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Matt. 18:1–14; Mark 9:33–37; Mark 9:42–50; Luke 9:46–48.

From the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus and the twelve returned through Galilee to Capernaum. On this homeward journey the Master and His disciples were in very different moods of mind. He sadly mused on His cross; they vainly dreamed of places of distinction in the approaching kingdom. The diversity of spirit revealed itself in a corresponding diversity of conduct. Jesus for the second time began to speak on the way of His coming sufferings, telling His followers how the Son of man should be betrayed into the hands of men, and how they should kill Him, and how the third day He should be raised again.324324Matt. xvii. 22, 23; Mark ix. 30-32; Luke ix. 44, 45. The twelve, on the other hand, began as they journeyed along to dispute among themselves who should be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.325325Mark ix. 33. Strange, humiliating contrast exhibited again and again in the evangelic history; jealous, angry altercations respecting rank and precedence, on the part of the disciples, following new communications respecting His passion on the part of their Lord, as comic follows tragic in a dramatic representation.

This unseemly and unseasonable dispute shows clearly what need there was for that injunction appended to the voice from heaven, “Hear Him;.” and how far the disciples were as yet from complying therewith. They heard Jesus only when He spake things agreeable. They listened with pleasure when He assured them that ere long they should see the Son of man come in His kingdom; they were deaf to all He said concerning the suffering which must precede the glory. They forgot the cross, after a momentary fit of sorrow when their Lord referred to it, and betook themselves to dreaming of the crown; as a child forgets the death of a parent, and returns to its play. “How great,” thought they, “shall we all be when the kingdom comes!” Then by an easy transition they passed from idle dreams of the common glory to idle disputes as to who should have the largest share therein; for vanity and jealousy lie very near each other. “Shall we all be equally distinguished in the kingdom, or shall one be higher than another? Does the favor shown to Peter, James, and John, in selecting them to be eye-witnesses of the prefigurement of the coming glory, imply a corresponding precedence in the kingdom itself?”326326The three disciples were forbidden to tell any man what they had seen on the holy mount. The prohibition was probably not meant to refer to their brethren. Even if it did, they must have found it very hard to keep silent about such a dondrous scene. The three disciples probably hoped it did; the other disciples hoped not, and so the dispute began. It was nothing that they should all be great together; the question of questions was, who should be the greatest — a question hard to settle when vanity and presumption contend on one side, and jealousy and envy on the other.

Arrived at Capernaum, Jesus took an early opportunity of adverting to the dispute in which His disciples had been engaged, and made it the occasion of delivering a memorable discourse on humility and kindred topics, designed to serve the purpose of disciplining their temper and will. The task to which He now addressed Himself was at once the most formidable and the most needful He had as yet undertaken in connection with the training of the twelve. Most formidable, for nothing is harder than to train the human will into loyal subjection to universal principles, to bring men to recognize the claims of the law of love in their mutual relations, to expel pride, ambition, vainglory, and jealousy, and envy from the hearts even of the good. Men may have made great progress in the art of prayer, in religious liberty, in Christian activity, may have shown themselves faithful in times of temptation, and apt scholars in Christian doctrine, and yet prove signally defective in temper: self-willed, self-seeking, having an eye to their own glory, even when seeking to glorify God. Most needful, for what good could these disciples do as ministers of the kingdom so long as their main concern was about their own place therein? Men full of ambitious passions and jealous of each other could only quarrel among themselves, bring the cause they sought to promote into contempt, and breed all around them confusion and every evil work. No wonder then that Jesus from this time forth devoted Himself with peculiar earnestness to the work of casting out from His disciples the devil of self-will, and imparting to them as a salt His own spirit of meekness, humility, and charity. He knew how much depended on His success in this effort to salt the future apostles, to use His own strong figure,327327Mark ix. 49. The words “and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt,” are a gloss from Lev. ii. 13, introduced to explain the saying. For remarks on this passage see note at close of Section III. of the present chapter. and the whole tone and substance of the discourse before us reveal the depth of His anxiety. Specially significant in this respect is the opening part in which He makes use of a child present in the chamber as the vehicle of instruction; so, out of the mouth of a babe and suckling, perfecting the praise of a lowly mind. Sitting in the midst of ambitious disciples with the little one in His arms for a text, He who is the greatest in the kingdom proceeds to set forth truths mortifying to the spirit of pride, but sweeter than honey to the taste of all renewed souls.

