chapters 5-7, but this section in chapter 18 teaches on the establishment of the church and builds on the rest of the material Matthew placed before it, all the way back to chapter 14. The point then is that to understand Jesus’ teaching in chapter 18, we need to read it in the context of chapters 14-18.
Even within chapter 18, however, Jesus’ teaching shows us what it looks like to live as people of Christ in his church, and it is in the context of the disciples trying to one up each other, asking Jesus who is the greatest in Jesus’ coming kingdom. On the one hand this displays their self-serving attitudes and on the other hand, it shows how they didn’t have any clue what the future church and the final kingdom would look like.
Jesus attempts to correct their attitudes by teaching about what the church will look like. Jesus teaches the disciples that the point is to live humbly, like a child. They must become converted and become like children. When Jesus said this, I’m sure they didn’t have a clue what this meant, but after the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit, the disciples (and the Church that Jesus began building) got it. Following these events, they understood the necessary humility of a Christian. They were no longer masters of their fate. Instead they humbly followed the Lord’s leading even if that meant something as shameful as eating like a gentile or disowning their Jewish heritage.
Not only does Jesus respond to the disciples by teaching them about humility, but he adds, beginning in verse 7, that we ought to live sacrificially. We should avoid being stumbling blocks to both ourselves and others, and if there is anything we can do to avoid being that stumbling block, we ought to cut it away from ourselves to save ourselves (and I think it is implied others as well). The third little teaching Jesus responds with is that of the man, or by parable the heavenly father, pursuing the one sheep and rejoicing in its return. Following this is the teaching on church discipline and its authority.
As we look at Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question (of who is the greatest), it seems like Jesus does not answer their question, but I suppose we can be glad that he didn’t. Instead he gave a narrative that opposed their question by providing a completely different way to look at and consider his kingdom. It wasn’t about who was the greatest but rather how best to serve our brothers and sisters. Jesus’ response shows us that the disciples’ question and our question should more be: how can I serve others in the church in order to preserve them from sin and bring back those who are wayward.