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Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?






Matthew 18:1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”


Human beings have always experienced a sense of competition and desire to win. The Greeks had their Olympic games and, as brutal as it was, the Romans had their gladiators. We even wonder whether it might have been one-upmanship between Cane and Abel that led Cane to have an envious heart and kill his brother. And so we find it among the Apostles of Jesus Christ, even at their last supper with Him: "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of God?"


Why do we ask such a question? Is it personal arrogance, or greedy selfishness, or fear of falling behind? None of these are good motives for anything. What are the true attributes of greatness? Since we are looking at greatness in God's eyes, we are not thinking of what is great in men's eyes:


Obedience -

Deuteronomy 6:1 

Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them . . .


Humility -

Matthew 18:4 

Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.


Service -

Matthew 23:11 

But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.


Courage -

Acts 4:29 

Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word.


When we read in the New Testament of the history of Jesus' disciples, we see they disputed over the greatness question more than once: Luke 9:46, Luke 22:24,26, Mark 9:33-34:

Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.

We falter at what God desires in us when we focus on ourselves and lose sight of others. Jesus' disciples, though they followed the greatest teacher and leader, forgot the thing that made them special when they sank into competition and chest beating. How many new disciples were gathered while they argued amongst themselves?


When Paul told the Corinthians that the spiritual gifts would come to an end - the very same things they disputed over among themselves - he finished his dissertation by identifying the greatest attribute of a great man - unselfish care for others.

1 Corinthians 13:1, 13

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.


God says that His followers should be equal in terms of knowing Him. Why then should any of us be concerned about our own greatness?

Hebrews 8:11 

None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.


The Servant:

Matthew 10:24-25

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.


Matthew 18:21 [The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant]

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

Peter betrays his concern for keeping score. Is this not a competitive spirit? How can it matter unless he fears losing something and falling behind?

Matthew 18:33 

Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?

The master chided the evil servant for his selfishness. 


The Law of the Jungle says - Me first - Look out for number One - If it feels good, do it. A man who is great in God's eyes is not looking out for Number One, but rather for everyone else. If we say we follow Jesus the best (so we may be regarded as best in His kingdom), how can it be that our concern is for others? It seems when the competition gets strong, the athletes are doing everything in their power to promote their own winning - how can they be giving time to others?


Though he was entrusted with God's message of salvation, Paul considered his most important function was servant, and not winner:

1 Corinthians 4:1 

Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.


In another letter he expressed the attitude of a real 'winner' in the race of the gospel:

Phil 2:1-4

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy,  2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.  3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.  4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.


The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the one who least seeks to be great, but rather puts his energy into helping others find the path to victory. Jesus endured the cross to save US! Not to win a prize for Himself. The day we are totally immersed in soul-saving living to the extent that our own prize isn't even in our thoughts - that is the day God will say, "This man is a profitable servant."


Mark Vining