The first lesson taught is this: To be great in the kingdom, yea, to gain admission into it at all, it is necessary to become like a little child. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The feature of child-nature which forms the special point of comparison is its unpretentiousness. Early childhood knows nothing of those distinctions of rank which are the offspring of human pride, and the prizes coveted by human ambition. A king’s child will play without scruple with a beggar’s, thereby unconsciously asserting the insignificance of the things in which men differ, compared with the things that are common to all. What children are unconsciously, that Jesus requires His disciples to be voluntarily and deliberately. They are not to be pretentious and ambitious, like the grown children of the world, but meek and lowly of heart; disregarding rank and distinctions, thinking not of their place in the kingdom, but giving themselves up in simplicity of spirit to the service of the King. In this sense, the greatest one in the kingdom, the King Himself, was the humblest of men. Of humility in the form of self-depreciation or self-humiliation on account of sin Jesus could know nothing, for there was no defect or fault in His character. But of the humility which consists in self-forgetfulness He was the perfect pattern. We cannot say that He thought little of Himself, but we may say that He thought not of Himself at all: He thought only of the Father’s glory and of man’s good. Considerations of personal aggrandizement had no place among His motives. He shrank with holy abhorrence from all who were influenced by such considerations; no character appearing so utterly detestable in His eye as that of the Pharisee, whose religion was a theatrical exhibition, always presupposing the presence of spectators, and who loved the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues, and to be called of men Rabbi, Rabbi. For Himself He neither desired nor received honor from men. He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister: He, the greatest, humbled Himself to be the least — to be a child born in a stable and laid in a manger; to be a man of sorrow, lightly esteemed by the world; yea, to be nailed to a cross. By such wondrous self-humiliation He showed His divine greatness.

The higher we rise in the kingdom the more we shall be like Jesus in this humbling of Himself. Childlikeness such as He exhibited is an invariable characteristic of spiritual advancement, even as its absence is the mark of moral littleness. The little man, even when well-intentioned, is ever consequential and scheming, — ever thinking of himself, his honor, dignity, reputation, even when professedly doing good. He always studies to glorify God in a way that shall at the same time glorify himself. Frequently above the love of gain, he is never above the feeling of self-importance. The great ones in the kingdom, on the other hand, throw themselves with such unreservedness into the work to which they are called, that they have neither time nor inclination to inquire what place they shall obtain in this world or the next. Leaving consequences to the great Governor and Lord, and forgetful of self-interest, they give their whole soul to their appointed task; content to fill a little space or a large one, as God shall appoint, if only He be glorified.

This is the true road to a high place in the eternal kingdom. For be it observed, Jesus did not summarily dismiss the question, who is greatest in the kingdom, by negativing the existence of distinctions therein. He said not on this occasion, He said not on any other, “It is needless to ask who is the greatest in the kingdom: there is no such thing as a distinction of greater and less there.” On the contrary, it is implied here, and it is asserted elsewhere, that there is such a thing. According to the doctrine of Christ, the supernal commonwealth has no affinity with jealous radicalism, which demands that all shall be equal. There are grades of distinction there as well as in the kingdoms of this world. The difference between the divine kingdom and all others lies in the principle on which promotion proceeds. Here the proud and the ambitious gain the post of honor; there honors are conferred on the humble and the self-forgetful. He that on earth was willing to be the least in lowly love will be the great one in the kingdom of heaven.

The next lesson Jesus taught His disciples was the duty of receiving little ones; that is, not merely children in the literal sense, but all that a child represents — the weak, the insignificant, the helpless. The child which He held in His arms having served as a type of the humble in spirit, next became a type of the humble in station, influence, and importance; and having been presented to the disciples in the former capacity as an object of imitation, was commended to them in the latter as an object of kind treatment. They were to receive the little ones graciously and lovingly, careful not to offend them by harsh, heartless, contemptuous conduct. All such kindness He, Jesus, would receive as done to Himself.

This transition of thought from being like a child to receiving all that of which childhood in its weakness is the emblem, was perfectly natural; for there is a close connection between the selfish struggle to be great and an offensive mode of acting towards the little. Harshness and contemptuousness are vices inseparable from an ambitious spirit. An ambitious man is not, indeed, necessarily cruel in his disposition, and capable of cherishing heartless designs in cold blood. At times, when the demon that possesses him is quiescent, the idea of hurting a child, or any thing that a child represents, may appear to him revolting; and he might resent the imputation of any such design, or even a hint at the possibility of his harboring it, as a wanton insult. “Is thy servant a dog?” asked Hazael indignantly at Elisha, when the prophet described to him his own future self, setting the strongholds of Israel on fire, slaying their young men with the sword, dashing their children to the earth, and ripping up their women with child. At the moment his horror of these crimes was quite sincere, and yet he was guilty of them all. The prophet rightly divined his character, and read his future career of splendid wickedness in the light of it. He saw that he was ambitious, and all the rest followed as a matter of course. The king of Syria, his master, about whose recovery he affected solicitude, he should first put to death; and once on the throne, the same ambition that made him a murderer would goad him on to schemes of conquest, in the prosecution of which he should perpetrate all the barbarous cruelties in which Oriental tyrants seemed to take fiendish delight.

The crimes of ambition, and the lamentations with which it has filled the earth, are a moral commonplace. Full well aware of the fact, Jesus exclaimed, as the havoc already wrought and yet to be wrought by the lust for place and power rose in vision before His eye: “Woe to the world because of offences!” Woe indeed, but not merely to the wrong-sufferer; the greater woe is reserved for the wrong-doer. So Jesus taught His disciples, when He added: “but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” Nor did He leave His hearers in the dark as to the nature of the offender’s doom. “Whoso,” He declared, in language which came forth from His lips like a flame of righteous indignation at thought of the wrongs inflicted on the weak and helpless, — ” Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a mill-stone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” “It were better for him “ — or, it suits him, it is what he deserves; and it is implied, though not expressed, that it is what he gets when divine vengeance at length overtakes him. The mill-stone is no idle figure of speech, but an appropriate emblem of the ultimate doom of the proud. He who will mount to the highest place, regardless of the injuries he may inflict on little ones, shall be cast down, not to earth merely, but to the very lowest depths of the ocean, to the very abyss of hell, with a heavy weight of curses suspended on his neck to sink him down, and keep him down, so that he shall rise no more.328328μύλος ὀνικός, stone of a mill turned by an ass, larger than one belonging to a handmill, selected to make sure that the wicked shall sink to rise no more. How Christ’s words fulfil themselves from age to age! Think of the “Bulgarian atrocities” of 1876, the execrations they awakened in Britain, and the all too probable fate which awaits Turkey in the near future! “They sank as lead in the mighty waters! “

Such being the awful doom of selfish ambition, it were wise in the high-minded to fear, and to anticipate God’s judgment by judging themselves. This Jesus counselled His disciples to do by repeating a stern saying uttered once before in the Sermon on the Mount, concerning the cutting off offending members of the body.329329Matt. xviii. 8, 9; compare v. 29, 30. At first view that saying appears irrelevant here, because the subject of discourse is offences against others, not offences against one’s self. But its relevancy becomes evident when we consider that all offences against a brother are offences against ourselves. That is the very point Christ wishes to impress on His disciples. He would have them understand that self-interest dictates scrupulous care in avoiding offences to the little ones. “Rather than harm one of these,” says the great Teacher in effect, “by hand, foot, eye, or tongue, have recourse to self-mutilation; for he that sinneth against even the least in the kingdom, sinneth also against his own soul.”

One thing more Jesus taught His disciples while He held the child in His arms, viz. that those who injured or despised little ones were entirely out of harmony with the mind of Heaven. “Take heed,” said He, “that ye despise not one of these little ones;.” and then He proceeded to enforce the warning by drawing aside the veil, and showing them a momentary glimpse of that very celestial kingdom in which they were all so desirous to have prominence. “Lo, there! see those angels standing before the throne of God — these be ministering spirits to the little ones! And lo, here am I, the Son of God, come all the way from heaven to save them! And behold how the face of the Father in heaven smiles on the angels and on me because we take such loving interest in them!”330330Matt. xviii. 10-14. How eloquent the argument! how powerful the appeal! “The inhabitants of heaven,” such is its drift, “are loving and humble; ye are selfish and proud. What hope can ye cherish of admission into a kingdom, the spirit of which is so utterly diverse from that by which ye are animated? Nay, are ye not ashamed of yourselves when ye witness this glaring contrast between the lowliness of the celestials and the pride and pretensions of puny men? Put away, henceforth and forever, vain, ambitious thoughts, and let the meek and gentle spirit of Heaven get possession of your hearts.”

In the beautiful picture of the upper world one thing is specially noteworthy, viz. the introduction by Jesus of a reference to His work as the Saviour of the lost, into an argument designed to enforce care for the little ones.331331Matt. xviii. 11 is not found in the best critical authorities, and is regarded by scholars as interpolated from Luke xix. 10; and the parable of the good shepherd is also regarded by many as foreign to the connection of thought. As to the former point, we agree with Alford in thinking that ver. 11 cannot be interpolated from Luke, “lst, from the absence of any sufficient reason (apparent on the surface) for insertion; 2d, from the nearly unanimous omission of Luke’s ζητῆσαι καὶ, which would have exactly suited the ζητεῖ of ver. 12.” That it should form a part of the text in a critical edition of the Greek Testament we do not assert, but it is quite credible to us that Christ uttered such a sentiment on this occasion. The thought is germain to the connection, however awkwardly it may come in in the narrative. For a similar reason, we think it quite likely that the parable of the good shepherd was spoken at this time. It was just as much needed to rebuke the ambitious spirit of disciples as to ward off the assaults of censorious Pharisees. The reference is not an irrelevance; it is of the nature of an argument à fortiori. If the Son of man cared for the lost, the low, the morally degraded, how much more will He care for those who are merely little! It is a far greater effort of love to seek the salvation of the wicked than to interest one’s self in the weak; and He who did the one will certainly not fail to do the other. In adverting to His love as the Saviour of the sinful, as set forth in the parable of the good shepherd going after the straying sheep,332332Matt. xviii. 12, 13. Jesus further directed the attention of His disciples to the sublimest example of humility. For that love shows that there was not only no pride of greatness in the Son of God, but also no pride of holiness. He could not only condescend to men of humble estate, but could even become the brother of the vile: one with them in sympathy and lot, that they might become one with Him in privilege and character. Once more, in making reference to His own love as the Saviour, Jesus pointed out to His disciples the true source of that charity which careth for the weak and despiseth not the little. No one who rightly appreciated His love could deliberately offend or heartlessly contemn any brother, however insignificant, who had a place in His Saviour-sympathies. The charity of the Son of man, in the eyes of all true disciples, surrounds with a halo of sacredness the meanest and vilest of the human race.

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